Why Future Prosperity Depends on More Socializing
Access to cheap energy made us rich, wrecked our climate and left us lonely
The following is excerpted from McKibben's latest book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:
Community may suffer from overuse more sorely than any word in the dictionary. Politicians left and right sprinkle it through their remarks the way a bad Chinese restaurant uses MSG, to mask the lack of wholesome ingredients. But we need to rescue it; we need to make sure that community will become, on this tougher planet, one of the most prosaic terms in the lexicon, like hoe or bicycle or computer. Access to endless amounts of cheap energy made us rich, and wrecked our climate, and it also made us the first people on earth who had no practical need of our neighbors.
In the halcyon days of the final economic booms, everyone on your cul de sac could have died overnight from some mysterious plague, and while you might have been sad, you wouldn't have been inconvenienced. Our economy, unlike any that came before it, is designed to work without the input of your neighbors. Borne on cheap oil, our food arrives as if by magic from a great distance (typically, two thousand miles). If you have a credit card and an Internet connection, you can order most of what you need and have it left anonymously at your door. We've evolved a neighborless lifestyle; on average an American eats half as many meals with family and friends as she did fifty years ago. On average, we have half as many close friends.
I've written extensively, in a book called Deep Economy, about the psychological implications of our hyperindividualism. In short, we're less happy than we used to be, and no wonder - we are, after all, highly evolved social animals. There aren't enough iPods on earth to compensate for those missing friendships. But I'm determined to be relentlessly practical - to talk about surviving, not thriving. And so it heartens me that around the world people are starting to purposefully rebuild communities as functioning economic entities, in the hope that they'll be able to buffer some of the effects of peak oil and climate change.
The Transition Town movement began in England and has spread to North America and Asia; in one city after another, people are building barter networks, expanding community gardens. And they've paid equal, or even greater, attention to suburbia; in the developed world, after all, that's where most people live. Though our sprawl is designed for the car, the sunk costs of those tens of millions of houses mean they're not going to disappear just because the price of gas rises. They'll have to change instead. "Suburbia, not as a model for material consumption, but as a legal and social lattice of decentralized and more uniformly distributed production land ownership, has the potential to serve as the foundation for just such a pioneering adaptation," writes Jeff Vail, a widely read economic theorist who envisions "a Resilient Suburbia."
In fact, quite sober economists have begun to insist that even in our seemingly globalized world, our economies are actually far more local than we realize. Despite the "pervasive image of a single U.S. economy," the economists William Barnes and Larry Ledeber write, "local economies - primarily metropolitan-centered and strongly linked - are the real economies in the United States." They build, with rich statistical backing, on the original insights of thinkers like Jane Jacobs, who always insisted that the city was the fundamental building block of our economic life.
These "Local Economic Regions" comprise the web of transportation and communication links, the chain of educational institutions in a region, and the web of emotional ties. (My Vermont neighbors may not care much how many gold medals the United States captured at the Olympics, but they are deeply involved with how many runs the Red Sox scored last night.)
Those local economies were originally shaped by geography - a port, a river, a low place in the mountains where you could build a canal. For a while those assets seemed less important; with endless cheap energy, you could always put something on a truck or a plane. But the cities built on those early patterns persisted; they were a sunk cost, too. No one was going to move Buffalo, with its museums and universities and square miles of housing stock, just because the highway had bypassed the Erie Canal. (And now some of those original assets may be returning to prominence. The Erie Canal, for instance, has seen a marked upswing in business as the price of oil rises, because a gallon of diesel pulls a ton of cargo 59 miles by truck, but 514 miles in a barge.) Shanghai is 7,371 miles from New York. It's true that Chinese workers cost you a dollar an hour, but at some point the math shifts.
Even David Ricardo, the nineteenth-century economist who helped kick off globalization with his theory of comparative advantage, never quite imagined the Flat Earth we've lately celebrated. It was true, he said, that since Britain could make cloth more cheaply, and Portugal wine, each country should specialize. He believed, however, that capital would stay at home, due to "the natural disinclination which every man has to quit the country of his birth and connexions and entrust himself, with all his habits fixed, to a strange government and new laws. These feelings, which I should be sorry to see weakened, induce most men of property to be satisfied with a low rate of profit in their own country, rather than seek a more advantageous employment for their wealth in foreign nations."
David Ricardo, meet Woody Tasch. A New Mexico-based venture capitalist and the founder of the Slow Money movement, Tasch focuses on finding funds to help local businesses grow a little larger. Not the kind of money that's looking for a 20 percent annual gain; when that happens, everything but return gets pushed aside. What Tasch has in mind is a consistent, sound, 3 or 4 percent return, which at the same time benefits the community where both the investor and the business live.
"These kinds of local businesses are by definition going to be lower risk, because they're embedded in their communities, they're cooperating with each other," he says. They can use those networks to grow, but only up to a certain point - and you only want to grow to a point. Ben and Jerry's was great when it was a Burlington ice cream shop, and pretty neat when it was a regional brand - but now it's owned by Unilever. What if your newspaper wasn't owned by some corporate overlord looking for a 20 percent return? What if a small annual profit was enough? Maybe it would still be covering the city council and sending a reporter on the road with the baseball team.
But in our world, it's actually harder than you'd think to stay small. To understand why, visit the Farmers Diner, one of my favorite restaurants but also a place that illustrates just how hard it can be to find the sweet spot. How local is the Farmers Diner? The first thing you see when you walk in the door of their outlet in the Vermont town of Quechee is a jukebox, glinting like any diner jukebox. Some Willie Nelson, some John Cougar Mellencamp. But half the albums are by Vermonters. Phish, sure. But it's Grace Potter and the Nocturnals who get the most play. And they're just the start. You'll find the Starline Rhythm Boys (singing "The Tavern Parking Lot") and Banjo Dan and the Mid-Nite Plowboys ("The Cider Song"). And Patti Casey, of course. Never heard of Patti Casey? Your loss, but that's the point. In an economy where music comes from L.A. or Nashville, she's from here.
