Archive for the ‘Land Use’ Category

In economic thought, those that advocate for free markets often speak in terms of the “rational actor”. That presumes that those purchasers with disbursable assets consider their personal or strategic needs and analyze and rationally choose their best option (delaying purchase, or choice of product/service/supplier). And, it assumes that providers of goods and service, analyze their options and rationally choose their optimal strategies.

There are many real life qualifications to that assumption, of free and rational actors. One is that there are fewer and fewer individuals with net disbursable wealth. MANY are under water currently, insolvent.

Options must be comparable to decide. Some organizations and individuals include multiple considerations in their rational decisions more than others. Most still include single criteria, prospective cash flow, money.

The components of economic decisions are changing.

In the modern world, there are many factors that make choosing “sustainable” options the rational one, both for individual decisions and for public policy to facilitate. There is finite physical land, requiring land use planning. There are finite phyiscal limits to key materials, compelling an emphasis on recycling over consumption. There are finite physical limits to the environment’s ability to assimilate toxins, compelling emphasis on reducing the introduction of toxins into the biosphere.

One variable factor that currently promises to affect supplier decisions (siting of manufacturing and distribution) and consumer decisions, is the price of oil and all fossil fuels. With the degree of agricultural land that is used for methanol derived from corn and sugar cane, the price of corn and then all grains is also now directly tied, on the demand side, to the price of oil.

For any product that is transported, the cost of getting that product to the end user, considering the whole value/supply chain, firms will need to consider the siting of manufacturing and distributing centers more intently. The cost of transportation may become so severe, especially for bulky products, that the global industrial value/supply chain may experience severe pressures and actual competition from decentrally sited manufacturing and distribution over the current trend of centralization of manufacturing and distribution.

My area of experience is in the food industry. I worked as a financial controller for a cereal manufacturer for 9 years. The cost of materials for our products was between 40 and 50% of our total costs. Labor 15%, equipment  5%, supporting organizational overhead and marketing, 25%, profit 5%. (Really rough numbers).

Materials were grain, sweeteners, oils, nuts/fruit. Grain is a particularly bulky product. No grain originates in east, maybe a small amount of corn. Most grains require relatively dry conditions (wheat, oats). Grain land specialized for mix of rain patterns and large expanses of land suitable for “industrial” agriculture. Corn requires moderate moisture. Rice requires a great deal.

Grains are bulky. A pound of wheat takes up a great deal more volume than a pound of steel. A pound of milled wheat takes up even more volume. A pound of milled oats for example, that in 2007 cost .16/pound for the oats themselves, cost .13/pound to transport. Unmilled grains are less bulky and can be economically transported by train, then milled decentrally and shipped their last bulky mile by truck.

The first shift will be a shift to utilization of trains over trucks for transport. At some point though, manufacturers will rationally shift to decentralized modular siting of manufacturing rather than central. The sourcing of original materials regionally will be impossible for food. The most that will happen with food is that the subsequent processing will be decentralized. Using grains as an example, wheat will still be grown in the northern midwest, but the milling and subsequent processing will occur closer to consumers.

Another demographic shift that is possible to occur is a population migration west, nearer to the source of grain, and now with the acknowledgement of the persistent winds throughout the midwest, to the source of inexpensive electricity.

Among consumers, the cost of gasoline will hopefully motivate employees to seek work closer to home. If manufacturers decentralize their manufacturing regionally, then there will be more work available regionally.

What happens if manufacturers and consumers do not shift to a regional focus?

Considering the analysis of four-fold multiplying factors adding up to wasteful fossil fuel usage (technology, utilization, population, siting), eliminating one prominent factor that has a great impact on average per capita fossil fuel consumption (siting), will greatly hinder society’s progress towards the 80% reduction in fossil fuel consumption necessary for climate stability (at least free from our intervention), and reducing total social costs of products/services.

The first consequence is decline in the cumulative net worth in society, then borrowing against homes, then potential widespread defaults on housing, credit card and trade debt. Same as a couple years ago.

