The city of Knoxville may be well-equipped to deal with your standard-grade end-time scenarios. Say, for example, there's a Biblical Apocalypse—zombies groaning and gnawing their way up Gay Street, the four horsemen galloping down Kingston Pike, Jesus doing whatever it is he's supposed to be doing. That's no serious problem for people here. A phone book search shows that there are nearly 300 religious institutions within five miles of the city. Certainly at least one of them's going to be the ticket to Rapturetown.
What about a man-made apocalypse? Well, luckily we're located within blast range of the country's largest nuclear bomb factory, and this town's ready to deal with any radiological disaster that all-out war, a terrorist event, a Department of Energy train derailment, or ORNL employee fatigue can throw at us. One of the primary responsibilities of the Knoxville-Knox County Emergency Management Agency (KEMA), in fact, is to be prepared for DOE-related hazardous material events. Check out their website (ci.knoxville.tn.us/kema) to get an idea of what your family can enjoy when it's expecting to stay inside the house for the next 75 years.
But what about what's actually going on in the world right now? It's a bit more subtle than the final battle between good and evil, more insidious than complete irradiation. But according to some experts, it still promises to change our way of life, for the worse, and for a long time.
Call it the Mad Max-type apocalypse. It's what happens when natural resources begin to dry up, coupled with an across-the-board economic collapse—you know, stock market crash, currency devaluation, houses suddenly being worth a lot less than what you paid for them. It's sort of a general third-worldening.
It may sound a bit far-fetched, but then again...
Gas Prices, Oil Crisis, and Why We're Screwed
"Knoxville is probably one of the worst-equipped cities to deal with an oil crisis that I've seen," says Warren Karlenzig, executive director of San Anselmo, Calif.-based sustainability consulting firm Common Current. In March, the group released the study "Major U.S. City Preparedness for an Oil Crisis," ranking the 50 largest U.S. cities, from ultra-green first-place San Francisco all the way down to number 50 Oklahoma City, for their economic ability to deal with $4 per gallon gas and beyond. It's largely based on factors like public-transportation ridership, carpooling vs. single-driver commuters, and population density.
Knoxville, of course, is not one of the 50 largest cities in the country, but Karlenzig did a check on the local figures using data from the Census and the American Smart Growth sprawl survey. Two cities that did make it into the study, though, are relatively close by: Nashville (#43) and Memphis (#47).
Karlenzig says that beyond just the scary, depressing not-being-able-to-go-anywhere-or-do-anything-without-siphoning-gas-from-your-neighbor consequences, oil-crisis unfriendly towns like Knoxville run the risk of more mundane economic problems. In the face of $4-plus gallons of gas, Karlenzig says that many new businesses are increasingly attracted to places where their employees can walk to work, or where there are many available transit options.
"In some cities such as New York City, people spend as little as 2 or 3 percent of their income on gas," he says.
But, admittedly, New York, where as many as 55 percent of commuters use public transportation every day, is kind of an unfair comparison.
"Six or 7 percent is about the average [daily public-transit ridership] for a city in the United States," Karlenzig says. "In the middle, you have cities like Houston, Cleveland."
And Knoxville falls somewhere below them, he says, with about 1.5 percent daily public-transit use and a relatively low population density, about 180,000 spread out over nearly 100 square miles. Also, he says, about 81 percent of Knoxvillians drive alone in their cars to get to work.
"That's one of the highest rates in the nation."
Bob Deck and his family look delighted. All. The. Time. It would almost make you sick if they didn't happen to be so accommodating, so friendly. All. The. Time. No, you know what? It would make you sick.
These people have better lives than you.
Deck, his wife Kate Spillane, and their 12-year-old daughter Olivia live on a 10-acre organic farm in Strawberry Plains. They live the type of life in which words like "bale," "coop," and "chicken tractor" have everyday applications. The house itself is a small, white, classic farmhouse. It's idyllic, and it's also a fortress of economic solitude for the family.
You don't particularly have to worry about the implosion of worldwide food staples when you can get as much as 70 percent of your family's weekly food intake out of your backyard, after all. They raise chickens and goats and grow their own potatoes, tomatoes and Swiss chard, along with a number of other crops, in their small garden. And, according to Spillane, all that costs the family only about $1,000 a year. And they make a good percentage of that back selling a lot of their food to local farmer's markets and the Three Rivers Market food cooperative.
Deck, a self-described "slimy ad guy" and part-time musician, and Spillane, a musician, both in their early 50s, lived in Old North Knoxville for about 20 years before they moved to the Strawberry Plains farmhouse three years ago.
"We lived in Old North, and we loved it there," Deck says. "It was great, but I don't know if it's a biological imperative or what it is, but you get to a certain point in life where you start to think that you should reorganize your priorities or reorganize your worldview. And my wife was thinking the same thing at the same time."
Deck's so happy with the decision that he doesn't mind coming off a bit hokey in describing it. It was relatively easy to do. The family wanted to have an organic farm, which usually takes three years of leaving the soil alone to clear it of pesticides. But the family that owned it before, friends of the Deck-Spillanes', had been working the garden organically for 20 years.
