8 a.m., Sunday morning in Davis Square: Yuppies with small children in tow wander around the square looking bereft, holding our reusable mugs, looking for somewhere, anywhere, that will serve us our morning cup of over-priced beverage with wi-fi and soft jazz. The local independent, Diesel, isn’t open for another hour. Starbucks will sell you only iced chai, without ice. Dunks is just dark, no sign, no lights, no life, no coffee. We have no where to go — we are caffeine refugees.
“But,” chirps the Starbucks barista, who I know by first name, “you can go to the Cambridge stores. They are open as usual.”
You get the feeling the poor man has said this a thousand times this morning and every time he does, there’s a smallish stampede for the door and the T and the refuge of a bare-brick coffeehouse in Harvard Square. That’s where we go, at least, and stand in line for a very long time to get our drinks, our daughter’s warm milk, our ritual greasy Egg McMuffin. It’s like a benediction and all the other yuppies around us are sighing in deep contentment. We got our ‘Bucks, all is well in the world.
Why all the sturm und drang? Because one pipe broke.
I don’t know how the news is playing in non-New England parts of the world — I don’t know if anyone from outside of New England reads this blog — but the greater Boston area is under a boil-water order and has been for 48 hours. It’s likely to continue for at least two more days. This is because a pipe — a 10-foot pipe — in the aqueduct that brings water from the Quabbin Reservoir to Boston failed, catastrophically. We still had water, it was just from the back-up reservoirs and therefor untreated — hence the boil water order. Also, a water conservation order because the back ups were just not equipped to handle a modern city.
It’s a wonderful analogy, actually, about why we need to eat locally, if you’ll pardon a jaunt into badly strained similes.
First, I have to tell you that, some years ago, my husband and I wrote a fictional blog about, among other things, the collapse of modern society. We wrote it one year in the future — so entries dated Oct. 2008 were written in Oct. 2007.
My husband took the political side of the story — discussions of laws, legality, protests, real politik, and military matters. He researched cyber wars, submarines, laws, and other related topics so that we could get it as close to real as possible. Every time we thought we’d come up with some dark plot twist, we’d do some research and discover that the facts of the matter were so much worse than anything we’d thought of that we’d have to change the plot. The whole thing was much much grimmer than we’d intended. (But it’s a rollicking good read, if you’re interested.)
I took the “home front,” and started looking into things like our agriculture, our food supply lines, and related issues. And that is when I started to get really scared.
First, you need to know that, if you’re a typical American, the vast majority of your food comes from a handful of producers using a handful of crops. I won’t throw stats at you, but you can find the information pretty easily if you Google. Mostly, that food is coming from factories that are pretty far away, too.
Thanks to things like on-demand shipping, our grocery stores don’t stock a whole lot of … anything. There are no warehouses of food, no supply in the back room. If something is out and they can’t get a truck into the city, then they are OUT.
So imagine, please, that the four or five food producers are the Quabbin Reservoir, way far away. And the aqueduct is the constant stream of trucks into the city. (Imagine Boston represents the majority of Americans, buying their food at local megamarts.) And the back up reservoirs are the handful of local farms and suppliers.
One disruption — in this case a 10 foot pipe breaking but it could have been a failure in the water processing facility or at the source in the Quabbin or at a million points in between — and the whole damned city is fucked. To extend this analogy way way past any reason, let’s imagine what could possibly disrupt America’s food supply:
- Gas prices skyrocketing (because of, maybe, a giant ass oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that might, possibly, block traffic to Chemical City, Texas?) could put a serious kink in the pipeline
- A case of a particularly vicious black stem rust could wipe out, oooh, all of the wheat in America.
- A major economic collapse (had any of those lately?) could monkey with one of the four companies, which could cut our food supply in 1/4.
- An earthquake in California (which is entirely unlikely, right?) could wipe out so much of our produce that it would make your head spin.
- As it turns out, a volcano could mess with air travel, which wouldn’t muck with America’s food but apparently left much of northern Europe without fresh vegetables….
- A cyber attack could mess up our communications systems and no one would no where anything was going.
- The coming phosphorus shortage (or peak oil) could create a choke point in the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and whatnot that create the outrageous yields we’ve gotten used to.
I could go on and on and on. But the point I’m trying to make is that our infrastructure is old, wobbly, and very vulnerable to any minor disruption, whether we’re talking about water supply or food supply. We lack resiliency — that’s a big buzzword in national security right now.
And all of these disruptions are entirely predictable! If all your water comes through one flipping pipe, it’s not hard to imagine that that pipe might fail. So maybe we should have a back up plan? Is that too much to ask? Apparently.
What we really need to do is to start decentralizing — get our water from lots of places, get our food from lots of places. And those places should be nearby.
Because I’ve been a foodie for yonks, everyone assumes I got into the locavore movement for culinary reasons. And certainly that was part of it. But another, just as compelling reason, is because I see how fragile our world is and I need to fix it. One way to fix it is to encourage sustainable food (and water!) from a wide variety of sources, most of them nearby.
Wow, that was a long rant. So sorry.