What Is Adapting in Place?

SUBHEAD: Creating a vision of a life worth having that takes limits into account is a project that is quite literally life or death.  

By Sharon Astyk 5 April 2011 in Casaubon's Book

Image above: A home in Levittown, Long Island, NY built circa 1950, leading the suburban explosion. From (http://www.flickr.com/photos/roarlaura/69728784).

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 modeled consumption, we have modeled 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 we 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?


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