WHAT DOES RELOCALIZATION MEAN?
Are you familiar with the term "relocalization"? You should be. It may be one of the most smart thinking and relevant topics for people to be talking about today. It starts with peak oil. And the concern that oil production worldwide will peak in the next few years. Meaning the cost of gasoline and diesel and all the petroleum products we use, plastics, fertilizers, packaging, will gradually become more expensive. Transportation will become a larger part of the family budget. Even driving the car to and from work will be more than just a significant expense if gasoline tops the $5-6 a gallon level. The cost of an airline ticket will double and air freight will become prohibitive. Food products from far away will get very costly and will be delicacies for only the very rich. It will make a lot of sense, perhaps be of necessity, to condense our living space. Relocate so that things are closer, more locally oriented, and cheaper in terms of energy expenses. When we add concerns for global warming and related climate changes, relocalization is one large step in the process of decarbonizing our society and giving up our addiction to fossil fuels.
Relocation as a general motive for refocused social design makes the most sense in the United States. Modern America was born in the years after World War II. Our great highway systems were built during the Eisenhower administration when the automobile became Americana. The entire petrol culture was blacktopped out as the grid for the future. The impetus was cheap oil. A gallon of gasoline for a dime. As a result, our suburban cities are laid out on vast networks of highways for a culture of pleasure cruising or zipping around town. But as the cost of petroleum goes up, there will be an increasingly strong economic incentive to eliminate long commutes. Public transit will suddenly be a lot more attractive to all, as will bicycling. Trains will be the choice for regional travel and an upgraded railroad system could be, believe it or not, a part of our future.
Relocation is the word. And the task at hand is to re-imagine our communities in a way that cuts down on petroleum use. Just think of an ordinary day in your life and the time you spent in your car, doing errands, going to work. How important is the route you take across town to the amount of gasoline you use? Lots. If a community is designed with this in mind, instead of the idea that fuel is but pennies a mile, it looks different. It condenses.
What's difficult though is we are not building new cities to replace what we have. We must retrofit existing cities, in all their complex excess of cheap oil design. Turning these huge sprawling monsters into something that is more efficient will be no easy task. But the time is now, not later.
Part of the idea is to make each city as much of a self-contained unit as possible. Transportation for people will play a large part, but petroleum is just as important, if not more so, to the food industry and agriculture. Farming on the large scale is dependent on petrochemical additives and diesel for machinery. Food costs will rise in step with the price of gasoline. Products that come from a great distance will have added transportation costs. As it is, many items in the meal you place on your dinner table each night have traveled more than a thousand miles to get there–unless you grew it all yourself or bought it from local farmers. But that's the point. Localize. Eat food grown locally. Buy from local businesses. Relocalization is decentralization with an added environmental incentive.
Some might argue that all of this peak oil talk is unwarranted hand-wringing. The market will provide the incentive for clean alternatives to petroleum and new efficient vehicles. And certainly it will, but, at this point, as we survey the alternative energy horizon, ethanol, solar, hydrogen, wind, there is no candidate for an energy source that can provide what petroleum has provided so cheaply for decades. Which reemphasizes the point, we must redesign the way we live. For reasons connected to finite petroleum reserves, for reasons connected to the unknown potentials of climate change, our lives of excess, built on low cost oil products, particularly in the United States, will undergo a steady and, for many, a difficult contraction. It can happen through the force of economic pressure, rising oil prices, or it can happen through forethought and preparation for what many say is inevitable. For now, just add the word "relocalization" to your vocabulary. It's a start in the right direction.
The City of Portland, Oregon has recently become one of the first large U.S. cities to seriously address peak oil and how it will effect their city. In March of 2007, the Portland City Council issued a report entitled "DESCENDING THE OIL PEAK" (Click title for PDF). It lays out a comprehensive plan for preparing Portland for rising energy costs. For anyone interested in finding out more about relocalization and what it means, reading this report is a good place to start.