There’s a lot of intelligent comment in sustainability circles about how globalization (among other forces) has degraded geographical community. People don’t tend to know their neighbours as much, or at all. People move around the country in search of quality employment (labour mobility, in economic speak). And people move around the world in search of a better life, or just out of curiosity. There’s a general consensus that a strong geographical community is good for sustainability for two main reasons. Firstly, there’s evidence to suggest it’s very beneficial to people’s wellbeing. Secondly, it helps to reduce consumption because people who live near each other can share and borrow items, watch each other’s kids and generally help each other out. Both of those things are brilliant. And I am in favour of strengthening communities. However, I personally think some environmentalists take this logic too far. I’ve read articles calling to ‘reduce geographical mobility’ and even ‘create communities worth spending a lifetime in’.
Now, I don’t agree with that. At all.
I think the ability to travel around this beautiful world, not to mention around our own countries, is one of the best effects of globalization. I think it’s absolutely positive. And here’s why. Travelling to new places, whether near or far, is a mind-opening and educational experience. In my experience, people who have travelled around and lived in a few different places are so much more open minded than people who have lived in one place all their lives. I think there’s a real tendency to romanticize the past, and make it sound like some kind of rustic utopia, just because you could nab some sugar off your neighbour. People can get into the “oh the good old days” syndrome and I tend to think “what, the good old days, when everyone was racist sexist homophobes?” Yeah great. I think I’ll take the anonymous digital commercial present over that, thank you.
So let’s not try and go back, let’s go forward.
Call me an entitled youngster, but I don’t want to give up my ability to travel and relocate. I think we can create strong vibrant communities that are welcoming to new people, inclusive, and full of friendliness and community action, without the assumption that people should always stay in the same place. I think we can increase social capital without drastically minimizing mobility.
But, to do this sustainably, we do need to seriously address the transport sector. Which is extremely wasteful, inefficient, and unsustainable. What kind of transport systems would be appropriate to a sustainable society that still wants to travel? Walkable, pedestrianised cities. Electric trams and buses. Electric high speed rail. And yes, cycle lanes. Is there a future for the personal car, if it was electric and that electricity was renewable? What about planes? I think we can safely say short haul flights will be off the transport menu as soon as we get serious about carbon-cutting. Long haul flights might stick around a bit longer, but as the fuel gets increasingly costly and carbon budgets get stretched they’ll probably be out too. Although they’re wildly unsustainable, planes are very useful. Getting to the other side of the world with trains would take a very long time. I wonder whether we could develop some kind of renewable aviation fuel? Or perhaps a super super high speed international train network?
At the end of the day, I think both strong community and the freedom to travel are important to wellbeing.
The challenge is to facilitate both within the planet’s ecological limits.