Some advocates for a sustainable future claim that the fulfillment of their vision will result in a simpler, healthier, happier existence when compared to our current consumption- and status-oriented unsustainable present. They may very well be right about healthier and happier. But will that sustainable future seem simpler to the individual?
The bright green high-tech globalized future imagined by some may result in lives that will seem no simpler than what we currently experience (that is, assuming we could achieve such as future). But a future characterized by a reversal of globalization and a return to more regional and local economic activity, or relocalization as it is often called, may actually make life suddenly much more complicated than we are used to. Let me explain.
Right now the relationship that most people have with their electricity and heat providers is simply a monthly bill. Their participation in the system amounts to flipping the light switch or adjusting the thermostat.
Their food is provided primarily by the chain grocery store, and their gasoline is available from ubiquitous service stations which sit on many corners of our cities and along every highway.
The software on their computers is neatly bundled to provide an all-in-one, ready-to-use solution acceptable to the vast majority of computer users.
Even the trash and recycling are hauled away on a regular schedule by a municipal or private hauler.
How might that change in a relocalized world? Currently, few people are involved very deeply in the provision of their most critical services: food, fuel, communication, waste disposal and recycling. But a relocalized world would probably mean a more complicated existence. Instead of having others simply take care of these things for us, we would have to become much more actively involved.
Take food. A relocalized food system means more food grown locally, of course. At a minimum that implies a different distribution system which would likely involve building a relationship with one or more local growers or at least the owners of the farmstands that service them. It might also mean growing food in one’s own yard, a vastly complicated task for the uninitiated.
How about fuel? If your community installs its own wind or solar power, you may at the very least have to contribute funds in advance of actual power production. But you might also install solar panels on your house or in your yard. You might even be involved in installing a wind generator in your neighborhood or your subdivision. And, these sources of power require maintenance, of course. For example, the solar cells on your roof or mounted on your lawn would need periodic looking after as would batteries used to store that energy for later use.
What about communications? As the computer and the Internet become the avenues of most communication, how could mere mortals be called upon to maintain the infrastructure and programs that make them possible? This is actually already happening in a small way. Growing up alongside the multinational software behemoths are the “open source” and “free software” movements. The software produced by these related movements require the active collaboration of their users who do everything from suggest improvements and new features to actually writing the code for such improvements and features. It’s a layer of complication that most computers users do not experience today.
As for trash and recycling, it is certainly conceivable that in the not-to-distant future composting could become obligatory in some communities. I can attest that it is not as simple as throwing garbage into a box. To successfully compost one has to understand how to achieve the proper carbon-nitrogen balance among others things. More complications!
What these complications really mean is that each person is taking on more responsibility for his or her own critical needs and the critical needs of the immediate community. That can have many positive effects as people in communities get to know and trust one another in a way not currently necessary or encouraged. It can also mean more resilience for every community as the production of the necessities of life become more decentralized and thus less vulnerable to disruption by, say, a crop failure in some distant place.
Implied in this decentralization is a rebuilding what James Howard Kunstler calls the local networks of retail and wholesale trade which existed before the devastation wrought on them by the national, big-box retailers. This is yet another complication that will require the active involvement of individuals in each community–not only those who seek to establish businesses based on slowly reviving local networks, but also from others who must make a conscious effort to patronize these establishments to help them succeed.
All of these things mean more, not less thinking. They are in some ways vastly more complicated than what most of us are used to. Up until now we have been largely content to let governments and large corporations fashion solutions for our basic needs, often without much input from us. This has led to a hugely complicated globalized system, but one which we rarely experience as such.
We have been sold the idea that a life filled with “low-maintenance” objects and processes is better than one filled with objects and processes that require our frequent attention. But as psychologist James Hillman has said, this is really an escape from care of the objects and processes most important to our existence. For it is in caring for things both animate and inanimate–the soil, the solar panel, the house we live in, the neighbor we live next to–that we come to love and understand their nature and experience them more fully. We also become connected to their pain or at least the pain we feel when even inanimate objects in our lives are in disarray.
In this way the complications which are about to enter our lives as the fossil fuel age winds down will move us away from the one-dimensional, disconnected, simplified life we now lead, and toward a richer life in which objects and people call upon us to care for them much more deeply than we have in the past.