The menu, at first glance, looks like any diner menu. Hash and eggs. Liver and onions. Bacon cheeseburger. Pancakes. At diner prices: $5 for a grilled cheese, home fries for $1.75. But look a little closer: almost every item comes with a modest biography. The blue cheese comes from Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro. The yogurt is from Butterworks Farm up in Westfield, which also supplies wheat flour for the pancakes. In an economy where diner food rolls up on an eighteen-wheeler from the factory farms of the South and Midwest, your Farmers Diner patty melt is like the music on the jukebox: it comes from here.
And it comes with an attitude. One page of the menu is given over to the Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry's magnificent poem "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front": "So, friends, every day do something / that won't compute...." Another is taken up by Thomas Jefferson's 1803 letter calling for a conversion of the nation's "charitable" institutions into "schools of agriculture" so our citizens may "increase the productions of the nation instead of consuming them." This may be the only diner in the world that comes with a mission statement: "to increase the economic vitality of local agrarian communities." The bumper sticker above the counter says it even more plainly: "Think Globally - Act Neighborly."
But it also comes with a problem. In the words of the owner, Tod Murphy, "How do you create a company that will take food off the farmer's hands in the easiest way for him, and set it in front of the customers in the easiest way for them, and do it at a price point everyone can live with?" Tailing him for a day as he made the rounds of his suppliers shows both the promise and the difficulty of the idea. You could start the morning in Strafford, say, at Rock Bottom Farm, where Earl Ransom's cows were producing organic milk and cream on the land where he was born. "I had to educate people that cream isn't necessarily white," Murphy recalled. "When the cows went out to pasture in the spring, the half-and-half changed color noticeably, and the waitresses were afraid people would freak."
It doesn't always go so easily, though. Consider, for instance, the pig. When the first Farmers Diner opened in Barre, it needed bacon - you can't have a diner without bacon. The problem was that no one was producing pork commercially in Vermont. Fifty years ago, sure, every farm had a few hogs growing fat on leftover milk from the dairy herd. But as agriculture became a commodity business - as dairy producers concentrated on cows, and pork producers on pigs - that changed. Vermont dairies became fewer in number and much, much bigger; in other parts of the nation the same thing happened with hogs.
According to Brian Halweil in his book Eat Here, there's a hog farm in Utah with 1.5 million pigs. That's absurd - the pigs produce more solid waste each day than the entire city of Los Angeles. But it's also cheap - so cheap that it sets the psychological price for a pound of bacon pretty low. So when Murphy wanted to buy pigs for his bacon and sausage, he approached a few farmers to see whether they were interested. One was Maple Wind Farm, a breeder in Huntington raising fifty hogs a year, mostly to sell at farmers' markets. They're fed on grass and organic grains - the pork tastes absolutely incredible - and they fetch good money. "We get $7.50 a pound for bacon at the farmers' market, and $8.50 a pound for pork chops," says Beth Whiting, who runs the farm with her husband, Bruce Hennessey. So when Murphy asked them if they could raise him some pigs at eighty-nine cents a pound, "we had to bury our laughter."
And yet eighty-nine cents a pound is more than the upscale national pork producer Niman Ranch pays its contract pig farmers. In essence, it's a Goldilocks problem: somehow Murphy has to find just the right size. What his operation really requires is not huge commodity producers or small, incredibly wonderful gourmet farms. "What I need are 1950s-size farms," he says. Not a million hogs, but not fifty, either - maybe three or four hundred. Not organic operations necessarily, just family farms. Precisely, in other words, the kinds of farms that have almost all gone out of business in recent decades.
Murphy can still find vegetable growers to fit his scale, for example, someone to plant the five acres of cucumbers he needs for his pickles. But to help rebuild the supply of meat and chicken farmers, he's launching a nonprofit foundation. Named for a character in one of Wendell Berry's novels, the Jack Beecham Foundation will help growers with business plans and marketing strategies. Woody Tasch has been helping.
All this to make a smoked-turkey club. Or, to read from today's specials menu, some poached Vermont eggs with Cabot cheddar cream sauce. Or some maple butternut squash. Or some Cortland apple cobbler topped with local granola, and a scoop of that Strafford ice cream. With some Grace Potter wailing from the jukebox. For change back from a ten-dollar bill, it doesn't get much sweeter than this. It should work. It should spread. If the eaarth is going to support restaurants, they'll need to look like the Farmers Diner.
Across the country communities have begun to transform themselves. They encounter the same kinds of problems that trip up Murphy, but they find solutions, too. Often a farmers' market is the catalyst - not just because people find that they like local produce, but because they actually meet each other again. This is not sentiment talking; this is data. A team of sociologists recently followed shoppers around supermarkets and then farmers' markets. You know the drill at the Stop'n‘Shop: you come in the automatic door, fall into a light fluorescent trance, visit the stations of the cross around the perimeter of the store, exit after a discussion of credit or debit, paper or plastic. But that's not what happens at farmers' markets. On average, the sociologists found, people were having ten times as many conversations per visit. They were starting to rebuild the withered network that we call a community. So it shouldn't surprise us that farmers' markets are the fastest-growing part of our food economy; they are simply the way that humans have always shopped, acquiring gossip and good cheer along with calories.
Excerpted from the book EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved. Copyright© 2010 by Bill McKibben.