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.

James Cameron’s 2009

Yes, I have them too: flashback moments. Suddenly out of nowhere I’ll remember songs, movies, books, and television shows from years ago and they’ll be stuck in my head until I hear, read, or watch them again. So it was earlier today with “Dark Angel,” a television series that ran 2000-2002.

I watched the pilot for the “Dark Angel” series again and was genuinely surprised by how current some aspects of it seemed. In interviews about the series James Cameron noted that his goal was to portray a 21st century, high-tech Great Depression, which is essentially what the world is experiencing right now.

Our society’s increasing levels of polarization and class separation mirror the heroes and villains aspect of the show. The importance of being an active member of a network of people was emphasized on the show, and is also emphasized now in the progressive lessons of the No Impact Project, the Transition Town movement, the New Economics Forum, and others.

I was also struck by how localized and entrepreneurial the economy had become, things we are also seeing take place. In Cameron’s “Dark Angel” scenario an electromagnetic pulse had wiped out America’s electronic financial system and markets, grinding the larger economy to a standstill. In reality energy descent and climate change are and will impact financial systems and markets, forcing the larger economy to localize and become more entrepreneurial. In the show as in real life, small scale commerce thrives but also presents a regulation challenge.

Ironically, the electromagnetic pulse in “Dark Angel” was supposed to have happened in the then futuristic 2009 – the year that Iceland’s economy and banking system famously collapsed, the year of the G-20 world economic summit that accomplished nothing, and the year that supposedly oil-rich Dubai asked the world for debt deferments, causing worldwide stock market panics. The opening scenes of the series are supposed to have taken place in 2009, then the bulk of the series takes place in 2019 – just eight years from now.

As in “Dark Angel” it is highly likely that our future will involve more bicycling and walking, but we are unlikely to have any of the automobiles, motorcycles, and other petroleum-fueled vehicles seen on the show. The computers, cellular telephones, and bright lighting are also likely to be far rarer in future than seen in the show. But maybe that’s what makes a show entertaining: just realistic enough to be possible, and just unrealistic enough to take your imagination for a ride.

Watching this old show made me consider how my own vision of the future differs from James Cameron’s – and how everyone’s vision of the future must be unique. I then considered that if we all envision a different future, we are all working towards different things. Sometimes we may be working together, other times we may be impeding each other. Let’s find out, so we can all be more productive. I’ve been contacting a number of people – politicians, CEOs, academics, activists, etc – who influence others, people of a variety of disciplines, industries, and philosophies. I hope to discover some common ground, maybe unexpected, that can help bridge the widening gaps in our society and provide some foundation material for the networks that we will need in future.