Out in the middle of nowhere, where we live, the shopping options aren't so great. There's a Wal-Mart (ick) about 20 minutes in one direction and a conventional grocery store 20 minutes in the other. If I don't mind driving 1/2 hour, I can get to a collection of ethnic grocers, and if I want to go 45 minutes, there's a food coop in downtown Albany. For other items, there's the Crossgates Mall in Albany, about 45 minutes away, but since I'd rather kiss John Yoo than go to a mall (ok, not quite - not unless I get to bite him), our clothing and material goods needs tend to be met (in years when we shop at all) by goodwill, yard sales and occasional online shopping.
But while official grocery stores aren't plentiful, we're fortunate, even out here, to have a number of reasonably good other options. The first is our own garden. Today we're having a late-season ice storm (just in case I was in denial that this is still the Northeast), and steady, cold temperatures have prevented me from doing any serious planting yet. But there's still spinach and kale to be had in the garden, and the first chives. We like those better than any supermarket alternative anyway - the cold weather gives them wonderful flavor.
And then there's what I call the "Localmarket" - the major farm stand in the next town over from us has expanded to sell locally raised milk, meat, eggs, soap, pottery and blankets, as well as the flowers, bedding plants, vegetables and fruit they grow themselves. We look forward to going there, simply because it is such a wonderful place to visit - a walk through the greenhouse inspires us to believe in spring, and a we invariably run into people we know, catch up on gossip, and chat up the owners while picking up local cabbage they grew last fall and cheddar cheese made from the milk of local Amish farmers.
In a small village between the Localmarket and me is a 19th century general store that has since been taken over by a friend and fellow homeschooler. She used to sell bulk goods out of her home, but they overflowed her kitchen, and now she sells organic flours, grains, beans, as well as goodies, her own home baked bread, local milk, and subs and slushees of distant vintage. I get the soybeans for my homemade tofu from the general store, the wheat we grind, the oats we eat for breakfast and dried apples when we run out of homemade ones.
Between the Localmarket and the Little Store on the Corner, we don't really need to shop at the supermarket (although we do buy some things there - bribes for the disabled oldest and the potty training three year old, for example), and we can make the occasional trip to the food coop and Asian market once every month or two. In fact, except in the dead of winter, we don't really need to shop that often at all - there are plenty of vegetables in the yard, and eggs in the henhouse. As long as we store some staples - beans, grains, seasonings - why shop? Dinner can always be had, and the food is always good.
A disturbing proportion of all travel involves shopping. Now one of the things we can all do to minimize our energy consumption is to live closer to shops and jobs, so that we can walk or bike for our daily needs. And in movements like the new urbanism, the idea that we should build stores into neighborhoods has a lot of play. The idea is that we should create officially mixed use neighborhoods, with stores built downstairs and residences above and next door. The pictures are always so pretty - they show lots of people out, walking, presumably shopping...
But wait - isn't part of what we have to do to stop buying so much stuff entirely? That is, I have no doubt that we'll still need nails and potting soil, books and beer, peas and sweaters, but how often do we have to buy these things? How much of our time and energy do we actually need/want to devote to shopping? And how much of our cultural life do we want to devote to consuming? And do we need to enable this by creating a lot of separate, official "shopping" spaces that have to be heated, and lighted, and maintained, and that implicitly encourage things like chain stores, which have the capital to rent, heat and light a separate building? Also, what aren’t we doing if we live in urban areas - now many of the nicest planned areas include plenty of greenspace, including community gardens. But is such concentrated planning sufficient to allow individuals to grow most of their own food, or are they tokens?
