Isolation, Scarcity and Salmonberries

Posted: Friday, February 26, 2010

"San Francisco of the North" is what I've heard Juneau called. And though we do have steep streets, Gold Rush buildings, and the Pride Chorus, I can think of a few differences. The most important is that Juneau surpasses San Francisco (and almost every other American city, of course) in beauty and neighborliness. But another huge difference between Juneau and The City by the Bay is our complete geographical isolation. When it comes down to it, we're all alone out here. It's a price Juneauites pay for natural beauty and friendliness.

E-mailing, Tweeting, friending, Skyping and old-fashioned phoning connect us to the world, of course. But our real connections are only through the air and over the water ... a fact that makes Juneau simultaneously strong and fragile. It's true that we can happily separate ourselves from some evils of the world, but there's another side to that: it's a challenge to bring in the goods of the world. In Juneau's past, that meant scarcity and reliance on local resources. Today it means high prices and reliance on fossil fuels for shipping the world's resources to us ... a new recipe for scarcity.

For my family, the 2008 Snettisham Avalanche brought this home. Some families need a periodic swift kick to remind them there is scarcity and real financial insecurity in our land of plenty. And when shown the specter of a $2,000 electricity bill, my family was swiftly kicked! After a panicked 60% reduction of our electricity use, and a stint in national news with our neighborhood electricity-free dinners, we took a moment to reflect and spin the experience around.

"So," we thought. "If our electricity bill skyrocketed because of a switch to smoggy, expensive diesel from clean, cheap electricity ... and we've been relying for years on that same smelly diesel to get food and goods shipped from Outside ... shouldn't we rely more on local sources for those as well, to save money and increase reliability? (Oh yes, and to do our part to reduce carbon emissions and save the world?)"

From swift kick to paradigm shift: reducing our use and purchase of goods from Outside and shifting to resources that are available closer to home - from fuel and food to soaps and services - means we will be less affected by volatile fossil fuel costs (and the environmental damage they do), more resilient to economic shifts, and helping the local economy do the same.

My family is not alone in making this change, I've discovered. And though folks of like mind are concerned about climate change and the environment, we're not hippies, Peak Oilers, or disaster survivalists. We don't even remember to carry cloth bags to the grocery store most of the time. We're just folks who want to afford a life in this beautiful place, even when fossil fuels pass $5 a gallon, milk passes $8 a gallon, and toothpaste passes $6 a tube. And we want all Southeast Alaska's natural resources to be available to every Juneau family far, far into the future.

So how are we diverse Juneauites doing this? Are we gathering fiddleheads, seaweed and berries? Weatherizing our houses? Upgrading our heating systems? Cooking with wood? Hunting more? Driving less? Baking bread? Crocheting and knitting? Buying used? Selling homemade goods? Looking longingly at chickens?

The answers are different in each home and neighborhood, but always interesting. And that's what these pages in L'attitude will offer in coming months: many sides of the green life in Juneau, including green families, green neighborhoods, green ideas and saving greenbacks. Sustainability is not an elite effort in Juneau.

Isolation puts our city and citizens at risk of scarcity. Scarcity will drive people out of Juneau ... and we need everyone. Regardless of age, economics, education, ethnicity, or politics, our people make Juneau a sustainable and continuously vibrant community. We don't want folks heading out for places like, say, San Francisco. Because I challenge you to find a single succulent, wild salmonberry there, much less people who enjoy them, each other, and life, more than in Juneau.

• Sarah Lewis is an architect, social worker, and member of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability. She has mostly given up on raising chickens in downtown Juneau, but dreams of being a Stay-at-Homesteader with her husband and two kids (and maybe a few quail

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