Things fall apart…in a good way!


In the conclusion to Reinventing Collapse, Dmitry Orlov says, “I have worked very hard to write a book on an important but seriously depressing subject that’s nevertheless fun to read.” Thanks to a lively inductive faculty, a fast-paced narrative structure, and a Saharan sense of humor, he has succeeded in the extreme. On the other hand, I almost always enjoy reading dire predictions about what will happen when the oil runs out. So maybe I’m predisposed to find this book a gas.

Lego rendering of a pedicab ride, post-collapse - note the crude design of the home-grown vehicle, and the passenger's assertion of his right to bear arms.

Lego rendering of a pedicab ride, post-collapse - note the crude design of the home-grown vehicle, and the passenger's assertion of his right to bear arms.

But how, you might ask, do collapse and its reinvention intersect with the trike lane? Well, Orlov has lots to say about transportation in the post-cheap-oil age. In a speech given in 2009 in San Francisco, Orlov asked, “So, what can we do to get our…missions accomplished in spite of chronic fuel shortages? The most obvious idea, of course, is to not use any fuel. Bicycles, and cargo bikes in particular, are an excellent adaptation.” He also suggests that those interested in retaining the ability to haul heavy stuff  (without stooping to pushing shopping carts) “start breeding donkeys. Horses are finicky and expensive, but donkeys can be very cost-effective and make good pack animals.” (His other recommendation in the fuel-free category is the sailboat. The Brooklyn-based Mast Brothers have gotten out in front on that one: This past June they hauled 20 tons of cacao beans from the Dominican Republic to Red Hook by cargo sailboat.)

In fact, donkeys might be a surer bet than trikes in a time of steep energy descent, since trikes have a couple of the same weaknesses that cars do: First, they’re easiest to ride on smooth, paved roads. Second, the parts they’re made of (and the raw materials used to fashion those parts) hail from all over the globe. How would an operator get hold of new trikes, or replacement parts, in the event of a combination transportation/trade breakdown? New donkeys, on the other hand, are one thing we (or anyway a couple of enterprising donkeys) are still capable of making here in America. Replacement donkey parts? They roll their own, out of carbohydrate, fat, and protein.

A donkey would eat that grass for lunch!

A donkey would eat that grass for lunch!

For trikes, the parts problem is probably the greater concern; the road issue has workarounds. It may be highly unpleasant to ride a trike over, say, Belgian blocks, but it’s not impossible. Also, while I doubt that any non-petroleum-based road surface will ever be quite as silky as asphalt, it is quite possible to create an acceptably smooth cycling surface from well-laid red brick, or blue stone. Heck, wooden planks would work as well – don’t I bike over the Brooklyn Bridge a half dozen times a week? (By the way, check out the new “Pedestrian Safety” agents on the promenade – finally, some peacekeepers in the war zone!)

A Main Street goes native.

In Park Slope, a Turkish-made pedicab goes native.

At a museum in Union, Maine, last month, I saw an ancient bicycle made (I believe) of iron, wood, and rubber. It had solid tires (not ideal, when you’re speeding down a paved bike path; possibly ideal when you’re, say, hauling potatoes over a rutted road). It was definitely made in the USA. Of course, we don’t have rubber trees here – but once the automobile becomes obsolete, there’ll be plenty of old car tires ready to be repurposed for use on bikes. I wonder how many bikes you can outfit with tires from a single car?

And speaking of repurposing: Wouldn’t it be exciting if the High Line became a train route again? If Chelsea Piers (for example) became a giant farmers’ market, supplied by barges chugging down from the Hudson Valley? If, in general, infrastructure converted to luxury use were to regain the virtue of necessity? It will be fascinating to watch this vibrant and preposterous island of ours shed its petroleum-predicated pretensions.