It almost doesn't matter what you believe is the central problem of our present society, whether you are focused on economic instability, peak oil, climate change, poverty and inequity or just the decline of community and standards of behavior. When you filter out the details and get down to brass tacks, the answers to all of the above problems are this. Go home. Stay there. Cook your dinner instead of getting it out. Donate what you save. Talk to your neighbors. Buy local. Grow your own. Go to your town meeting, neighborhood council, or other public forum, and try and improve things. Vote. Make things instead of buying them. Share. Help those in need in your own neighborhood. Walk instead of driving. Play with you kids instead of buying them stuff. Turn down the heat and put on a sweater. Chase your kids or play soccer with your neighbors instead of going to the gym. Talk instead of watching tv. Plant trees. Learn permaculture. Barter. Raise some money for a good cause. Pare down. Live simply. Garden. Go home. Stay there.
Now the first and the last clauses here represent something of a problem for a lot of Americans - because you cannot build community, or develop a local society, or have an orchard, or depend on others for the things that you need, unless you actually stop moving around and stay somewhere. And most of us are not very good at that last - the average American moves every 5 years. Which doesn't really give you enough time to pay off the mortgage, or see that standard apple tree grow to fruition, or get to know the local issues well enough to have an impact on your town. In five years, you can get a carpool together, and get some bartering going, but you'll have to leave just as things get good. It gives you just enough time to begin acquiring that wonderful quality, "known-ness" in which you know your neighbors, and you understand how they are connected to other people (that the postman is the BIL of the woman in the third house down, and that the woman in the green house is worried about her mother, whose health is failing), and how you fit in (you are the weird one who composts and has chickens, right?). And then, most likely, you move - for the best of reasons - because this was a starter house and you need something bigger, or to get closer to your dream house, or to build your own passive solar place, to be closer to your elderly parents, or so the kids can walk to school, to be nearer a new job or in a safer neighborhood, or to downsize now that the kids are gone. And you start again with a new garden, and new soil, new trees and new neighbors, new friends for the kids and new everything.
Now I have a lot of natural sympathy for people who move a lot. I would be one of them, but I can't be. My husband, Eric, feels about moving much the way I feel about toxic chemicals, only not so positively. If it were left to him, we would probably still be living in an apartment in Somerville. But now that he's here, it has taken him the better part of six years to get used to being here, and he's happy, so he's never, ever moving. Add to that that this is the house we lived in with his beloved grandparents, and we're here forever. On the other hand, if three months have passed since we moved here that I haven't looked over the local real estate listings, I'd be shocked. Me, I'm a grass-is-greener kind of person. I've never been anywhere that I didn't think (however briefly) "could I live here?" And often, when I'm most frustrated with my life, my first reaction is "we should move to where we could be carfree/have more land/be nearer X relative/be further away from other people/have a smaller house/build green/etc..."
It has been a long, long struggle for me to realize that I am staying here forever, if possible. I still fight against that reality sometimes. I do love my house, but like many of the people I love, I'm not always sure that I actually want to live with it. If you were to describe the ideal post-peak house, I suspect you would not choose a 4000 square foot rambly, under-insulated farmhouse with a bat collector (er, cupola space). It is a pain in the ass to keep clean (and I am an indifferent housekeeper at best), drafty, too big even for our four kids (we had hoped Eric's grandparents would be with us much longer), because of its size, the taxes run high, and has a host of other things that make it much more difficult and annoying to make efficient than would a new, green-built home. It doesn't come with an ocean (I grew up near the sea, and that bugs me), and it is in every way imperfect, even when I like it.
And in that sense, it is perfect, isn't it? Because I'm going to bet that most of you live in the wrong house too. And in fact, no matter how hard we try, we're not going to replace our 90 million dwellings with brand new, perfectly designed ones. We can't, and think of what we'd waste in doing so. A few people will build new, green houses, but most of us will make do with what we've got, or, as most of us do, buy another house and another house, trying always to get to the point at which our house will fulfill its dream functions for us. But we never quite succeed. I once read that people who build their dream houses only live in them an average of 7 years. Because in 7 years, dreams change, I guess, and we get frustrated by the fact that houses, no matter how wonderful, are in the end, only houses, and go looking for the magic house that will be more.
And all that moving around exacts a price. First of all, there's the economic price - the cost of realtors fees, and advertising, moving costs and buying new things at the other end - we lose an average of between 6 and 8% of the purchase price on each house. In a bubble market like the one we've been in, that's no big deal - we get it back. But that's not the norm, and we all know those days are over. So moving costs us economically. And it sets us back on every goal we have in creating local economies, local communities, local cultures. Every time we pick up and move, we lose a year or two of high quality work - because while we're adapting to a new place, meeting people, finding out about local resources, getting used the new job, seeing where the sun falls in the yard and testing the soil, we're spending time that could be gardening and working at the shelter and bartering with the neighbors. It also costs energy - moving our crap, buying new stuff, flying on airplanes, renting trucks, these are not low energy input activities. They raise our personal energy footprint.
Now sometimes we're going to have to move. But over the coming decades, a lot more of us are
going to have to stay put. We are, as author and Post-Carbon Institute founder Julian Darley puts it, going to have to change to a foot economy, and "relocalize." But you cannot relocalize if you are dreaming of the day you will move to your perfect house, that you will find the perfect community of people just like you. We can't wait until we can all afford the perfect place. And some, perhaps many, of the places we're in are going to have to become perfect because they are ours. With the crash of the housing market, it isn't going to be economically feasible to trade up all the time. No matter how good your R value, the building materials in your perfect house come with a big energy footprint. No matter how annoying your neighbors, maybe it is time to share with them, rather than dreaming of the perfect community. Even if the house is too small, or too big, doesn't have the garden space you dream of or is down the street from weird people, it might be the best place for you.
So I'm trying. We were fortunate enough to inherit some money from Eric's grandparents. And we decided to put it into making the house more "ours" and I've stopped looking at the real estate ads. Last night I looked out at the stars and I tried to imagine that this, with its benefits and limitations, is our permanent world, the place where we will always live. The only home my children will know. We are renovating the house to make ourselves more self-sufficient, and to set things up so that we can live comfortably without electricity or other fossil fuel inputs. I am trying to make it more beautiful, to pare down what we don't need, and to make things prettier. And I am trying to believe that here is where I am supposed to be.