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Small Is Beautiful*

The Road to Resilience

(*Thanks, E.F. Schumacher, for a 40 year old idea that is still good as gold.)

Most futurist visions I have seen are of shining high-tech cities with high rises covered in solar panels and rooftop gardens.  People are whisked about in clean and efficient electric transport and the hinterlands are either pristine wildlands or automated farms.  I am very leery of this vision.  

For the last hundred years, people all across the world have been flocking into the cities for jobs and cultural amenities.  While communications and distribution of goods and services were poor, this made sense.  The argument these days is that urban living keeps our human footprint small.  In a purely physical sense, that may be true, but in actuality, it is an illusion.  The denser the population, the greater and more concentrated the flow of resources into that city needs to be, the greater the area from which it needs to be extracted, and the farther it must travel.  The high degree of centralized organization a city needs to keep it running smoothly is a situation that is anything but resilient.

What we have learned from ecology and the natural world is that while some mineral resources, i.e., fossil fuels, are highly concentrated, food and sustainable energy are not.  We also have learned that the denser the population the greater the concentration of political power.  We know that whenever you concentrate power of any sort, you have an explosive situation and you have a near certainty that something will go wrong.  We have thousands of years of evidence of how well that works out!  You might recognize the city as the manifestation of the Judeo-Christian call to go forth and multiply and master the earth.  They didn’t call it the “shining city on the hill” for nothing.

Large cities have inherent weaknesses.  The socio-economic complexity of cities is such that we already can’t figure out how to feed and house everybody.  We also have no way to deal with the huge amount of concentrated waste:  besides garbage and poop, that includes pre-use wasted food, polluted stormwater runoff, and more.   Do we really want to make cities bigger?

What makes sense to me is to disperse the population, disperse the power, disperse the energy and resource needs, disperse the waste.  We needn’t dismantle the cities we have, but let’s not make them any worse.

What I want to talk about is my vision of a new “small town” America (and world).  In some ways, it is a throwback to a time a hundred years ago when about 40% of us were farmers or in some related business, and transportation, and thus mobility, were nothing like today.  The spacing between towns was figured in terms of how long it took to get to one, so horse and buggy era towns were a lot closer together than rail towns, which were a lot closer than towns built in the auto age.  As a result the denser lattice of small towns is on the older east coast.  East of the Mississippi there are so many rail era jewels with ornate town halls in the center and old brick storefronts on the main street.  

The automobile killed the small town.  Once we could easily go to a larger town and take advantage of cheaper prices at the larger stores, the local mom and pop stores went out of business.  The sad fact is that many of these small towns were bypassed by progress and are boarded up and abandoned or have been incorporated into larger metropolitan areas.

With the new emphasis that I hope will continue to grow around local economies, my vision is to see these smaller towns brought back to life.  Much that we used to have to live near to see or purchase can now be sent to us, or can be produced locally.  We can lure jobs and businesses out of the big cities.  Startups should love the low up-front costs.  In fact, I expect that many would leave the big cities in a red-hot minute to live in a charming small town with a lower cost of living, where you could walk to work and play in a place that you really belong to.  In the case of food, a much fresher product could be grown right outside town.  It’s true that the retail price of fossil-fueled agricultural produce is less than organic, but we have also paid heavily in terms of soil and nutrient loss, erosion, and polluted waterways.  We know that organic intensive and regenerative agriculture can reverse all that and attract more people back to farming.  With the renaissance of small towns, we have a ready market for truck farms and all the service businesses that a small town needs.  Each can be a balanced microcosm of homegrown economic and social activity.  There will always be fascists, but they won’t cause as much trouble on that scale.  This is resilience on steroids.

Cities have been an amazing phenomenon and will continue to be, but I think the future needs to be in small towns.