I have major disagreements with Bill McKibben’s thinking, but he’s a good writer who often ponders matters that I am also pondering, and so I’ll always read his articles. Here’s one which teases out some implications of a provocative thesis: cheap fossil fuel has made us the first people on Earth with no need of our neighbors.
Think, in the course of an ordinary day, how often you rely on the people who live near you for anything of practical value. Perhaps carpooling your kids to school or soccer. If you live in a rural community, there may be a volunteer fire department, which keeps your insurance affordable. But your food, your fuel, your shelter, your clothes, and your entertainment most likely come from a distance and arrive anonymously at that. A meteorite could fall on your cul-de-sac tomorrow, disappearing your neighbors, and the routines of your daily life wouldn’t change.
Now imagine how different things have been for almost all of human history. Two hundred years ago, if an American wanted to eat a hamburger for dinner, he needed to be able to convince his neighbors to, say, help him build a barn in which to store hay to feed his cows all winter. And to help him harvest his wheat crop. Likely they would have come together to thresh it—there wasn’t a surplus of machinery. A neighbor would have slaughtered the cow and another would have baked the bread, unless it was all done in the family.
While driving into town today to do the week’s shopping at Wal-Mart and Tractor Supply (a chain of farm stores), I once again thought about what it meant for me to be buying from absentee corporations in order to keep expenses down. And the answer came to me: not much. That is, for all of the things I had come to town to buy, it would be nothing but a symbolic gesture to try to buy those things from “local” vendors, who aspire to the same things to which the absentee corporations aspire. My Chilean bananas, Idaho potatoes, disposable diapers, eight-inch ivory candles, King Arthur unbleached white flour, bathtub stopper, Purina chicken feed, plastic calf bottle, and Nestle semi-sweet chocolate chips might as well come from Wal-Mart as from a local Wal-Mart wannabe.
But that thought was accompanied by another one: the list of things I come to town to buy is shrinking, partly because of what we are able to provide for ourselves, and partly because of what we can obtain from our neighbors. We buy a lot of food in bulk, plus what dry goods we can find, from the Mennonite stores in South Fork. We get early lettuce and greens from Jerome Lange (and we give him eggs and extra beef, and milk when we have it). We get feeder pigs from a neighbor up the hill. We bought half of last year’s hay from our next door neighbor, and the other half from a neighbor up the road who had to sell quickly because he had been called up to Iraq. One of our pastors just gave us ten two-year-old pecan trees from a bag of 150 that the forestry service had sent him; we planted them today. A friend from Alabama sold us our Great Pyrenees puppy. Our friend Jimmy Ellis and his son Wes built us our barn, and fetched us the cattle panels and T-posts we used to fence our pasture. Our friend Jerome sold us his farm pickup, knowing we couldn’t survive without one; we use it to periodically deliver our walk-behind tractor and plow attachment to his place so he can build raised beds Our friend Ron Short sold Chris his first car.
I could go on, but the point is simple enough. There are plenty of opportunities around here to direct our economic resources to helping our actual neighbors; no need for symbolic gestures. And as our neighbors become able to supply the needs we now supply through Wal-Mart, we’ll redirect our purchasing accordingly. But if it isn’t something I can buy from an actual neighbor, I won’t worry about whether it’s Wal-Mart or Kroger or the local IGA that ends up getting my money. No more symbolic gestures.