|The two fundamental assumptions underlying the way we’ve designed our
communities are the assumptions of cheap energy and cheap disposal costs.
In constant dollars, a barrel of oil that cost five dollars in 1910 cost a
little over a dollar in 1965. The cost of throwing away a ton of garbage
remained pretty much the same from 1900 to 1960. We could therefore ignore
the operating inefficiencies and wastes of the systems that we
Cities reflect that inefficiency and waste. Our cities are
dependent creatures. A city of 100,000 people imports 200 tons of food,
1,000 tons of fuel and 62,000 tons of water a day, and dumps 100,000 tons
of garbage and 40,000 tons of human waste a year. We’ve accepted long
distribution systems as the price we pay for progress and development.
Indeed, we’ve elevated separation to the status of virtue and
internalized those principles into our way of thinking about our local
I was recently reminded of how much we take that state of affairs for
granted when I was in a St. Paul, Minnesota, restaurant. After finishing
lunch, I got a toothpick, and of course all toothpicks now have an
obligatory plastic wrapper. The word Japan was printed on the wrapper.
Now, I thought to myself, Japan has no wood, but it had been considered
economical to take pieces of wood and send them to Japan, wrap them in
plastic and send the whole thing back to Minnesota. That toothpick
embodied 50,000 miles within it. Well, not to be undone, Minnesota just
set up a factory. It’s producing chopsticks and it’s sending them to
This brings to mind an image of two ships passing each
other in the Pacific, one carrying little pieces of wood from Japan to the
United States, and the other carrying little pieces of wood from the
United States to Japan. That is economical only if one accepts the twin
assumptions noted at the outset—those pillars upon which our economic
system has been established.
This import-export paradigm is the way our economy runs. It is also the
way our waste economy runs. Washington, D.C., for instance, was becoming
overwhelmed by its human wastes, and paid a consultant $150,000 to come up
with a solution. He suggested they barge them to Haiti. That
recommendation was approved by D.C., but Haiti vetoed the idea. Haiti
decided though they’d been offered the wastes of the capital of the Free
World, they preferred not to be shat upon.
The integrated planetary economy was supposed to make us more secure,
but has it? Global trade expands and so do planetary tensions. For
example, developing countries are now exporting more and more food to the
developed countries to earn the hard currency necessary to repay debts
that they incurred primarily to build up their export industries.
Industrial development and utilization both have increased. The developed
countries are in an interesting protectionist free trade dance, a pas de
deux of late planetary economics, in which each country tries desperately
to preserve at least some amount of its sovereignty and its productive
assets, at the same time trying not to interfere with free trade and the
mobility of resources.
Capital has become the lubricant for the planetary economy, the grease
that lets the planetary machine function. We fervently believe that
capital should flow at least as freely as raw materials and products. Last
year twenty times more currency was traded than was needed to underwrite
We are more reluctant to embrace the unimpeded mobility of
the third factor of production: labor. But we’re inching up to it. Six
months ago the Council of Economic Advisers recommended abolishing all
barriers to migration in order to improve the economy.
We’ve lost sight of the underpinning of a society—the sense of
community. Mobility is not synonymous with progress. We’ve ignored
Benjamin Franklin’s advice: those who would trade independence for
security usually wind up with neither. We have made that trade and in the
process have become an increasingly dependent and insecure people.
But now the rules have changed. Cheap energy and cheap disposal are no
longer available. Despite the recent drop in oil prices, the cost of
energy has risen more than 1,000 percent in the last 15 years. Disposal
costs have risen even more dramatically. In 1975 it typically cost about
$3 to $5 to dispose of a ton of garbage. Today in the U.S. it costs
between $30 and $50 to dispose of that ton of garbage. In 1970, to dispose
of a barrel of hazardous waste cost between $5 and $10 a barrel—although
most companies just spilled it on the side of the road. Today, to dispose
of hazardous waste costs about $300 a barrel, and for many companies the
disposed hazardous waste now has a legal liability attached to it that is
What’s important to note about these price changes is that they have
changed not because of the real world exhaustion of supply, but because of
a change in political attitude. The rising price of oil did not occur
because oil began running out, but because OPEC artificially limited the
supply. The cost of waste disposal did not rise because we suddenly ran
out of dump space but because communities, by establishing new disposal
rules, artificially limited the supply. We consciously and willfully
changed the cost of doing things the traditional way.