In all cases, the cost of food will rise. The cost of home heating fuel will rise. The cost of electricity will rise. The cost of transportation fuel will rise. The cost of materials that require large inputs of energy will rise.

The savings rate will decline (further, how is that possible?).

Regionalism will ameliorate those cost increases somewhat. When it sinks in that the new cost structure is permanent, the shifts in siting of manufacturing, residence, land use policies, will start to occur. They will lag, even if firms are able to anticipate. And, as manufacturing or distribution siting takes years, if not decades, to implement, we’ll be behind the rational curve for a while.

Now is a good time to do a deep energy retrofit of one’s home. Contractors are not that busy, eager to do work even below rate. Materials costs are not as stressed as they will be shortly.

While the affect of fuel prices on transportation is significant, families tend to spend 2-3 times on home heating that they do on transportation. It is also a good time to buy down on the size of one’s home.  It is a good time to “buy down” in a car though as well.

Better that we anticipate.


Read Full Post »

I’ve had a few discussions recently with individuals that suggested libertarian philosophical bases of sustainable approaches.

I very much respect the integrity and consistency of the individuals that I’ve been conversing with, and at the same time I note what could (or might not be) a fundamental philosophical disagreement.

That is the old bugaboo on the nature and extent of property rights, and critical conclusions derived from those primary assumptions.

The libertarian view, as I understand it, is that property rights are sancrosanct, that all powers derive from individual rights, and that there is no implied or corresponding responsibility of those with net worth, beyond their own voluntary associations and voluntary charitable and collaborative attitudes. The idea of commons only applies to those assets that are not yet titled, with the expectation that every thing under the sun (including the sun) will be assigned private property status under the control of an individual, an organization or in the case of wilds and commons, some authorized agent.

The mature libertarians acknowledge that much of what has constructed private property in reality results from some form of forced taking, that title does not emerge from any natural origination. And, that much of what they derive value from includes free goods from nature (sunlight, ecological services of forests, etc.) that they did not pay for.

In contrast, the theological/posterity view is that all property originates in nature as commons or “from God”, and implies an obligation to preserve assets for its original owner (obligation to restore to nature), or to use as an agent for greater good.

The two views are consistent in ways and inconsistent.

The differences occur in three respects:

1. Is property fundamentally common, or is it fundamentally individual?

2. Do non-human species/individuals bear any existential rights beyond what humans confer on them or represent them?

3. How does the concept of permanent obligation and responsibility affect attitudes, political and social conclusions differently than the concept of permanent title and ownership?

All rights are on a continuum. To any but ideologs (sorry for th dig), no right is unequivocal, unencumbered.

The rights to use land or dwellings – “real property” is a primary example.

The range of rights allowed include:

  1. non-property uses of commons or parks
  2. rights to use a strip of another’s land for conveyances
  3. temporary exclusive rights to use property for conditional purposes in exchange for rent
  4. temporary exclusive rights to use property unconditionally in exchange for rent
  5. extended temporary exclusive rights to use property via transferable lease
  6. what we call private property (unrestricted permanent title unless contested, or claimed by eminent domain, or rendered uninhabitable and unidentifiable by war, revolution, desert or glaciar).

The libertarian view holds that even after war, revolution, desertification or glaciation, property remains property. Once title is born it never dies, it is only transferred.

For all objective purposes within our lifetime, the rights of property authorized apply to both the theological/posterity view and the libertarian view.

The rights to exclusive use, transferable to heirs or others by the property owners’ choosing, is not disputed. Those are social arrangements, agreements per the legislated law of the society. That law is applied, that social agreements and conventions are applied and not ignored, allows us to transact, to minimize our fear and defensiveness.

The difference in views does however affect attitudes, behavior, political and social conclusions.

The view that property derives from nature as commons originally, its native and ultimately permanent status, regards the rights to use property as inevitably containing obligations to return to its original state. The theological/moralist view hold that ownership of title is a current agency obligation to use for the social good.

As the sun shines on all without prejudice and permanently so, that reference is profound and the rock that eco-socialists stand on. We are borrowers from the future, not owners.