I just had an email exchange with NoImpact Man himself on this subject (btw, he was on the Colbert report this week - I haven't seen it yet, since I have no cable and no vcr, but a neighbor taped it and I will eventually), and he asked me whether it was realistic to expect urbanites to produce things. I think that’s a real question - that people without access to land and natural resources to nurture and use sustainably may only ever have the choice to support the production of others and reduce their consumption as much as possible. But I wonder sometimes whether we can convince the world to change based on what you can’t have, rather than what you can buy and make? I don’t claim to have an answer, but I do think that densely populated areas will run into these questions - and that while I applaud some visions of new urbanism (particularly those that don’t cost 300K a house), I think it may be that even a small patch of ground that is yours by right or tradition matters. But certainly, we could also do a great deal more production in urban centers than we do - most cities in Asia and Africa, for example, produce significant amounts of their food and often other goods as well.
Now if you live in an urban center, and in a small apartment like many New Yorkers or Parisians, you certainly will need to shop pretty regularly. Those 50 lb sacks of rolled oats don't fit so well in tiny galley kitchens, and there's only so much toilet paper you can put under the bed. And, of course, if you live in a place where commerce is the primary project of everyday life, your life is probably affected by that as well in assorted cultural ways. My father recently came to visit this side of the country, and before he came to visit me, he spent some time in NYC seeing friends and pursuing a research project. He noted to me that at the New York Public Library, in an institution whose central project is fundamentally anti-commercial, there is now a gift shop, so that if you need not merely borrow a copy of _Where the Wild Things Are_, you can buy it, and a giant stuffed Wild Thing to go along. It seems to me that the tendency to forget that there are barriers between commercial life and the rest of it may be more acute in places where you can't escape commerce, because that's what people do. But I don’t insist on the interpretation - because, after all, all of us consume like crazy no matter where we live.
And there's nothing inherently bad about daily shopping - although urban folks buy more meals out and ride on airplanes more than the rest of us, they often consume fewer resources in total than we do, because they don't necessarily have cars or large homes that they can stuff with stuff. In fact, being able to buy your daily bread means that you don't have to have a big old fridge, a lot of appliances, etc... I know quite a few New Yorkers who use their kitchens as places to story the coffee pot and not much else. In the net, this may be good, particularly if sustainable New Yorkers begin pressuring local restaurants and other facilities to use local, seasonal ingredients, to buy only sustainably produced meat, etc.... In many places, upscale restaurants are already in the vanguard of such movements - now we need to make it accessible to everyone, bringing local food to the local diner.
The only caveat I'd have is that in many cases, urban gentrification has meant that people who live in tightly packed cities have "shadow" footprints - that is, they don't need to use that much gas themselves, but they are in part responsible for the long commutes of the people who come into the city to serve their needs - the poor folks who live in the Bronx or the burbs who spend an hour on the subway or in cars every morning coming in to be nannies and doormen, delivery guys and cooks. If your small footprint depends on a lot of people who can't afford to live in your neighborhood being able to get there, you are responsible, in part, for those footprints too.
That is, when we calculate ecological footprints, we tend to think that everyone is wholly responsible for their own footprint - the suburbanite with the long commute who drives 45 minutes to her mall takes responsibility when she calculates her footprint. But let us say you live in a city that is increasingly wealthy, and the increasingly wealthy people who live in your neighborhood mostly work as stockbrokers and college professors, not as waiters and garbage men. Now is the guy who commutes an hour to haul your garbage, or the woman who comes down from her much poorer neighborhood (where there isn't any accessible farmer's market) to clean your toilets responsible for the whole of her ecological footprint? Or does some of the responsibility lie with the people who have made the neighborhood accessible only the rich - and thus dependent on long-haul poor people? There's a report in this week's Nation about how poor people in the suburbs now outnumber those in cities - as a direct consequence of the gentrification of cities. So you now see people who live in suburbs and old smaller cities who now drive long distances to serve the needs of people with comfy small ecological footprints in urban centers. And of course, those ecological footprints cost money - it costs those poor people money to haul into wealthy neighborhoods to go to work. As prices rise for things like gas and public transport, the benefits they get are cut back. The further away they live, the more of their own ability to provide for their needs they lose (because they haven’t time) and the less of their own money they take home. This is true as much in wealthy suburbs as cities, of course. But cities require a density of support workers greater than suburbs, so I’m focusing on them.
