Sunday, June 7, 2009

Neighborhood Resilience and Safety Nets - A "Lab" Question

Among the writers whose work addresses Peak Oil and its related crisis are some who still view these crises as abstractions or events of the misty future. When they discuss possible responses to these crises, they write in high-level terms about what policies mankind (and its leading classes) should adopt, rather than delving into concrete things individuals should do. I'll start this post by suggesting that the future imagined by many who have written about Peak Oil and its related issues is here now. The economic dislocation caused by climate change, Peak Oil and other resource constraints is happening now. And the behavior to date of the masters of our present economic and governmental systems in responding to our present crisis shows exactly what we can expect from these masters as the crisis continues to unfold – namely, little to no help at all.

As writers like Sharon Astyk have noted, Peak Oil, climate change and economic collapse will not manifest themselves as some new and exotic crisis, but will look to many like ordinary human suffering that steadily gets worse. Successful adaptation to this suffering will not depend on grand governmental policy initiatives so much as the local responses of individuals, neighborhoods and communities. This adaptation must have both an individual and a community component. Being a prepared individual in the midst of an unprepared neighborhood has only limited value. In my articles on neighborhood resilience and building safety nets of alternative systems, I have attempted to explore the process of adaptation as seen by dwellers in urban and suburban neighborhoods, as well as outlining some of the hindrances to this adaptation.

Now it is time to take this study entirely out of the realm of the theoretical and to ground it firmly in the practical. Therefore I want to consider three real neighborhoods in three real cities in the United States. These are cities with which I have personal experience, having visited all three and having lived in two of them. However, the exact details of the neighborhoods under consideration will be somewhat fictionalized in this post. I want to consider a hypothetical resident in each of these three locales, a resident who one day began to become “Peak Oil-aware” or “climate change-aware” or more generally, “collapse-aware.” How that resident did so may vary according to a number of factors. Perhaps he was shocked into awareness by the run-up in gasoline prices in 2008. Or maybe she ran into a friend or relative who suddenly dived into urban homesteading with both feet, and her curiosity was aroused. Or maybe he was hanging out at a bookstore and just happened to pick up a book written by a “collapsnik.”

Anyway, let's assume that this person had or is having his or her awakening sometime between the beginning of 2007 and now. The person comes to realize that he must radically alter and simplify his life, or that she must not only alter her life but must also reach out to her neighbors and educate them about the events now unfolding. Let's say that the “collapse” message comes to this person with the same sort of urgency with which it hit me – as, in early 2007, I began to devour everything I could get my hands on concerning Peak Oil, as I followed the “World Without Oil” scenario website with all the devotion of a sports fan watching his team in the playoffs, as I downloaded podcast after podcast from Global Public Media, as I watched the weekly fluctuations in gas prices, and so on. One of the chief questions this person will likely ask is, “If these things are for real, can I successfully prepare for and adapt to these things here, right where I live? And can I successfully educate my neighbors so that we can adapt together?” What sort of answer to these questions do you think such a person will find, given the following scenarios?

Scenario 1: Willow Street, La Habra, California

You are a technical specialist for structural engineering at a CAD (computer-aided design) software reseller's office located in Costa Mesa. You live in La Habra, having bought a house on Willow Street near La Habra High School. Your morning commute takes between forty-five minutes and an hour and forty minutes, and it takes about the same amount of time to get home. It is early 2008, and you have been a homeowner for five years. In early 2008, the price of oil is already over $100 a barrel and gasoline prices are floating up toward $4 a gallon. You don't make very much, and because you bought your house for over $250K, a large portion of your paycheck goes toward the mortgage. You decide that you can't take the continual hit at the gas pump, but you don't know what to do, other than look for a job closer to home.

One day you are at Borders' Bookstore at Beach and Imperial, looking for a book on ornamental plants for your wife. You pass by a section full of books on declining oil supplies and the impending energy crisis. Your eye is attracted to a book with an unusual title, “Divorce Your Car!” You buy the plant book for your wife, but you are intrigued by the “car” book, and you buy it for yourself. As you read it, you are introduced to several new concepts, including the concept of “Peak Oil.” For some reason, this concept sticks in your mind to the extent that you do a Google search on it at lunch one day. What you find astounds, disturbs and profoundly moves you.