In the rohrshach exercise of what comprises sustainability, those that adopt the libertarian view, originating in individual rights, think of their own first, and as community and social institutions as means to firm their own and families’ long-term survival.  Those that adopt the theological/moralist/posterity view tend to think in terms of what society as a whole needs to do survive/thrive, and assume that if society is functional that they and their descendants will be able their way through.

Beyond making sure that I and my family are secure, safe, viable living, I find no merit in thinking in terms of what preserves my family’s wealth for multiple generations. It dissolves into time.

I regard equity in the theological sense, that everything that I have is “God-given” or “nature-given”, and that my life is temporary, and that even the life of the human species is temporary.

I live on land that 20,000 years ago was under a mile of ice, a pattern that has repeated 30+ times in the last 40 100,000 year cycles. I have no basis to assume that it will not repeat.

10,000 years ago (500 generations), the land that I lived on first became inhabited, and very sparsely until maybe 1000 years ago (50 generations). There was not coherent social/legal norms in the Indian society that was here until 400 years ago (20 generation).

And, English law of property was not established at all in the region until 300 years ago (15 generations). And, that the specific surveying and titling of all land in New England (individual or state land) was complete only 160 years ago (8 generations).

For me to conclude that the norms of only 8 generations are permanent, seems to me to be an exercise in a very false vanity.

I regard property as a temporary obligation to use well, and only for my own benefit to the extent of my own experienced well-being, not for power.

And, I conclude that that is the general case.

And, I conclude that that is consistent with the sustainability effort to enhance individual personal responsibility, AND the sustainability effort to enhance social responsibility.

Read Full Post »

I had two experiences yesterday touching directly and indirectly on the global warming/climate change discussion. I’ve been an advocate of the preventative and responsive solution for/to global warming (and peak oil) for decades, but am not an advocate for either of the reasons.

The over-arching reality is that climate change is natural, necessary, real, unavoidable. The truthful conclusions of the scientific concensus on the effects of increased carbon in the atmosphere miss the point socially and economically.

The observation that the carbon levels in the atmosphere are higher than at any other observable time in ice and soil stratifying history is true. It is also likely true that that will result in some global warming, that will melt more of the planet’s glaciars than would otherwise occur.

But, relative to the enormous natural glaciation that has occurred historically and will nearly certainly again over the next 100,000 year cycle (probably starting to net increase in a few thousand years only) the human induced effects on global climate is paltry. The incremental difference of five or ten feet swing in ocean levels is a statistical blip compared to the cyclical 300 – 350 foot swing in ocean levels due to glaciation.

Our impact will be immaterial and short-lived.

Similarly, all the other expected consequences of human induced global warming, forced species migration and increased extinction rate, disease from changes in precipitation patterns, moderately more extreme storm activity are natural, necessary, real, unavoidable. 

In the scheme of things, the affects of human induced climate change is again relatively small.  (The rate of extinction of species is material in the scheme of things, but does not result from increased CO2 in the atmosphere, as much as restrictions to habitat.)

The other primary motivating “fact” that drives modern disaster theory is of “peak oil”. The thesis of peak oil is that the supply of oil and other fossil fuels on the planet are finite, which is a truth. Further, that the majority of existing oil, natural gas, and coal reserves have already been discovered, that there are no likely game changing discoveries coming, also nearly certainly true. Further, that the cost of drilling for existing oil and other fossil fuels is increasing, also true. Those facts add up to the conclusion that the consumption of oil now exceeds the rate of discovery, that we are in a state of net depletion, also true.

The faulty conclusion though is that peak oil (that we have already reached the point of net depletion) will be the driver of significant increases in fossil fuel prices, which will devastate the economy. Both elements of that conclusion are untrue, at least for the next 40 years or more.

The drivers of the price of oil are nearly entirely defined by short-term relations of demand to bottlenecks in the supply chain. Oil is a commodity with currently very few alternatives, so its price is considered inelastic. Oil based fuel products are unique for their high volatility and relative ease of transport. Those joint characteristics do not exist in any other current fuel/conversion source, not ethanol which is not as volatile as gasoline and cannot be refined to be as volatile as airplane fuel for example. Hydrogen is/can be highly volatile but is difficult to transport. For any socially necessary commodity that has few alternatives, minor changes in demand or disruptions of the supply chain will cause a large swing in price. Speculation in commodity futures, exacerbate already economic based price swings.

