Americans pride themselves on being fiercely independent. We have spent the better part of the last 200 years fighting to keep the Government (first the British, then our own) out of our personal lives. Over the past 100 years or so, however, we have been giving up more and more control to others for the sake of convenience.
Our food is grown by someone else (usually on a factory farm) and driven cross country to the store. Power to provide light and other services is generated for us by the utility company. The utility company, in turn, relies on gas or coal provided by other companies. Our water is taken from distant rivers or lakes or aquifers and treated with chemicals in a large industrial plant before being pumped to our houses. Waste disappears into the sewer or the garbage truck and goes… well… SOMEplace. The fact is that most of us have no IDEA where our food, water or power come from and where our waste goes. We are generally not encouraged to find out. Most of us can no longer fend for ourselves, but must pay others to do it.
The economic, political and climatic instability of recent years has demonstrated how precarious our position is:
- Through no fault of their own, millions of Americans have lost their jobs and therefore their ability to pay for food and shelter, among other necessities.
- Ironically, poverty in America leads not to starvation, but to a cheap diet of starch and fat and sugar, promoting obesity and diabetes.
- The specter of unemployment is used to undermine economic, environmental and social reforms. Regulatory limits on pollution are labeled as ‘job-killers’, as are unions and healthcare programs.
- In many areas of the country, we see that our transportation, power, water and sewer infrastructures are beginning to decay from old age and inadequate maintenance.
- Rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms attributable (by most people) to climate change have created massive disruptions in services and crippled entire communities
- Our weakened economy and fractured political system make decisive, large-scale and long-term investments in new infrastructure extremely difficult.
Whew! Sounds pretty bad… like some bloody NPR broadcast. But I am not trying to sell an agenda driven by fear here. I believe that we can reclaim control over our life-support network, enhancing our personal security and making us LESS afraid.
Taking back control includes:
- Food Security - being able to grow at least some of our own food locally instead of relying exclusively on industrial agribusiness and long-distance transportation networks.
- Passive Design - building housing and other facilities heated and cooled by passive solar strategies and natural ventilation instead of being dependent on mechanical systems which fail us when a storm knocks out power to our neighborhood.
- Decentralized Infrastructure - developing decentralized power, water and sewage systems, incrementally upgraded and repaired to meet the expanding needs of our communities.
- Human-scale Communities - making our communities more walkable and mixed-use so we aren’t reliant on cars and gas in order to get our food, medication and entertainment.
I am not talking about a return to some fictitious idyllic agrarian lifestyle here. These investments need to be made across the board, in cities as well as smaller communities. There will be plenty of opportunities for technological innovation, and much of that can be exported to other countries (China?) as well. I do realize that what I have proposed here is not my invention. These are ideas that have been floated by a wide array of industrialists, New Urbanists, architects, scientists, engineers, planners and yes – tree huggers too. Politicians have even started getting in the game (let’s hope that turns out to be a good thing). There are a lot of people out these trying to make individual pieces of this happen. Hopefully the puzzle pieces will come together and form a coherent picture of the future.Making this transition will require an informed public, enlightened businessmen and regulators, and a healthy dose of political will. There will be many challenges and resistance from those who have become rich from our cycle of dependency. Now is the time for Americans to reassert their independence, not by armed rebellion but through smart design, appropriate technology and partnership with nature.
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