Casaubon's Book

What Is Adapting in Place?

Today is the first day of our Adapting in Place Class – if you are interested I still have 2 paid spots ($175 for the six week online asynchronous class – or equivalent barter) and have had two scholarship spots open up for low income participants (one through someone not taking a spot and one, kindly through donation!) . Please email me at jewishfarmer@gmail.com if you’d like to join the class. You can see the syllabus two posts down.

So what is Adapting In Place anyway? I’m writing a book about it (coming out next fall), I talk about it a lot, but what exactly am I getting at? It is partly about preparedness, both individual and community, partly about changing expectations, partly about achieving a kind of balance. It seems pedestrian in a way – lots of questions about how to do the laundry and keep food cool and work with your neighbors – ordinary things. Trivial seeming things.

Or perhaps not. In a way this may be the biggest question of all – how do we go on where we are with what we have in this new world? Moreover, how do we create a model of a life worth aspiring to that isn’t destructive, that honestly takes a look at where we’re going? This is not trivial, and it isn’t purely personal – in fact, you could argue that this is the world’s single most central question, because for the last 70 years, the US and other Global North nations have exported a vision of a life that has penetrated across the globe. With policy and with military might and with money and with Hollywood and with everything we have, we have modelled consumption, we have modelled cheap energy, and we have set up almost 7 billion people to want something that 7 billion people cannot have.

We can’t have it because the earth can’t sustain it – it lacks the resources. It lacks the capacity to absorb the pollution and outputs. And the longer we keep up the lie that some people don’t mind that you have 5, 10, 20, 1000 times more than they do, the harder the adaptive process will be, and the more fighting and the more dying it will cause. Most of us will die or kill for a dream we hold strongly enough. Re-creating the dream, creating a vision of a life worth having that takes limits into account is a project that is quite literally life or death.

It starts with staying. The world cannot handle more people who pick up and leave for new territory after they’ve raped the place they live in. And while we know that there will be many relocations and radical changes, most people are going to make the best of the infrastructure we’ve created over the last years, simply because we have no choice.

I personally think that there is insufficient time to remake our world dramatically. Now there are people who would argue with me about this – and they may even have a case. But I think there are compelling reasons to believe that we may not have enough time to take a world created for cheap energy and transform it into one that can handle expensive energy and replace much of that with renewable power. The idea that we will be able to make a massive societal retrofit occur rapidly depends in large part on, I think, the idea that the current economic crisis is just an unpleasant coincidence that happens to be occurring just as peak oil and climate change are really hitting us. This, I think is a radical error in reasoning – in fact, as nearly every serious analyst who really grasps peak oil gets, the economic limitations are part and parcel of our present crisis. That is, our ability to do new things is going to be more and more constrained over time.

Which means that most of us aren’t going to be living in new urbanist walkable communities or in perfect ecovillages driving electric cars – we’re going to be living where we are. Some projects will be done – but the idea that we’re going to do a full-scale overhaul of our society seems deeply wrong – we did a radical build out to get ourselves here, and we used up the easy, cheap segment of our resources. Which means that most of us are going to be limited to what we can accomplish ourselves, using our personal resources, what resources are available through family, friends, community and governments of various levels. Much of our way of life may have been, as Kunstler refers to suburbia, the greatest-misallocation of resources in history, but is how we allocated the resources – we’ve done this build out, and we’re going to be living with the results.

While the current situation has created mobility for some people – those who have already lost jobs and homes, those who know they are in a situation that can’t possibly improve -on the other hand, for many people, the current situation works to keep them in place. Nothing is selling in their area – so they can’t sell their house and move to another. Or they are afraid to change jobs, because the loss of seniority would lead to making them easy targets for layoffs in this economy. It may not be possible any longer to get back what they owe on their house – but it may still make sense to keep paying the mortgage, because they expect extended family to move in, or because they can grow food on the land. They may be tied down by elderly or disabled family members who can’t be easily moved, by a shared custody agreement, or by need to access to certain kinds of medical care. Family – biological or chosen – may tie them to an area, as may familiarity with the climate and region. We may decide that strong community ties make an imperfect area (and all areas are imperfect) enough to keep us there. Or we may lack the resources to move.

Staying in place isn’t always the best of a bad lot of options – sometimes it is simply the best option. There’s been a tendency to rhetorically abandon areas we don’t know what to do with – inner cities, exurbs, suburbia – all of these are dismissed sometimes, as though this will magically vacate them. The fact is that 300 million people in the US or 60 million in Britain cannot simply all go out to the countryside to their own bunkers, unless we wish to create a new suburbia, with barbed-wire, each ticky-tacky bunker lined up in the countryside next to its neighbors . Nor can we move everyone into cities – there aren’t jobs enough, nor room enough to grow food. Food alone will mean that the countryside and suburbs (near the city markets, often built on good farmland) will have to be populated – and the cities were usually cities for reasons long before oil – those reasons won’t go away.

More and more, I am advising people to stay put, or at most move to a place fairly near and like the one they live in now. I don’t think there’s enough time to adapt to new climates and environmental conditions, to retrofit new homes and build communities – now that doesn’t mean some people won’t have to move. But if you can stay put, I think there are some real advantages for most people – it takes *time* to build community, to build soil, to learn the bus lines, to get into the carpools, to find the cheap produce, to learn about pests and diseases and how to keep cool or warm. We need a model of a new life now – not ten years from now when we’ve found the perfect place.

The nuts and bolts of adapting in place are ordinary, so ordinary they seem small. Should I insulate? How do I collect rainwater? How little electricity can I do with? What do I do if the power goes out entirely? What is the right thing to eat for dinner? How shall I preserve it for later? What do we teach the kids? What do well tell Grandma about what we’re doing?

