Saturday, December 18, 2010

Adjusting My Own Oxygen Mask

To those who are followers of this blog, I must apologize for not posting very much recently. A number of momentous events have taken place over the last few months, but I've been too busy to pay much notice to them. Yet these events, combined with my own busy-ness, have gotten me thinking about how much attention I personally need to devote to preparing myself and my neighborhood for the times now upon us.

During the last few months, the International Energy Agency confirmed that the world has passed the all-time peak in conventional oil production. (Indeed, the latest edition of the IEA World Energy Outlook put the peak date in 2006 – a statement which confirms the mention of 2006 as peak year according to the German Energy Watch Group's 2007 Oil Report.) This last November, there were mid-term elections in the United States – elections which greatly expanded the power and prerogatives of the rich, yet were a disaster for people interested in prudent preparations for the future and the preservation of the common good. During the last few months, the burgeoning American police state has continued to grow, with “get tough on crime” initiatives being approved in a few more states, leading inevitably to a need to build more prisons sometime in the future. During the last few months, some very well-respected bloggers have suggested that it may be time for decent, thinking folk to get out of the U.S. while they still can and relocate to another country.

Meanwhile, I've been working two jobs: first, as a practicing engineer for a small design firm, and second, as an adjunct engineering instructor. I decided to try holding two jobs because of my experiences last year and early this year with my previous firm, which was hit significantly by our ongoing economic crisis. Those were unsettling times, as I was home a lot and worried about having nothing to fall back on in the event that I was laid off. I decided on teaching as a second occupational path because I believe that a highly valuable talent in the years to come will be the ability to teach complex skills – especially to adults.

When I joined the firm at which I now work, I asked to be employed part-time, in anticipation of teaching during the summer term. I had been working on a reduced schedule at my previous firm as well, and the part-time experience was a bit of an eye-opener. I saw that by being debt-free and working part-time, I was able to devote more energy toward learning skills of self-sufficiency and forging neighborhood connections. This kind of time is a valuable resource, and it seems that it is now also an endangered resource.

I am thinking just now of an interview of Jeff Vail that I recently heard on the C-Realm podcast. In that interview, Jeff described the concept of “surge capacity” as that portion of a total system which is underutilized, and which is therefore available to meet an emergency. As he put it, “...if you have the ability to get by on a fraction of what you are capable of, you're in a lot better situation...” He then envisioned “an ideal, resilient, high surge capacity, domestic economy” consisting of a “husband and wife...both working in the 'traditional economy' 10 hours a week each,” and dividing up the remainder of their time between community-focused organization and production and domestic production. The point is that by limiting their involvement and reliance on the 'traditional', official economy, the members of this ideal household would have time to focus on building other strengths and resources in order to make themselves more resilient.

The catch, of course, is that the dominant, official economy does its best to forbid mere “partial” reliance on it. If you're going to rely on it at all, the only terms on which it permits such reliance are full, unrestrained reliance. (Just as one can't be “only a little bit” addicted to heroin.) So everything that ordinary people need is now becoming more and more expensive, and indebtedness becomes more and more the prevailing lifestyle. Even if one manages to stay out of debt, many employers of degreed professionals are starting to eliminate part-time work from their offerings. Scan Craigslist or, and you will see lots of ads with phrases like “Motivated self-starter needed for a fast-paced environment in a dynamic growth-oriented company. Must be able to prioritize, multitask and manage stress. This is a full-time, 40+ hour/week position. Extensive travel required.”

Being employed under those conditions leaves very little time for things outside of work, such as building a resilient life and community. And that's fine, I suppose; as long as a man thinks he will never need alternative arrangements, he need not fret over the fact that he has no time to build alternatives and safety nets. Right now, business is booming for several of the local design firms in our area, so it would be easy to believe that one could continue to rely on the official economy for a long time to come.

But I've been reading the signs, and to me they continue to say, “Disaster ahead.” I keep seeing articles, blog posts and analyses by very intelligent people who track the fragility and poor prognosis of the official economy, both in the U.S. and globally, as well as the fragility of American society. Allowing myself to become a 40+ hour/week worker bee seems to me like trying to fight for the best deck chair on the Titanic.

I want to keep working part-time, so that I can continue to have time to devote to building personal and neighborhood resilience. Some of the resilience-building I want to do will take a significant amount of time each week. But I am getting squeezed right now by the demands of my job, and I feel like I'm regarded as a bit of an inconvenient oddity for not wanting to work full time.

