A Case for Autonomy

SUBHEAD: We're not in Kansas anymore. Or more to the point - Kansas isn't Kansas anymore.

By Juan Wilson on 4 June 2013 for Island Breath -

Image above: Bicycle parking lot in Saltaire, Fire Island, off Long Island, New York. From (http://transect-collection.org/p688914814/hC244193#hc244193).

Good Old Days
When I was 15, back in 1960, I spent the summer in house in a town called Saitaire, on Fire Island, on the Great South Bay of Long Island.

The only way to get there was by a passenger ferry from Babylon, Long Island. There weren't private cars on the island, and consequently there weren't roads connecting the houses. Instead, there were cement sidewalks, or in many cases wooden boardwalks that went everywhere.

Transportation consisted of foot, bicycle, and wagon traffic.

When you got off the ferry you were greeted with a small parking lot of Radio-Flyer wagons neatly lined up and padlocked to a long chain.

You'd put your bags and paraphernalia into your wagon, unlock it, and roll on out and pull it home. Later the wagon would be used to shop for food at the town grocery, check the mail, carry the beach umbrella and towels, etc.

Although Fire Island Island was as long as Kauai (30 miles) it was no more than a half a mile deep between the ocean and the bayside.

Saltaire was isolated rolling beach grass on either side. The landscape was flat from the bay to the ocean dunes. You could get anywhere in town pulling a wagon in fifteen minutes. Less with a bike.

Our house was a two story grayed cedar-shingled affair built in the 1920's. A narrow wooden boardwalk paralleled the water in front of the houses. Beyond that was sand and then a wooden bulkhead at bay's edge.

As I said, we were on the bayside out on the east end of town. The narrow boardwalk paralleled the bay out to our place. The Great South Bay was a saltwater bay because Fire Island is merely a barrier island, protecting Long Island from the vagaries of ocean storms.

The bay was calm enough that I could safely have sailing lessons. My mother arranged for them on an eighteen-foot Cape Cod boat offered by an athletic nineteen-year-old Irish girl with freckles who needed college money.

She did teach me to sail with confidence… and I would have sailed anywhere with her. Between the sailing lessons and the ocean beach, I got very brown and salty that summer.

The bulkhead I mentioned ran along the edge of the water. It was in about three feet of water and had been backfilled with sand in the decades before I first came to the island.

By the time I arrived there were places where boards had been broken free and where sand had escaped. In some places it was hard to get out to the bulkhead without wading through warm saltwater.

However, once out on the bulkhead you could walk along with water on either side of you in some places. It was here I fell in love with mussels.

That summer there was an explosion of mussel population that clung to the bulkhead. Huge mats of them clinging to each other and the bulkhead. They were shiny black with smooth flesh the color of a ripe papaya.

Whenever we felt like mussels for dinner my mother would hand me a galvanized bucket we kept on the porch. I would then trundle out past the boardwalk to an accessible part of the bulkhead, wander down to a spot particularly thick with mussels and simply haul in a bucketful with a single stroke.

I'd make my way back to the house with a heavy bucket mussels and the seawater in which they would be boiled on the stove. The butter would already be melted and waiting. My sister, mother and I would feast. Mmmm.

Free Thinking Teenagers
After dinner, as it got dark, I'd make some instant coffee and go up to my room facing the bay. I'd take my secret stash from the drawer next to the bed.

My stash consisted of a Snickers candy bar (5¢) and a pack of Camel cigarettes (30¢). I'd drink the coffee, eat the Snickers bar and smoke a Camel while reading Ayn Rand.

That summer I read the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. They changed my life… and I don't just mean the books. It was the independence I was sensing in a number os aspects of my life.

I think adolescent minds are attracted to Ayn Rand's mix of individualism and rugged autonomy. Her tale of laissez-faire utopia is intoxicating. It all seems to work well in a world of infinite resources and limited population.

However, the way we're going its more like infinite population and limited resources. We're not in Kansas anymore. Or more to the point - Kansas isn't Kansas anymore.

No Pain No Gain
Struggle as you might with the inevitable, a reset is coming. It the planet is to remain hospitable to complicated life forms there will have to be a reduction of human population by almost order of magnitude in the next generation or so.

Paul Ehrlich wrote the Population Bomb in 1968. Needless to say, had we started reducing our numbers two generations ago, when world population was half it is today, our journey ahead would be much less painful than that which faces us.

Regardless of how inconvenient it is. we now have to tread more lightly on the planet and diminish our range. That would include working down our numbers down as comfortably as possible. To the degree we fail to do this, Nature (in the form of the laws of thermodynamics) will to the job for us.

However, the rewards for the struggle ahead are real. Those traveling through the coming bottleneck will gain autonomy. Autonomy - as in the case of liberty, self-direction, self-reliance, self-sufficiency. Autonomy - of the individual, family, neighborhood, community, the region.

With every garden green you harvest, every fruit tree you plant, every solar kilovolt you generate, everything you repair you will gain more autonomy. I think the reward of autonomy was the "secret sauce" of Ayn Rand's appeal to my adolescent mind.

Gaining autonomy is gaining self-respect, self-confidence, and importantly real expertise. It inherently means relying less on the bigger more complicated systems and more on the closer simpler ones.

It seems to me at this time that there more bad than good that can be offered at the international or national level of system organization. Sure, there are NOAA tsunami and weather reports as well as UN indigenous peoples initiatives and peace efforts,,, but that doesn't makes up for the attendant industrialization and resource extraction extinguishing life on Earth.

Even at the State and County level there appears little but greed and stupidity as the backdrop for a few bright lights. Where the bulk of our energy is needed is mostly in the backyard, then in the neighborhood and community, lastly to a degree in the region (read Kauai).

Smokey Pall of Failure
I'm sensing that the big-ag corporations are sensing the oncoming system failure. The weather, water resources, soil loss, and energy availability are conspiring to sabotage the refined and packaged food system we rely on for survival. They know… we know it. It's only a matter of time before we take back the landscape. Let's make sure it's not as serfs.


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