Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The changing resource landscape: rising energy costs and community resilience

An article on the Daily Yonder website suggests that in the U.S. rising energy prices will have a disproportionate impact on rural communities. The article's author, Penn State geographer Amy Glasmeier, states that:

. . .for rural residents, high energy prices unleash a cascade of bad news that ripples through everyday life. Compared with urban areas, residents of rural areas are more dependent on oil for everything, from transportation to heating to making a living.

Rural residents tend to drive longer distances to access basic goods and services – including health care – and they have fewer transportation alternatives such as public transportation.
Though I agree with Glasmeier's argument, I wonder if the intensity of these problems is not unique to the structure of the U.S. socio-natural landscape.

Obviously, rural areas in Japan are being impacted in similar ways by the rising cost of energy--some places more than others (particularly fishing communities)--but as I look out at the Otaki landscape, I wonder if rising fuel costs really pose such a serious threat.

Oil is a post-war phenomenon here in Otaki, and most older residents recall the days when wood was cut for fuel and walking was the main mode of transport. People enjoy the convenience of automobiles, but also recall with fondness the free forest railway system that once provided transportation to the nearest sizable town.

So, if all the cars stopped, how would Otaki fair? Many homes here still use wood-burning stoves--no problem. There is an ample amount of food being produced locally; so much, in fact, that most people don't know what to do with it all. Various game animals roam the hills. Anyway, I don't want to belabor the point: I think the residents of Otaki would be fine. The one resource that is in short supply: environmental knowledge. A vast amount of detailed information about the natural environment here in Otaki is being lost as older residents pass away, while younger people flee to urban areas.

This knowledge is Otaki's most valuable resource. Oil, I think, can come an go.

I'd like to hear other people's opinions concerning the resilience or robustness of their own communities in the face of a changing energy economy.



Carmelo Cannarella said...

The effects of the increases in energy expenditures are generating here in Italy different scenarios for the highly differentiated conditions of rural areas in Italy. Here, in the village where I live in central Italy, these raising costs are stimulating growing increases in the consumption of local resources both for energy (i.e. local biomass from agriculture and forestry management, solar panels, wind turbines, small energy plants from water falls, etc.) and, above all, stricter links between food producers and food consumers. Many people here are now preferring local food products after decades of total hegemony of supermarkets’ food: small town shops of local typical products (often owned by local farmers) are opening also in the main city (Viterbo) in the Province where people in urban areas may buy fresh seasonal food. We are registering also the birth and development of many consumers’ groups (composed of a considerable number of families) having the aim to buy in common great quantities of fruit and vegetables from local farmers obtaining particularly reduced prices. Consuming local products implies not only a reduction in energy costs but also a reduction in pollution effects: the number of lorries moving up and down agricultural and food products everywhere is progressively reducing. Furthermore, local money circulate in the same local community. In Italy about 50.000 farms (5% of the total) sell directly their products through farm shops above all in Northern and Central Italy: the main products involved in this direct selling are olive oil, wine, meat, cheese and honey. Here many farms are doing the same with positive implications also for rural tourism.
In conclusion, I do agree with your considerations: the creation of a sound local economy cannot be pursued without a deep knowledge of the local land in environmental, cultural, economic and social terms. It is necessary also a participation approach within decision making processes, competent, honest and efficient local institutions and above all a strong coordination among local agents. It is not possible to leave local rural communities alone in coping with these issues: we are doing this here in fact thanks also to a strong cooperation with the research institution which I belong to (I’m involved in activities linked to innovation diffusion and techno transfer in rural areas) which have produced many positive experiences in this field.

Reina said...

Hi, great blog you have! thanks for leaving a comment at "Japanese Eco-friendly Ideas and Goods" . Your research is very interesting. It will be nice if we can link eachother. (I will create a link corner this week!)
I will pop by sometimes. Really interested in forestry, although i don't have any background.

zac said...

I think oil prices will actually return to more normal levels shortly due to reduced demand.
The recent oil price spike made a lot of people wake up and cut down on excess including gasoline use (the price of used Toyota Prius hybrids went up above the purchase price at one point), also also the global financial crisis will eventually lead to reduced demand (I think the bail out plans will prevent disaster but not not recessions etc).

So I think we will get to avoid the (oil) problem for a while, which is a shame because high oil prices would obviously be a catalyst for more investment and utilisation of clean energy.

My city is very industrial and the impact on high oil prices would be quite devastating actually. There are many manufacturers who would have trouble getting materials in, powering machines, and shipping products out.

Ojisanjake said...

I think the loss of knowledge with the passing of the Grandparent Generation is a fairly global phenomenon. People who know how to "inhabit" a place are disappearing.

In our village we are the only ones whop have a woodstove. A handful of homes still heat the baths with wood, but most have switched to "convenient" kerosene.

Mr. G said...

Hi Taintus,

How are ya? Interesting column. I’ve also lived in rural communities in Japan – one in Hokkaido and one in Nagasaki -, and in both communities, I could see what Glasmeieris talking about.

Both Donan region of Hokkaido and the island communities of Nagasaki are so much connected to global market economy, and it’s just impossible to imagine their life without having fossil fuel. Farming products, act of farming, machinery, packaging, transportation (especially ferry cost), requires oil… Especially, fishery depends so much on oil… But the regular gas price in the islands of Nagasaki is currently more than 200yen/1lt, when it only costs 150yen/1lt in Tokyo.

Ironically, most of my informants say that their life depended more on market economy after government started providing such social infrastructures as water, electricity, telephone, and gas (or sewer) in the 1950s to 60s. These things made their life convenient, but they were not free.

It’s ideal if we can live in self-sufficient condition under the ideal living standard. The government thought that they were making residents’ life better…, but in the result, they changed their economic system, and brought huge debt to the islanders…