Thursday, June 28, 2007

Romantic nostalgia

We all do it. We romantize the past, demonise the present, and proclaim prophet-like doom on the future. Even the most entrenched modernist and post-modernist gets caught in the trap of "tsk, tsking" about the state of things and wishing to bring back some aspect of the past, sure that that was better than this.

If only we had Mom-and-Pop stores again, serving us within walking distance, knowing our names and asking after our children! If we could walk to work! If only we didn't make such a large "footprint" on our environment!

The problem is, we tend to overlook how we've individually benefitted from all thes changes we say we hate. We also tend to over-simplify the answers, over-demonized the busineses involved, and maybe we even use our indignation to stop further action. We can feel good about not shopping certain stores without looking very deeply into the whole picture.

What's the whole picture? Let's first look at where we live. Let's say I move out of the suburbs so I can grow some of my own food and look at something other than my neighbors yard. Great, right? Well, yes, as long as I don't then travel two or three times as far to do the things I need to do, thereby burning all that fossil fuel. How much have I shrunk my environmental "foot" if I'm now traveling two or three times as far to buy groceries, go to the doctor, go to church, visit friends, see a movie, or take my kids anywhere, or better yet, to avoid the local big-box demon?? Hmmm.

Or say I start buying fruits and vegies at the local farmer's market. For me, that's a 20 min drive as opposed to a 5 min drive to the grocery store, where I'm going to go anyway for the other things I need. And, of course, the farmers have all driven in to set up their stands. Okay, so the food hasn't traveled from California, and I agree that's a good thing. But it isn't totally benign, either. Most of these farmers have traveled 30-70 miles to get here, usually in trucks or vans. Add the gas from all the vendors and gas from all the customers, and....well, you do the math. Add to that that I will pay almost 2x the price for the vegies and fruits and, economically speaking, it's not a slam-dunk.

Don't get me wrong, I try to go as many Saturday mornings as possible. I enjoy it and the food is good. But I'm not going to pat myself on the back or think I'm making some socially meaningful choice here. Personally meaningful, perhaps, but socially? Questionable.

Yes, I think big agribusiness has a major problems, but let's change the bad laws, not demonize the industry. Let's not kid ourselves into thinking we are living more morally because we don't buy Pop-tarts. It's much more complicated than that. And to be socially meaningful, you need to do more than eat locally. You need to look at what the poor and working poor really need from us and go from there. I'm not sure they'd thank you for undermining the flow of convenient and inexpensive foods. Not many poor/working poor are buying at the farmer's market, even though they live the closest to it. Part of that might be lack of education on health and nutrition, but the majority of that is economics.

And lets look at housing. Where do most of us live? We probably live on what was once farmland. We enjoy our house and our neighborhoods, but perhaps lose sight of the fact that cows once pastured there, crops grew, or small furry animals frolicked int eh woods that once flourished. Someone plowed under paradise so we could have a house. Not only that, they plowed under paradise so we could have relatively inexpensive houses. Now, tell me, why are we so upset when we see more developments going in? Do we want to horde for ourselves the right to own a house? Or to work in a prosperous area which attracts even more people to live there? I don't like to see the woods cut down any more than the next person, but let's face it, who am I to say the landowner doesn't have the right to sell, or the builder to build, or the buyers to buy and raise nice little families there? Isn't that what I want? Just because the farm that was plowed under to build my house happened 40 years ago doesn't change the fact that it happened, and I'm benefiting from it.

Of course I could move farther out, but we've covered some of the environmentally unfriendly aspects of that already. And we could also cover the needs of the poor here. Remodeling cute little craftsman homes isn't an option for them. Moving out to the country isn't either in many cases. We may feel virtuous fighting another housing (or shopping) development, but let's be honest about who we're helping here. It's a little like banning CFC's an denying the developing countries access to cheap and efficient refrigeration just because we can afford the more environmentally-friendly expensive stuff.

I haven't even gotten into the whole big-box, little-box, chain store aspect. Let me just say Ikea is a big-box chain store. How do you think they can offer the good deals? Because they're nice people?? Oh, and can someone explain why I should pay 50% more to support a local business that can't buy in bulk and can't employ more than a few people and probably can't afford to give them any benefits at all? Just because they exist?