I don’t live in the perfect place, and these ordinary trivial seeming things are the bread and butter of my life too. They become almost invisible, and we learn to miss their enormous impact – the aggregate of 300 million Americans or 1 billion developed world dwellers eating and pooping and keeping warm and cool and getting around.

I don’t live the perfect life in the perfect place, but I remake it in the image of my dream a little more each year. I once read that people who build their dream houses spend 2 years building them – and then live in them for an average of 7 years. Because dreams change. Because sometimes what we dream about is the thing we can’t have, not the thing we do. And yet most of us in the developed world have more possessions, more comforts than the kings of old, than the richest people of our great-great grandparent’s time. We have more ease than the slave owners of the past, with fossil-fueled slaves to do our bidding. If we can’t come to embrace what we do have, and a fair share, who can? If we can’t do with less, will you ask someone who lives a harder life with less to do it? If we who made the dream and sold it to the rest of the world can’t change our dream when it doesn’t fit us anymore, what hope is there?

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Shamba
    April 5, 2011

    Ahhh, practicality and common sense in a world becoming nuttier and more confusing by the day!

    Thank you as always, for your eloquence about the basic things in life that need to be done.

    peace, shamba

  2. #2 Adrian
    April 5, 2011

    Hope your class goes well.

    Have read Independence Days and found it a useful guide. My family has gotten much better about food storage, we are learning to preserve, and are growing more vegetables this year.

    I look forward to reading your book about adapting in place, since that is what we are doing, only in an urban environment, not a farm. We bought our house years ago taking into account possible future energy troubles–and we’re still here, still taking into account not-so-future energy troubles.

    And yeah, I agree, it’s all those things we have taken for granted for so long that bear re-thinking.

  3. #3 Harriet fasenfest
    April 5, 2011

    Simply fabulous and simply right on.

    “If we who made the dream and sold it to the rest of the world can’t change our dream when it doesn’t fit us anymore, what hope is there?”

    EXACTLY

  4. #4 dixiebelle
    April 6, 2011

    Fantastic, so true and so timely… I am sharing it with everyone I can, thank you Sharyn!

  5. #5 DrVaman
    April 8, 2011

    Sharon: Brilliant analysis. You almost sounds like the Buddha whose worldview was contentment – do well with what you have and control the ever expanding desires for materialistic possessions. You are right in reflecting that the developing nations people especially the youth ape the western ways of life and start making the same mistakes. America’s greatest export -the Big Mac has made every nation a fast food nation! Take India – we have about 1.5 mill educated IT workers with false accents – they do exactly what you do – same issues, same health problems and same attitude for chasing desires.
    Thanks for this thought provoking essay.
    Dr. Vaman

  6. #6 Robert Whyte
    April 8, 2011

    Hi Sharon, I saw an excerpt for this piece in ‘Science blogs’. It resonated strongly with what we are doing out here in eastern Australia. I have been promoting the concept of ecosystem repair where we live, because these are the only places we can harness the human energy that’s needed. “Particularly there is a a need to shift the debate about biodiversity to where we live. The preservation of biodiversity is often discussed in relation to natural areas and the need for their protection and preservation. While protection and preservation is im-portant, protecting natural areas will surely not be enough to maintain ecosystem health across the region. These areas, though significant, are not large enough to balance the loss of habitat through farming and cities. And they are are isolated. In the light of global concerns, biodiversity environmental health goes be-yond protected pockets and will have to become a feature of all human activity.” I wrote a little book on the topic, we give it away free, also as a download, I hope you enjoy it. http://www.saveourwaterwaysnow.com.au/01_cms/details.asp?ID=2340

  7. #7 Leigh
    April 8, 2011

    Sharon,

    Been thinking about this a lot lately, ever since my partner and I received an anonymous nastygram from a neighbor (we live in a suburban townhouse community) about how they didn’t know what we are doing with our yard — an evolving edible forest. Their suggestion was that we “fence it, so we can’t see it” (which would block the light the plants need, so that’s not an option). So, we do think about leaving because we are the oddities here, the ones who believe we need to give up our desire for pristine, cookie-cutter chemical lawns and quickly switch over to permaculture (not to mention, we cannot have chickens or bees). We no longer have a relationship with our next-door neighbor, because of the “bugs” we’ve brought in…yes, there IS an increasing diversity of insects, which I love to see, as well as the smell that drifted through the walls from decanting tinctures. Trouble is — or the blessing in disguise — we don’t have the finances to pick up and go; we have other neighbors who are nice; we’ve already invested time and energy into what we have planted, etc. I sure hope there are enough skilled mediators working to resolve neighbor issues in the coming years or else there will be much more stress (as we’ve already experienced). We’d be willing to mediate our concerns, but don’t know whether they would. I do feel deeply that what’s happening is the so-called American Dream ghost refusing to go toward the light! I’m hoping to help it along by starting a conversation about Transition. We’ll see.

    Kindness and success to you in your work — I was glad to meet you at Monticello last fall.
    Leigh Glenn
    Suburban Maryland

  8. This is inspiring. So many folks seem to think talking about these things is a ‘downer’ but I love the way you face the realities and reach for realistic change. I just wrote a post called ‘Traveling in Place’ about a similar idea. More about how we tend to want to go somewhere new to recharge, renew or reshape our lives…when we always just take ourselves along with us and run into the same old problems. We need change from the inside out – and this will happen if we stop running to the next big store, pancake house, movie theatre, car lot etc. etc. Love it – thanks so much for the inspiration.