The family is an example of what is now called "locavores," a buzzword (the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year for 2007) but a noble concept. It means they try to eat as much locally-grown food as possible. It's a practical idea, too, says Deck.
"You can't miss these news stories about tomatoes having something wrong with them, or the spinach last year," he says.
"Even the big organic commercial producers have the same problem," Spillane says. "They get their food from so many different sources, when there's something wrong with it, you can't even track it."
It means they have to stay away from certain foods that can't be grown in East Tennessee, especially tropical foods like bananas or kiwis.
"It's ridiculous that restaurants are using slices of tomato, putting them on burgers, in the middle of the winter. If nothing else, they just taste terrible," Deck says. They do drink coffee, though.
Spillane estimates that a small garden like theirs could easily be shared and provide for 10 people or more. The family is even considering selling shares in their produce.
"It would cost them about $30 per week," she says. "It's a gamble for them because you never know what's going to happen with the harvest each week."
Deck says that, though there is a growing local food movement here in Knoxville, more activity at local farmer's markets, and locavore meeting groups beginning to form, the city would be ill-equipped to deal with a real food shortage crisis.
"With the amount of farming that goes on around here now, you could maybe feed one UT dorm," he says.
But the family would be fine, at least, and that is something that gives Spillane a degree of comfort.
"It is something I think about sometimes in my quieter moments, and I do think we're very lucky to have been able to do this," she says.
The United States used to have one of the most valuable currencies in the world. The U.S. dollar traded well above most European currencies, and it was often double the value of the Canadian dollar. And that was only a few years ago. Now, it's consistently about at equal value with Canadian currency; just in the past week, it fell to its lowest rate against the Euro, which as of July 15, was worth about $1.60.
Jay McCall, the head of the Knox County Libertarian Party, says he has a solution, and it's a tangible one. Back the dollar up with something other than a promise from the federal government. Bring the United States back to the gold standard.
"If we were on the gold standard again, your dollar could buy you so much more," says McCall. "And this is something no one is talking about."
Once upon a time, the dollar was backed by gold, generally giving it a high, fixed value and curbing inflation. It meant that if you took your money into a bank, you could be given gold for it. But, in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made "gold hoarding" illegal for private citizens. Then, in 1971, President Richard Nixon ended the international gold-trade system between governments.
The problem with the gold standard, of course, is that in bad economic times, the Federal Reserve Bank sometimes encourages some inflation, printing additional money to devalue it and allow citizen's to pay their debts more easily. Also, gold doesn't actually have a fixed, inherent value. If a large amount of gold is mined, gold is devalued, and a gold standard system could actually cause inflation.
Still, McCall says that the dollar should be tied to something.
"Without the dollar being tied to some precious metal, there's nothing to keep the Fed from printing it whenever it wants," he says. "We just see skyrocketing inflation. I think the signs are there. Other countries are losing confidence in us."
As long as there is no backing for the dollar, though, what should people do? If the dollar continues to devalue, could it become totally worthless, an empty promise? And if so, what should people do? Hoard precious, but relatively inexpensive, metals like silver, assuming that at any moment they'll need a new currency with a real value attached to it? Certainly not.
"Actually, I think that would be very wise," McCall says.
A Reasonable Take?
Still, though, Dr. Bill Fox, executive director of the University of Tennessee's Center for Business and Economic Research, says there's nothing to panic about, sort of. Seems odd for a guy once dubbed "Chicken Little" by Tennessee Republican Party Communications Director Bill Hobbs.
"I will not speak to any worst-case scenarios," says Fox. "Because I really don't think that is going to happen."
That statement comes with a long list of qualifiers, mostly in the form of, "But that doesn't mean everything's going great." Fox and CBER are not notorious for blind optimism. In its May report to Gov. Phil Bredesen on the state's health, the CBER predicted a worsening economy for the rest of the year due mostly to rising energy prices, continuing high unemployment, and poor consumer spending.
"What we're continuing to see is employment decline," he says. "The economy is growing fine in health care and local education in public schools and private education. But we're seeing decline in most other industries."
One thing that he blames for that is an overall decline in consumer spending. Though there was a slight uptick in consumer spending in the second quarter of the year due in part to the recent economic stimulus package, which gave American families back about the equivalent cost of five trips to the grocery store, a month's worth of gas, or 1.5 Xbox 360s, it was just a one-time fix and will not affect the economy over the rest of the year.
"We no longer will have that unusual stimulation," he says.
And then there are those gas prices, now pushing $4 at the pump around town, which, of course, affect nearly everything else, most notably food prices. According to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the cost of food has risen an average of 5.3 percent from this time last year, which can be at least partly attributed to the cost of shipping.
"You are seeing a situation where people are having to pay for fuel and for food and having to give up other things," Fox says. "The jury's still out as to whether this is a recession, but this is going to be a more prolonged period of weak growth, more so than at the beginning of the 2000s when we had a recession and more so than the beginning of the 1990s when we had a recession."
Combine that with double-digit inflation and a weak housing market from the mortgage bubble, and things are, for the time being, problematic for a lot of people.
"If you're somebody who's looking for a job, you're going to have a couple of tough years here," he says.