Now this may sound like I'm picking on city dwellers, and I don't intend to - we need city dwellers, because there isn't enough land in the world to have everyone have a big chunk of it. On the other hand, I do think that wherever you live, advocacy is going to be the name of the game - we need to rethink the places we live in. If you live in a neighborhood with a lot of dentists and architects and not a lot of nurses and cooks, you need to think about where your community's nurses and cooks will come from (or what our communities would look like without them), and about ways in which we might enable them to come live where we do. And some of us might have to decide that it is time to clean our own toilets and cook our own dinners, unless we're willing to make it possible for others to lower their footprints by living closer to their jobs (actually we should clean our toilets, cook our dinners and when we don‘t pay those who do that much better). I'm going to talk more, later in this essay, about advocacy and zoning, because I think these are going to be among our most important battles in the future.
For those of us who live in cities, large and small, and even good-sized towns with viable downtowns (increasingly unavailable), and work there too, the "walk-to-daily-shopping" model is entirely viable, and it has a long tradition. This is what one does in much of Europe - off one goes to the baker and the butcher, the cheese maker and the vegetable person, or the open market with its vendors. It is important to remember that in these little markets, the food is mostly only one remove away from its origin at most - the butcher probably slaughtered his meat himself, and knew the farmer who grew it, the farmer grew those melons herself, the fishmonger spent the morning picking over stock from local fisherman, the cheese maker sends her daughter. Note the absence of multinationals, the recognizability of origins, and the connection between seller and grower. And if you aren't inclined to take your bread and cheese and melon home and eat it, there's the local vendor, who will cook local fish and vegetables for you. Sometimes the cook is the one who grew the food, or perhaps he bought it this morning from the grower. And ideally, at every step you will be enriching not the people who own stock in Banana Republic or the dictator of some banana republic, but your neighbor who does the cooking, and the farmer who brought his wares down the river to you, and the baker who lives down the street - above her shop.
Unfortunately, a decreasing amount of urban development looks like this, and the only way to make it happen is to make it happen with a combination of rezoning, rent subsidies and rent control, local subsidies for local agriculture, food coops - that is, the only way to make it happen is with a heck of a lot of collective work. It means before you figure out what to have for dinner (or what to wear, or what to build or what to fix or whatever) you have to figure out where to get it and create the kind of conditions necessary to enable it. It is a bit of work (you probably will want something to eat while you are at it - it might take a while).
But what about the millions of people who live outside cities, who can't at present walk to anything? What about people who live in suburbia, or out in the country like me? You've all read Jim Kunstler telling us that suburbia is going to hell in a handbasket, and that the suburbs of the present will be the slums of the future. And as foreclosure rates rise, this may end up being true. But it doesn't necessarily have to be, and the answer is a combination of rezoning, advocacy and Amish Economics.
What do I mean by Amish Economics? Well Gene Logsdon has an essay in _Living at Nature's Pace_ about the economies build around Amish communities. In "A Horse Drawn Economy" Logsdon points out that his small, rural county in Ohio is home to a huge amount of business - much of it spurred by the Amish. Livestock auctions, small factories making cookstoves and horse-drawn equipment, farmstands and little quilt businesses. All of these spring up where the Amish go - because they patronize not the cheapest business, but members of their own community, and because others see benefits to patronizing them, they are profitable. And also because they don’t need to pay electric bills and large infrastructure utility bills, or even rent, since they usually work out of their homes and barns or buildings they build on their own properties, they keep most of the money the bring in.