I don't know yet what I'm going to do about my situation, but I'll keep you all posted as things progress. And over the next few weeks, I will be writing about some personal experiences I have recently had and steps I am taking to build a resilient life.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

An Election Eve "Amen"

I'm grading papers this weekend, so I may not have time for any kind of lengthy post. (I can't wait to get my life back to myself again!) But in taking a short break from grading (also known as goofing off), I came across a priceless gem from the website of Ran Prieur. Mr. Prieur is among the writers and thinkers whose work I read from time to time, although I must say that I don't agree with everything he says. (Some days, I don't necessarily agree with everything I say.)

I did, however, greatly enjoy the following quote:

"So we have an American election in a few days. A common argument against voting is that it trains you to think that working within the system is the best or only way to make a better world. My answer is: could you set the bar for yourself any lower? That's like not watching any commercials because then you won't be able to stop yourself from buying the product. If you don't think you can vote while keeping a healthy mental distance, now would be an excellent time to learn. Your vote is not a precious flower to be given only to the one you love; it is a cold tactical decision, and collectively, it does make a difference.

"You are in a giant building that's on fire. The Democratic party is saying, 'Yes, there was a small fire, but it's mostly under control now. We spent eleven cents on squirt guns and a trillion dollars building some higher floors. Remain calm and go about your business.'

"The Republican party is saying, 'You are in a giant building that's on FIRE! Those people are to blame, and those people, and those people! KILL them! Kill them ALL!! And to put out the fire, we will use gasoline, and white phosphorus! YEEEEEE-HAAAAAAA!!!!'

"Now, if you are trying to get safely out of the building, who would you rather have in charge?"


Friday, October 22, 2010

Half Full or Half Empty? A Look at Renewable Energy and First World Demand

There are many basic presuppositions, conclusions and concerns within the circle of well-known figures studying Peak Oil, ecological degradation, resource constraints and the financial ramifications of these things. These conclusions and concerns form a body of commonly accepted “received wisdom” within this circle, and they frame the discussions regarding the seriousness of our energy and environmental predicament and the appropriate response to that predicament.

But those within the circle must beware of the tendency to form a closed society or “ghetto” that is cut off intellectually from the larger society. In view of the seriousness of the energy, economic and environmental challenges facing us, I think it's valuable to engage intelligent decision-makers within the mainstream in order to start and maintain a conversation regarding these challenges. (That is one reason why I like doing interviews – that I may ask, “Are we starting to see the same things?”.)

Thus I recently found myself conducting an interview with Dr. Slobodan Petrovic, a professor who is part of the Electrical Engineering and Renewable Energy programs at the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT). Dr. Petrovic recently returned from a humanitarian mission to Tanzania, where he and several students from OIT designed and installed several small-scale solar photovoltaic projects for schools and hospitals. (You can read about it here.)

During our interview, we discussed small-scale renewable energy installations, the present peak of global oil production, and renewable energy prospects in the United States. My questions were as follows:

  • Tell us a little about your renewable energy work on the African continent.

  • It sounds like your work concerns renewable energy solutions applied at a local scale (neighborhood, district, or village) rather than a national scale. What constraints exist in African nations that prevent the execution of large-scale renewable projects scaled at a national level?

  • Do you see such constraints at work here in the United States, particularly in economically depressed areas? Why or why not?

  • Given the present contraction of the global economy and the continued decline of its resource base, what do you believe the most likely direction of renewable electric energy generation will be in the U.S. over the next 20 years?

  • Do you believe that renewable energy technologies have a good chance of supplying a major portion of present U.S. energy demand in the near future? Why or why not?

  • Is it possible that the U.S. will have to do some permanent "load shedding" in the near future in order to cope with a drastically lower availability of energy? What form would such permanent cutbacks take, and how can local neighborhoods prepare?

  • What resource constraints affect current renewable technologies, particularly regarding strategic minerals located in poor countries with large indigenous non-European populations?

  • In a time of economic contraction and resource depletion, what advice do you have for people who want to be engineers?

A podcast of the interview can be found at the Internet Archive, here. Feel free to listen and see whether we adequately answered the questions I posed above. Also, for those who live in the Portland metro area, Dr. Petrovic will be giving a talk in the near future on his work in Tanzania. I will post details as they become available.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Small-Scale Ambassadors

To those who have recently joined this blog, my apologies for not posting much lately. I have once again become very busy, working part-time at an engineering firm, teaching an engineering class at a local college, and enrolling in a college class myself.

The college class in which I am enrolled provides the theme for this week's post, which is a continuation of my recent posts on the role that immigrant communities can play in helping Americans form resilient neighborhoods in the face of economic contraction and collapse. There is much to be learned from communities of recent immigrants and of immigrants who have managed to maintain their culture in the face of the prevailing pressure to become “Americanized.” But how shall we thoroughly Americanized, native-born U.S. citizens learn from our immigrant fellow people unless we expand our horizons and learn to go out to immigrant communities right here in the U.S.A.?

