In the novel Time Enough to Love, author Robert Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long opines, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
Born in a small Missouri town in 1907, Heinlein must have grown up knowing people who could do many of the things Lazarus described, average people capable of growing their own food, building their own homes, and governing their communities. America was still largely a rural nation then, a nation in which people worked both individually and together with their neighbors to feed, clothe and house their families. Quilting bees and barn raisings weren’t events held only by the Amish, and backyard gardens weren’t a fad, but rather the sensible norm.
By the time of his death in 1988, however, life had changed. Most Americans lived in cities, working specialized jobs that required special training. Though many had the skill necessary to change diapers and cook decent meals, few had a clue about building walls, setting bones, or butchering hogs. And what does “conn a ship” mean, anyway?* It was surely this shift from self-reliance to economic codependency that fed Heinlein’s creative imagination. By Lazarus Long’s definition, we have become a planet of human insects, each of us trained to perform a particular task, driving to work in long lines that stretch for miles along the highway like ants marching single file.
Though collectively humanity possesses more know-how than at any time in human history, that knowledge is spread so thinly that nearly all of us depend on the rest of society for our survival. Our skills these days are too often limited to the tasks required by our professions — writing computer code, running an x-ray machine, researching the population dynamics of the pygmy loris — and have little to do with actual living.
As a result, we’re vulnerable in ways our more broadly skilled grandparents were not. A hurricane hits coastal refineries, and high gas prices leave families thousands of miles away struggling to put food on the table. A snowstorm drops 18 inches on the Front Range, and grocery store shelves grow empty, leaving people to truly wonder what’s for dinner. In Manhattan, bankers and brokers make bad decisions that send unemployment, foreclosure and poverty trickling down to millions across the country.
What happens when humanity is hit by a bigger challenge, such as depletion of fossil fuels, global climate change or a prolonged economic crisis?
A growing number of people believe the answer lies in relocalization — transforming individuals and communities into skilled, self-reliant entities capable of meeting their own needs using locally produced resources. Not only is relocalization a way of combating global climate change, but it may be humanity’s only viable way to adapt to the consequences of climate change.