These are all short-term supply chain effects, with very minor effects caused by wellhead limitations.

Historically, in the US, the most that gasoline has cost at the pump near my home has been $4.50/gallon, just less than double the current stable price. Even if the price of gasoline double again to $9.00/gallon, it would unlikely cause a major shift in personal behavior or social well-being.

It would definitely cause hardship among those that that increase would be the last straw, either for transportation or home heating.

But, the reality is that gasoline costs are 15-20% of the costs of transportation for most. The cost to own, insure, tax vehicles (fixed ownership costs) are the lion’s share. We would all have to drive cars that retail for $5000 – 6000, for gasoline to be the largest expense.

There is significant increase recently in the demand for electricity, which will likely exacerbate as people move to use electric powered cars that are powered by the grid. And, that will cause a partial increase in demand for fuel. (That is a substitution of use from gasoline for private vehicles, to oil for electricity generation.)

But, no immanent giant price swings (excepting war), no immanent oil or ecological driven collapse in economy.

Peak oil is real in the long-term. Assuming that people will continue to transport, to communicate, to heat, to manufacture, there will be demands for energy, and in the life of capital investments (buildings, factories, energy generation, etc.), energy issues are critical.

The BIG concerns are social at a capital scale – Where and how settlement and land use is organized and controlled? And, individual – Where and how building internal climate and transportation needs are met?

In companies for whom I’ve worked, we often took a position of upgrading whenever a capital item needed major repair or reached its end of useful life. So, when a piece of equipment failed, we replaced it with a more functional and energy efficient one. As every piece of equipment or building fails or requires major improvement at some point, “if everyone did it”, that comprises an opportunity in the relevant time range to accomplish significant energy savings through capital improvements.

In the case of energy, “society” should both require and guarantee that every time a roof or siding is replaced, that the building add 4 inches of insulation. Or everytime an appliance breaks, that it be replaced by one that requires 1/2 of the energy of the prior.

We have to find a way that money is not a limiting factor in this regard, really at any scale – appliance, building, region even considering mass transit. Currently, MANY economically justifiable decisions to improve energy efficiency at rational decision points, are not being done for lack of access to capital for the purpose.

The redefinition of settlement patterns is a much bigger question, a necessary and difficult one. People dislike intervention. The personal disruption, loss of liberty as to where to live, and potential even social loss of invested capital, strikes most Americans as violations, un-American. We are the nation of rugged individualists, with liberty for all (dollar votes).

Somehow continuing addictions to oil, with the resulting enormous waste (with social consequences) while limiting future prospective owners’ options is considered more free.

Disaster is not imminent (yet).

Read Full Post »

Its hard to predict the future.

Most of the characteristics that describe Greenfield (aging people, aging buildings, lack of clarity as to future, increased cost of living) affect the people of the Pioneer Valley (our micro-region).

Land is still being gobbled up by sprawl, though the pace has declined since the 80’s and 90’s, when the fertile bottomland development and the forested hill-land went into high gear. With the amount of sprawl in the valley, the Connecticut River bottomland will likely never serve as a regional breadbasket (whether for cash crops – tobacco, or actual nutrients). Noone uproots McMansions, even when they are twice more expensive to heat than their mortgages.

So, we will have to use the less obvious silt pocketland (rather than bottomland) for local agriculture, with land use continually competing with residence use, and making the economics of agriculture very very difficult.

The state is struggling, so agricultural preservation through purchasing development rights on a grand scale is less likely.

Energy will remain a concern as there is no obvious replacement energy for oil and coal on the horizon, and the only means to make ends meet is by conservation and design efforts. One advantage of the open field McMansions is that they do have wide exposure to the sun and the ability to well utilize and retrofit in passive solar design, but few do.