One big part of that outreach consists of learning the languages of other nations and cultures. This summer, after the summer teaching session ended and before I realized that I would be teaching this fall, I decided that I was going to do something fun for myself and I signed up for a college-level introductory Russian class. I saw this as a means of facilitating communication between myself and the many Russian families in my neighborhood, along with their children, some of whom come to my house on a regular basis.

The class for which I originally signed up was to be a simple, community education-oriented introduction to Russian language and culture. It was canceled due to lack of enrollment, so I gave up on the idea, somewhat relieved because by then I found out that I myself would be teaching engineering. And then...through a strange set of circumstances, I found myself being invited to audit a for-credit Russian class for people on a degree track in languages. I must have been crazy for doing so, but I accepted the invitation. Now my time is quite fully occupied. The class is very nearly a full-immersion experience in which the teacher speaks mainly in Russian and where anyone caught speaking English is likely to be gently admonished with “По-Руский, Пожалуйста!”

This class has gotten me thinking. Many people are now writing about the need to form resilient neighborhoods composed of self-sufficient people who are disconnecting themselves from our major societal systems which are now in the process of breaking down. Some are now even starting to add their voices to the discussion of the value of learning from immigrant communities. Yet most writers seem to have missed the very obvious community-building step of learning other languages. Many of our attempts to build resilient communities are taking place and will continue to take place within urban areas that have by now become quite ethnically diverse and multicultural. Moreover, the rise of multi-ethnic communities is no longer limited to urban areas.

The need for knowledge of other languages is obvious to those “boots on the ground” in the neighborhoods I frequent, as I observed in a couple of conversations I had this week, one with a Russian high school student who is a friend of mine and who is taking Spanish, and another with a friend of mine from church who understands the realities behind our collapsing economy and who is actively pursuing steps of sustainable living. To those who want to take steps toward building resilient neighborhoods in the places where they live, one bit of advice I'd give is to learn at least one other language (and preferably two if you can manage it).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Homeschooling As An Exit Strategy

In my posts, The Polyculture of Resilient Neighborhoods,” and “My (Somewhat) Walkable, (Somewhat) Russian Neighborhood,”I described people, families and communities whose choices have positioned them for maximum survivability in this present time of resource depletion and economic collapse. I described the cultural motivations for the choices these people have made. In today's post, I'd like to describe a segment of the native-born U.S. population, and how many of its members are finding a way of escape from a culture deliberately designed to destroy them.

Upon liberation from de facto slavery, the Black American population found that there was still a strong campaign throughout the broader society to keep us weak and subjugated. One of the tools of that campaign was the creation of “separate but equal” schooling. History abundantly shows how unequal that separate education actually was. (See “Brown versus Board of Education” from the Brown Foundation website and “Early Civil Rights Struggles: Brown v. Board of Education” from African American History.)

This unequal, sociopathically administered child education supposedly ended with the 1954 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Brown vs. Board of Education case. What really happened, however, is that where schools were forced to integrate, these schools were turned into a weapon against minority children. Jonathan Kozol, a well-known school teacher, activist and author, described how this process worked out in his 1967 book, Death At An Early Age. (You can read excerpts here and here.) I believe the process really kicked into high gear from the presidency of Ronald Reagan onward. Mr. Kozol documents this ongoing process in later books such as Savage Inequalities: Children In America's Schools and The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, which was published in 2005.

The transformation of the nation's public school system into a weapon of mass destruction against minorities (especially black boys) has led to an environment in which minority children are negatively labeled, treated to disproportionately harsh discipline, ignored by incompetent teachers and administrators who refuse to push their students or expect anything of them, and who instead tell their students that they will never amount to anything. Consider the following fact: Black American boys are far likelier to be targeted by teachers for special education classes, medication or expulsion than non-minority boys who display similar behavior. In the United States, special education was a $60 billion industry in 2009. (Additional sources: “Institutional Practices and the African American Boy,” Lorraine Forte: Suspensions in Chicago Schools Target Black Boys,” and “A national trend: Black and Latino boys predominate in emotional support classes.”) Entrance into college is becoming increasingly difficult for those Black youth who go through the public school system: more and more high school guidance counselors are deliberately trying to steer minority youth away from college, either by giving bogus advice or by withholding information about options for college entrance and tuition support. (Sources: “More Than Gatekeepers,” “Study finds segregation in universities.”)