One of the enduring legacies of the environmental movement is that it
has managed to begin to move the price of doing things to the cost of
doing things. The price is what an individual pays; the cost is what the
Let me give you a specific example of price versus cost. Rock salt is
used to de-ice roadways. Its price is very cheap: one to two cents a
pound. There is at least one alternative to rock salt, made out of plant
matter: calcium-magnesium acetate. It can be produced at present for about
twenty cents a pound—ten to twenty times more than rock salt. That’s
its price. However, rock salt has some problems. It corrodes the underbody
of cars, it corrodes bridges, and in New York City, Consolidated Edison
has found that it causes a great many problems in the electric supply
system which runs through the sewers.
Sewer water, carrying dissolved rock salt, can corrode insulation and lay bare wires. A neoprene gas can be generated and if a spark occurs, the explosion can send manhole covers flying. By one estimate Consolidated Edison spends $75 million to repair damage caused by rock salt. That’s part of the cost of rock salt. Another cost is polluted groundwater and the devastation of vegetation. New York State has made an informal estimate that the actual, internalized cost of rock salt is eighty cents a pound. Which de-icer should you buy?
The individual is unaware of this cost. It is the responsibility of the community to make price and cost similar.
Even though the rules have changed, we haven’t yet adopted a new paradigm, a new way of organizing our knowledge and our information. One of the principles of that new paradigm should be to extract the maximum amount of useful work ecologically possible from the local resource base. That sounds like a very modest proposal, but it has profound repercussions. As we begin to obtain more and more useful work, we find that we’ve begun to be more and more self-reliant and self-contained.
Is self-reliance economical? What do we mean by economics? What do we value in our economic system? Those who praise the global economy and trade as the underpinnings of our economic health invariably point to the example of bananas. Surely local self-reliance does not mean raising our own bananas in the United States when the climate is so much more favorable in Guatemala.
It may be cheaper to import those bananas, once again, depending on what the price is versus the cost. Bananas that come from Central America come from countries that do not permit unions, are produced by companies that do not pay any taxes, and are grown by production methods that have no environmental regulations. I submit that if you calculated the number of dollars that have been spent by the United States in military intervention in Central America, and divided that by the number of bananas that imported into the United States, you would find that it’s very costly to import bananas rather than to grow them yourself.
When we look at economic signals, we need to look at them in a holistic sense. First, we are learning, as our systems get ever-larger, that the downside risks get correspondingly greater. Twenty years ago we talked about a catastrophe, it meant a flood or an earthquake. Today when we talk about a catastrophe we mean the end of the ozone layer, the end of the human species. Local self-reliance also has a downside risk: you could try somoething and it might not work, but the risk is modest.
Second, local self-reliance to a diversity of experimentation. As communities experiment with different technologies, we advance on the learning curve. Third, local self-reliance by definition reduces pollution by improving efficiency. Fourth, local self-reliance is economical because it recycles money internally for more productive purposes that would otherwise have to be spent on maintaining the system. A crude estimate that I made recently suggested that 15 years ago the United States was spending between 1 and 3 percent of its overall income for system maintenance and cleanup. Today we’re spending almost 15 percent of our income for that purpose.
And finally, an advantage of local self-reliance is that we begin to channel our ingenuity into developing new bodies of knowledge that may be appropriate to a world that is in a very different condition. The technologies that we’re developing in North America, for example, are technologies appropriate to nations that are resource-rich and people poor. But 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that are resource-poor and people-rich.
If you try to make the United States self-sufficient or self-reliant, the technologies you develop to do so will be neither appropriate nor compatible with the needs of developing nations. But if you move toward making our densely populated and resource-short cities self-reliant the technologies developed will be appropriate to a resource-poor world. The knowledge generated can become a major export commodity.