Transportation services to sprawl are the most difficult to design and are entirely dependant on automobiles. Here, with harsh winters and people still considering themselves farmers, most still drive SUV’s AND pickups in a family.

In most of the Pioneer Valley, the population is aging. The region remains an attractive residence with very high quality of life for culturally minded, youthful adults, with the high concentration of colleges, nature, and the spin off culture that goes along with that. The baby boom generation still dominates the residences in the Upper Valley, but does not dominate the urban centers (towards Hoyoke and Springfield). Malls are young. Holyoke and Springfield are rust-belt with many poor minorities (African-American and Latino, white working class and new immigrant groups). Greenfield is a mix of  Yankee, baby boomer, white working class (minority populations).

During the next decade, the population patterns and patterns of attractive residence are likely to change slowly in the beginning of the decade, quickly later, as rural hill-town suburban “neo-sprawl” becomes more and more difficult for aging baby boomers.

Positive responses include efforts in villages to organize alternative approaches, most notably Shelburne Falls (which is geographically separated from Greenfield and no longer organizes as a suburb, but a distinct community).

Where we live and settle, is the most important feature to designing sustainability.

To the extent that we choose sprawl (or accept sprawl by negligence), rather than concentrated villages, we commit to our auto and oil addictions.

Downward trends in the valley and everywhere include the increasing percentage of viable incomes in

food (increasing percentage as land becomes scarce, depleted, rejecting of toxic methods, and as trasnsportation costs increase)

health (increasing percentage as health costs continue to rise and are processed through the mandatory insurance model with unimaginative service delivery models)

housing (increasing percentage, land is getting scarcer and scarcer, with increasing energy costs, still rising housing costs as a percentage of earned incomes)

Transportation (increasing percentage, as fuel is getting more and more expensive, and manufacturers do not introduce less expensive vehicles as competitive entry into marketplace, but only consistently more expensive)

Taxes (increasing percentage, to pay for large prior and current and future deficits)

Education (increasing percentage, as college education costs soar, and government investment in publicly funded education at all levels decline)

Not a pretty picture. If the potential savings rates currently for a typical two-worker family in the valley is 5%, and the proportional costs of food, housing, transportation, education, health all increase more than average compensation, then we will repeat our recent history of low savings rate and debt.

There is only so much that we can do individually. Other efforts have to occur by intentional planning, and at the public policy level intentional public planning designed to facilitate families’ and cooperative planning.

The role of intentional community networking and development is critical. Friendships, churches, intentional cooperatives.

The role of innovative business modeling is critical, with the emphasis on innovative. We need mentors, capital, skilled workforce, same as ever, but the need for innovation is unique.

And, the role of innovative public policy development and implementation, applied boldly, is critical or we will drive ourselves into a wall, that was avoidable.

There currently are not micro-regional governance institutions that can fill these functions. We used to have counties as a level of government jurisdiciton, but the urban-thinking (and opportunist at that) eastern Massachusetts state government disbanded counties a few years ago. They don’t fulfill the needs of governance in megalopolis’, but they do in mixed regions like ours.

Culturally, people do think of themselves as from the “valley”, even economically. The valley is isolated by mountains except for a couple transportation arteries, but often “you can’t get there from here”. The eastern-Mass innovation of annexing the Quabbin area in particular in the 30’s, committed the Pioneer Valley to be ostensibly separate from Worcester and Eastern Mass, a broken chain.

With planning and empowered innovation, then “the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades” might be true. Absent that, we’re going down a slow (and increasing fall), due to social design that ignores reality.

Read Full Post »

Yesterday I wrote about the some of the mix of incentives that deter the likelihood that sustainable/simple practices will be adopted in urban and/or more accurately suburban affluent areas.

The relationship between urban and rural communities is a critical concern, deserving of great attention.

Risking over-generalizing, cities are human-centric. The virtues of city life are the virtues of human creations, what people make. That is what urban economy is about, HUMAN value addition, work. Industry, arts, governance, finance.

All of human creation, and most importantly socialized into human-centric, urban norms. We adjust primarily to our human culture in cities, the culture of our workplaces, the culture of our residences, the culture of our friendships. Even a snow storm is a small event in cities. It passes. It doesn’t form identity.

