It’s not uncommon when driving across Kansas to come upon a sign outside some small town proclaiming, “Home of Someone You’ve Never Heard of” or “Girls Class C Volleyball Champions 1954.” Why is there no sign outside Lawrence announcing, “Woolgathering Capital of the World?”
The validity of this distinction was illustrated the other day by a report on the city’s Peak Oil Task Force, created a year ago by city commissioners. Its mission: to brood upon the challenges that would face Lawrence if there were a disruption in the supply of oil or a staggering upswing in its price. Members of this ad hoc think tank leapt into action with gusto. It was just the sort of challenge to excite woolgatherers and their powers of conjuring up visions of doom.
Oil shortages and high prices would mean radical lifestyle changes, they said. There would be an explosion of backyard gardens. That in itself would be a good thing, but more gardens would mean more demand for manure compost. Manure, of course, is malodorous. A superabundance of manure could condemn Lawrence to a reputation of being known primarily for its stench. An increase in the number of horses to replace gas-guzzling cars would add to the manure problem. Problems, problems, problems. How to mitigate the bad odor without subverting the virtues of subsistence gardening?
I trained my own woolgathering powers on the quandary. The simple solution, I reasoned, would be to kill all the horses, an expediency that would eliminate horse manure — and the foul aroma thereof. It seemed like an elegant solution. Then I realized that exterminating the horses would put us back to square one, without a source of compost. Moreover, horse lovers would likely complain. See? This woolgathering isn’t as easy as you might think.
A reeking Lawrence was merely the first of the Peak Oil Task Force’s worries. A shortage of oil would inevitably provoke more burning of wood for heat. Wood itself would become a precious commodity. The snarling of chainsaws would fill the night as gangs of tree rustlers roamed the town. No maple, oak or red bud would be spared and before long Lawrence would be deforested. Imagine Douglas Country without trees. (If you find this difficult, look at a photo of this area 100 years ago when it was mostly prairie and trees were scarce.)
We ought to be grateful that Lawrence is blessed with so many experts in the field of worrying about the future, but an oil shortage is only one of innumerable disasters that threaten Athens on the Kaw. An attack by aliens from outer space cannot be ruled out. Does Lawrence have a plan to deal with such a frightening contingency? Of course, there’s always the possibility that the invaders would be dumber than we are and easily defeated. But that’s unlikely, given the fact that they would have the technology to reach our planet in the first place, be it via spaceship, flying saucer or other futuristic conveyance.
One thing’s for certain: Lawrence is going to be in for a hard fight. Success will depend on discovering the enemy’s weaknesses — then hitting them where it hurts. The key might turn to be something simple, such as playing hip-hop music at a high volume. We’d all enjoy a good laugh if that caused them to melt into harmless little puddles of slime.
But a defeat of the aliens hardly guarantees peace. A plague of grasshoppers could devour local crops and vegetation, not to mention the misery inflicted by a proliferation of poisonous toads and serpents. How can these menaces be averted? What about the difficulties when global warming raises sea levels and puts Lawrence under 20 feet of water? How is the city going to cope? A modest proposal: Offer TIF financing to manufacturers of flippers, masks and snorkels. It’s not too soon to begin stockpiling today.
Scientists predict that plate tectonics will push the continents back together some day. Lawrence could wind up next door to Hoboken, N.J., unless radical measures are taken to anchor it in place. One solution: Drive pilings deep into the soil surrounding the city so it can’t be budged. Attach strong cables to stationary objects such as trees, if the rustlers have left any trees.
Finally, what is Lawrence going to do when the sun burns out, as it must someday? Again, planning is called for, so that the city is not caught with its pants down. The City Commission ought to be looking into alternative sources of light and warmth. It should hire wordsmiths to come up with synonyms for expressions such as “sunny,” “sunny side up,” “suntan,” “sunroom,” “sunscreen.” For without the sun as a reference point, those expressions will have no meaning, don’t you see?
But let’s not get too pessimistic. Remember, hardships often stimulate creativity and invention. Who knows what clever scientist is even now on the threshold of discovering a fragrant form of horse manure or a kind of wood that can be burned over and over again? Salvation lies in more task forces, more jawboning, more hand-wringing, more committees dedicated to the gathering of gossamer wool.