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

by Jason Peters on August 8, 2012 · 27 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Politics & Power,Region & Place


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.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Nick August 8, 2012 at 6:40 am

Another great piece.

Working with my own hands has long fascinated me. And I’ve been in the long process of teaching myself how to do so. But folks don’t understand. My neighbor doesn’t understand why I won’t borrow his Sawzall, my brother-in-law is always asking why I don’t rent a backhoe to tear down my old house.

As an aside I’ve been reading “The Hobbit,” by Tolkien, and I came across a passage yesterday where he’s describing goblins and he says they are delighted with machines … not working with their own hands more than they could help. I thought that was kind of funny.

avatar David Walbert August 8, 2012 at 7:34 pm

North Carolina’s new fracking law allows “homeowners” (scare quotes required) to “pool” their permissions for companies to dig under their land for natural gas. We are assured that if appropriate safeguards are instituted and everyone does everything by the book, we have nothing to fear. Well, sure. If men were angels, etc., but I suspect heaven doesn’t need air-conditioning. It’s the actual human beings involved that scare me. So here it’s NUMBY (not under my back yard), and I’m sure we can use all that natural gas to import our water from Canada after the chemicals make ours undrinkable.

Meanwhile, on a lighter note, and seconding your prediction of a handmade future, you might enjoy this diagram my daughter drew this diagram for me a few months ago explaining how my solar woodshop works. No panels required.

avatar David Smith August 9, 2012 at 7:13 am

Yep, a word like “necessity” or even a phrase such as “for the greater good” becomes REALLY elastic when one in our pantheon of false gods, “The American Standard of Living”, comes into play. At that point, you might as well forget about such commandmants as “Thou shalt not covet . . . ” and “Thou shalt not steal.”

In some form or other, a question like this might come up: “But what do you have against air conditioning, washing machines, or even amusement park rides like at Disney World? What are you, some kind of Luddite?” To which one could answer: “I have nothing against any of those things, at least in the abstract; but if pursuing or having those things requires stealing from my neighbor, be it his land, or even his clean water, then I should have a problem. A BIG problem!”

But in our pursuit of Babel, there only exists an abstraction called Progress. There is no God and therefore no limits. Why worry?

avatar love the girls August 9, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Nick writes : “But folks don’t understand. ”

I understand. You’re a hobbist, as opposed to a professional.

If I were to walk out on the site and tell the boys to put down their wormdrives and cut up the framing lumber by hand they would first look at me like I was insane, and then they would all get a good laugh because they know as well as I do that their production would drop radically. And thus in turn so would their standard of living drop.

avatar Nick August 10, 2012 at 1:52 pm

With all due respect “love the girls,” I don’t believe you do understand.

You claim I am a hobbyist and not a professional, but a professional is someone who earns most of their living through a certain trade. And while I do not currently earn most of my living (note I did not say “money”) through the use of hand tools, that is the goal I am working towards.

Your lines about rates of production and standards of living hint a great deal at what I believe is wrong with this world, but that would be a very long and drawn out discussion probably not suited to this forum.

avatar love the girls August 10, 2012 at 4:49 pm


As a married man with a wife and six children to support, I don’t consider the modern standard of living to be what is wrong with the world. When my second youngest had bacterial meningitis I was glad for the modern intensive care ward at the local hospital.

When I had cancer some years back, I was glad for the modern medicines and CT scans used to cure me.

I also appreciate the washing machine currently washing my clothes, and the computer I am currently using.

But modern medicine and washing machines, and the computer I am using require a level of production that must be equaled by carpenters in their field.

avatar Nick August 11, 2012 at 9:56 am


It isn’t the modern medicine I object to, it is the levels of production you mention with which I have a problem. Because I believe those levels are simply unsustainable. Sooner or later folks are going to run out of money to buy things with. Folks are going to run out of materials to make things to buy.

I object to a world where a craftsman cannot earn a living with hand tools if he so chose. A world where to earn money you have to be able to ramp up your production to some insane level not humanly possible. A world where others laugh at you for trying.