In contrast, rural small towns and cities are more nature-centric. Much more of our lives are relative to the forests, the growth on farms. We are socialized into both human cultural orientation and the natural. A snow-storm is an event, around for a long time, affecting our lives commonly for a long time. Its not just a little colder. The value-addition that we are able to realize in an economy comes much much more proportionally from things that grow, from water that gets purified naturally. Our cultural virtuous references are natural, “I am the tall tree”, more than social “We are family.”

I’ve recently spent a great deal of time in my home town of Greenfield, MA, and in the largest big city near me, Boston, MA. (I get to spend most of my time in my home town, unlike many that live in one place and work in another.)

One critical aspect of the effort for sustainability, is the implication that urban sprawl will come to be a difficult way of life, and the individuals will prefer to settle in small towns and cities, more rural. The expectation is that migration will occur, that when work is scarce, people will migrate to where “God’s gifts” are available to derive and create value from.

In Greenfield, and other  towns and small cities that were formerly agricultural and/or manufacturing centers, with a few exceptions, most are in a state of decline. There is little value-addition occurring there, very limited investment, very limited career paths for young adults to come to the towns, and therefore families inevitably get split up as children move elsewhere to work.

It becomes a downward spiral. There are less funds available for education, less vibrant and uplifting people moving to the town. In Greenfield, the biggest problem for any prospect of development in town, is that nearly all of the potentially useful land is already taken up in sprawl housing, retail, and crumbling poorly designed mills. (The prospect of universal conversion to small business incubators occurs, but is overblown.)

There is also sadly the NIMBY factor. There is the appearance of possibility of restoration to the “good old days”, so the few important developments that aren’t Wal-Mart’s also get shot down. (There was a proposal to build an office park on formerly agricultural land near a local community college a few years ago, that was fought on ideological NIMBY grounds. It would have been an uniquely appropriate use of the land, providing a great number or value-adding jobs with minimal ecological footprint per job created.)

In small towns and cities people are not anonymous. When I walk down the main street or main stores, on most days I meet someone that I know personally. There are times when its people that I’ve conflicted with that I meet, but most times its a personal friend.

EVERY project, every policy decision, involves discussion with people that we’ve worked with before. It is therefore necessary for us to keep learning (and remembering design features) all the time, so that our staleness doesn’t block up all potential.

It is important that those with vision and imagination and capital, spend a good deal of their time working to make small towns and cities more viable economically, in realizing economic viability from the “gifts of nature”, and from some participation in the urban value chain (especially with the web). I actually oppose relying on urbanizing rural communities too much, in that there is the prospect that the rural communities will become just homogenous, commercialized, and overpriced. Not just sprawl, but the vision of global currency trader operating in Greenfield as easily as Boston, upsets me. I do analagous things, and has a place. I fear its ubiquity though.

Currently there is a colonial relationship between urban and rural, between Boston and Greenfield for example. The most relevant example of that in current proposal is the proposed bio-mass plant now in permitting phase.


Read Full Post »

What do we mean by “region”. A community is a family of families. A region is a community of communities. A region is by definition, geographic, but could also refer to a non-geographic “nation”.

The regional scale is the optimal scale of definition for most economic/market approaches. A region (say 30,000,000 people) should be largely self-sufficient in minimum necessities. It allows for regionally distinct tastes, customs, dress, etc. At the same time, the region is the scale that optimally intersects the benefits of productive and institutional efficiency resulting from economies of scale, with the benefits of non-anonymous relations between provider and consumer. In a region, a consumer could visit face to face the plant where a product was made, talk to the person responsible for quality control for example.

The regional is the best of all worlds economically.

The same principles apply aptly to food.

Currently, food is considered an economic good, a commodity. And, in that light, providers of food (growers, manufacturers, packagers) locate where the product/service can be most efficiently and effectively provided. In the modern economy of the late 20th century, that siting tended to be at a high level of specialization, and manufactured at very large volumes of output, with transportation costs considered relatively insignificant.

