[permaculture] Time to pick up our hats?

Toby Hemenway toby at patternliteracy.com
Sat Jul 14 17:22:45 EDT 2007

In post-peak oil thinking, there is an unspoken thread of logic that 
goes like this: "When oil gets very expensive, food is going to be hard 
to find, which will cause major unrest in the cities. So let's avoid 
both problems by moving to the country where we can escape the urban 
riots, and grow our food."

There's a good chance that food will be the last major resource to 
become scarce during hard times. Governments know that food shortages 
are what bring governments down, and The Powers That Be will sacrifice 
nearly every other resource--transportation, schools, health care, 
consumer goods, you name it--before they will let food become scarce. So 
I would worry more about getting tools, medicine, fuel, paper, and 
nearly everything else before I'd worry about needing to grow all your 
own food. And notice that nearly everything but food comes from urban 
areas. Being far from a city may mean that the only resource you have is 
land. It's hard to grow food without tools, food processing equipment, 
and the fuel to make and repair them. That's what farmers discovered in 
the Depression. At first, people left the cities in droves. But by the 
early thirties, they were returning, because most of them found that the 
cities had more resources. They certainly had better welfare programs.

And I think there's an even better chance that rural areas will suffer 
far more than urban ones, or suffer before cities do. At least in the 
US, rural areas have been Wal-Martized to be barely distinguishable from 
suburbia. Only 6% of ruralites farm; the rest commute long distances to 
their jobs. So 94% of your neighbors are going to be unemployed, hungry, 
and jealous of your garden. And you'll be a long way from police and 
social services. How will that be better than a city? In hard times 
(like the collapse of Rome; see Homer-Dixon's "The Upside of Down") 
rural areas have almost always suffered earlier and more than urban 
ones. Unless absolutely everything falls apart instantly--a very 
unlikely scenario--urban areas have the economic and political clout to 
pull resources to them. (Shipping hubs are near or in cities. If goods 
are scarce, they won't make it far from the hubs.) Plus cities have a 
the social and cultural resources to deal with widely varying 
conditions. Witness how long a rural area takes to recover from the loss 
of say, timber revenue, as opposed to a city when a major employer 
leaves. In a decline that will take a few decades to unfold (with shocks 
along the way) my bet is on a moderate-sized progressive city surrounded 
by good farm land in an area with a mild climate. I think we're not far 
from seeing rural property values plummet as commutes become too 
expensive (so wait to buy that farm!)

To me, moving to the country looks a lot like what therapists call 
"doing a geographic." That's the belief that going somewhere else will 
solve our problems. But we just run into new problems, or, more often, 
bring all the same problems with us. Starting an intentional community 
is a monumentally difficult, and most of them rapidly fail, so I'm 
skeptical that starting a rural Pc community is an option open to any 
but the lucky few. Voluntary communities of neighbors and friends in the 
city are far easier to form. A rural intentional community is a pressure 
cooker: one bad egg and the community ceases functioning. In an urban 
community, if it's not working for someone, there are tons of other 
options, so urban communities are more likely to shift direction or 
membership rather than collapse.

I'm not saying that moving to the city is the answer. For some rare 
individuals, the rural ecovillage may work. But I think the belief that 
rural areas and rural ecovillages will be better places to live in a 
post-peak oil world shows a poverty of logic, imagination, and belief in 
human creativity.

BTW, I read Sharon Astyk's Casaubon's Book regularly, in spite of the 
fact that she has utterly hated 4 of my last 5 articles and wrote 
unbelievably vituperative and distorted diatribes against them. I ticked 
her off with arguments like the one above, and she's been angry ever 
since (someone in the comments to "Pick Up Your Hat" even referred to my 
articles). But Sharon says she doesn't mean to literally move somewhere 
else. She says, "Start making changes now . . . .  Build community, grow 
food." I'd modify that to "Build community, know your foodshed," and 
then I think you'll be as well off as one can be.

> Dear all,
>      When I read the article pasted on below, I was moved to also share the 
> following.
>      When we share about our plans to move to SW Wisconsin and create a 
> permaculture farm where we and others can live as sustainably as possible, some 
> people comment that they believe one should never move out of fear, but only if 
> one would enjoy living elsewhere more than they enjoy where they are now.
>      This brings up some interesting questions.    The main one in my own 
> mind is what is it that makes the above belief appear rational to those who hold 
> it?    If you live where an incoming hurricane or a rumbling volcano threatens 
> your home, is it sensible not to be afraid?
>      We live out in the country fairly near a railroad crossing.   One day I 
> heard a train approaching, then a sound I had never heard before, a very loud 
> metallic screeching sound that lasted for quite a few seconds.   "I bet that's 
> the train braking for somebody in the crossing," I thought, and beat it down 
> to the crossing, which is not in a populated area, in case I could be of 
> assistance.   It turned out that the young man driving the car hit by the train had 
> indeed seen it coming, but somehow didn't think it would hit him.   Across 
> the top of his smashed windshield was a large decal that said "No Fear!"
>      It happens that the farm we are creating will allow us to live the 
> lifestyle that has been my ideal for decades, and that it's in an absolutely 
> beautiful place.   However, in all honesty I don't     know whether we'd have taken 
> on the huge project of pulling up roots and moving across the state if we had 
> not had a good bit of apprehension about how un"enjoyable" our lives might 
> become shortly if we didn't take some positive action now.
>      -Shivani

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