the upside of downsizing

Amid the media clamour about postal strikes and the threat to Christmas (Jeez! I'm still trying to get past Hallowe'en!) I noticed that the Director of Network Development at the PO is collaborating with various other heavies to try to keep rural communities - including post offices - going. So the Post Office is trying to modernise and traditionalise at the same time. Not unlike the rest of us, then.

But this conceals another paradox. According to their research 95 percent of village halls are struggling to stay open; 36 pubs are closing each week, 800 village shops shutting annually, and schools, cottage hospitals and banks are also under threat.

Why is this? We're constantly told that people are downsizing and leaving the city for quality of life. But if that's true, how come all these rural institutions are going under?

Perhaps it's because people want to live in the country as though it were the city. They want rural peace, but with lots of choice. This is not traditional. Traditional village life means buying one kind of cake from the village shop, or making your own. Getting your social life from the one pub and the village hall, not eight wine bars, a comedy club, and eight screens at the multiplex.

In short, quite a lot less choice.

There is, as we all discover when we abandon supermarkets, a big upside to this. Just how much would Joan of Arc have achieved, if she'd had to spend time, energy and brain cells choosing between a dozen kinds of tomatoes, plus every other vegetable currently in season in any part of the planet, just to keep her energies up? Believe me - as I and my unhappy children know - when carrots, cabbage and onions are all there is to cook with, you get a whole lot more done.

Which also provides a convenient solution for the time poverty of which people complain. Apparently half of all Americans, and forty percent of British people, now say lack of time is more of a problem for them than lack of money. There's just too much stuff offering itself up to us, and we can't do all of it, so we get cross and overwhelmed.

Which is where the 'new simplicity' comes in, conveniently coinciding with the credit crunch.

Or possibly preceding it. Either way, making a virtue of necessity.

The credit crunch, but more significantly peak oil and global warming, are also going to make us all base ourselves more locally. (Of course there are still people who claim that somehow international trade and mass production are more energy efficient. But in the other corner of the ring is Ralph Borsodi unearthed by  John Paul Flintoff in his fabulous book an economist who proved back in the 1920s that making things at home was cheaper than mass-producing. He found that the larger the scale of production, the more money and energy were spent aggregating, then redistributing, the materials, fuels and people involved.

'How can this be?' you chorus. 'How can making my own skirt cost less than Primark?' Simple. Just cost your time at the rate of a Chinese sweatshop, and you'll find the answer).

But you don't need to move to a place without multiplexes to rediscover the joys of community. Try Meetups Thanks to the internet, a community can begin in the virtual world, not with people you can't stand, who just happen to live next door.  Meetups bring people with similar interests together in 3,601 cities - so the chances are they're all around you already. But that's just the starting point. Their creed is 'use the Internet to get off the Internet'. I.e., first find the people you get on with, then start doing stuff with them in the real world.

Meetup is one of the major tools of the Transition movement, of which I wrote last time Peak Oil snarled at you from these pages. The first Transition Towns were in  small rural places naturally suited to pulling together as a community, with the aim of hunkering down to self-sufficiency in a post-oil world. These days Transition Culture  is global. Even Brixton is a transition town, with its own currency and its own plans for local power generation. Transition gets things done that you can't do on your own, while you wait - and wait - for the government to do them for you.

(Not that everything can be done in your own garden. The Chinese experimented with this during their Great Leap Forward, only to discover that steel made in backyard furnaces was not fit for purpose, and meanwhile they'd melted down all their cooking pots. These things can go too far.)

But other lessons from the past are more encouraging. During World War 2 which is not a bad analogy for our current situation, they had not just rationing, but all sorts of other stuff we're now re discovering: 'holiday at home' campaigns and even Pig Clubs. (Don't laugh: you can now buy a pig pen at B and Q). People took to it, not just because it was imposed equally, on everybody, from above, so they saw it as fair (take note, Ed Milliband), but also because doing this stuff themselves turned out to be fun.

They learned a whole bunch of skills and ways of doing things that would be pretty useful to us now. When you don't have electricity for your freezer, you'll want to know how to preserve stuff by salting or brining or drying it. When there's no oil to bring clothes from Bangladesh, the joys of hand smocking and crocheting jumpers will reassert themselves. When your house is cold, what nicer way to warm it up than sitting around one fire with six friends, making quilts together?

And where will these new communities find the skills and knowledge they need? In another of our under-utilised resources: old people those valuable repositories currently rotting in their care home easy chairs. Just try asking them; they know it all, but nobody has bothered to find out before.

Plus, it cuts down on NHS costs. 'Reminiscence Therapy' aka, saving ignorant young people from making all the same mistakes you did, not only improves memory itself but general health too. Surely a better treatment for Alzheimers than drugs or daytime TV?

So saving the planet seems to entail saving the self-respect of a lot of people currently regarded as worthless, and bringing them back into the world.

And before you all run screaming back to The X Factor, this is not Merrie England, okay? Postman Pat's Greendale is great for four-year-olds, and a community of twenty may make for lots of scandal and incest in The Archers  but we're lucky enough that we can have both. We can have communities of interest and a feeling of belonging, but also the vast glorious anonymity of the Internet.

That is, those of us who don't yet live in the countryside, where broadband services are as spotty as a Year 10. Once again, the voice of righteousness emerges from the unlikely mouth of the Prince of Wales In a post-0il world we may be running our servers on wind and old sewage, but we're going to need to be connected more than ever.

Now excuse me please, while I go and bother my granny about pickled eggs.