Peak oil - the South will rise again
By Erik Curren
Science-fiction writers like to imagine how, after a limited nuclear war, disease pandemic or other catastrophe, North America would break up into half a dozen or so smaller nations. There would be French-speaking Quebec, Yankee New England, an eco-state in the Pacific Northwest, a Latino-dominated neo-Aztec kingdom in the Southwest and of course, a risen-again Confederacy in the Southeast.
These days, such scenarios are not just entertainment; they're contingency planning. Futurists are now concerned that an energy crisis brought on by the peaking of world oil could disrupt America's economy and politics enough to strain the U.S. social fabric beyond its breaking point.
Peak oil is the idea that someday - even optimists agree that it will happen within the next 30 years - the world will reach the point where oil production can no longer be increased to meet rising demand and must begin its inevitable decline.
That doesn't mean that oil will run out right away. What it does mean is that as supplies run down and countries compete for an ever-tighter supply, prices are sure to rise. Oil is so important to modern society - 95 percent of world transportation runs on oil - that the end of cheap oil could be worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s.
And unlike the editors of Wired magazine, peak-oil theorists are not optimistic that new energy from ethanol, hydrogen or wind electricity will be powerful enough to do all the things we do with oil today and meet rising demand in the future.
Instead, peak-oil analysts say that unless we start soon to radically rewire American society to use much less energy, the U.S. is likely to face economic and political collapse before century's end.
The soccer mom-cracker riots
Perhaps the best-known prophet of peak-oil doom is James Howard Kunstler, who predicts that America will suffer decades of economic hardship and political unrest after peak oil hits. In his 2005 book The Long Emergency, Kunstler writes that "it would be reasonable to wonder whether the United States will continue to exist as a unified entity, and what kind of strife the Long Emergency could ignite region by region."
Bye bye, U.S.A. Hello, C.S.A.?
Kunstler, who has chosen to ride out the Long Emergency in Upstate New York, does not think the South will fare well. Here's his scenario:
The suburban development that has powered the economic engine of the New South for the last 50 years in places like Atlanta will grind to a halt. High-gas prices will make long commutes too expensive; cul-de-sac developments and McMansions will lose their value almost overnight; jobs will evaporate as businesses go bankrupt; and tax attorneys, neurologists and bond traders and their families will find themselves suddenly destitute.
Angry suburbanites - being Southerners, many of them own guns - will join with angry Crackers (Kunstler's word) in riots and rebellions directed at local and federal authorities, who will be increasingly powerless to respond as government starts to break down.
In an energy-starved world, the South's only hope for survival will be a return to agriculture. And here Kunstler imagines a visit from the ghosts of the Southern past.
"There are two previous models for farming in the American South," Kunstler writes. "The first was the plantation system based on slavery. The second was really a modified version of the first when slavery was outlawed: share-cropping, in effect, serfdom. Both systems are essentially feudal. I doubt slavery will make a comeback, but I wonder about sharecropping, or something like it. The persistence of culture is a real phenomenon. Over a period of time, a Southern agricultural economy may reorganize itself by default along the feudal lines that existed historically, odious as it may seem."
If Dixie breaks off from the U.S., Kunstler says that its government is likely to be "despotic and theocratic," backed by fundamentalist preachers saying that the End Times have come and crying down God's judgment on a sinful society. To make things worse, its location and warmer climate will make the South will more vulnerable to new tropical diseases spread by global warming.
Well, that's the view from New York State.
Traditional values against oil culture
It's hard to argue that global warming won't hit the South harder than New England or New York. And unless we act to reduce fossil-fuel pollution fast, the Appalachians may be the only place south of the Mason-Dixon to retreat when coasts are devastated by Katrina-strength storms, and tidewater and piedmont lands are infested by mosquitoes bringing malaria and dengue fever.
Of course, we don't have to see Kunstler's vision as a literal prediction. Might it just be a rhetorical exercise, a provocation to shock us into preparing for peak oil (and, to a lesser extent, global warming)? Yet, if we want to play this scenario game, it seems fair to ask whether there might also be aspects of the South's traditional culture that are more progressive than those that Kunstler finds.
Indeed, might the South, with its small-town and agrarian values, be better off in an energy-starved world where we have to make more of our stuff and grow more of our food close to home than many places in the North that have always relied heavily on trade and manufacturing?
