Posts Tagged ‘sustainable’

generate local; grow local; avoid volde-mart

June 9, 2008



Getting Connected
Why sharing electrons, local produce and Radiohead makes for better communities.

By Bill McKibben

Farmers' market

The average visitor to a farmers’ market has 10 times more conversations per visit than the average visitor to a supermarket. That’s important, because a community in which people interact is more likely to offer a better quality of life. Photo courtesy of Vasiliki Varvaki/

A few years ago, when we were installing photovoltaic panels all over our roof, the question was whether to go off-grid or to tie in. We chose the latter, connecting with our nifty SMA Sunny Boy inverter, but not really for technical or economic reasons. We chose it because we like connections — we like networks, we like community, even when it’s a community of electrons. I enjoy looking over at my neighbor’s house and realizing that, at least metaphorically, he is cooling his beer before the Red Sox game with the sunlight that is falling on my shingles. And I think one of the most important arguments to be made for renewable energy is precisely that it can help build community.

No one has ever accused the traditional electric grid of being much good for community. It’s built on a few vast and centralized power stations, whose product we consume at a distance. In that sense, it’s no different from the calorie grid, in which each
bite of food has traveled 1,500 miles on average to reach our lips. Our only interaction with that electric grid is to pay our bills —our role is entirely as consumers. (In some states, you can also attend hearings about electric rates, but this is more punishment than I can imagine taking on.) Can you say “passive”?

But let’s imagine a grid that begins to build out with more and more small nodes along the way: solar rooftops all over the place, backyard- and cul-de-sac-scale windmills. To get there quickly, we need changes in the law — some kind of national feed-in policy, like the ones pioneered in Germany and recently adopted in California, perhaps. But we also need a subtle change in how we view ourselves. We need to become energy providers — tinyscale utilities. Or at least we need to know the utility next door,
our neighbor with the panels. Once we do, much will change.

Start Connecting
Read on:
The Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook: Community Solutions to a Global Crisis, Greg Pahl (Chelsea Green Publishing: 2007)
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Economies and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben (Holt Paperbacks: 2008)
Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age, Michael H. Shuman (Routledge: 2000)
Hometown Advantage: How to Defend Your Main Street Against Chain Stores and Why it Matters, Stacy Mitchell (Institute for
Local Self-Reliance: 2000)
Superbia: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, Daniel D. Chiras and David Wann (New Society Publishers: 2003)

Linking Up Over Veggie Stalls
We can see this happening already in the food sector, where local farmers’ markets are the fastest growing part of the food economy — their numbers doubling every few years and sales growing 12 or 15 percent. This is good news environmentally — it makes a lot more sense to buy food from your neighbors than it does to ship it across the continent, which in effect requires marinating your dinner in crude oil. But it also makes good sense in other ways. Consider this fact: The average visitor to a farmers’ market has 10 times more conversations per visit than the average visitor to a supermarket. Ten times! It’s not a different way of acquiring calories, it’s an entirely different social experience, one that’s comparable to the way humans have shopped for food since the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago. No wonder we like it.

And out of those conversations can grow real possibilities for our future. Ask yourself what kind of community is likely to do the work necessary to build a decent mass transit system: one where people are talking, or one where the usual vested interests
(Detroit, highway builders, property developers) still rule?

Here’s one way of saying it. The abundance of cheap fossil fuel that has governed our lives for many decades has had many effects. It’s made us prosperous; it threatens to destroy the climate that sustains us. And it’s made us the first people on earth who have no practical need of our neighbors. Think about your street. If some plague wiped out the people on your block tonight, you might feel sad (and alarmed!), but your daily routine wouldn’t be interrupted much —your food, your energy, your clothes all come from a distance.

This independence sounds great (except for that pesky global warming stuff), but in fact it has carried high costs. One is that Americans are not all that happy anymore — the number of us who say we’re very happy with our lives peaked in 1956 and has gone downhillever since. Which is odd, because in that time our material standard of living has almost trebled. The economy is not working the way it’s supposed to: More stuff no longer yields more satisfaction.

And the reason for that is fascinating. The data are pretty clear that Americans feel a strong sense of disconnection from their communities, which drives that discontent. If you think about it, it’s not so strange: Since the 1950s, we’ve invested most of our economic might in building suburbs. The American dream was a larger house farther apart from your neighbors. That carried significant environmental costs, of course, but it also came with a social price: We ran into each other less and less. The average American eats meals with friends and family half as often as in the 1950s. We have half as many close friends on average. That’s a pretty big change in a pretty short time. We’ve become, if you want a word for it, hyperindividuals. We’ve become too independent.

Staking a Claim in the Local Economy
It doesn’t do much good to preach about community. All we can do is try to create the local economic institutions that draw us back together. Things like farmers’ markets. Or like shared electric grids.

Click on:, a global climate change movement
• Creating Deep Economies,
• Post Carbon Institute,

Our communities aren’t going to become entirely self-sufficient, of course. Much of our wheat — call it our baseload calories— may come from the Midwest for a good long time. Many of our electrons will come from central sources — hopefully the very big wind farms, solar thermal plants in the desert and so on— until we figure out ways to lick the intermittency and variability problems that come with small-scale renewables. But we can move a long way down the road, and we can do it community by community. (And along the way, of course, we can help our neighbors in other ways, like employing them to climb up on our roofs and put in the panels, or open up our walls and stuff them with insulation. One of the pleasures of solar power is you can’t send your house to China to have it installed). You think about power differently when you’re a utility provider, I think — you may use it more carefully, and you may pay more attention to what’s going on with energy in your town. You have a stake.

Here’s one more example, which at first glance seems entirely dissimilar, but which I think is both alike and hopeful. Think about music. It too has come from a distance in recent years — it was made in Nashville, Tenn., or Los Angeles, stuck in a hard to-open plastic box and shipped to us around the country. But that model is starting to fail under the new technological possibility of peer-to-peer networks, not so different from putting solar panels on your roof. People are sharing music; bands are offering it up directly.

And as a result, something interesting is happening. All of a sudden, the fastest growing parts of the music economy are live performances and festivals — people understanding that part of the pleasure they’re looking for in music is the connection with other people. I think it’s a better model than Sony and its compact discs, just like I think rooftop solar is a better model than Peabody coal and its mines. But only if it’s connected.

About the author: Bill McKibben is the author of many books about the environment, most recently an essay collection called, The Bill McKibben Reader. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

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