At home, you begin making immediate changes. First, you put a clothesline in your back yard. Then you start trying to kill the Bermuda grass so you can plant some vegetables. You start talking with one of your neighbors who lives across the street from you about the real reasons for the high gas prices, as well as where you think the economy is heading. In your conversations, you are always asking yourself, “Does my neighbor 'get' it? Would he be interested in joining me in helping the neighborhood get ready?”

But there is a big neighborhood problem, namely, a single woman with a teenage son who lives three houses down from you and whose son attends La Habra High. He has recently gotten into the habit of throwing big weekend drinking parties at his house, with his mom's full knowledge and permission. Lots of his friends and classmates show up, driving recklessly up and down the street as they arrive, and frequently urinating and/or vomiting on residents' properties as they leave. Fights are not uncommon, and the police are regularly called to that house on the weekends.

You also notice that the steps you are taking are highly unusual for your neighborhood, as most of the other residents are trying to grow room additions on their property, and not vegetables. One of your next door neighbors is annoyed by the clothesline and the vegetables in your backyard. One day you and your wife come home to find that this woman and her husband have replaced the chain link fence between your houses with a seven foot-high redwood fence.

You want to stop driving to work, but you live over 24 miles away from your office, and public transit is slow and disjointed. At last you settle on riding the Metrolink from the Fullerton station to Tustin, then heading to the office from the Tustin station. From your house to the Fullerton station and from the Tustin station to the office, you plan to travel by bike. Your wife is a bit hesitant about this at first (because she doesn't want you to become an accident statistic), but you decide to give it a go. The leg from your house to Fullerton isn't too dangerous, but going from the Tustin station along Jamboree Road and Main Street in Costa Mesa, you sometimes have to ride on the sidewalk, because there are a few parts with no bike lane and the cars go pretty fast. You wind up pedaling over 24 miles each workday. It's a brutal commute in the summertime.

Scenario 2: Olmstead Avenue, Los Angeles, California

You are a black single mother with a teenage son. You live on Olmstead Avenue, in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles, in a house you have owned for seventeen years. You are an IT support staff member at a hospital near the downtown area. You are pushing your son to excel in school, and he is responding well for the most part, though he sometimes resents your pushing. You tend to be stricter with him than other parents are with their children, believing that if you don't hold him to a high standard of behavior, he will find himself being judged and treated more harshly for youthful indiscretions than his classmates who aren't black. You believe this to be true even now, years after the Rodney King beating and the “changes” in the LAPD.

It is January 2007, and while reading the Los Angeles Times on a Sunday, you find an article titled, “O Pioneers In Pasadena,” about the Dervaes family, who have turned their house into an “urban homestead.” The article arouses your interest and lingers in your mind for several days. Intrigued, you do a Google search on the Dervaes family and on Jules Dervaes in order to find out more about them. Your search leads you to the Global Public Media website, where you find not only a podcast of an interview with Mr. Dervaes, but much, much more! What you find astounds, disturbs and profoundly moves you.

You start making radical changes in your life and home. Your son initially reacts by looking at you as if you were slightly crazy. It's hard for him to grasp the need to reuse and repair things, to voluntarily make do with less, when he sees all his friends getting the latest shiny new “stuff.” You fare somewhat better with the neighbors, several of whom you have known for years, many of whom are already starting to be squeezed by the incipient economic downturn. You form an “Olmstead Avenue Gardening Club” with some of your neighbors, and you all enthusiastically plant whatever you think you can easily grow without accidentally killing it. Soon your yards are full of cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes and sunflowers. One yard even has some corn and squash.

