Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Era of Small and Many

Earlier this year, my state’s governor asked if I’d give an after-lunch speech to some of his cabinet and other top officials who were in the middle of a retreat. It’s a useful discipline for writers and theorists to have to summarize books in half an hour, and to compete with excellent local ice cream. No use telling these guys how the world should be at some distant future moment when they’ll no longer be in office—instead, can you isolate themes broad enough to be of use to people working on subjects from food to energy to health care to banking to culture, and yet specific enough to help them choose among the options that politics daily throws up? Can you figure out a principle that might undergird a hundred different policies?

Or another way to say it: can you figure out which way history wants to head (since no politician can really fight the current) and suggest how we might surf that wave?

Here’s my answer: we’re moving, if we’re lucky, from the world of few and big to the world of small and many. We’ll either head there purposefully or we’ll be dragged kicking, but we’ve reached one of those moments when tides reverse.

Take agriculture. For 150 years the number of farms in America has inexorably declined. In my state—the most rural in the nation—the number of dairies fell from 11,000 at the end of World War II to 998 this summer. And of course the farms that remained grew ever larger—factory farms, we called them, growing commodity food. Here in Vermont most of the remaining dairies are big, but not big enough to compete with the behemoths in California or Arizona; they operate so close to the margin that they can’t afford to hire local workers and instead import illegal migrants from Mexico.

But last year the USDA reported that the number of farms in America had actually increased for the first time in a century and a half. The most defining American demographic trend—the shift that had taken us from a nation of 50 percent farmers to less than 1 percent—had bottomed out and reversed. Farms are on the increase—small farms, mostly growing food for their neighbors. They’re not yet a threat to the profits of the Cargills and the ADMs, but you can see the emerging structure of a new agriculture composed of CSAs and farmers’ markets, with fewer middlemen. Which is all for the good. Such farming uses less energy and produces better food; it’s easier on the land; it offers rural communities a way out of terminal decline. You could even imagine a farmscape that stands some chance of dealing with the flood, drought, and heat that will be our destiny in the globally warmed century to come. Instead of the too-big-to-fail agribusiness model, this will be a nimbler, more diversified, sturdier agriculture.

And what works on the farm works elsewhere too. Think about our energy future—the phrase that engineers like to use now is “distributed generation.” Since our old fuels were dense in BTUs and concentrated in a few locations, it made sense to site a few giant generating stations where coal or uranium could easily be brought and burned. But the logic of sun and wind is exactly the opposite: millions of rooftops and ridgelines producing power. You can do it in cities as easily as in the country—new satellite and airplane mapping of New York City’s five boroughs showed that the city’s rooftops could provide half its electricity. If you can do that in New York, imagine Shaker Heights, not to mention Phoenix. And once you’ve done it, you’ve got something practical and local: an interconnected grid where everyone brings something and takes something away. A farmers’ market in electrons.

Many of us get a preview of life in the age of small and many when we sit down at our computers each day. Fifteen years ago we still depended on a handful of TV networks and newspaper conglomerates to define our world for us; now we have a farmers’ market in ideas. We all add to the flow with each Facebook post, and we can find almost infinite sources of information. It’s reshaping the way we see the world—not, of course, without some trauma (from the hours wasted answering e-mail to the death of too much good, old-school journalism). All these transitions will be traumatic to one extent or another, since they are so very big. We’re reversing the trend of generations.

by Bill McKibben, Orion |  Continue reading: 
Painting: Suzanne Stryk