The primary emphasis of Western religions is to repeatedly celebrate events that occurred in one place — the Land of Canaan (a.k.a. The Land of Milk and Honey, Judea and Samaria, Roman Palestina). That focus on one locale provides a counterintuitive lesson for our now-globalized world: Everything is still local. It’s where we live, work, politic, make policy, educate ourselves, shop, gather, sleep, and practice our religions. Yes, much of what we do today is linked to, or depends on, regional, national and international connections, which bring us food, water, materials and financing. But those distant links also brought us economic meltdown; boosted gas, energy, water, food and materials prices; failed to keep America financially solvent; and favor international war-making over domestic health.
So how can we insulate ourselves against these negative circumstances? One way is to shift our reliance away from distant connections and toward more regional and local ones. “Local” today is a bigger, more far-reaching animal than it was 3,000 years ago in rural Canaan and the Greek city-states. Today’s population is vastly larger, and risks killing itself off within the next two centuries. So there’s no better time to take fresh looks at our resources and how to best use them. We’ve got several advantages going for us:
• The principles of self-sufficiency, and the characters of people are surprisingly similar to those of our ancestors
• Thanks to new urban economic research, urban homesteading initiatives such as City Sense (www.iaac.net), carbon neutrality and food security, and environment-based protocols such as Cradle to Cradle and The Natural Step, we’re better than ever at quantifying, analyzing and changing how urban people and their economic systems function.
We know that:
• Every dollar spent at locally owned enterprises generates at least three times more local economic benefit than dollars spent at absentee-owned businesses (www.amiba.net/multiplier_effect.html)
• Half the world’s population now lives in cities
• As an urban area grows, its self-sufficiency potential increases
• People have been studying, acting on, and making policy around urban planning since the Greeks first built cities.
If we start viewing cities as systems, and design them to follow bio-regional ecologies like nature, we can make them surprisingly self-sufficient. My approach is to borrow and build on principles from Cradle to Cradle:
1. Make waste = food. To a large extent, we can grow and supply our own food through urban gardening, hydroponics and green spaces and farmlands near urban and within suburban areas. Then, like all other species on Earth, we eliminate the concept of “waste,” and think instead in terms of “food,” and “renewing” it through food and landscape composting.
2. Use current solar income. Fossil fuels embody ancient, finite solar income, drawn from long-decomposed plants and animals, and no city that requires energy from distant sources will ever be self-reliant. Geothermal, wind, active and passive solar, macro- and micro-hydro, compost methane, bio-fuels, and actual horsepower provide energy through current solar income. They’re sustainable and (except for the horse) inexhaustible.
3. Use current water income, such as rainwater, well and river water, drawn at less than recharge rates, rather than water from expensive, far-away sources.
4. Incorporate mobility: Cities must incorporate seamless mobility that enables residents and visitors to get where they need to go, and do the commerce that keeps the city healthy.
5. Support the local economy: Get loans from community banks or credit unions, buy products made locally, from local materials; create cooperatively owned professional sports teams; join and/or support a local cooperative enterprise, such as community-supported agriculture, a food store, other buying and manufacturing co-ops — such as the sustainable fuel co-op that offers its members bumper stickers that read, “War not required to fill this tank.”
6. Celebrate diversity. Every city exists in an ecological niche, where nature’s diversity provides models and materials to inspire and inform design solutions. We tend to use one-size-fits-all designs, because they’re cheaper in the short run. Instead, designs should draw on local energy and material flows, “fit” within the local landscape, efficiently use energy and water, and create positive effects on nature.
At this point, with current economics and sensibilities, it would be difficult for any city to achieve full self-reliance. Too many items lie outside of its control, so a city must strike a balance between the relative wealth of its local resources, what products and materials it must import to function, and what financing it needs to conduct commerce.
So while we can’t live as self-reliantly as our agrarian Israelite ancestors in Canaan (and outside of camping trips, wouldn’t want to), we clearly can move our balance points further toward self-reliance than we may have thought. As Emerson said, “All my great ideas have been stolen by the ancients.”