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The Surprising Reason Why Americans Are So Lonely, and Why Future Prosperity Means Socializing with Your Neighbors

Access to cheap energy made us rich, wrecked our climate, and made us the first people on earth who had no practical need of our neighbors -- that has to change.

Excerpted from the book EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planetby Bill McKibben. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved. Copyright (c) 2010 by Bill McKibben.

Community may suffer from overuse more sorely than any word in the dictionary. Politicians left and right sprinkle it through their remarks the way a bad Chinese restaurant uses MSG, to mask the lack of wholesome ingredients. But we need to rescue it; we need to make sure that community will become, on this tougher planet, one of the most prosaic terms in the lexicon, like hoe or bicycle or computer. Access to endless amounts of cheap energy made us rich, and wrecked our climate, and it also made us the first people on earth who had no practical need of our neighbors.

In the halcyon days of the final economic booms, everyone on your cul de sac could have died overnight from some mysterious plague, and while you might have been sad, you wouldn't have been inconvenienced. Our economy, unlike any that came before it, is designed to work without the input of your neighbors. Borne on cheap oil, our food arrives as if by magic from a great distance (typically, two thousand miles). If you have a credit card and an Internet connection, you can order most of what you need and have it left anonymously at your door. We've evolved a neighborless lifestyle; on average an American eats half as many meals with family and friends as she did fifty years ago. On average, we have half as many close friends.

I've written extensively, in a book called Deep Economy, about the psychological implications of our hyperindividualism. In short, we're less happy than we used to be, and no wonder -- we are, after all, highly evolved social animals. There aren't enough iPods on earth to compensate for those missing friendships. But I'm determined to be relentlessly practical -- to talk about surviving, not thriving. And so it heartens me that around the world people are starting to purposefully rebuild communities as functioning economic entities, in the hope that they'll be able to buffer some of the effects of peak oil and climate change.

The Transition Town movement began in England and has spread to North America and Asia; in one city after another, people are building barter networks, expanding community gardens. And they've paid equal, or even greater, attention to suburbia; in the developed world, after all, that's where most people live. Though our sprawl is designed for the car, the sunk costs of those tens of millions of houses mean they're not going to disappear just because the price of gas rises. They'll have to change instead. "Suburbia, not as a model for material consumption, but as a legal and social lattice of decentralized and more uniformly distributed production land ownership, has the potential to serve as the foundation for just such a pioneering adaptation," writes Jeff Vail, a widely read economic theorist who envisions "a Resilient Suburbia."

In fact, quite sober economists have begun to insist that even in our seemingly globalized world, our economies are actually far more local than we realize. Despite the "pervasive image of a single U.S. economy," the economists William Barnes and Larry Ledeber write, "local economies -- primarily metropolitan-centered and strongly linked -- are the real economies in the United States." They build, with rich statistical backing, on the original insights of thinkers like Jane Jacobs, who always insisted that the city was the fundamental building block of our economic life. These "Local Economic Regions" comprise the web of transportation and communication links, the chain of educational institutions in a region, and the web of emotional ties. (My Vermont neighbors may not care much how many gold medals the United States captured at the Olympics, but they are deeply involved with how many runs the Red Sox scored last night.)