THE ZERO DISTANCE ARGUMENT
Back in 2007 I was on an agricultural training program and giving a talk to farmers in the Aluvihare area of Matale about the various crises in transport, food, energy, climate, finance and garbage. While they listened attentively enough, as the talk progressed, I got the distinct feeling that I was not really engaging them. Finally, when I was done, a middle aged man who had been standing slightly aside from the group beckoned me to his side.
He was Arunasiri he informed me, a man who had farmed his one acre of uplands and one acre of paddy lands for forty years. Summarized, this is what he told me “Sir, I agree that there seems to be a problem with quality of food and cost of food. But I don’t have that problem because I grow all the food I need organically. I have never had to sit at my table with less than six separate dishes to choose from. I know that fuel prices are very high but most of my fuel needs are served by firewood picked from my own lands or from the vicinity and my family goes to sleep by eight o’clock so we use very little electricity. I also agree that some people have issues with transport. But I don’t have that problem because I go to town only once every three months and only to buy salt, dried fish, blades, soap and toothpaste. Once a year I buy a couple of new sarongs and shirts. I earn about 2000 rupees a month by selling a few fruits on the roadside and that is quite enough for everything I need to buy. I know that may people use bins to put garbage in but I do not think of anything as garbage so I don’t need a bin. Most of the people you spoke to are like me. What you speak of may be true of the rest of the world but for us, these things have never been problems so we are wondering what to do with what you say”.
Slthough rueful that my effort of the morning was completed wasted I nevertheless smiled with genuine happiness for in Arunasiri I saw a completely sustainable man, living in a sustainable community in a sustainable village. Where he is now I do not know. Neither do I know if his village has succumbed to the insanity and impropriety of the world in the decade that followed. However, the reason underlying his killer missive of “your problems have never been my problem” is ragingly relevant to us today as we deal with infinitely exacerbated versions of those very crises I spoke about that day.
What do we have today? We have Asia growing the largest amount of food but also having the largest number of starving people in the world. We are bleeding money to power our lives with geometrically increasing fuel prices while largely ignoring our own renewable sources. We carelessly bring home and discard 2500 metric tons of material a day and are literally and figuratively being mowed under by an avalanche of garbage. The price of money has skyrocketed. Having made all of these things come to pass, we call ourselves civilized, sensitive and intelligent when in fact, the opposite is true.
The reason is not that hard to understand. Connecting people with goods that were produced on the other side of the planet is a horribly unsustainable exercise that was the great, world destroying mathra of the industrial age. With every increase in the miles between the minds and markets of the producer and the consumer, everything becomes more difficult, more expensive, more wasteful and more toxic.
A key difference between the industrial age and the sustainable age is the fact that in the sustainable age, minimizing this distance between producer and consumer is mandatory. Taking the argument to its highest point, the sustainable age must strive to reduce that distance to zero at every possible point. The only way to achieve that is to make the producer the consumer or vice-versa as farmer Arunasiri and his community had done so many years ago. This is easiest achieved in food, energy and transport. In this piece, I will not treat finance and garbage for those wastes deserve fuller attention.
To reduce “food kilometers”, consumers need only to grow a percentage of their food and to eradicate those kilometers, grow all of the food that they consume. Even urban Sri Lanka is comparatively green and we have a tradition of growing steeped in our agricultural heritage that is easily leveraged for the purpose. Happily, with the present government committed to localizing food production and consumption, they have the ability and the capability of lending a helping hand to any and all who wish to engage in food production for their own consumption. Not simply in rural settings but (especially) in urban habitats.
To reduce “energy kilometers”, consumers need only to generate a percentage of their energy and to eradicate those kilometers, generate all of their energy. Once again, the government has created the enabling environment for consumers to create their own energy through the “battle for solar energy” initiative that provides substantial technical and financial assistance to those (especially) in urban settings to generate their own power.
To reduce “transport kilometers” consumers need only to work and study a percentage of time from their places of residence and to eradicate those kilometers, work and study exclusively from home. Here too, modern technology is already eminently capable of providing the spidering required for person-to-person interconnects that do not require them to be in the same physical space.
Doing these things will reduce the carbon footprint of every citizen for all of these areas are high in energy consumption when indulged in using industrial age sensibilities. Most importantly though, it reduces waste geometrically.
But will we? Many of us, who dismiss stress, illness, fatigue, loss of quality time as “occupational hazards” of attempting to compete in the world will think of all of these alternative exercise which will reduce all those industrial age problems as either “a lot of work” or “not worth the time”. Such is the nature of addiction to bad things. If we qualify in any way to the title “intelligent” this should have ended decades ago but beings creatures of habit, addicts, we have let the runaway train of casual producer-consumer convenience gather so much momentum that it threatens, not only to throw the entire human race off track, but to destroy the track as well. Yet, true to our addiction, we would rather shrug, bury our heads in the sand, watch our idiot boxes, sent our tweets and snaps and posts, by everything that loans, debts, supermarkets and malls can sell us and go to our happy, habit-addled doom than lift a single finger to turn this around.
I have a small hope though, that people will sit up, remove their pink-tinted glasses and see the world for what it truly it. See that we have run out of time. See that we have to bootstrap ourselves into the future and that future will belong to sustainability of we are to have any future at all. See that enabling that that future mandates that these bad habits must be broken. That these horror addictions are kicked. See that like all such things, these must stop and that they must stop now.