I see that myself. We have two local Amish settlements. One is a bit of a ways away, where friends of ours live in the town of Palatine Bridge. It has a fairly sizable Amish community, and nearly every road you go down with a horse and buggy warning sign on it also has a sign that says "Jams and Jellies" "Baked Goods Saturday" "Bentwood Rockers" or "Harness Shop." At minimum, just about every farmstead has a day they bake for sale, and a sign that says fresh eggs. My guess - a rough count at best - is that there are between 100 and 200 Amish families, and that 1/2 of them have some kind of cottage industry. Not bad in a town that has never heard of a tourist (this is *not* Lancaster). Add to that the fact that cottage industries are kind of a thing out in the country anyhow, and there's a small but burgeoning economy, Amish and non, and a host of people who mostly take in local dollars, keep them local, and don’t give much of it back to National Grid, supermarkets or what have you. Even their property taxes are lower - the lack of wiring cuts down the value of the property as resale thing - which is ok, since they plan to live their, not flip it for a profit.
Now the Amish have recently begun moving to a small town much closer to us where we also have friends. First there was one family, and hardly had they moved in when the eggs and pies started selling. Now there are half a dozen, with a couple more houses going up. There's a man with a small sawmill, selling mostly to non-Amish neighbors, a guy who makes chicken coops and gazebos, one who sells draft horses, and two bakers - all in a town of less than 500 people that has only had Amish in it for about two years.
Now what's interesting about this is that these communities don't have any of the things that
New Urbanists deem necessary for life - you can't walk to shopping, there aren't a heck of a lot of stores nearby, and they don't build shops. At most, they build the occasional farmstand. But generally speaking, you go into people's houses, and buy your bread at their kitchen table, your quilts from their spare room, or pick up your rocker from the barn. And, of course, they farm, too. The place where they earn their livelihood is their home.
We've already built our suburbs and exurbs, and to a large degree, how well we do in the future is going to depend on how well we extract happiness from what we've got. So for those of us who don't have village shopping - should we be troubled? I don't think so, not if we're prepared to put Amish economics into place, and fight to rezone the suburbs. Some of this could happen in cities as well, and probably will, but it is tougher - space is tighter and zoning is stricter, and opening a blacksmith shop in your 16th floor apartment probably isn’t going to happen.
Now most of the houses people have been building out in the burbs are *big* - since 1950, our per capita square footage has tripled, from 293 square feet to 893 square feet. Now we if we used to get along just fine on a third of the space, that means we could do that again, while reserving some of our home space for things like cottage industries and telecommuting for them that can. Heck, we've got millions of garages, and cars don't need houses. We could easily turn them into small business spaces with minimal or no investment of resources - nothing more is needed than for you to move that old table into the garage in many cases. Or perhaps we could convert those garages, or the spare rooms we keep just in case someone comes to visit (couldn’t possibly kick the kids into sleeping bags so Grandma could have the bed, could we?) into space we could rent affordably, so that our neighborhoods could be a little more diverse, and the people who work in them now could afford to live there too.
Meanwhile, we've got all these yards - the average American house has close to 1/2 acre around it. You can grow an awful lot of food in that space - enough, if you both generalize and specialize, to grow most of your veggies and a crop to trade or sell. We've put in fancy gourmet kitchens, large enough for us to bake muffins for our neighbors or make enough lasagna to drop off next door. We have closets full of clothes that could be replaced with closets full of home canned goods, homespun yarn and buckets full of whole grains.
Suburbia is already designed to create small, walkable retail centers for shopping - it has the means of production (land), and the space to hold them (houses). And we, like the Amish, could look upon our homes as the places we produce things, and do our work. What we have to do, as in urban centers, is to rezone our land, and then to start thinking of our homes as the center of our economies. At home, we do the things that enable us not to need money (we cook from scratch, clean our own toilets, make things, make do, repair, live lightly), at home we do the things that enable us to make a little money for the taxes (whether telecommuting or making axes). Right now, our homes are places we spend our cash, and from which we extract cash - things to borrow against. But a sustainable future depends on us being able to own a place to live, and none of us want to end up the next Hoovervilles.
