In astronomy, the circumstellar habitable zone is the range of distances around a star where a planet, not too hot and not too cold, can have liquid water and thus potentially support life. This is also known as the “Goldilocks Zone.” Our one and irreplaceable planet sits squarely in the middle of our own Goldilocks Zone, where conditions are just right for supporting human life.
“As above, so below,” said the ancients, who invented a pantheon of gods and goddesses to mirror human behavior and account for the apparent irregularities of Nature. Science tells us that the principles of balance apply, not only to the heavens, but to those of us who are earthbound. Whether we’re balancing an equation or tinkering with a lawnmower carburetor, there is a set of conditions that are just right for the task at hand.
I’ve always liked small towns because, for me, they are just right: Just big enough to provide needed services; just small enough that you get to know your neighbors. Big enough to give you something to do when you feel like getting out of the house, but small enough that the problems that plague cities, like crime, traffic, pollution and noise, are limited.
Those of us who love our mountain towns and communities tend to consider our area as being in the Goldilocks zone for a happy and peaceful life. But there may be early signs that we are moving, albeit slowly, toward the boundaries of that zone.
I was standing outside the post office talking to an older friend who was born and raised in Hiawassee. I was annoyed. It was the third time the post office had returned one of my packages to the sender because because of an “insufficient address,” even though their own online system had tracked it there. Apparently, to put a notification slip in my box and stick the package in the corner placed an intolerable burden on the whole system, but it was less inconvenient to process a return and put the package back on a truck so that their computer could tell me that my package had been returned. I had shared, generously, my opinion that it was unfortunate our small town post office had evolved to a level of sophistication where it was more important to follow alleged rules and regulations than to help out a neighbor.
“I began to worry about how our area was changing about twenty years ago,” said my friend. “When we got that first traffic light, the one between McDonald’s and the Huddle House, the town voted on it. Some said the traffic was bad enough that we needed it, and I guess today they would be right. But I noticed after that we didn’t get to vote on any of those other traffic lights.”
“A lot of us thought we were getting too big for our britches when they started scraping off the tops of our mountains to build more houses. Now it’s hard to get from one side of town to the other on a Saturday morning.”
“That always seems to be the way of it when you’ve got something good. There’s always somebody who thinks they can’t squeeze enough money out of it so they try to make it bigger so they can. Then they crow about how much things have grown until somebody gives them a plaque or names a street after them, and then they they put a stop light on that street.”
“You’d think folks would figure out that bigger’s not always better. Nobody brags about how much the boil on their backside grew, or how their belly got so fat they had to poke another hole in their belt.”
My friend was on a roll, and she continued:
“People always say they want smaller government, but when you get more people, you always get more government; more laws, more taxes, and more rules.”
“What about jobs?” I said. “A lot of what’s happened here was intended to create jobs so that our kids wouldn’t have to leave the area to make a living.”
“Well, you show me the jobs,” she said. “All I see is people serving food or selling knick-knacks or driving nails. That’s good, honest work, but it’s hard to raise a family making ten dollars an hour. It’s just my opinion but I think we grew in a way that made a lot of money for a few folks, but left the rest of us still struggling.”
“What we need to do,” said my friend, “is to decide who we are. If we’re going to be a tourist town, that’s fine, but we need to act like one, take better care of the mountains and think twice before throwing up another metal building on the side of the road. But I think that ship’s done sailed. Who wants to sit in traffic or take a picture of a bunch of houses on a mountain or trash on the side of the road? Folks can have all that in the city without having to drive two hours to get it. “
“Now the big shots who want us to keep growing are trying to sell us as a good place to retire. I agree with some of that. Compared to the city, we’re still quiet and peaceful and not so big that you can’t know your neighbors. But I’m 73 and there are times I just dread coming to town, and it wasn’t that long ago I never thought about locking my car or even my front door, but not anymore.”
My friend had a point. Anyone born here or who has lived here since the 90’s can tell you that in some ways our area has changed so much that it would be almost unrecognizable to our forbears, and as we have grown, we have lost some of that time to be neighborly. In small towns, people are generally considered to be more important than rules and schedules. In big towns, there is less time to share with more people. We create more rules and regulations, laws and codes to protect us from chaos.
As above, so below, or when we’re dealing with human nature, what’s true at a macroscopic level is often true a the microscopic. Our nation has always had its share of empire builders. Our entire economy is predicated on the notion that growth is good for the sake of growth itself. Our population has almost doubled over the last two generations, and the number of laws, rules and regulations has multiplied many times over.
Here at home we enjoy our small communities, our neighbors and our more relaxed pace. But we also want the conveniences and distractions that are available in bigger places. We have grown, and we will continue to grow, but I question, both for us and for the nation, whether the voices clamoring for growth should always be the dominant ones. On a finite world of 7 1/2 billion people where poverty, starvation and unrest are pushing millions of migrants to find a place where they can survive, perhaps we need to hear more from those voices who promote what is sustainable rather than those who always clamor for what is profitable.
For the small town, when we’re too small we dry up and blow away. When we’re too big, we lose the advantages that make us glad to be here. Every town, indeed, every complex system, has an optimal size that can be sustained by its available resources. Whenever we have a conversation about planning our future, we should look for that balance, that Goldilocks zone between growth and sustainability that, for us, is just right.