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In America these days, conventional ideas of wealth and security are being turned upon their heads. Large, luxurious cars that once carried us in air-conditioned splendor over well-maintained roads become less seductive with each refueling at today's elevated prices. Roads and infrastructure crumble before our eyes, as our "common wealth" is siphoned off to pay for weapons and wars and tax breaks for the uber-class. Savings dwindle as stocks and bonds and even the US dollar lose value every day. Family homes have lost so much value that, strictly from an accounting point of view, many Americans would be better off walking away from them, rather than continuing to pour money into monthly mortgage payments. And how rational does the prospect of incurring tens of thousands of dollars of debt to cover the cost of a university education for our progeny or ourselves appear when tens of thousands of Americans are losing their jobs every month?
The American way of life -- once described by Vice President Dick Cheney as "non-negotiable" -- isn't working for us anymore. Nor, for the vast majority of us, is it likely to within the foreseeable future.
So, what's to be done? Should we, as a nation, invade other sovereign nations in an attempt to control their petroleum assets? That hasn't worked out well thus far, has it? Should we turn a blind eye to the hungry of the world and press the world's corn and sugar and soybean fields into service to produce biofuels so that we can continue to motor about in our SUVs? Shall we continue to uphold zoning regulations that prevent laundry lines, vegetable gardens, and small businesses from invading our suburban landscapes? Should we continue burn vast quantities of fossil fuels in order to heat our out-sized homes so that we can step into a 72F body of air whenever we throw back our bedcovers in the morning or return after hours or days spent away from home? How long will we continue to send the kids to day care and pay for the fuel and upkeep on two cars so that Mom and Dad can go to work at jobs that barely pay enough to cover expenses?
What is the "cost of living" anyway? What do we actually need to stay alive? Well, we certainly need a fairly regular supply of fuel for our own bodies-carbohydrates enough to keep our brain and muscle cells operational and some additional nutrients to take care of growth and maintenance and repairs. As we are relatively hairless warm-blooded creatures, we need a little extra help, in the form of clothing and/or shelter, to maintain our optimal body temperature-the 98.6F at which the chemical reactions of life processes occur most readily. And it goes without saying that we need breathable air and drinkable water.
Everything else is gravy.
It's quite a challenge for any one individual -- anywhere in the world -- to survive alone. It's even more difficult to survive unassisted while caring for young children. And that is the basic purpose of community: to help people to survive -- by sharing labor, knowledge, skills and resources.
We are awakening now from our long American Dream. The petroleum-fueled, mass-produced lifestyle that Americans have enjoyed for as long as most of us can remember is unlikely to re-manifest itself in the foreseeable future. We need to open our eyes to what survival really requires -- and how necessary community is to that survival. In this new America, the neighbor who raises tomato seedlings and can teach us how to grow them in our particular micro-climate may be more relevant to our lives than the Wal-Mart Super Center twelve miles outside of town. The friend who can help us drain down the water pipes in our unheated upstairs bathroom each winter will be infinitely more valuable than a homeowners insurance policy from State Farm. A local farmer with a functional pickup truck, wagon or a hand-cart who is willing to haul produce to an isolated suburban enclave -- and those who know how to turn that raw produce into something tasty and nutritious and are willing to share those skills with others -- will be central to communities of the future.
Survival will depend, not only upon careful stewardship of our material resources, but also upon cultivation of local sources of knowledge and skill. Most importantly, it will require the nurturing of communities in which we care for one another, in every sense of the word.
Virginia Lockett spent the first 53 years of her life in America. She lives now in Da Nang, Vietnam, where she is happy to eat, sleep, shop, work, and play within the radius defined by the range of her electric motorbike. More about Virginia's life and work can be gleaned from her blog at www.steadyfootsteps.org