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.
The real change we need
The next time you hear about a corporation outsourcing jobs to specialized workers in India, don’t criticize them. They learned this behavior from you.
You are an expert outsourcer. Don’t believe me? Make a list of all the things you don’t know how to do for yourself. It will look something like this: food production, preservation and safety; raising and butchering animals; clothing manufacture; home building and repair; education; furniture building; tool production; childrearing (daycare); health care; decision-making (self-help gurus, life coaches); fuel production and delivery; communication; water delivery; waste removal; recycling; transportation; toy making; storytelling (TV); governance; funerals; the making of medicine, cosmetics and cleaning products; music making; giving birth/ helping a partner give birth; lactation (infant formula); self-defense; dispensing justice in your community. The food you eat, the clothing you wear, the heat that keeps you warm in the winter — it’s all provided by strangers, some of whom live on the other side of the world, in exchange for that coarsest and most impersonal of commodities: money.
From a certain perspective this makes sense. Modern health care has cost lives, but it has also saved them. Having police on hand to enforce laws, and a justice system that determines the fate of those who break them, maintains a certain kind of order.
Besides, who has time these days to master midwifery, farming, sewing, canning, steel working, plumbing, carpentry, parenting, construction, animal husbandry, teaching, research, self-government and minstrelsy? Modern technology is so complex and modern life so fast-paced and complicated that it’s much easier to leave these tasks to those who are experts.
Economy is, after all, a function of time. It’s about how you choose to use your time. Human history has been a long march toward gaining mastery of time in a way that enables us to control our environment, enhance efficiency, coordinate supply with demand, decrease the amount of labor needed to stay alive, and have more time for leisure. When I was in school, success in meeting these goals was called “progress.”
But progress has come at a price. Forests have been felled. Species are extinct. Rivers and oceans, air and soil are polluted. Communities are fragmented. Elders who grew their own food and built their own homes watch their knowledge become increasingly irrelevant in a mechanized, specialized world and find themselves herded into retirement communities and nursing homes. Economies teeter while the gap between rich and poor widens. Personal and national freedom has given way to personal and international codependency. And the environment we sought to control is about to school us in what happens when you mess with Mother Nature.
Many believe that relocalization and reskilling are the best, most viable solution to this set of serious — indeed, lifethreatening — challenges. An international movement that got its start in the United Kingdom, relocalization, or the transition movement, is about regaining lost knowledge and bringing production back to the local community.
“Reskilling first of all gives us an experience of reclaiming our power and losing that sense of powerlessness and helplessness,” says Michael Brownlee, co-founder of Boulder-based Transition Colorado. “We reclaim those fundamental life skills that our grandparents and great grandparents took for granted but which we didn’t inherit. Even things like basic home repair — we call somebody up to come and fix that stuff.”
Starting with learning to grow one’s own food, reskilling is a process that people find invigorating and inspiring, Brownlee says.
“It was very delightful to me to discover the favorite reskilling class in the U.K. was sock darning,” he says. “Here in the U.S. when we get a hole in our socks, we toss them. But in the future we won’t do that. We will be darning our socks. Fortunately, there are a few people left who know how to darn socks, and we’re going to have to learn.”
Transition Colorado has hosted more than 7,500 people hours of reskilling events, Brownlee says.
“There’s such demand for it,” he says.
“People say, ‘I want to raise chickens in my backyard, but I have no idea how to go about it.’ So we find somebody who knows, and we organize a class. We’ve done that kind of thing over and over and over again.”
Relocalization advocates say reskilling empowers people to take control over essential aspects of their lives, saving them money and making them less dependent on the Wall Street economy. But it also rebuilds community by turning strangers into neighbors and making elders relevant again as people come together to master skills their parents couldn’t teach them.
If the resurgence of interest in backyard gardening and farmers’ markets is any indicator, people are hungry not just for food, but also the sense of safety that comes from knowing who produced your food and how. And, indeed, food growing and preservation is at the heart of reskilling, Brownlee says. But not just for the obvious reasons.
“It is in beginning to rebuild our capacity to produce our own food locally — that’s the primary way we rediscover community,” he says. “Because of the way that economic globalization has gone and how we’ve lost all our local capacities to meet our own needs, we have lost our connection to the land. We’ve lost the connection to the people who grow our food, even the people who prepare our food. Those basic connections of a community have been cut, so most of us have not grown up in a place where those connections exist. It means we really haven’t experienced community. When people start getting into this
food thing — they go to the farmers’ markets, they meet the farmers,
they join a CSA — they start rebuilding those connections that are very
ancient, and it is a profound discovery. It gives people a sense of
hope and positivity that’s been missing.”
Hope. Positive change. Local control. But the heart of it is true community, Brownlee says.
Community is certainly a word one hears often in Boulder. Do we really know what it means?
Reconciling our differences
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
tackling relocalization in part from a standpoint of activism on
economic issues, but also with regard to community building.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
Reaching for freedom
There’s an advantage to facing these issues now as opposed to allowing catastrophe to force the issue. A community that
makes the transition to local food and energy production now will have
more control over how that transition unfolds than those that wait for
that last drop of gasoline to vanish and summer highs to reach up to
120 degrees in Colorado, as they are predicted to do by the end of the
21st century — even if all world governments meet their goals and keep
their promises with regard to reduction of greenhouse gases.
But there’s another less tangible advantage to making this transition now, and it can be summed up in a single word: freedom.
is kind of the underlying issue here that doesn’t get talked about very
much,” Brownlee admits. “In giving away our capacity to meet our own
needs locally, we have become so dependent on distant sources and
foreign powers that we in many ways are powerless and can be forced to
pay whatever price is asked for what we need, and that’s exactly how
freedom can be sacrificed in the name of survival.”
This is true on a national level and on an individual level.
reskilled family in a localized community is a family with more control
over the lives of its members because its economy is subject to local
control. What happens on Wall Street or in Congress doesn’t matter as
much to those who are out of debt, who grow much of their own food and
have the skills to meet most of their own needs — and to help their
“Freedom — it’s a principle that we need to focus on because people are pretty much blind to it,” Brownlee says.
if climate change is a hoax (it isn’t) and your favorite political
party holds onto the White House for the next four decades (it won’t),
there is true value in knowing how to do things yourself.
Bninsky, also of RMPJC, says she found growing a vegetable garden this
summer to be surprisingly satisfying. She planted the seeds, went out
each day to check on their progress, watering, weeding and caring for
the growing plants, then eventually enjoying the results of her work on
the dinner table.
excites us and what engages us can change,” she says. “We’re not stuck
with what they taught us with the commercial culture.”
says she is gradually learning new skills and finds the process
enjoyable. The idea of Boulder County having its own thriving economy
and its own culture is deeply appealing to her, but also a bit
feels really big, but you do it one person at a time and one group at a
time,” she says. “If we can really bring people together, maybe we can
create something where more people are engaged creating our collective
future together. It feels pretty daunting, but with more people
involved and with each person doing a piece, everybody becomes a
leader. Everybody becomes someone who can reach out to other people and
help them learn, too.”
*Editor’s note: We looked it up. To “conn a ship” means to direct the course of a ship.