April 22, 2008

Cheap energy, and community

Cheap energy has had a profound impact on our communities, and I'm not talking about pollution/greenhouse/Earth Day issues. As many (including me) have written, designing our communities around the automobile has led to the pedestrian-hostile streetscapes that give us Rte. 9 aesthetic urban blight, and the need to drive our cars less than half a mile from one strip mall to another, because the walking environment is so unpleasant and unsafe. However, an article in yesterday's New York Times magazine notes that cheap energy has had other effects on our sense of community:
"Cheap fossil fuel allows us to pay distant others to process our food for us, to entertain us and to (try to) solve our problems, with the result that there is very little we know how to accomplish for ourselves. Think for a moment of all the things you suddenly need to do for yourself when the power goes out — up to and including entertaining yourself. Think, too, about how a power failure causes your neighbors — your community — to suddenly loom so much larger in your life. Cheap energy allowed us to leapfrog community by making it possible to sell our specialty over great distances as well as summon into our lives the specialties of countless distant others."

Now, I don't want to go back to the days when all we were able to buy or use came from within a day's horse and carriage ride away. But author Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto) makes an interesting point. It is cheap energy that allows us to buy food grown in South America and toys/electronics/clothing made in China, more affordable than if they were grown or manufactured close to home; just as it's cheap energy that's encouraged suburban sprawl by making housing more affordable 30, 40, 50 or more miles from urban job centers.

What can we do about it?

Plant gardens and grow some of our own food, Pollan urges! Sound like a small, inconsequential response? He argues passionately that "it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind. . . . You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself — that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support."

There's nothing quite like the sense of satisfaction I get picking our home-grown tomatoes and basil for a summer salad, even if I've got to add slices of Vermont-produced cheese and a drizzle of Spanish olive oil to the plate. Not to mention, little matches the incredible sweet, juicy taste of a tomato picked fresh from the vine. It's a completely different foodstuff from that which has been been transported thousands of miles out of season.

Being outside in the garden on a daily basis, I also see my neighbors, I notice my local environment, and I feel more connected with my neighborhood. Much moreso than if I get in the car and drive to my local super Stop & Shop, even if I run into my neighbors there.

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