No need for neighbors

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.

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5 thoughts on “No need for neighbors

  1. Well, cities being a different animal altogether, I think we’ll keep up our symbolic gestures. I still think that a smaller company is better run–that is, the people who run it often use more common sense and are friendlier. Not always, of course. And I do use chains when I need to.

    I have a different thought, but I can’t quite put it into words. It’s something about the idea that when you have all the basic goods you need, it becomes much harder to rely on neighbors for the next tier of needs, i.e., social companionship. I don’t mind sending my daughter up for an egg, but I hate asking for a car ride. I have solid enough reasons for not liking to ask, but I do think something about everyone having that first concrete tier of needs met makes it harder to get to know people according to the next, more abstract and social, set of needs.

    And then, there are the homeless, who don’t have that first tier of needs met, but it’s often because they have an incredibly complex web of other needs going on, it makes it hard for any of those practical helps to stick and form a support network. Not that we shouldn’t try anyway, of course.

    I think this is all to say that, I love the idea of people helping each other practically as you describe, but it’s not likely to happen for us in the city on so elemental a level, so I’m wondering what we can do instead to form more organic, rather than merely preferential, bonds. (Preferential is okay, too. We call that friendship. But I don’t think we can expect for everyone to be an equal sort of friend.) I really do think that common, manual work is a great societal glue. The minute you get into more abstract needs or a larger group, you’ve got a whole different set of factors, including a genuine need for specialization. And that makes it harder to even have those kinds of talks that lead, eventually, to friendship.

    Or maybe I’m just off on some dead end rabbit trail of a thought! The Holy Spirit should be the ultimate glue, I’m sure. But I’m one of those people who looks at many of the way that most church programs work these days and says, “Huh?” So I like to think about how and whether we could make those things just a little more organic. Not sure it’s possible, but I like to think about it.

  2. We stopped going to Wal-mart (the only big box store in the town nearest us) about a year and a half ago. We decided we’d complained about them long enough. Our local grocer’s are in no way comparable to Wal-mart. The small grocer’s carry locally grown produce and meat. They actually care about what I want! They donate to families in need, not to some organization helping families, but to the individual family! My favorite grocery store is family owned (they have 3 stores in our area). When I’m shopping there, someone is always willing to help and I feel they truly want to assist me in any way they can. They take pride in what they are doing.

    This system we live in is definitely complex. It does frustrate me to know that the products I buy at some little store are the same ones Wal-mart is selling. Therefore, what difference am I making? Maybe it is only symbolic but I’m thankful I made a symbolic change! I’ve gotten to know many very nice people who actually care about many of the same things I do!

    I enjoy your blog and read it regularly!

  3. Laura,

    Well, cities being a different animal altogether, I think we’ll keep up our symbolic gestures. I still think that a smaller company is better run–that is, the people who run it often use more common sense and are friendlier.

    I wouldn’t call that a symbolic gesture at all; just the opposite. There’s nothing empty in directing your business so as to encourage people who do things the way you would like to see them done. The symbolic support for local commerce I’m thinking of is along the lines of shopping at the dingy, smoke-filled convenience store manned by unfriendly and uncaring workers, or buying garlic for $12/lb from the fellow at the farmer’s market who spends more on marketing than on growing, or feeling better about buying produce at Whole Foods because pictures of area farmers are displayed above the racks. There’s nothing wrong with doing those things for their own sake—the convenience store is in fact convenient, the garlic is better and cost isn’t an issue, the produce is a good value—but actually supporting the local community would require a fair bit more thought and research on one’s part.

    I think this is all to say that, I love the idea of people helping each other practically as you describe, but it’s not likely to happen for us in the city on so elemental a level, so I’m wondering what we can do instead to form more organic, rather than merely preferential, bonds.

    I’d start with two things: making something for sale, and looking for neighbors who make things for sale. Soap is a good example; it’s easy to make, portable, easy to store, you can get creative if you like, the result is much more wholesome than the standard industrial product, and you can sell it at a much lower price than what handmade soap goes for in the stores, thereby both serving your neighbors and making it worth your own while. For someone not in the heart of the city, eggs might serve the same purpose. In either case, though, I’d recommend that the idea not be to make some money, but just to engage in commerce with neighbors while covering your costs; there are much better ways to make money, but those ways do little to build relationships.

    Right now we’re getting eggs to our neighbors. We provide them to our elderly next door neighbor, to Jerome Lange, and to our pastor for free; the rest go for $1 apiece. We harvest maybe About thirteen or fourteen dozen a week go out the door, and we keep the other three or four for ourselves. The $10 or so we take in probably doesn’t cover the cost of feed (although today we’re finally slaughtering the ten extra roosters we foolishly fed during the winter). But those eggs have deepened existing relationships and added new ones; in particular, we have two Amish neighbors who buy them, and that has been our first significant contact with them. So those eggs are worth much, much more to us than the money they bring in.

  4. I agree, Rick. I fail to understand the point of purchasing some identical product from a local store at 20%++ higher price than the Bigbox, unless the local store is providing something of value, even if it is intangible, that the Bigbox does not provide.

  5. I am glad to see you putting this thought out there for us Rick – as I have personally had issue with this myself. And I at 10% or even pushing 20% if it is a locally owned store that has been a family for awhile I might still consider it. But I have seen, especially with the farm supply, seed and feed kinds of places markups over the typical box store more on the order of 40% for the same dang product with the same label and everything. Now maybe they wouldn’t need that kind markup if they had all the customers they had before the box store came in – but in the end, I as a consumer living on the minimum end of things myself can NOT justify as a statement and good will gesture that kind of additional expense to my own operation with out then passing that on to someone else. Now, if there is a difference in the product that is measurable in quality, quantity, returns then again, I am willing to pursue that independent seller.

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