Reconciling our differences
There was a time when people knew their neighbors, when police knew the parents of the kids they busted for skipping school, when wives traded eggs for honey or fresh-baked bread and husbands helped one another repair roofs and fences. Think of the television program The Andy Griffith Show. In that idyllic community, everyone knew everyone else and adapted to one another’s quirks. In a crisis, they could be counted on to come together.
Few places in America resemble Mayberry; perhaps such a place never existed. Regardless, it doesn’t take a social scientist to see the divisions in the United States today. We are a fragmented society in which many — both left and right — believe that the time for civility has long since passed. The stakes seem high, and everyone wants one thing: political victory. Abortion, immigration, religion, health care, gay marriage — our divisions run deep and seem at times irreconcilable.
But America can’t get a big divorce.
The last time it tried, the loss of life was catastrophic. The Civil War remains America’s most devastating conflict to date. And so red states are stuck with blue states whether they like it or not and so on. That means we either continue to bicker and shout and insult one another, or we get a grip and rediscover what it means to live together.
“I like to say that community is our most precious and most endangered resource on the planet,” Brownlee says. “It’s been strip-mined away by economic globalization. It needs to be healed and rebuilt. Underlying the work of relocalization, that’s really the goal.”
It might sound absurd to say that Americans need to come together over a mason jar of homegrown green beans or a homemade cherry pie, but such a gathering holds more promise than another round of national political conventions, no matter who’s running for office.
Imagine this for a moment: a group of local folks get together to learn the art of canning vegetables. They meet as strangers, their attention on mastering a skill that will enable them to put homegrown vegetables on the dinner table even in the depths of winter. They talk, joke, banter. They discover that one of the women is an excellent quilter, while another has been baking her own whole-grain bread for years. The bread-baker, a devout fundamentalist, doesn’t know that the quilter is a secular feminist. Politics don’t come up during the four or five hours they’re together. They’ll spend more time together in the coming months, swapping skills, and by the time their religious and political identities are “outed,” they’ll have too much respect for one another to be uncivil or to hate.
A single mom gets help from the guy next door planting a cherry tree, then returns the favor by showing him how to change his own oil. By the time they share that first cherry harvest in a luscious homemade pie, does it matter that she favors gun control and he is a certifiable gun nut? Maybe. But maybe the connection they forged instills more tolerance than they might otherwise have shown one another.
“We’ve lost these basic human connections that have existed in the past but have been obliterated these days,” Brownlee says. “Those kinds of things are going to have to be rebuilt, not to go back to the past, but to reconstruct a human unity that we’re going to need to grapple with such challenges as global warming, fossil fuel depletion and economic collapse. We can’t do that as a divided humanity.”
If people don’t believe in global climate change, there’s still the powerful motivation of saving money during this recession.
“It is so true that the focus on growing the economy has resulted in loss of community, loss of ability to work cooperatively and collectively for the good of all,” says Betty Ball of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center (RMPJC). “It’s all about me and my survival and making sure I have what I need.”
The result is the loss of people’s ability to communicate meaningfully and maintain healthy relationships, Ball says.
“Even at coffee shops, where in the ’60s and ’70s folks went to hang out and socialize, now people are glued to their laptops and cell phones, not talking at all to others right next to them in the coffee shop,” she says.
RMPJC is tackling relocalization in part from a standpoint of activism on economic issues, but also with regard to community building.
“Potlucks, making music together, fostering meaningful conversation with people — we are frequently having events such as these, just to encourage people to really connect with one another,” Ball says. “That is going to be more and more important as the economy worsens. We’ll need to come together as a [local] community to make sure we all have food, shelter, and the help we need — exchanging skills with people, re-learning the art of bartering, having a common place where we can find people who have the skills we need and who need the skills we have.”
So what does a transitioned Boulder County look like?
What it does not look like is an organization — whether the peace center or Transition Colorado — doing the work for you. You can’t outsource relocalization, after all. It’s about what you do, how you choose to use your time.
Brownlee says he doesn’t think of Transition Colorado as an organization.
“Transition is much more of a grassroots movement than an organization,” he says. “It’s a catalytic force in the community to inspire and motivate people to do exactly the kind of things that we’re talking about. You can’t do it for them, but you can provide them some access.”
Transition Colorado is trying to be the kind of “common place” that Ball mentioned, a place where people can learn from one another and connect as human beings.
So a relocalized Boulder County is a Boulder County in which citizens in the tens of thousands follow through on their impulse to learn new skills, to get out of debt, to produce much of what they eat and use.
“There will be much more farming going on,” Brownlee says. “They will be small farms. There will be thousands of farmers instead of scores like there are today, and they will be using much more labor-intensive methods because the technology of industrial agriculture will no longer be appropriate.”
The desire to not use fossil fuels — and the eventual, certain lack of fossil fuels — will impact not only agriculture but also transportation of people, of goods. It will impact everything from the clothing available in a community to the types of tools that can be manufactured.
“Most of the technology that we talk about these days are so fossil-fuel dependent,” Brownlee says. “Even if it’s alternative technology, the fossil fuel needed to create it is enormous. So I think part of what we’re going to be looking at is dramatically decreased availability of energy.
There’s going to be technology used in a lot of different ways, but we as people are going to be using far less energy than we do now. Twenty to 30 years out, we will have to be using something like 90 percent less energy than we’re using today.
“We’re going to be using all the solar we possibly can, all the wind we possibly can, all the geothermal — every alternative that we can imagine and some that we haven’t imagined yet, we’re going to need. If you run the numbers, you start to see no matter what we do in terms of alternative energy, it’s not going to continue the kind of lifestyle that we’ve grown accustomed to on the planet.”