Not In My Back Yard (But Pass Me the Good Life, Please)


Coopersville, MI

Porch types will recognize the town of Marshall, Michigan, as home to the Dark Horse Brewery, whence Crooked Tree IPA flows.

They may also recognize it as the place near which an Alberta-based company, Enbridge Inc., managed in 2010 to spill 20,000 barrels of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River—the worst inland spill in the nation’s history.

Now Enbridge is preparing to replace about seventy-five miles of underground pipe, much of which runs beneath private land, and landowners are finding out what it means to own old stands of trees that they don’t actually own.

A local land-use attorney says that some homeowners who “gave an inch in 1968” when they signed easement agreements didn’t know “that Enbridge would be taking a mile in 2012”: in some cases pipelines run as near as ten feet to the sides of the houses above them.

One landowner said: “I just call [Enbridge] the oil mob. We’re just small homeowners fighting something so much bigger than we are. The deck is stacked against us. They will stop at nothing to make their money. We’re just little blips along the way.”

I borrow from a recent story in the Lansing State Journal. The headline, “Homeowners in Path of Pipeline Feel Powerless,” caught my attention a few days after I heard someone expatiating on the topic of the nation’s energy needs—which aren’t needs so much as they’re wants—say that in the future we’re going to have to do a lot with wind in places like Kansas.

I want to say something about how the “we” in that remark strikes a proprietary pose in relation to “places like Kansas,” and I will do so presently, but first: a little something on the difference between needs and wants.

The going assumption is that our current rate of energy consumption is driven by a need we’re going to continue to meet because it’s an actual need. But this assumption is all bass-ackwards. It’s based on the inertial practice of frivolous use and spending, on massive myopia with respect to natural limits, and on a willful disregard for the signs, by now ubiquitous, that a habitable world is not compatible with electric can openers, air-conditioned acre-eater combines, and the power of an upright in the palm of your hand.

But the only way to get this news out to enough people for it do any good is to “friend” them all, except that would merely exacerbate the problem. It would exacerbate the problem because the new friendship is also an energy need—which is to say an energy problem. Friendship is valuable, it seems, but only so long as its energy costs have nothing to do with discipline, faithfulness, and trust.

In The True and Only Heaven Christopher Lasch spoke of the

assumption that insatiable appetites[,] formerly condemned as a source of social instability and personal unhappiness, could drive the economic machine—just has man’s insatiable curiosity drove the scientific project—and thus ensure a never-ending expansion of productive forces.

This departure from an older assumption “came when human needs began to be seen not as natural but as historical, hence insatiable. As the supply of material comforts increased, standards of comfort increased as well, and the category of necessities came to include many goods formerly regarded as luxuries.”

Lasch’s phrase “standards of comfort” gets us very near the heart of the problem. In a very short time we have become a people incapable of imagining that our current standards of comfort (or living) are temporary. Our ease and comfort have been, at best, soporific; at worst they have left us stupefied, inebriated. It doesn’t occur to us that future historians might sketch our standards as aberrations. We skip along in a kind of pollyanish manner, whistling and congratulating ourselves as if our standards of living have guaranteed a future more like the 1990s than the 1930s. But we may well be—my guess is that we probably are—headed toward what Jim Kunstler calls a “world made by hand.” Long ago Wendell Berry, complaining of our attitude toward work and our relationship to energy, said that “we would use a steam shovel to pick up a dime.”

Because of that massive misuse of energy, we’re going to have to learn once again how to pick up dimes with our fingers. And most of us will be learning by trial and error, because one of the consequences of high energy-use—and it is a dire consequence—is loss of knowledge, skills, and means. When there’s no more oil to run the One-Armed Yellow-Breasted Eucalyptus Muncher, who will teach us to fell trees like men again? Even telling time by a clock implies a lost skill.

And there will be other losses. There will be other losers, such as those in “places like Kansas.”

The phrase “we’re going to have to do a lot with wind in places like Kansas” assumes that there will be a powerful entity—such as a government or a corporation (but I repeat myself)—that gets to tell people in places like Kansas that what they have and love should be sacrificed to something that is bigger and smarter. And the story of Enbridge Inc. will repeat itself, proving in the process that it is not a story but a historical parable. The Interstate Highway and Defense System may prove to be a useful hermeneutic here.

But there is one more piece to this, and it is perhaps the grimmest of all. We’re all crying NIMBY, but we’re all still sucking away at the formerly plump, now desiccated, tit of energy. No wonder the cries are muted.

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