Thursday, October 22, 2009

small towns

In Another Turn of the Crank, a book of essays by Wendell Berry published in 1995, he entreats us to build small, sustainable communities that recognize the interconnectedness of all people. He also advocates seeing the earth's ecosystem--air, water, soil, plants and animals--as at one with humankind.

Berry notes the environmental extremes and disjunctions on both sides of the equation. He abhors the strip mining and other degradations to the natural habitat of his native Eastern Kentucky and other places , but at the same time, he pushes back against the desire of some environmentalists for protected land that's so pristine humans can't use it. He argues that we live in a strange tit-for-tat system in which it becomes "OK" to rape and pillage part of the environment because you have "preserved" another part. "Preservation" of part of the land isn't a magic formula that offsets destroying another part, he argues. In fact, he says, both practices tend to be inhuman(e) in the sense that humans are Xed out of the environment.

Rather than striking a balance between unused, untouched land and ruined land, he says, we would be better off to use all land--or almost all land--in respectful, sustainable and environmentally sounds ways.

As I was reading Berry, I was reminded of Wolf Guindon, a Quaker who settled with several other Quakers in Monteverde in Costa Rica in 1950 because the country had no draft. Guindon became involved in the movement during the 1970s and beyond to save the rainforest he lived in and was instrumental in helping to set up vast preserves, such as the Children's Eternal Rainforest. However, he clashed at times with environmentalists who wanted to keep the preserved rainforests entirely pure. Wolf envisioned certain areas set up as picnic grounds and for swimming, so that the local population could enjoy the beauty.

I tend to agree with Wendell and Wolf that it's better to coexist with and enjoy the nature around us than to place it off limits to human touch. It seems better to teach people how to live respectfully in an eco-system than to forbid entry.

Today I read an interview in Sun magazine with James Howard Kunstler, who made largely the same point: to survive after peak oil, which he says is now, Americans will have to live differently, in smaller walkable communities that very much resemble the small towns of yesteryear and may in fact be those towns. He sees globalization not as inevitable but as something that will end when oil prices rise high enough to make shipping goods halfway around the globe economically unfeasible. (A friend from Singapore offered an example of the absurdity of globalization. (Maybe we need friends from other places to see what we view as "normal.") He and his wife, who own a house in Maryland, went to Home Depot and bought bags of gravel to put under their deck. The gravel was imported from China. My friend couldn't get over it. 'They shipped rocks halfway around the world!' Yes, absurd, absurd and yet we all understand the economics.) After reason is restored and it once again becomes crazy to ship gravel across the earth, local farming, local communities and local industry will undergo a rebirth, sez Kunstler.

I have to say that for years I have dreamed of living in a place where you could walk everywhere you needed to go and where trains connected communities. Kunstler calls this move away from the car--and the smaller houses we will have to live in and the gardening we will have to do-- a decline in the American standard of living. But is it a decline or simply different? To me, it sounds better. I spent enough time in a minivan chauffering children to activities not to want to do that again. I love the idea of children being able to walk themselves to little league practice or dance class or me being able to walk to market. I loved my time living in a small house and preferred it to the bigger home we moved into after our family grew.

On the other hand, much as we might like the idea of small town communities, they can also be bastions of cruelty and narrow-mindedness. We associate lynchings with small towns. In 17th century England, women in small towns who complained about abuse or injustice by the men in power there were sometimes labeled witches and burned or hanged. Today, we rely on larger government entities to control the abuses of the small town dictator. However, if we are going to go back to living in small communities, rather than rely on the government (though I do believe in Aristotle's model of a stronger force protecting the everyday person from the abuses of the petty tyrant) I believe we must find ways to structure our communities with kindness, compassion, creativity and opportunity.

So two different questions: If having fewer material goods is not "a lower standard living," how do we more accurately describe it? Second, if we are going to be living in smaller communities, what are some ways to keep them from becoming abusive?

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