Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Builder Of Safety Nets

I just saw a rousing video which is posted on the site of a fellow blogger, Sarah, author of Accidental Blog. The video is of a speech given by Majora Carter at a 2006 TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference. In that speech she talks of her efforts as a black woman living in a depressed, blighted area of the Bronx to beautify her neighborhood and bring changes to make her neighborhood more healthy and sustainable. She does say a few things I don't agree with: citing “sustainable development” as a desirable goal without articulating the limits beyond which such development is not sustainable, and citing Amory Lovins as one of her influences, as well as her high regard for Al Gore (with whom I am frankly not impressed). Nevertheless her passion is undeniable, as well as the record of her accomplishments on a community level.

It is the vision and example of people like her that will be vital for communities who wish to build a safety net of alternative systems to our present political system and global official economy which is breaking down. She has inspired me at a time in which I was beginning to wonder whether my own efforts were accomplishing anything worthwhile, or whether I was wasting my time.

I have also been enjoying a series on “A Resilient Suburbia,” written by Jeff Vail, author of the blog rhizome. In that series he challenges a particular notion which has prevailed for the past few years among those who study peak oil and its effects on society. That notion is the idea that peak oil and its economic effects will render suburbia unviable, leading to the abandonment of suburbs. Mr. Vail's first post in his series explains that we are stuck with suburbia, since we do not have access to the credit that would allow us to build a substitute, and that attempting to build a substitute would lower the value of the collateral used to secure the needed credit, since that collateral consists of the already-developed real estate which comprises present suburbia. His second post states that the transportation issues faced by suburbia are influenced more by the base cost of vehicle ownership than by the variable cost of fuel, and that suburban commuting can be solved in relatively simple ways, reducing the base cost per household.

His third post talks about how suburbanites can meet most of their own needs for water, food and energy using resources that can easily be installed or implemented on a typical American suburban lot. This third post reminds me very much of how David Holmgren, a co-inventor of permaculture, made the same point regarding suburbia during a talk given in Australia in 2005 with Richard Heinberg. I remember listening to an MP3 recording of that talk in early 2007, shortly after I first heard the full story on Peak Oil, and imagining how a sustainable retrofit of suburbia would play out in my neighborhood. I still think that such an exercise in imagination would be very useful. Perhaps one day I will write a post on the challenges to re-fitting suburbia to adapt to an energy-constrained future. I will consider two real-life cases, a typical neighborhood in La Habra or Brea or Anaheim, California (an area with which I am quite familiar), and a typical neighborhood along Sandy Boulevard in Portland, Oregon.

There are three challenges I see right off the bat: first, that because most suburban dwellers are mortgage holders and not outright owners of their homes, an unstable economy might hinder their efforts to adapt their households to a low-energy future, and might even threaten their ability to keep their homes. Second, as the official economy continues its breakdown, these suburban dwellers would need to create means of supplying themselves with the sort of durable, hard goods needed by households, goods which are now mass-produced by the global economy. Third, there is the fact that even now, most suburban dwellers don't quite “get” the magnitude of the challenges to their present way of life, or the need for radical changes. I am thinking of conversations I had in 2007 with some of the people in my old neighborhood just before I moved.

Anyway, I think Jeff Vail's series covers some valuable ground, and considers questions that most of us will have to answer as we face the times now upon us, since we can't all go off to the woods and start eco-villages or other alternative living arrangements.

For those who want to see the Majora Carter speech, it can be found here:

For those who want to read Jeff Vail's series on “A Resilient Suburbia,” it can be found here:

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