Monday, July 18, 2005

The Community Solution

Much attention has been paid to the importance and value of pursuing a communal/village/community based-approach to dealing with the coming energy crises. I think this is a good idea and ultimately the path to take if we want to survive the end of the fossil fuels era while maintaining some modicum of civilized existence.
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Not that there aren’t any other ideas for survival; both the survivalist, self-reliant homestead and the intentional community models do exist. The survivalist approach usually sees the hardy types depart modern civilization to seek out a self reliant existence in the far rural reaches. With meticulous planning and preparation, a number of these individuals have constructed an incredibly self-reliant existence complete with tons of stockpiled food, acres of wilderness and weapons by the case load. While I would expect many of these to survive whatever social and economic upheaval that affects the urban areas, this form of existence would no doubt, be a lonely, isolating one. Humans have throughout history grouped themselves in small communities from tribes up to villages. Additionally, that isolation forces the individual or family to be highly dependent on oneself or family for every aspect of survival. When it comes to certain specializations like medical care, this just is not practical.
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In other words, you better not get sick or injured.
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The intentional community approach does offer specialization. The group can now afford to divide the tasks for an enhanced chance of survival. Different members can be responsible for food production, domestic needs, handy work and yes, medical care. The downside of this is that with many intentional communities, isolation from the outside world is a fact of life. Many are organized around a single philosophical or religious ideology and are either led by a dominating leader or suffer from anarchic consensus-driven self governance. Neither extreme is particularly welcome. Over the long haul though, members can become alienated from each other or worse, become increasingly prone to inbreeding. Granted both outcomes may be extreme and many stable, successful intentional communities continue to exist and even thrive. For most individuals today however, they are just not a viable option.
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The idea of a community approach to peak oil is not half bad though, and as a number of intentional communities have taught us, it is possible to exist indefinitely without artificial or outside inputs. But it is not just certain intentional communities today that exist on locally available resources; it was pretty much pre-industrial civilization’s standard operating procedure. Though many different incarnations of the village approach existed, the result was inevitably the same: most places met their daily needs close to home, especially in respects to food and energy (e.g. wood, dung or the occasional waterfall). More limited resources, such as metal ores traveled longer stretches with only limited numbers of goods ever traded great distances, most of those being luxury goods.
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In the future, many of those patterns will need to be resurrected. We just cannot keep growing agricultural products for worldwide consumption. For better or worse, food will simply have to be grown locally with labor intensive practices. Equally important, the crops will have to be transported, processed (milled, baked, canned, preserved) and consumed locally as well. The days of the 3000 mile Caesar salad are numbered… Equally important, communities must relearn the essential tasks of manufacturing their daily goods as well. That means collectively we need to relearn the basic manufacturing processes of textiles, soaps, glass and other goods. Nor will that manufacturing necessarily be mechanical either; in many cases labor intensive, cottage industries will have to re-emerge. There is after all, no benefit to economies of scale, when the greater economy scarcely exists.
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One sure way of maintaining this arrangement over the long haul in is a confederation of loosely organized cities and towns of various (small) sizes that for the most part sustain their immediate needs on a local level and only trade the rarely used, more specific or technical goods. Larger cities could become producers of those harder-to-manufacture goods for the smaller towns and cities as well as become an administrative and cultural center for each particular region. At the same time, the larger cities could also subsist on the surplus, imported food stuffs that hopefully each of the towns would be able to produce. The key is to ensure, the size of the larger cities not exceed what could be provided for them from their immediate hinterlands.
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The community level should necessarily be the focus of any low-energy civilization. In the rural areas this is best represented by the farming town. But it could be replicated in the urban areas as well. Larger cities (but not too big) could be broken into smaller districts with localized food production and processing along with any form of industry that is viable in a post peak world. Ideally each district should have a balanced mix of jobs and housing while managing to be concentrated enough to permit public transit.
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This of course is an ideal. Dealing with the vagaries of land ownership, property rights and other impediments will likely make this harder to achieve in practice. The larger the city, the more intractable these forces may be. This is a very important factor that discourages the wholesale reorganization of the urban realm. In contrast, the smaller city or town may only need minimal physical reorganizing.
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But communities will not only become our physical home, they will have to become our social safety net as well. Most old-age assistance takes the form of national level pension programs (which are unsustainable under perfect economic conditions.) Welfare assistance is a necessary fact of life to prevent abject poverty among individuals and families. It also lessens the crime rate by providing food and shelter. (Individuals lacking in both will inevitably turn to crime to acquire these basic life goods.) Health care is vital to prevent diseases from ravaging communities and education is vital so that our children “grow” into productive adults. Currently the responsibility for the funding for all these services is provided by state and national level governments or corporations. None are sustainable under any scenario that debilitates or destroys the global and national economies. As a consequence, the community will have to step up and become the pension and public assistance program, health care provider and educational establishment for all in the community. And it will have to do this without any support from higher levels.
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In other words, the unplanning of modern, global civilization better have localized options waiting in the wings.
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This is not to say that small communities, villages or cities were pleasant places, past or present. The sustainable community of the middle ages may well have been a feudal kingdom. The sustainable communities of the Amazon were (and still are) tribes living a basic hunter-gatherer existence. Today’s small town existence might be peaceful and idyllic for some, but to others (particularly those with different viewpoints) represent a hostile, alienating experience. These are fair arguments. The big city does offer anonymity and freedom from prying eyes. You can specialize in whatever you wish to in a populous environ.
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The only flaw to big city life is its inherent unsustainability. As previously discussed here and ad nauseum elsewhere, cities are dependent on vast resources of imported goods and easy waste disposal. Prior to industrialization there were few good ways to move vast amounts of goods easily and none were particularly fast. Waste removal was equally lacking. As a consequence of this and other factors such as non existent public health practices, most cities remained small in size.
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However, all cities are not equally unsustainable. Some are located in regions of great resources and with proper planning, may continue to exist with simple modifications like urban gardening, suburban retrofitting and stronger urban-rural linkages to their immediate hinterlands rather than Asian factories. It is quite conceivable that the urban reaches of the upper Midwest, US Northwest and Northeast as well as portions of Europe, South America, Australia may fare fairly well. Maybe not the largest of those cities, like London or Chicago or Sydney, but the smaller to mid sized cities in temperate arable regions may continue to exist long after the peak.
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On the other hand, for reasons previously discussed, places like Los Angeles or Las Vegas are hopelessly destined for contraction.
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So how do we get from Los Angeles to sustainability? That’s the $64,000 dollar question for our civilization. One thing is for sure. The answer lies within community reorientation.

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