Like the Amish, we're going to have to need a lot less, and keep most of our money for ourselves. That might mean giving up electricity altogether, or certainly giving up a lot of our lovely powered appliances and toys. It might mean encouraging things that don't "raise the value" of our homes - but raise the quality of life in our homes, like adding low income or interstitial housing (my husband, btw, commenting on the fact that our local rich suburb has the houses marked by 4s, leaving plenty of numbers available for new homes in this densely packed burb, argues that they are planning for interstitial shantytowns, just in case ;-))
It will take some work (or a massive crisis) to get people to recognize that zoning as it exists now mostly operates to enforce a life that has to end. We need to accept that it is possible to have peace and joy with gardens instead of front lawns, shops in your neighbor's garage and chickens in the backyard. We will probably need to scrap a whole host of regulations, including, perhaps some involving the sale of food - while it may be that large scale food production should still take place in certified kitchens, there are things (bread, for example) with which it is almost impossible to poison anyone, and other things where one ought to have the opportunity to understand the risks and take your chances - there is no inherent reason why my neighbor's chicken soup is ok for me to eat when she brings it over if I'm sick, but not ok if I pay her a buck for a cup. We will need to get over our sue-happy culture, and start expecting that reasonably intelligent people can be expected to behave like grownups and deal if something accidentally goes wrong. Poop on your chicken eggs? Well, let me just wipe that off! Or you could go to the supermarket where they have the eggs that magically come from the special, never-poopin chickens...right. We all need to relax a little.
And we will need, in general, to buy things less often, which is where I started all of this, and why I've talked so much about food. Because we have to eat every day - that is, you either grow all your food, or you buy some of it, and you buy it fairly regularly, since you do it all the time. On the other hand, how often do we need to buy clothing? Or tools? Even food could be shopped for only occasionally if we had gardens and room to store things. And you don't have to have a big freezer or fridge, or even a freezer or fridge at all to do these things - there are other ways of putting things up, and if you mostly eat meat as a festival meal, when others have it, you will find you don't need more refrigeration than you can get by putting things overnight in a bucket of cool water.
Some of our shopping is for necessity. Some of it is just for habit - we shop for comfort, for fun, because there's nothing else to do. And the more that we rely on buying things as a way to meet needs, rather than making them or fixing them or doing without, the more we find shopping inevitable, and the more often there's nothing else of interest to do. That is, if you don't knit your socks or build your furniture or bake your bread, not only do you need to buy these things, but you have that much less interesting, meaningful and productive work in your life, and when you are thinking about what to do, shopping sounds better than staying home.
Once upon a time, areas too small to have their own in-place shopping center had a local market. Once a week or once every other week, people with something to sell came by and everyone did their marketing then. Once in a while, a festival market would happen - there would be a larger quantity of goods, many of them luxury items, or things that weren't usually available. We have that model already, in the modern farmer's market, and that is the other possible way of rehabilitating suburbia - instead of building the stores into the community, the stores come to you once in while, and when they do, you buy what you need, celebrate, enjoy, and wait until next time. And in the meantime, your mind and creativity are focused on making what you have last. That's good work.
Now I know that this will engender the protest from someone that no one has time to do these things - we can't have shopping on just one day per week, because, after all we wouldn't all be able to get our shopping done. And we can't start a cottage business, or fight to rezone because it is too time consuming - we have to do X or Y. And all of that is true, as far as it goes - we are busy. We are tired. Many of us don't have time to bake bread or knit sweaters. But as I keep doing, I'm going to ask - for those of us who are middle class and better, isn't baking the bread and knitting the sweaters, running the cottage business and growing the garden enough, along with extreme frugality and care, perhaps enough to let one member of a household focus on that work? Isn't this a way out of the whole rat race thing?
And for those who are too poor to have many options - well, again, those of us who aren't certainly need to do our share of enabling them to have better lives. And for those poor folk who do have a little spare time to write or argue or think, perhaps a good use of that time would be telling the rich folk around you that it is their insistence that you can't earn money from the land you own, and their ways of keeping your from owning that land that are part of the problem. I know we mostly haven't cared before. Who knows, maybe we can change that too.