A Future Without Homogenization

Yesterday we had some errands to run downtown. No, not in our own town; our community is little more than a handful of private offices peppered between a parade of big-box retail clones. The town lacks a business center, and honestly there’s not much to make our town different than most others. A Wal-Mart, a Home Depot, some fatty national chain restaurants, several churches and nail spas and medical offices, and neighbors we wave at but don’t really know. And of course a drug store or gas station on every other corner. There’s not much distinctive about our place; this could be any town in any state. With no sense of place there’s also nothing to anchor us here. We know that we could move to a virtually identical place anytime and have just as little sense of community.

Why is our town so much like the next one over, like the one in California, like the one in Illinois, like the one in Pennsylvania?

This is a phenomenon – well, no, more of a sad process really – that progressive urban planners refer to as “Main Street homogenization” or “High Street homogenization.” In ecological science homogenization refers to a lack of (bio)diversity and of everything being the same. In chemistry homogenization is a term used when the studied chemical properties of a mixture show no variation. “Main Street homogenization” means that whatever town you’re in, Main Street will be essentially the same. You could fall asleep on the train, wake up in a different town, and in many ways continue your life uninterrupted.

Many years ago affordable automobiles and affordable fuels meant it was no longer necessary for the working classes to live near their work. Something new called “suburbs” sprang up all over the country, and it wasn’t long before city planners were being courted by corporations promising jobs and tax revenue if they could build a location of their national chain there. Family-owned businesses and local resilience were plowed down by economies of scale, and for several decades corporations have defined both our landscapes and lifestyles.

If you think about it it’s a rather dangerous situation: we’ve placed the livelihoods of entire populations in their hands. Without those big-box stores and chain restaurants many of us would have almost no way to feed, clothe, shelter, or support ourselves. At one time this was a self-sufficient nation of small business owners, of private producers and growers and cooks and craftspeople. Now, with the help of these cheerful omnipresent big-box stores and chain restaurants we have been turned into the world’s most proficient and hopelessly addicted consumers.

Industries make our vast quantities of daily consumer purchases possible by themselves consuming vast quantities of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels allow them to outsource raw materials from countries around world, to then transport those raw materials to points of outsourced production in yet more countries, to then transport finished goods to retailers, and for retailers to transport to goods to stores and consumers. When – not if – fossil fuels become difficult to obtain and more expensive to buy, every point of this chain of events breaks down. It will no longer make financial sense for big-box stores and chain restaurants to import from around the world, nor eventually to economically ship from regional distribution centers to local store fronts. To cover the rising cost of fuel they would have to price their goods above what consumers would tolerate. At that point, us consumers might not be able to afford the fuel to drive across town to the store or restaurant anyway. When this comes to pass, our economy as it is currently defined, and the way of life we know now, will cease to exist. Thank goodness better things lay ahead.

Our downtown errands took us to the big city and economic center of the state. Partly because big-box stores and chain restaurants avoided the city’s downtown corridor for many years, the people of the area are now more resilient to future economic shock, at least relative to us suburban types. The city has a large number of small locally-owned businesses, several farmer’s markets, and an active permaculture movement. There is some manufacturing, and although virtually all of these businesses currently use imported raw materials this still involves a skilled local workforce of makers. The makers of today will be the teachers of tomorrow… and by makers I mean everything: crafters, carpenters, bakers, cooks, farmers, knitters, sewers, plumbers, builders, potters, painters, in short all those skills that corporate America has outsourced. To change that we can do without those things, or even better: we can learn how to make them ourselves.

Few city politicians or Wal-Mart shoppers or McDonalds eaters have contemplated what our world might look like just thirty years, one generation, from now. Have you thought about where your food will come from? Where your water will come from? Where your news will come from? Where your music will come from? Where will you buy anything electronic? Who will build electronic things? From what raw materials? Where?

Finally, the future is in your hands. Your opinion, your voice will answer those questions. Stand firm and do not allow corporations, or a culture totally reliant on corporations, to answer those questions on your behalf. The future is exactly what you will make it, and the ripple effects of your choices literally reach around the world. Make your choices wisely, considering their impact on the whole world, and your choices then have the potential to make the world a better place rather than contribute to its homogenization.

Look around your house now and consider “the five W’s:” who, what, where, when, and why. “How” is also often included in this list. You’re reading on an electronic display right now (monitor, tablet, or mobile phone), so let’s use that as an example.

1. Who made your display? Not the company. Do you know the name(s) of the person or people who sat at a workbench and skillfully used tools to manufacture it? What was the impact of this work on them and their community and environment?

2. What is your display made from? How many different raw materials? What was the impact of mining / refining / collecting / synthesizing those materials on those who do so, and on their community and environment?

3. Where were the raw materials sourced? Where was each component built? Where were the components assembled into the final product? If you added up all the distances traveled by the various components, how many total miles of transportation is the display responsible for? What might that distance represent in carbon footprint terms?

4. When did you buy this display? How long do you expect it to last? If the various plastic components remain a landfill for say 3,000 years, divide 3,000 years by the display’s expected lifespan. The answer, in years, is in reality roughly how long you should wait until you buy your next display. Darn that planned obsolescence!

5. Why was this display purchased? Was your previous one broken, or was this a fashion / cool factor upgrade? Did the technology around grow to the point that it could no longer be used? Darn that planned obsolescence!

6. How did you decide this was the best display to buy? What criteria will you use in future? How would you feel about buying a used one? About sharing one? About living without one? How did people perform the same tasks with different tools previously? Do you have the skills necessary to perform the tasks in those ways?

If you ask these questions about just one thing each week, over the course of a year you will have brought fresh thinking to over fifty things in your home. It’s fun doing it with things like cinnamon, and eye-opening doing it with things like refrigerators. When you start asking question like these you are likely find that the low sticker prices found in national chains and big box stores often come with hidden costs. Hidden costs that you are no longer prepared to support. That’s when the higher sticker price of locally-made and sustainable items suddenly becomes a better deal and more obvious choice.