And that leads me to why we have all these large stores....they save us money and we like that.

Just in case you think I'm a total troglodyte, I was in Asheville, NC this past weekend and enjoyed walking around the downtown with my extended family. Asheville is a unique and enjoyable town, in part because they allow very few chain stores or restaurants in the downtown area. I like that. You get unique shops and interesting restaurants. You also get very expensive shops and restaurants. Asheville can do that because the base population in the area has the money to support the stores. that isn't going to work in most towns because the people that need to be served by the downtown shops can't afford it.

There are many problems that are better dealt with by looking forward and shouldering the challenges, not by looking back and wishing we could turn back the hands of time. Better food supply, a hard look at farm subsidies, better education on nutrition and food, perhaps tighter controls on junk food, perhaps better laws on zoning and urban sprawl.

And let's remember, we've all benefited from the low cost of living our uniquely American economy has produced. It's not perfect, but it got this way for more reasons that just shady politics. Our economy got this way because it gave convenient, low priced goods to millions of people across a huge geographical area. It got this way because, for the most part, it's worked.


Karen said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to sort all this out. You know I'm of the same mind (but I talk it instead of writing it!), so I'm glad there are phones.

What I've come to is the decision to pick battles very carefully (time is not free), so make sure that attempting to "make a difference" does indeed succeed.

Most of all, try to get your kids to see the *reality* of all this stuff. Their idealism (and its potential errors) could cost everyone the future.

Looking back fondly, with the knowledge that we're all just where we're supposed to be - right now :D,

julieunplugged said...

Great long rant. :)

It's funny. When I moved out here to Ohio, everyone assumed I was so glad to be done with all the driving I did in LA. You know? Everything I needed was within a one mile radius including Jon's work, my doctor, the place I worked out, shopping, our church, Noah's rock climbing gym, the post office (walking distance), a convenience store, a park, and our homeschool charter school offices that I went to twice a week. Our farmer's market was about five miles from home.

I moved to Ohio and *everything* was at least a ten minute drive somewhere. I felt like I was in the car all the time. I can't walk anywhere.

The difference? LA is so overly developed that the density of homes and businesses means everything is close. Ohio is spread out so things are further away. I'm the only one I know here who cheered when a movie theater and shopping were added to our area. And I can't wait for the local IKEA.

I'm always sad when an old farm goes under just because they are beautiful to look at. But they are utterly impractical and if I were offered millions to sell and I as in my 60s, I'd sell. :)


carrie said...

I moved to Ohio and *everything* was at least a ten minute drive somewhere. I felt like I was in the car all the time. I can't walk anywhere.

That's it in a nutshell. Everything is "ten minutes away." I get frustrated with all the driving.

On the other hand, Will keeps talking about moving farther out, and the thought of even *more* driving is depressing! I'll settle for suburbia right now, where I can get to most things in less than 20 min. ;-)

carrie said...

Oh, and I meant to add...

The closest I've come to lving in a city was for a few eyars when I was in high school. We lived in a older section of a medium size city in WVA (before that was fashionable) and I could walk to all the downtown shops, walk to school, and walk to many of my friends' houses. It was great.

But I have no idea what it would be like to live in a real city. I think it would be fun if I felt safe! ;-)

Ampersand said...

As a mom & pop store owner, I have to say I pretty much agree with your take on things. I think that perhaps walmart, ant others like it, who seek to put small stores out of business directly, rather than just indirectly and through market forces, are in a category of evil all their own.

Our store derives most of it's business from being local to our particular corner of suburbia -- for so many people it is more convenient to come here rather than go the extra few miles and steps to get to the store at the center of the mall, or in the bigger strip malls. Mostly, I can compete on price and product and I can definitely surpass the service of the chain stores filled with a revolving quota of employees. I am not saying that every small store can do this, but some certainly can, depending on their niche.

Just yesterday, I had two customers who work for a competitor but buy their games here. Sweet.

The debate over big/small/local/chain lives in a system of logistics and market forces. It is like a big bowl of jello -- everything is interconnected. If you push one part, you will get movement in another, and not always the intended effect.

Yep, great rant. :\