August 25, 2007

Why local?

I've had a few more questions lately about why I devote so much time to local issues. It's a reasonable question - most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about their municipality. It seems like everyone has an opinion on national politics, perhaps because the newspapers and airwaves are saturated with it, and less and less time to think about more local issues. (Perhaps everyone is staying home or in their car watching television or listening to the radio.)

I have a few reasons why I turned to local issues, and the last of them may help explain some of my more recent turn toward local food, gardening, and similar things. (Warning: this list is presented more bluntly than most things at Living in Dryden.)

National politics already gets enough attention.

Usually not the kind of attention I'd like it to get, and the conversations are often brutally polarized, but the conversations about national politics are loud and continuous. National politics seem to blot out people's attention for more local issues, and even keep people who could work together on local projects from doing so.

New York State politics is a disaster.

The Senate and the Assembly are both rigged games, thanks to gerrymandering and the concentration of power and patronage in the legislative leadership. Both major political parties are deeply tangled in the mess. Governor Spitzer's steamroller seems to have tangled itself in the Albany muck. I still have visions of what a vibrant New York State political life might look like, but usually they stay buried in despair over an utterly broken system. While New York State politics certainly needs more attention, it's hard to watch for long.

Upstate New York is home.

I grew up in Corning, and my mother's from Auburn. I don't believe there's a better place in this country to live, and I've seen a lot of it. Four real seasons may seem inconvenient to some people, but it gives us an incredible changing landscape, blessed with readily available water supplies and a complete set of opportunities to support people. I know everyone thinks "Upstate is in decline", and from a certain perspective, it is - but I see better potential for stable long-term prosperity here than anywhere else in this country.

My neighborhood - from the 13/366 overlap to "downtown" Varna - is just plain interesting.

The more I think about it, the more miraculous it seems that the Varna Community Association has been going for over fifty years, despite a neighborhood wracked with traffic and a population that comes and goes. The last four years have seen some dramatic change around the 13/366 intersection. Even as NYSEG's turned out most of the lights in their crazy fortress, two new places have appeared where I can buy vegetables, an old and decaying house has returned to vibrant life, and people seem to be recognizing that there's change in the air.

The people are fascinating, and real.

Talking about local issues almost always means talking about the concrete, and people's own hopes and fears come to the surface easily. It's not (usually) about political party or ideology, but rather about how best to get things done, and how to choose which things need to get done. The variety of perspectives is amazing, and the overlaps and crossovers in how people would like to prioritize are both marvelous and perplexing. The hard part is getting them talking.

I'm convinced that we're all going to need our immediate neighbors more in the future.

Why? Because pretty much everything that's made it easy to ignore our neighbors depends on cheap energy. I don't see much hope for thinking that energy will stay cheap, as worldwide demand is increasing much faster than supply. Some key parts of our supply may be peaking or even declining, and neither ethanol nor hydrogen will magically provide us with more cheap energy. (Nuclear energy and alternative sources may help buffer that, but "too cheap to meter" doesn't exist.) We're going to have to adjust to gasoline, natural gas, and electrical prices climbing, and will have to figure out how to economize on a lot of things that once seemed cheap.

I'm sure that last bullet will raise some eyebrows. I know plenty of good people who don't think $10 for a gallon of gas is possible, because technology will save us. I know lots of bright people think a 50-mile commute is reasonable. Perhaps craziest of all, people with strong environmental beliefs seem to move to the middle of nowhere but spend a lot of energy traveling from there rather than joining their neighborhood community.

Our neighbors aren't just part of the landscape - they're our community. People who can help us, and people we can help too. We may not agree with our neighbors, and we may sometimes not even like our neighbors, but all of us together will define what happens to the place we share. When we start thinking about people in huge numbers, it's easily to abstract away their humanity, and treat them as blocks. When we focus on people in smaller numbers, we can start to see what we have in common with them, and what we don't have in common, and work on ways to build that commonality - even when it's difficult.

Building those connections is what Living in Dryden is all about. The site itself can't create the connections among its readers - but hopefully it makes it easier for you to build those connections.

Posted by simon at August 25, 2007 9:01 AM in
Note on photos


Eric B said:

I agree that this area is one of the best places to live, I love the four seasons here, and will take snow over other natural disasters ANY DAY! I also think your last point is key, and agree that community building is really important. Along those lines, I have an email on a workshop from Earth Arts and Primitive Pursuits that I'll forward to you.