But the primary benefit of local self-reliance is not economic; it’s psychological and social. It improves decision making because the costs of the decision fall on the same community. We do not separate the productive process over long distances. Psychologically, we improve the self-confidence and security of our communities. We begin to miniaturize the economy. It means achieving what Fritz Schumacher, one of the great economists of our time, dreamt of: local production for local markets from local resources.
Is that theory or is that practice? Well, it turns out that in the scrap metal industry, the scale of production is much smaller than in the raw materials industry. The best example I know of is the steel industry, where the newest technology is called the mini-mill. They used to be called neighborhood mills, but the industry decided that that would raise the image of Mao Ze-dong’s backyard furnaces, and they didn’t feel this was good advertising.
Mini-mills use 100 percent scrap, and are very small—200,000 tons a year average production. A raw ore-based, vertically integrated steel mill produces between two and three million tons a year. The healthiest, fastest-growing part of the steel industry is based on scrap that comes from regional markets and products often sold regionally.
Another example is the chemurgy movement, created 50 years ago by scientists from around the world concerned with using the then-large agricultural surpluses as industrial products. In 1932, the Italian ambassador to Great Britain arrived at the Court of St. James dressed in a suit made of milk. That is, Italian scientists had discovered how to weave the casein in milk into clothes.
In 1941, Henry Ford, a devotee of the chemurgy movement, unveiled his biological car. The car body was made of soybeans, the fuel came from corn, and the wheels were made of goldenrod. The soybean plastic body weighed half as much as a steel-bodied car, so the car was more fuel-efficient. If you dented ti modestly, the dents could be knocked back out. The car was warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, and it was quieter—if you knock on steel and then knock on a soybean, you understand the sort of deadening characteristics on the inside of that car.
The dreams of Henry Ford and the rest of the chemurgy movement were postponed, but they seem to be resurfacing again. Russell Buchanan, a scientist in Maryland, envisions the rise of botanic-chemical complexes, as he calls them, rather than petrochemical complexes, as we learn to extract from cellulose the same things that we can extract from petrochemicals. One is a hydrocarbon; the other is a carbohydrate. Compare these words and they’re basically the same. One of the differences, however, between a botano-chemical complex and a petrochemical complex is that it’s easy to transport oil over long distances, whereas it’s not easy to transport plant matter over long distances. So botano-chemical complexes will tend to be locally based and rurally based near their sources of raw materials and supplies.
Local self-reliance can become an economic development strategy, and cities are the best place to try it out, for several reasons. Most of us live in cities. Cities tend to be large enough to have an internal market, and can in fact become laboratories. Cities are concentrations of science and technology. They have the ingenuity, the expertise and the machine tool shops to build prototypes and try them out. But what is your nearest city’s research and development budget? It’s probably zero.
The local self-reliance scenario is not inevitable nor is it even probable. It depends on political decisions. Economic development must be seen as a means to an end and not an end in itself. Albert Einstein once said that perfection of means and confusion of ends characterize our age. We’re so mesmerized with technology and development that we forget to ask, “Technology for what?” and “Development for whom?” We have become consumers of change, but we don’t know the difference between change and progress. To Bertrand Russell progress is ethical and change is scientific; change is inevitable, while progress is problematic. In other words, progress is value-laden and as we change, we need to ask ourselves, “Will we progress?” We can have a green city within a brown world by moving all of our production and disposal systems very far away from our city. But to truly embrace the ecological motivation behind a green city, we must become responsible for the wastes that are generated for our convenience. And the only way to do that is to begin to return that loop of production, use and disposal, back to the community.
Marcel Proust once said that the voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes. It is in seeing our communities and our cities with new eyes, in pursuing a globe of villages and not a global village, that we begin to create a new paradigm.
This article originally appeared in Raise the Stakes, #13, Nature in Cities, Winter 1988. It is copyrighted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, see more articles by David Morris at their site,
www.ilsr.org. The graphic is by Leonard Rifas.
Contact him at EduComics, Box 45831, Seattle, WA 98145.