For example, although wheat can be grown in New England, the conditions for growing wheat in New England aren’t ideal and there is risk of lower yeild or outright crop failure due to the range of humidity and precipitation in New England. So, wheat is routinely grown in the consistently drier prairie, on 10000 acre lots (rather than hundreds of acres). Prairie land is relatively inexpensive (that will change slightly as the modern world has rediscovered prevailing winds for electricity).

In the Connecticut River Valley, up until recently, the amazing silt bottom-land (suitable to grow almost anything), was used to grow almost exclusively tobacco. Farming was a business after all, and tobacco farming for cigar manufacture paid more per acre than market garden crops. Even if the process unnaturally depleted and toxified the soil and groundwater.

As they say “smart but not wise”.

Food processing and other manufacture is similarly most often sited centrally, say near the grain mills or for some other logic of centralization, then shipped a thousand miles or so.

With the conspicuous and permanent increases in transportation costs, a different logic of agricultural  growing, processing and packaging costs will change to a more regional approach.

Many desparate and distorting efforts can change that. For example, government subsidies to farmers in existing market dominant roles, can reduce the price of those commodities such that the subsidy exceeds the difference in freight costs, and we will still buy products from very far away that might be more efficiently produced regionally. (That happens in the US, China, France, everywhere, to protect existing interests.)

The balance of our current success is still defined by the logic of both “Mercantalism” (protectionism) and “The Wealth of Nations” (that opposed mercantilism), emphasizing over-specialization, rather than the logic of a regional community of communities (ecological).

We’ve evolved in our thinking. We’ve rejected self-defeating protectionism (that was ecological in romantic ways). We’re now in a position to reject a fetish of centralized efficiency. (An application of efficiency is reasonable, a fetish is unreasonable).


More on land use.

We still suffer from an unnatural inflation in the cost of land and housing. There is a natural and rational inflation in the cost of finite land from consistently increasing population. But, the increase in population in the states is in the range of 1.0%/year if not less. (Land is of an inelastic supply, meaning that the price  would go up more than the proportional increase in demand. Maybe 2%/year would be rationally expected.)

But, that is not what happens in practice. The home that I grew up in, my parents home in the suburbs of New York, was purchased for $20,000 in 1954 (55 years ago). If the 2% rule of thumb were to apply, that house would sell for $60,000 in 2034. But, the reality was that in 1991, the house sold for $300,000, and identical houses are now on the market for $600,000, even after a 20% decline in market prices over the last year.

Rather than a three-fold increase over a lifetime, there has already been a 30-fold increase over 5/8 of a lifetime.

Not every locale experiences that much appreciation, but nearly every locale in the Northeast has experienced higher than natural appreciation.

We expect it. Housing and land prices are still driven by the speculative hope that housing or land is owned for eventual resale, more than for use. It creates a cycle, a bubble, continually, structurally.

But, the effect of that inflation in land prices, is what has driven farmers to sell their land (when they retire) for sprawl development. 2/3 of the former tobacco lands in the Connecticut River Valley, is now used for sprawl. So, rather than conversion to market garden farming from tobacco farming, the utterly unique land was used for an entirely cookie-cutter purpose.

It is reasonable to specialize the use of unique farmland for farming. Its unreasonable to use unique land for purposes that can occur anywhere.

Who can blame farmers? Grain grown on land purchased for $5,000/acre, can’t compete with grain grown on land purchased for $300/acre, even with high transportation costs. Farmers worked hard, and experienced great risk. (Farmers commit to the marketplace once a year, and ALL of their income for the year rests on the price and yeild that they can realize. Individuals can change careers, but the land is still rationally used for only farming purposes, and someone has to be the farmer that takes that risk.) They often just seek a secure retirement. Who can blame them?


So, for actual food needs, provided regionally to the level of supporting some proportion of the minimum necessities of the region (say New England scale), we would need to enact policies that protected the ability of a region to provide a balance of goods and services needed.

In some ways, the structure of our political jurisdictions don’t support the governance necessary to manage regionally focused economies.

