Decentralizing Food and Energy
At our town’s Earth Day celebration this year the major supermarket chains had large displays of their organic products and “green” household cleaners and paper goods. Apparently, sustainable and organic products have finally made it into the mainstream of human awareness. The consumer can now have some new options to choose from, with refreshing looking packages and rustic names, alongside the habitual brands that are most likely produced in the same factories. 
This new marketing venue for “green” products does not override the fact that the first real link in the food and energy security chain is the individual. It is basically a question of dependence versus independence. Ever since the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally” was popularized in the early 1970’s as a call to environmental activism, many still do not fully understand what “act locally” entails. With good conscience many individuals dutifully recycle or buy organic produce, but do they fully understand how energy intensive and far-reaching geographically they are stretching their dependence on sources outside their community? In their feel-good acts of responsible consumerism they are still largely bound by a wasteful, fossil fuel dependent lifestyle.
Even with all the best intentions, it is very difficult not to perpetuate the iron grip that fossil fuels have on our way of life (wine and cheese anyone?). Nevertheless, the epicenter for the urgent emergence of the new economy lies in the choices the individual and the community make. Urban dwellings, suburban houses, apartment complexes, condos, trailer parks, rural homesteads and institutions make up the web of residential communities that can become natural units of food and energy production and distribution. While scarce examples exist, even some prison officials recognize the fact that prisons are residential communities with potential for some economic, food and energy production (with collateral rehabilitation and job training as side effects).
In a previous article, “Energy Independence — Investing in the Sun” (June 2008), I mentioned that “Only ten percent of Nevada’s great basin desert would be enough to produce in one-day sufficient solar energy to meet the electricity needs of the US for one year!” While an appealing fact at the time, it does not fit the current logic of producing energy where it is consumed, at each residence or place of business. Besides the fact that much more productive surface area would be involved by decentralizing the locale of production, the energy would be produced at the point of use, eliminating the wasteful and precarious need to move it a long distance to the consumer.
Decentralization of food production would have a similar effect of energizing communities and creating greater food security and independence. Although all of one’s food needs would be difficult to meet individually or in many communities, still, any effort to supplement imported foods with local foods would have a salutatory impact. Besides reducing the carbon footprint of many staple foods, freshness of food and awareness of community resources would be increased.
It is difficult to appreciate the work that goes into the things we use in our daily life when they are mass-produced in factories far away. Similarly, we often do not comprehend the extensive use of energy resources that go into the production and transportation of those items that we so casually pluck from the store shelves. We become so far removed from the work that makes our consumer goods that we fail to fully grasp our own role and responsibility in the production– consumption – pollution chain.
The awareness and satisfaction that result from participation in a community of producers is diminished when our material life becomes void of the respect people once held for the craft of the artisan, or the labor of the grower. Food is something so basic, that even on a minimal level it may represent an opportunity to directly benefit from our labor if we grow and eat some ourselves. If we create a surplus, we can share or trade. It puts us back into a real economic and social relationship that is acutely missing from the imaginary one of credit cards, money and paying strangers to provide for us. These are the factors that are drawing more people and communities to develop and support farmers markets.
Local food can become a currency of an independent and more vibrant economy, and the stimulus for increased interaction and support of residents. We are indeed beginning to see the effects of sustainable food and energy production increase the social and political involvement of people in their local economies in some communities. When communities pull together around self-sufficiency and trade we see causes for new identity, respect and celebration.
The burgeoning use of the terms “green” and “sustainable,” recalls a time of self-reliance and living closer to our natural roots. This may indicate some programmed genetic or psychological response to the collective danger in which we now find ourselves. It may cause us to try to follow our adaptive instincts towards some semblance of community and self-sufficiency. Suddenly a great wave of desire to “act locally” is cresting and so many are scrambling to find the high ground of what that actually means. One would think it would be easy to water the seedlings of the new activism and the new economy to foster new awareness and institutions, but it is hard to channel such a profound energy in constricted pipes of rusty habits.
The needed movement to decentralize and take control of our lives can be guided by responsive individuals who have a vision of the future. However, it will really happen only as individuals, neighborhoods, and finally communities become transformed. Decentralization of at least some part of the resources that sustain us will happen on a very personal level as individuals make new choices on how they consume the necessities for life. It will be a step-by-step evolution that tests the patience of those who see the need for a revolution. It will change the landscape one house and one garden at a time.
© 2010 Richard