Sunday, November 27, 2011

Buy Local

Buying local is a key adaptation to a world of more expensive energy, and it is something we can start to do now, not wait for COP17 to fail.

I am on the whole I sceptical of “individual effort” as the key call from politicians for addressing climate change: it becomes an excuse not to address the major systemic changes we need, like replanning cities to reduce urban sprawl, making public transport a viable option for those who own cars, and replacing coal-based power generation by clean energy. Nonetheless individual effort has a role: those who care enough can set an example, and when enough people care, political action follows. I lived in Australia for 9 years, and when enough ordinary people were fed up with politics as usual, the political side of the Green movement grew to the extent that today, the Greens hold the balance of power in the federal parliament as well as in the Tasmanian state government. As a result, we are seeing real action there, like feed-in tariffs for clean energy and a carbon tax.

In any case, the reality is that as energy becomes more expensive, buying local makes increasing sense, and this will happen as fossil fuels deplete, no matter what governments do about climate change. Add to that the community-building effect of more local employment, and meeting people when you go out to a local market, and buying local has a lot to recommend it. This sort of change is something we can all work for, and have fun doing so. In a small town, we can set an example on a small scale for others to follow. And building consciousness of the environmental cause is not all about protests, petitions and politics. We need to have fun, and demonstrate that the alternative lifestyle we promote is something everyone can live with.

Bread as it should be
The bread line
Grahamstown has several markets, including a regular one on Saturday mornings, starting at 9am outside the old gaol on Somerset Street. This market is a small informal affair as befits a small town, but you can buy some really good stuff there, including farm-fresh vegetables, a variety of local cheeses plus some from elsewhere in the country, artisanal bread and fresh fish.

queuing for fish
The modern concept of a shopping mall is highly car-centric. Everyone who needs to shop piles into a car, or some sort of luxury urban tractor, to go shopping in a place where it’s safe to walk around, because there are no cars inside. Then the shoppers all sit in traffic for half an hour, and head back to suburbia, where it’s marginally safer for the kids to play than the city centre, because there are fewer cars. Contrast this with the older style of city, with good pedestrian spaces, street-level shops and people living and working close to markets. The older style of city tends to be healthier, because people exercise more just going about their daily business. It also promotes a greater diversity of trade, because a small shop with a street front selling a narrow range of specialities can trade to people walking or cycling, who don’t have the hassle of finding parking before they can go into the shop.
Not the Monty Python cheese shop

Adapting to climate change and peak oil isn’t all bad, if it forces the end of car-centric shopping. We could all be fitter, healthier, enjoy shopping more, and live in a happier community with less unemployment.

Jam with a smile
How can we advance that cause in Grahamstown?

For a start, patronise the existing market, and small shops, rather than do all your shopping at a chain supermarket. Walk or cycle to the shops: unless you are picking up something heavy, this is easy for most residents (though suburban sprawl has hit the outlying areas). Also it would be a useful project to promote urban gardening, especially among the poorer people of our town. If they had access to a market, it would add to their income, adding to the general happiness and well-being of our town.

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