Jennifer Nazak explains how applying permaculture principles to personal transport can benefit your local community whilst also making you healthier and happier
Personal transportation accounts for a big part of our fossil-fuel consumption. We (everyday people) can make the world a greener place very quickly through our transportation choices. But not everyone can afford to go out and buy one of those cute little electric/hybrid cars. And of course, there's always the question about the carbon footprint of a new car as opposed to a used one.
Is there a better, simpler way? Yes, there is! (A permaculture designer, which I am, will almost always answer "Yes" to this question.)
Normal Car vs. Electric Car vs. No Car
Let's take the example of a typical person who commutes to work by car. Jane, let's call her, drives 20 miles to work and 20 miles home, five days a week, alone in an average car which gets about 20 miles per gallon in the city.
Jane can cut her fossil-fuel consumption in half by ditching her old car for a hybrid vehicle, which gets over 40 mpg. Or, by springing for an all-electric vehicle which gets over 100 mpg equivalent in the city, she can cut her fossil-fuel consumption by a factor of five.
But then Jane would have to take on a car payment. And of course the new cars come with a 'price tag' in terms of environmental footprint too.
Furthermore, even if we cut our gasoline expenditure by half or by four-fifths, we are still burning fossil fuels at a fairly steady clip.
Another big problem that most people don't notice about this scenario, because we're so used to cars and commutes, is that buying a 'green car' doesn't do anything to change the fundamental setup that is causing us to be so car-dependent in the first place. Homes are miles away from offices, which are in turn miles away from our kids' schools and miles away still from the stores where we shop for food and other basic necessities.
And buying a 'green car' doesn't do anything to address the other big problems that plague our auto-dominated world: social isolation and the decline of community.
Getting About Using Permaculture Principles
How might Jane apply permaculture thinking to her situation?
If Jane can, she should move within walking or cycling distance of work. In the spirit of permaculture, which always seeks to obtain a yield beyond merely 'cutting back', Jane would reap multiple personal benefits from walking or cycling to work:
For one, by switching to a form of transportation that also serves as exercise, she might be able to quit her gym membership. She'd also get more fresh air and sunshine that would boost her overall health, both physical and mental. Also, by being more out and about in the public space, she'd have more opportunities to interact with her neighbors and local business people. And of course she'd get a bit of time to think; germinate ideas; observe the passing of the seasons. People sometimes do these things while driving, of course, but there's a limit to how much you can relax while you're navigating traffic.
Another 'permaculture thing' Jane could do is cut her costs of living to the point where she didn't have to work five days a week. Whether or not her boss would go for that idea, Jane could also look into the possibility of working from home at least part of the time. This would contribute enormously to her quality of life. It would make it easier for her to start a garden, spend time with her dog and cat, meet more of her neighbors.
Turning a 'Green' Approach Into a 'Permaculture' Approach
Some neighborhoods become ghost-towns during the day because just about everyone is away at work. If a lot of people started thinking like Jane, it would add a lot of life to our communities, without the need for investment in costly infrastructure of any kind.
Can you imagine how our neighborhoods might look if more people were around more of the time? Neighbors might actually meet each other! People might help each other with gardening. They might share tools; consolidate errands; organize potluck meals. Maybe they'd collaborate on small enterprises; become more active in local politics. A little neighborhood economy could spring up, with people hiring the teen down the street to babysit or mow their lawn, just like in the old days. The possibilities are truly open-ended.
People would feel safer. Neighborhoods would feel safer. And BE safer.
As you can see, this discussion has gotten away from automotive fuel-efficiency entirely, and yet the scenario I describe has a much greater potential to cut fossil-fuel consumption than just buying a new car. And as you can see, the permaculture approach offers multiple benefits beyond just cutting gas consumption. This is what happens when we make the jump from 'green' to permaculture thinking. There's a reason why we call permaculture a paradigm shift.
The key difference between the 'green' approach and the permaculture-spirited approach is that the latter goes beyond merely seeking to minimize waste and consumption. With permaculture the emphasis is on enhancing quality of life; obtaining a yield; introducing beneficial relationships. All of that, and going vastly greener too – quite a good deal!