What We Need

Alex Steffen on Worldchanging had this to say recently (in the middle of a much longer piece on the need for sustainability to focus on resilient, complex, urban solutions)
“See, I’m more and more convinced that the idea we as individuals, or little pocket communities, or small towns can lead the way to sustainability on our own is sort of delusional and unworthy of ourselves. Certainly the idea that some people can disconnect and live happy transition lives while society crashes around them betrays a profound misreading of history: all those other un-transitioned people aren’t going to just go away and leave us to our straw-bale buildings and arugula patches. [Emphasis added]

That last sentence there… it keeps me up nights. Because unlike the original author, I have no faith that “society” isn’t going to just keep on going the way it goes until the crash happens. I am desperate for livable communities, for walkability, for green spaces, for urban centres that function. I would have loved to live in a city in which I could actually afford a place to live, food, and transportation, in one of those funky, vibrant communities that urban planners describe. But where I could actually afford to live on a single professional salary while my husband finished school was down the road from a flop-house, across from a factory, and six doors up from a chemical plant. In the end, it turned out to be a decent neighbourhood; the only trouble we ever had with the flop-houses involved worrying about their residents. But I was bleeding to death financially. I looked for work and housing a walking distance apart for 10 years and finally gave up. I moved to another part of the world, I bought a house in the country, and I started growing my own food. I started growing a little more and selling some of it. I’m starting to teach other people how to grow some of their own, and I’m working on developing a much larger repertoire of foodstuffs to grow. I know that this isn’t the solution to all our woes, but it what I need to do to keep myself sane. And here is why:

I don’t know how to drag the community around me kicking and screaming to a more sustainable way of life.

Coaxing hasn’t worked. Education hasn’t worked. Lobbying, protest, political action… none of it has worked. The government we have has no incentives to do anything about this, ever. It is a slow motion disaster, and there is always something moving faster that will grab our attention. We can’t do anything today because there was a budget cutback and more jobs were lost. There was a housing crisis. My federal government is more interested in opening up the Arctic for oil exploration than doing anything at all to mitigate the impacts of the oil we’ve already burned. My neighbours want to drive their ATV’s and leave all the lights in their houses on and floodlight their front doors, and everybody feels the need drive around to get the kids to 14 types of lessons, and not the ones offered in their neighbourhood, because there are more exclusive ones in the neighbourhood across town. If I wait for this urban utopia to come to fruition, I’ll be bitter, and then I’ll be dead. (because of getting old, not because I’ll kill myself)

But I have a vested interest in the future of the city, because I don’t want to ever have to defend my nice little homestead from hungry people. Let me be very clear: I do not look forward to the apocalypse. I like the internet. I like democratic freedom. I like reading ideas that were written by somebody other than the Guy Next Door (friendly as he is). But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be prepared if it happens in my lifetime. Of course, I’m not sure what “prepared” looks like, because when it comes up in conversation, at the back of my head, I’m always calculating 1) how many people live within a gas-tank of my house, and 2) how many of them might figure out that I have food, and 3) frankly, whether I would actually be able to convince most urbanites that a flock of laying hens and a milk cow are much, much more valuable alive than dead. Really. People who just spent 20 years denying climate change, denying the possibility of peak oil, and denying any personal responsibility for anything that happens around them do not seem likely to respond to reason.

So, I need to do this, and urban reformers need to rebuild the city. We need to have walkable greenspaces with funky neighbourhood-villages in the middle of a public transit system, and we need to rebuild our local foodsheds, re-learn how to farm without poisoning the water and air, and re-learn to respect the work of the hands as much as the work of the mind. We need universities and radical breakaway co-housing retreats. We need diversity. And we need it yesterday. Let’s go.

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