Zoning is done in municipalities, that compete with other municipalities to attract favored investment and development, based on the virtue of increasing housing and land prices to provide for increased property tax revenue. This describes a structural disincentive to preserve less appreciation in land prices, affordability in a word.

Regulation and land preservation programs are done at a state level, which also compete with other states, also for revenue stream (though not always by property taxes).

There is no regional jurisdiction whether defined say as New England scale, or at say Pioneer Valley scale. And, the distinction between say Southern Quebec and Northern Vermont is also an arbitrary one.

Its a problem when we don’t have the institutions of governance needed to govern our new condition.

The best that we can do then is study, and apply the basis of our study into policy recommendations in our different arbitrary jurisdictions, but always swimming upstream against the natural logic of the “obvious” virtue of consistently appreciating land prices.

Or, undertake some “revolution” in how we define jurisdiction.

Read Full Post »

“Community” is really family of families. Our neighborhoods, our extended family, our “tribes”.

Eating together is an example of community. In festivals, we gather to celebrate, to eat, in our family of families.

In most of our meals, we think of eating as more intimate than a community event. Even in restaurants, we simulate intimacy. But, at festivals, we truly are “eating together”. Its a big project, so doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it is a joy.

In many religious traditions, regular festivals including community meals, are important events marking our life. In Jewish tradition for example, the seasonal festivals are great gathering events, spring renewal (Passover), fall harvest (Sukkos).

In thinking about food from the perspective of community, it is relevant to think of the needy, the hungry. While the US is not known for famines, or masses of long-term hungry, chronic hunger and malnutrition does occur, and will occur more and more as families experience long-term unemployment. Even with food stamps, the bureaucracy of it puts some families into a decision of food or…

We can help, especially those that are not able to navigate the bureaucracy, too young, limited English literacy, infirmed, elderly.

The next big issue with food in the context of community, is where we get our food.

We live in a specialized world, an economic world. Land is dedicated to the purpose that it can realize the greatest return, like other commodities.

But, treating land as a commodity, creates a conflict alluded to in an earlier post https://rwitty.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=66. That is that for a community, a requisite amount of land for parks, for agriculture, for harvested forests, and for wilds, is a minimum necessity, at least in a sustainable world.

We need land for very local agriculture. Agriculture within communities (gardens, community gardens, farmstands, small in-town commercial market gardens), and agriculture serving communities.

The agriculture as global industry model, permits land to be used for very specific cropping. Wheat only grown in the prairies. Feed corn only grown in the midwest. Sweet corn only grown in the Pioneer Valley (serving Boston and Connecticut). But, not wheat grown in the Pioneer Valley. Not, soy grown in the Pioneer Valley.

The Pioneer Valley bottomland, with 12 feet of rich topsoil, on only 2% of the planet surface area, and only 1% of New England, uses most of that unique farmland for residential and industrial buildings, and secondarily for tobacco farming for a very specific purpose in the production of cigars.

Rather than establishing land use policies that assume that local food is a community minimum necessity, land is treated solely as an economic good.

The future land use schema that will have to be the permanent new modern model, will emphasize small cities every 10 miles or so, with most residence, retail, and manufacturing relatively close; with also close agricultural, harvested forest and wilds surrounding each city.

Sprawl will hopefully disappear.

There still will be some specialization of land use for market, but that will reduce as a function of food growing, food processing, and distribution. But, hopefully, land with unique agricultural characteristics will be used to grow food abundantly and healthfully.

How do we get there? In Massachusetts, there is a moderate agricultural preservation program, but its funding has been severely reduced recently, and barely accomplishes its objective. Land that has been preserved is being used for the purposes preserved (one assumes). But, very little new land is being preserved.

Towns and small cities, often don’t have the latitude to enact preservation based zoning, for their desparation for operating funds from larger property tax roles. The towns’ finances are then driven by the same logic that drives corporations, to increase net revenues at all social costs.

So, the zoning doesn’t get done on a local level. And, even if done, it faces objection from some landowners who don’t want to use the land for farmland, and prefer to cash out, as they have the liberty to do. Who would take away the liberty from a farmer, one who is done with farming.

Read Full Post »