In early September of 2007, you and your neighbors decide to have a little streetside “Urban Farmers' Market” to show off your produce. You plan your “Market” for a Saturday in early October. Word gets around the neighborhood, and people from several streets away express interest in dropping by. On the day of the “Market, you all set up several tables in the front yards of your house and the houses of your next door neighbors, and there's a large, joyful crowd. Your son is also there along with his friends, some of whom have the typical “urban” uniform consisting of sideways baseball caps, baggy shorts, and long, unbuttoned shirts or long tees or tank tops with Lakers colors. These young men are not being disorderly in any way – in fact, they are helping set up tables and set out vegetables – but they attract the notice of a passing LAPD squad car. Suddenly, several LAPD units show up, and officers begin questioning people, frisking some and harassing all the young men, including your son. The officers respond very rudely to your protests that you are doing nothing wrong, nothing any more out of the ordinary than any block party or multi-family garage sale. In fact, they threaten to arrest you for disorderly conduct.

Scenario 3: SE 88th Avenue, Portland, Oregon

You are a freight rail dispatcher at the Port of Portland, Oregon. You own a home on SE 88th Avenue, in the Lents district of Portland, across the street from Lents Park. You have owned your home for nearly 30 years, having bought it with the aid of GI Bill benefits you received after you got out of the Air Force. Though your Port job paid well enough for you to have relocated several times to larger and more expensive housing, you have never felt the urge to move. Now you are glad that your house is almost paid for; in fact, you have enough saved up to pay it off outright if you need to.

In the latter half of 2008, you notice a steadily worsening drop in shipping and container traffic at the Port, compared to a year ago. The drop in traffic grows severe enough to force some employees, such as yourself, onto an involuntary part-time schedule, while other employees are laid off altogether. You know that the economy has something to do with your situation, and during your breaks and lunch periods, you and your workmates discuss what is wrong with the economy, as well as how to fix it. One day in November, an engineer for one of the freight lines overhears your discussions, and he starts talking about impending economic collapse. Because you and he are old buddies, he loans you a book written by a “collapsnik,” and you read it over a couple of weekends. What you find astounds, disturbs and profoundly moves you.

You start making radical changes in your life and home. This turns out to be relatively easy in Portland, with its well-connected system of mass transit and bicycle routes, in addition to its strong base of community and volunteer groups. You soon find out about organizations such as Growing Gardens and the Portland Fruit Tree Project, and after attending their classes, you are able to plant your first garden.

Several of your neighbors catch the gardening “bug” (several others already had it), and you all begin talking together about the present economic situation and what you can do about it. You make your last house payment in March 2009, and host a “Burn the Mortgage” party.

But in April, you and your neighbors find out that the City wants to turn Lents Park into a baseball stadium for a minor-league professional team. This news is profoundly disturbing, as both you and your neighbors can't afford to sell your houses and relocate, and you are wondering what sort of adverse effects you will all suffer from having a 9,000 seat stadium right next to your homes. You are especially grieved about Lents Park. Your kids played in that park. When your young granddaughter visits from time to time, you take her to that park just to sit and read stories or play. What will become of the place now?

Questions for Discussion

  1. What are the destabilizing influences in each neighborhood?

  2. What structural barriers to Peak Oil/economic collapse adaptation exist in each neighborhood?

  3. If we assume that the persons in each of these scenarios could relocate, would you advise them to? To where would you advise them to relocate?

  4. Assuming that these people cannot afford to relocate, what strategies would you suggest for helping them to adapt, to build local safety nets and a resilient neighborhood?

  5. What other factors or elements would you insert into each of these scenarios? Notice that in these scenarios I haven't seriously examined the effects of massive job losses, polluted land or altered climate.

1 comment:

Kiashu said...

A very interesting article. My first thoughts are, "thank God I don't live in the US." The cultural, infrastructure and authoritarian barriers here Down Under are not so strong as there.

Here Down Under we're skating along the edge of a recession but not falling in, so it's quite possible for people relocate, so long as they're willing to downsize and declutter. That's harder in a general recession with no-one to sell your home to, or fewer jobs to change to.

I think it always helps to reach out to your community somewhat, talking to your neighbours. They mightn't accept your reasons for your actions, but other reasons exist, for example they mightn't care about burning oil and climate change, but using trains and bicycles usually saves money compared to a car.

In dealing with authoritarian types, it can help to outwardly co-operate with them in some way. For example, if you have a Neighbourhood Watch programme, you join that. Then when the cops come to break up your little vegie sale, they recognise you and leave you alone.