Who Is Sustainable?

As I’m writing this I am doing one of the least sustainable activities human beings have ever invented: a vacation cruise to the Caribbean in late January. I’m on a floating city with about 3,000 other old farts, burning tons of oil resources every few hours, consuming more food than many cities ten or one hundred times the population of this boat, creating nothing of use for anyone else on the planet, and we’re all pretending that we “deserve” this luxury because we managed to be lucky enough to be some of the world’s most wealthy people. We just left two islands, Aruba and Cascaras that are barely more sustainable than this boat. One of those two islands produces nothing but tourist attractions and the other is equally dependent on tourism plus water resources for a brand of booze that is incredibly water-intensive on a desert island that tears through energy and water as if the world were endless.

I live in a small Minnesota town, Red Wing that is barely more sustainable than those islands and this boat. Like all of the previously mentioned places, Red Wing’s residents are mostly oblivious to their dependence and like most of rural America they are even arrogantly clueless about how dependent they are on the rest of the country and world for their lifestyle. “We grow our own food, unlike the people in the cities,” they often argue. Growing corn and soybeans is not “growing your own food.” Corn and soybeans are food for animals and a particularly inefficient energy boondoggle. Just like the rest of the country, if the shit hit the fan and our system of interdependent reliance collapsed, most of rural America would fail in quick and spectacular fashion.

Oddly, the most sustainable community I have visited in recent years has been Detroit. Through corruption, incompetence, indifference, and lethargy, Detroit’s infrastructure and community completely collapsed in the wake of NAFTA, the Bush Recession, and the socio-economic upheavals of the last 25 years that is causing the auto industry to either reform or die (the outcomes, the winners and losers are yet to be determined). After neighborhoods collapsed and were abandoned, ransacked, and, eventually, knocked down and hauled away, urban farms sprouted up everywhere and became far more efficient, independent food sources than anything rural America has seen since the 1800’s. There are neighborhoods in Detroit that not only are capable of feeding themselves, but they produce enough food to export to the rich folks for a premium and profit.

Nobody ever said, “If you can make it in Red Wing you can make it anywhere.” One of the problems rural Americans haven’t had to face (yet) is the fact that talent, skills, and intelligence have been evacuating the countryside since the beginning of the Industrial Age. The smart kids leave and the dumb ones stay and reproduce, creating a growing dumbed-down rural population that becomes more dependent every generation. Every economic study I know of demonstrates that urban America economically props up rural America for diminishing returns and vanishing reasons. There will be an obvious outcome, eventually.

One of the lessons I learned from my manufacturing career was that engineers apply the Paretto Effect, sometimes unintentionally, to occupations. We first automate the jobs that are typically filled by assholes, eliminating the assholes and the places were their “participation” jams up production. For example, you might have thought that production line technicians would have been the last place for automation to appear, but it was among the first. Equipment and fixtures to perform final test procedures on assemblies and finished products were some of the first jobs to be automated because the people who gravitated to those jobs over-estimated both their skill levels and their necessity. Likewise, farming is experiencing the beginning of that effect as GPS, satellite weather monitoring, drone and robotic ground conditions observation, and robotic planting and harvesting equipment take over farming and farm jobs. In the very foreseeable future, the only commercial farm jobs will be high-tech equipment repair and “farming” will be managed from even greater distances; most likely from urban offices. At that point, rural dependence on urban support will be unsustainable and we’ll see even more rural communities dry up and blow away than in 1929.

The best possible scenario I can imagine will be that some rural areas will become like those Caribbean islands; tourist destinations that either learn to be incredibly tolerant and friendly or die. I got the feeling that Aruba was like one giant service business depending on positive Yelp reviews for its existence. It is scary-easy to imagine my current hometown, Red Wing, becoming one cruise ship-like entity living or dying by a few thousand tourist reviews.

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