While the twin evils of suburban sprawl and factory farming are indeed huge threats to a sustainable future, they have not yet entirely snuffed out the traditional Southern way of life that, in many aspects, remains a model for a re-localized society elsewhere.
Many communities still retain vibrant local economies. My own town, Staunton, has seen a renaissance of its downtown, with numerous shops and restaurants in walking distance from hundreds of well-preserved Victorian homes and Mary Baldwin College. A seasonal farmer's market is increasingly popular as a source of local food from the Shenandoah Valley's many remaining family farmers.
Nearby, in the grazing land southwest of town, superstar organic farmer Joel Salatin - profiled in Michael Pollan's 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals - spreads his gospel of sustainable local food one juicy steak at a time.
Perhaps Southern towns will be slower to adopt written peak-oil plans or formal re-localization efforts than places in New England or California. But the flip side of this intellectual conservatism is that the South was also slow to give up the small-town life and vibrant communities that such activist efforts attempt to rebuild.
Like Staunton, hundreds of other towns across the region have embraced (or never abandoned) farmer's markets, revamped their downtowns and nurtured the best of the South's values - family, community and stewardship of the earth.
For many, these values are entirely in line with the Southern religiosity that seems so frightening to many Northern liberals.
As a new generation of evangelical Christians (many from the South) has taught us, environmental stewardship is taught by the Bible. Today, many churchgoers in the South see it as their duty to fight global warming, to support local food and to demand clean energy as a way to protect God's creation.
Indeed, Southerners with deep roots in the land - family farmers, hunters and anglers - have practiced earth-stewardship for generations before hippies started leaving Greenwich Village for Vermont.
Southern, not Confederate, values
Finally, if there's more to Dixie than the oil-addicted suburbs of the New South - which have nothing Southern about them and are just the same sprawl as you'll find in Los Angeles - there's also more to the region than the KKK, NASCAR and vigilante justice.
Writing recently in The New Yorker (ironic, no?), book critic Louis Menand distinguishes the gems that the South should carry into the future from the garbage it must leave behind.
"The Southern point of view must not be confused with the Confederate point of view," Menand writes, "which was a vision of an expanding slave empire in which businessmen operate vast plantations on assembly-line principles and hold absolute power over people whose ancestors had once, on another continent, belonged to local communities, made a living in the traditional ways, and so on."
By contrast, Menand says, the Southern outlook is skeptical of technological advances and the power of big money. It is "the point of view of people in local communities everywhere, making a living in the traditional ways, about to be flattened by the bulldozer of modern life."
Southerners have always stood for tradition against modernity, for local community against the global economy, for humans against machines, for the farm against the factory, for the family business against the multinational corporation. No need to dwell on Gone with the Wind - more nuanced views of the South from Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Alice Walker and Charles Frazier (author of Cold Mountain) literally speak volumes on the independence of the Southern spirit, black and white.
And Southerners today aren't just black and white. They're also yellow and brown. Every decent sized town now has a Chinese and a Mexican restaurant. Indian and Korean can't be far behind.
New England may have its town meetings, but democratic ideals are not alien to the South. Doesn't Dixie deserve some credit for native sons Washington, Jefferson and Madison? George Mason's 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights served as the model for the Bill of Rights later added to the U.S. Constitution.
And whether they think that the war of 1861-1865 was about slavery or about states' rights, historians agree that outside the small upper class of big planters, most Southerners owned few slaves or none at all and further, that many Southerners opposed the Peculiar Institution. Today, we can accept that slavery was an unqualified evil without tarring the whole of Southern culture with its brush.
As we plan for peak oil, we should not forget that history offers us hopeful models, as well as frightening ones, for the future. This is as true in the South as in New York or New England, where, by the way, many more people are involved in global trade, financial markets and oil-dependent manufacturing than in Tennessee or North Carolina.
Whether we think that the U.S. breaking up is just science fiction or a serious scenario made likely by peak oil, the idea of the South rising again is a powerful image to organize our thoughts and actions today.
If Southerners choose carefully from their diverse heritage - discarding racism, violence and know-nothing jingoism while embracing community, family and stewardship of the land - the rise of Dixie could be a good thing for everybody.