Friday, March 20, 2009

Report From The Front Lines - 3-20-09

This blog is supposed to be, among other things, a “diary of life on the downside of Hubbert's Peak.” Here's a bit of a diary entry.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a co-worker who has many of the same perspectives that I do about our present world and its prospects, and the impending demise of materialistic culture in the United States. He is Catholic, whereas I am Protestant. We both decided that it would be fun and helpful to host a “brown-bag lunch” at our office to discuss neighborhood and community resilience. We came up with a tentative agenda of topics to discuss:


  1. Definition: What is a resilient community? (or neighborhood)

  2. The systems of a neighborhood

  3. Threats to those systems

    1. Foreclosure

    2. Job loss

    3. Sudden supply disruptions

    4. Bedroom community

    5. Loss of a loved one

  4. Resilience Strategies

    1. Getting to know neighbors

      1. Creating Understanding

      2. Sharing skills

      3. Developing common ground

      4. “Being present”

    2. Mutual aid

      1. Ride share

      2. Baby sitting

      3. Helping out with building projects

      4. Neighborhood pet

      5. “Belonging”

    3. Bartering networks

      1. Skills/services

      2. Material goods (homemade crafts, etc)

      3. Garage sales

    4. Creating “Lending Libraries”

      1. Hand tools/power tools

      2. Kitchen appliances

      3. Garden starts

    5. Investing in oneself

      1. Learning self-reliance skills (canning, sewing, knitting)

      2. Gardening (vegetable, flower, composting, water conservation, organic pest control, )

      3. Keeping urban livestock

      4. (Ending petlessness)

    6. Improving common spaces

      1. Planting fruit trees/perennial vegetables in common areas like easements

      2. Organizing front yard edible plants

      3. Utilizing the “front porch” attitude

Looks ambitious, doesn't it? We've also got another engineer who is handy with woodworking as a hobby, who also would like to contribute to our talk. It could be a very useful and informative presentation if it gets off the ground.

And that's the rub right now – that this talk may not get off the ground. For our office, whose workload had been slowing for at least nine months, has suddenly gotten a lot slower. Many people are staying home now on company leave (or are out looking for work). My own department's workload has dried up significantly. We have a few “prospects” out there that may materialize in the next few weeks; if they don't, many lives will be disrupted. Showing up to work without a charge number is a sure way to get the “Grim Reaper” after you.

Some of my co-workers have had a running joke about me over the last few months, going as far as calling me a “prophet” and saying that they get dark circles under their eyes and lose sleep whenever they hear me give my economic prognosis for American society. I guess I do sound a bit doomful, but then again it must be the prognostications I've been reading over the last two years – prognostications which have been quite doomful and very accurate. (I'm no prophet; I just know how to steal good material!) During one of the Dow's more recent dives, we were all joking about hiding money under matresses.

Nowadays, I tend to be more careful about who I share my opinions with in the office. I think of one co-worker in particular, an engineer with extensive experience, who denies the reality of anthropogenic climate change and Peak Oil, and who seems to blame all our present problems on liberals and Democrats. I am an evangelical Christian, and he claims to be one also, but we are as different as day and night, since I believe that God is a God of personal responsibility who doesn't spare us from difficult lessons, and who commands His people not to be materialists. My associate, on the other hand, is a Charismatic who seems to believe that material prosperity is our Divine right and a sign of Divine blessing, and that the American standard of living is inviolable. I get nothing but agitated trying to talk to this gentleman, so I tend to avoid philosophical or political discussions with him – though he seems to enjoy trying to start such discussions with me.

The commute to work has grown somewhat eerie. The MAX trains, so full of commuters a few months ago, have recently become much emptier. Some might think that it's because cheap gasoline has finally lured people back into cars, but I think it's because a lot of my former fellow passengers have been laid off, or their hours have been cut. The official unemployment rate in Oregon is now over ten percent, though the actual rate may be far higher. It may well be that one out of every five people I meet on the street is out of a job.

The Circuit City store a couple of blocks from my house closed a few weeks ago. Now the parking lot is vacant, and there is an iron grate across the store entrance. In the building where my office is located, there are a number of new vacancies caused by people going out of business, as well as a number of new business vacancies in downtown Portland. There is also a foreclosed house in my neighborhood which has sat vacant for half a year, and is now finally going up for auction. Some of my neighbors have been trying to sell their houses for about the same amount of time, and have had no success.

Speaking of houses, I wrote in an earlier post about how people could buy foreclosed or abandoned houses cheaply in certain parts of the U.S., and that they could use these houses as a base for establishing resilient communities with local economies suited to an energy-constrained future. Evidently, there were many who seized on the availability of cheap housing (whether because of my blog or not, I don't know), and now people are buying up dozens of houses apiece in places like Detroit, Michigan. These people, however, are not buying the houses in order to start resilient communities or to prepare for energy descent, but in order to get rich from speculative “investment.” (You can read about some of these “investors” here:

These people are vultures stumbling fortuitously across a seemingly lucky bit of road kill, but I believe that they are greatly mistaken if they think they will get much of a return on their “investments.” They bought their properties based on the belief that economic activity in Detroit will pick up enough to provide sufficient incomes to prospective tenants to cover the rents which these people, in their greed, will demand. Most of these newly-minted “landlords” have dreams of making a more-than-comfortable living from their “properties” without having to work very hard at all – a sort of something-for-nothing semi-retirement, if you will. But the truth is that our contracting economy, whose contraction is driven by a contracting base of energy and natural resources, will not be able to support a large rentier class. These people are about to find out that a house has value only as a place to live and to do the hard work of making a living, and not as a get-rich “investment” vehicle. It will be a hard lesson, but as Gandalf said in the Lord of the Rings, “The burned hand teaches best.”

Yet these people are symptomatic of a society which has been trained to try to get something for nothing, a society trained by TV shows such as “Mad Money” and “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” Now the something-for-nothing dream is going up in smoke, and I wonder how my fellow citizens will respond.

As for me, I am reviewing my options, making preparations to do without, planting my garden (oats yesterday, brussels sprouts, favas and flax earlier in the week), and getting to know my neighbors. I'll probably pick up a load of compost tomorrow. Thanks be to God that my house is paid off. Stay well, everyone, and live wisely, “redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16)

1 comment:

Kiashu said...

And I'm Jewish, but I agree with a lot of what you say. So I guess any resemblance between faith and point of view is purely coincidental :D

For your meetings, do try to focus on one or two of those subpoints each time. You'll find there's enough for half an hour's discussion or more on each.

The "investors" will go the same way others have done, boom and bust, though sometimes without the boom... They've lost track of what "investment" means. It's not just buying stuff and renting it out, but buying stuff and building it. A few tens of thousands on repairing the place, putting in gardens, and lobbying the local council to keep a bus service and school going - that'd create a huge return. But somehow I don't think these "investors" will be doing that.