Staycations and the Hyperlocal

For those of you not pulling into gas stations or not reading headlines, gas prices are getting real. Creeping towards $5 a gallon, there are no signs of those numbers going back down, and the inflation rate is now at a 10-month high. According to a Reuters report, although consumers have actually gotten used to seeing higher numbers at the pump, the transportation costs will affect their spending.  A U.S. Travel Association survey recently found more than half of Americans would adjust their travel plans due to rising fuel prices.  While some consumers won’t consciously change their behavior or pursue less gas-guzzling options, their wallets will still feel the crunch.

Consumers may not feel pump shock because they have confidence gas prices will go back down.  However, Wall Street is not manipulating prices and the Syrian crisis is not to blame.  Oil is a precious commodity and it will eventually run out.  The Constitution does not state that Americans should have cheap gas.

So what does this mean for shifts among networks?  In his book Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks, Mark Buchanan discusses the small-world hypothesis, which means that a person living in Paris, France could somehow be connected to someone in Silver Spring, Maryland, for example. What if our worlds really become, quite literally, smaller? We can send messages, photos and videos to people across the world instantly.  Yet, as far as I know, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are the only ones teleporting on the Sci Fi channel. When it comes to transporting physical items, we might as well be using the Pony Express.

Gas prices may not decrease, and their inflation will have lasting effects on our small-world networks and communities.  If people simply cannot afford to travel, they’ll have to spend more time at home and in their neighborhoods.  Imagine you’re under house arrest for a month.  What would you do? Maybe you’d tackle your cluttered basement, turning it into a usable space.  You’d get to know your neighbor and maybe invite her for dinner.  You’d read those dusty books on your shelves.  Think of this as a microcosm for our communities and neighborhoods.  If families cannot afford to fill up the tank for a drive to some vacation destination, perhaps they’ll take more pride in their communities, tending to them as they would a neglected, but useful basement.

Being “local” has evolved into somewhat of a hip term.  Restaurants boast their local food options because it impresses foodies.  I don’t want to eat beef that arrived on a Sysco truck from five states over.  I would rather buy it from a ranch down the road.  Seven cents out of every dollar we spend on food is spent on transporting it to its destination.  What if restaurants had to buy local food, not due to an effort to be “hip,” but because it was more expensive to buy from Sysco or Wal-Mart?  Would that lead to local farms lowering their prices since they now have more customers?

Could higher gas prices mean richer, more-connected communities with healthier food and less pollution?  Could they mean a return to the extended family?  Could villages start raising children again, and what would this mean for our next generation?  Would the next generation become less concerned with concentrating in cities and more concerned with legacies of their families and community networks?  Utilizing weak ties and structural holes, the bridges that connect two people or networks which would otherwise be unconnected, can mean much for innovation, but there may also be a lot to learn from the nodes in closest proximity to us, for they could challenge us just as much as someone across the world.

When could we see a tipping point in this scenario?  When could community attention and investment become a contagious idea? When will the benefits of higher gas prices and resulting behavior emerge and diffuse?  I believe a shift in investment in our local communities on the macro and micro levels could have lasting benefits for citizens and the land, which we inhabit.  And high gas prices may be the ticket to that shift.

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