In old science fiction, powered machines were meant to free humans from the “drudgery” of everyday life. I find it ironic that we now have to work harder and longer (production) in order to maintain this “standard.”

The article mentions that future historians may see our current standards of living as aberrations. And I hope that’s not the case, but as long as our entire economic system is dependent on growth I don’t see how it won’t.

I believe we can maintain some of our modern miracles (such as medicine) and I believe we can return to a more human scale of living. But that means we won’t be using steam shovels to pick up dimes. And it might even mean not having machines to wash your clothes.

avatar love the girls August 11, 2012 at 7:04 pm

Nick writes : “I object to a world where a craftsman cannot earn a living with hand tools if he so chose.”

You can earn a living using hand tools. But be aware that the living you will earn is commensurate with those hand tools.

The problem is that most luddite leaning types want their hand made cakes, but also want nice modern stuff that can only exist in a modern society. Modern healthcare can only exist within a modern infrastructure.

avatar Monte August 11, 2012 at 11:28 pm

I must quibble and note that the company is actually called Enbridge, not “Endbridge”.

avatar Steve August 14, 2012 at 11:15 am

Your handmade future is at hand. But when the road forks, choose the route signed Marketing. The path called Lamentation is no road for a craftsman who wants to eat.
And even Billy Kirk uses Chromexcel.

avatar Rob G August 16, 2012 at 10:34 am

“The problem is that most luddite leaning types want their hand made cakes, but also want nice modern stuff that can only exist in a modern society.”

No one ever said that all “nice modern stuff” was bad, and in any case unless you’re going to be a hermit in the woods you can’t completely opt out. But this is a red herring often thrown about by technophiles. The point is not whether the stuff is new or not, but whether it tends to human flourishing.

avatar love the girls August 16, 2012 at 11:56 am

Rob G. writes : “No one ever said that all “nice modern stuff” was bad, and in any case unless you’re going to be a hermit in the woods you can’t completely opt out.”

The point is, all that modern stuff requires a level of production that is at odds with using a handsaw where anyone in the trade would use a sawzall, and would be summarily fired if he didn’t have enough sense to use a sawzall.

avatar Rob G August 17, 2012 at 11:41 am

This is because long ago we decided to make a golden calf out of “efficiency,” understood narrowly as getting the most work done in the least amount of time. Wisdom, along with quality, goes out the window, and the major emphasis is instead placed on speed.

avatar love the girls August 17, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Rob G writes : “Wisdom, along with quality, goes out the window”

To the contrary, efficiency is required for the average man to have leisure. Where as building with hand tools makes a virtue of menial labor.

avatar Rob G August 20, 2012 at 8:24 am

“To the contrary, efficiency is required for the average man to have leisure. Where as building with hand tools makes a virtue of menial labor.”

Efficiency correctly understood, yes, but not in the modern reductionist sense. The whole point is that we shouldn’t have to rely on power tools and “labor-saving devices” in order for us to have leisure. And I’m not sure that carpenters, painters, farmers, etc., who use hand tools would appreciate their efforts being described as “menial.”

avatar love the girls August 20, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Rob G. writes : “The whole point is that we shouldn’t have to rely on power tools and “labor-saving devices””

Then do without and walk, but if you want to ride in a car, then modern efficiency is how it is done.

avatar Rob G August 21, 2012 at 8:07 am

Sorry, LTG, but you’re just not getting it. You seem to want to reduce the whole question to an either/or — can’t be done, as there’s too much gray in the mix.

avatar love the girls August 21, 2012 at 9:11 am

Rob G,

It is not a matter of getting it, it’s a matter of recognizing that a level of standard of living that is common in the US can only be accomplished through efficiency.

If someone wants to build a house using only hand tools from forest to finished openings without the use of electricity or any kind of power operated machinery, he is welcome to it. But don’t pretend that foregoing electricity is the better way to build a house anymore than it’s the better way to build a hospital, or the better way to build hospital equipment, or the batter way to do surgery, or the better way to manufacture pharmaceuticals.

