Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Local & The Horizontal Economy

“unlearning is hard, getting rid of a cherished wrong idea is difficult at best, if not impossible” ~ Wes Jackson

The Midwest is many things.  It’s flat and hilly.  It’s innovative, yet rustic.  It’s both agricultural and urban.  It’s home to red states and blue states and features $5 foot longs, 4G service, and one-stop shopping.  While all these terms give perspective to a place many of us call home, they only paint a small picture of Midwestern life.

Another word that often describes Midwestern communities is “local.” Travelling from town to town we look for the local park, the local bar, or the local burger joint. We’re intrigued by the local flavor.  But from another perspective the Midwest is anything but local. In fact, the Midwest may be better described as national if not global.

To illustrate, a look outside the traditional Midwestern boundaries offers insight. Recently, Eric Lipton published an article in the New York Times (Even in Coal Country, the Fight for an Industry) regarding the economics of energy production and its’ effects on Louisa, Kentucky. Louisa is a community located in northeastern Kentucky where the local economy is driven by the extraction of coal. As the supply of natural gas has increased and its price dropped, there has been a slumping demand for coal. Power companies are finding it less enticing to continue updating aging coal plants and are instead investing in natural gas. While the article explores a range of topics from national politics to environmental concerns, one quote in particular stands out. According to Rodney Adkins, a Kentucky State Representative and advocate for the coal industry, the combination of low prices and warm winters, along with slumping prices are “breaking the back of the local economy.”

Adkins speaks as though Louisa has a healthy local economy.  However, an economy that relies solely on commodity extraction is anything but local. One might argue that the local economy isn’t a proper fit considering the exploitative nature of coal extraction. The dominate economy in Louisa is singularly focused on one thing; efficiently extracting all economic value from the area one rail car at a time. In order to maintain a costly and inefficient economic activity, a proposal has been put forth to increase electric rates by 30% in order to fund a $1 billion dollar retrofit of a local power plant. The retrofit would allow the plant to continue utilizing 90 rail cars of coal per day. No matter how much retrofitting takes place it will not create a strong local economy for Louisa.  In short, if ever there is to be a strong local economy in Lousia, it will not be based on coal.

But as a Midwesterner life continues despite the troubles of Lucia. Somewhere beyond the expanse over the horizon the cornfields give way to cotton and tobacco, but they are farther than the naked eye can see and we feel insulated from the changes occurring in places like Lucia. The perfectly parallel rows of corn and soy are stable, our highways link centers of industry, our lights turn on, we are far removed from the economics of coal power and eastern Kentucky. Thanks to hydraulic fracking, we have an abundant supply of natural gas and shiny new power plants keeping the lights on from Omaha to Indianapolis, never mind the long term consequences to the environment.

Life in the Midwest is good. There are no mountain tops to remove or valleys to fill with carcinogenic smog.  But when it comes down to it perhaps the Midwest is much more similar to Louisa than we care to admit. Outside of our cities, life in the Midwest is largely driven by industrial agriculture. The backdrop of little league games and small town life is an immense factory of corn and soybean production. To borrow an adage, all of our eggs are in the same basket. While Kentucky and West Virginia still have an ample supply of mountains to remove, in many places we may have already inadvertently extracted every dollar’s worth of value from the bountiful Midwestern soils.  Agriculture here is complex.  It’s a scientific process that involves precise application of manufactured substances. And without a massive effort to artificially replenish the land annually, agriculture as we know it could not exist.

Louisa is falling victim to economic forces that care little for the value of place, livelihoods, or home. Until a more effective method of extracting coal underneath mountains is developed, our reliance on natural gas may very well continue to increase. The same economic forces that affect Louisa, affect the Midwest every day. Our strength is also energy.  What Wes Jackson referred to as contemporary energy, which arrives from the sun and is gathered horizontally as opposed to a vertical well or mine. This great expanse of land we call the Midwest is akin to a giant solar collector. The prairie, forests, and fields gather energy from the sun and essential nutrients from the ground to sustain our existence.

Just as life without the Big Sandy power plant seems bleak, how willing would we accept an economy not dominated by subsidized industrial agri-business? How would we treat the land and how would we maintain our livelihoods in the absence of corn/soy production? Inevitably, Louisa will exhaust their supply of coal and inevitably the finite supply of fossil fuels will dwindle. As we draw ever closer to these predetermined events, how do we prepare as communities?

While horizontal energy is our strength, vertical energy is our addiction. Take another recent article in the Quad City Times (15,000 tons of Coal, every 2 days). A reporter had taken note of the very long trains carrying coal through Davenport, Iowa. As the article explains, trains carrying 125 cars and stretching 1.3 miles long arrive every two days to supply the local power plant. Ultimately, the reporter is staggered by the immensity of coal supplied to this one power plant and the abundance of earth to continue providing coal at this rate for nearly 30 years. Perhaps more staggering is our insatiable desire to continue consuming energy without regard and ability to detach ourselves from the long term consequences of extraction. The number of rail cars loaded with coal that have arrived in Davenport since the plant began operating in 1983 is stunning but even more so is the long term consequences for which we knowingly refuse to account.

Change will not be easy for Louisa and the Midwest faces a similar set of challenges. Regardless of the context, the words of Wes Jackson ring true in that “unlearning is hard, getting rid of a cherished wrong idea is difficult at best, if not impossible”.  The task at hand is identifying what changes will take place and how those changes will affect our daily lives. To strengthen local economies, communities must develop policy that treats the land as a finite resource, not a commodity. It’s beyond foolish to think we can enjoy unlimited economic growth in a finite world and it’s equally as foolish to ignore centuries of progress. However, in an age driven by information we certainly possess the knowledge, skills, and technology to adapt and innovate on a level that has never been seen. After all, our nation is a wonderful experiment in democracy and each community represents a unique place that will require unique solutions derived from the local people, the local institutions, and their local knowledge.