Leisure in any classical understanding of the term requires a certain level of material comfort because it requires a level of education. We currently possess that material comfort and thus in turn the opportunity for leisure even for those who do live by means of menial labor because we are efficient.

avatar love the girls August 21, 2012 at 9:48 am

And let my comments back to the original post.

I don’t want arterial power lines or large petroleum pipelines running above or through my yard, but I do recognize the need for the small ones scaled to my neighborhood and house, and am glad for them.

Separation of residences from mass production arterial lines is common sense, just as it’s common sense not to locate a residence next to a steel foundry, but we do need to have steel foundries and residences, and power lines which is why we have civic planning so we can reasonably have them all with the least amount of intrusion.

avatar Rob G August 22, 2012 at 8:33 am

“If someone wants to build a house using only hand tools from forest to finished openings without the use of electricity or any kind of power operated machinery, he is welcome to it. But don’t pretend that foregoing electricity is the better way to build a house”

This is precisely where you don’t get it. This isn’t some sort of reductionist binary; as numerous writers on this subject have stated, it’s never an all or nothing proposition. Yet you seem compelled to reduce it to one. To put it another way, it’s not a legalistic issue but an ascetic one.

avatar love the girls August 22, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Rob G writes : “To put it another way, it’s not a legalistic issue but an ascetic one.”

To take it back to the original comment by Nick, if you think there is some wonderful ascetic in demolition using hand tools, you need to spend some time in the field doing it. And there is plenty of it since most demolition is done with a sledge hammer and a shovel.

It typically doesn’t pay very well, about $10 per hour to ruin your lungs, but unlike those who do it because they have to, you can do it at your leisure for the ascetic value, and quit when it no longer suits you and then sit back write on the wonderful ascetics of hand tools.

avatar love the girls August 23, 2012 at 7:07 am

adding on, if you by chance meant aesthetic, and not ascetic, the same applies.

Demolition using hand tools is neither ascetic or aesthetic except to the enthusiastic hobbyist, who can do it for a short time for the fun of it. Somewhat like going out into the orchard to pick fruit. Doing it for a living is a whole different deal.

avatar Rob G August 23, 2012 at 10:41 am

I give up. Read some Berry or Postman and get back to me.

avatar love the girls August 23, 2012 at 11:20 am

Rob G.,

You mean Wendell Berry the guy who uses a manual typewriter and who owns counterpoint publishing?

A publishing company that I don’t even have to research to know uses all the latest modern efficiency techniques to manufacture and distribute his writings.

Does he even pay a living wage to his workers? Or make sure those who they contract work out to are paid a living wage? We already know the answer to those also.

avatar Rob G August 24, 2012 at 7:45 am

Is this a put-on? Sheesh.

avatar love the girls August 24, 2012 at 10:11 am

Rob G. writes : “Is this a put-on”

Well let’s see. The conversation started with Nick saying he won’t use a sawzall or a backhoe to do demolition. A tools which are about as low tech efficiency as it gets, and in the same category as someone saying he would not use an electric drill.

And now you tell me to read an author who runs an operation that is as high tech as it gets to prove a low tech sawzall or backhoe is kowtowing to the god of efficiency.

True, the fact that an author in Kentucky pushing luddite community agrarianism owns a high tech publishing business in an urban California that farms out its distribution to a conglomerate doesn’t in itself disprove his writings, but if the independently financially well off Wendell Berry uses in his business the latest in modern efficiency as opposed to having his secretaries use manual typewriters and manual typesetting, perhaps the reason is because it’s the proper level of efficiency.

I really could not care less about Wendell Berry’s brother’s farm, or his own hillside farm because they have virtually nothing in common with how most men live. Most men live lives more akin to working for his publishing business, or his distributor, in a urban environment.

avatar Steve August 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Hey! An academic/real-world collision! Hand tools are the best for honing metaphors, of course, And jackhammers for taking up concrete. Everyone wins here.

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