The hostile degeneracy of the public school system is one factor that has helped to foster a dysfunctional culture in minority communities. But a growing segment of the Black American population is finding a way of escape – via homeschooling.

Homeschooling is a phenomenon that is sweeping up an increasing number of Americans of every cultural background. In 2009, there were about 2 million home-educated students in the United States, and the homeschool population is continuing to grow at an estimated rate of 5 to 12 percent per year, according to this study. Another source suggests that the actual rate of growth may be fifteen percent per year.

About fifteen percent of these homeschooled students are nonwhite. The fastest growing segment of home-schoolers are from the African-American population. These homeschooling families cite many reasons, both religious and secular, for their choice; yet a recurrent theme is the recognition that the public school system is a predator that is deliberately trying to destroy their children. Consider these stories:

Homeschooling is not nearly the exclusive province of the rich; according to a recent USA Today article, around 40 percent of homeschool families earned less than $50,000 per year in 2009. (But for a rather different take on the data behind the USA Today article, read this.) In 1996, the number was over 60 percent. According to blogger Valerie Delp, “The school system spends on average $5,700 per pupil while the average homeschooing family spends only around $600 per pupil. Despite the monetary gap...homeschooled students outperform their public school counterparts significantly.”The desire to homeschool among economically challenged and single parent heads of households is also leading to innovative solutions. In fact, the Black community is producing many centers of excellence and repositories of best practices for homeschooling. Thus a new, valuable, homegrown culture – of dignity, self-respect and, above all, competence – is emerging in at least one minority population.

The abandonment of the public education system by many members of the Black community has led to attempts by some in the school system to persuade us to “hang in there and try to reform the system” for which we all fought so hard to gain access. (I wonder if some of this attempted persuasion is motivated by the fact that school districts lose money when they lose students?) Also, many public school districts, threatened with a loss of funding due to the withdrawal of students, are now trying to woo these students back with “magnet” schools and virtual “charter schools” whose curriculum is provided and administered by private, for-profit corporations.

But attempts to woo or badger Black homeschoolers back into the public school fold are falling on increasingly deaf ears. Black American parents are increasingly unwilling to force their children to suffer the onslaught of a broken educational system while pleading with the system to reform itself. I am reminded of something I heard during a recent C-Realm Podcast interview of Dmitry Orlov, author of the book Reinventing Collapse. Among the things he said concerning the American criminal justice system was this:

I think that people who think there's something to be gained by writing more laws or changing laws or anything like that are basically helping legitimize a system that shouldn't have any legitimacy at this point. There are a lot of examples, but it's sort of like, if you rape a girl a few times and then ask for her hand in marriage, should you get it? Is that a good thing to do? So this is what you have to look at as the system slowly unwinds – should we really shore it up? Should we forgive it? Should we approach it with an outstretched hand, saying, 'Oh – you can be better...we can reform you' as opposed to 'Let's watch you die'?...If you look at what the criminal justice [system] in this country has done, it has committed a series of crimes for which no apology would be acceptable.”

That is how many Black Americans now feel about American public education: rather than saying, “Let's try to reform you,” we are saying, “Let's watch you die.”

On every hand there are signs that the system is indeed dying, due to the ongoing economic collapse of the United States, as the notional “wealth” of many sons and daughters of privilege evaporates and the best public schools suddenly discover that they are underfunded. (For examples, see School Budget Cuts: No End In Sight,” “Survey: School budget cuts even worse next year,” School budget cuts threaten gains,” and “ACLU suit: 6 OC school districts charge illegal fees” – an article describing the travails of some unfortunate formerly trendy schools in formerly affluent Orange County, California.) A deflationary depression can become a great equalizer.

The system is dying even as it has begun to destroy its own sons and daughters of privilege. How many uneducated, incompetent graduates of high school “advanced placement” and “honors” programs are there? (See Most High School Kids Cheat -- and Don't Think There's Anything Wrong With That,” Academic cheating, aided by cellphones or Web, shown to be common,” 75% of High School Students Cheat Their Way into College,” and “"Graduating" from Graduating From College.”)

Yes, the system is dying. As it dies and leaves a vacuum in its wake, that vacuum can be filled by a network of home educators, armed with adequate resources, sharing best practices. Homeschool networks can contribute to the rise of resilient neighborhoods, and the reversal of negative culture in neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, we must be on our guard against continued dysfunctional moves on the part of the system in its continued attempts to destroy those who are escaping from the system.

For More Information, Please See The Following:

P.S. The Portland Public School system had better get its act together, and fast! I just read a report in the 9 September 2010 issue of the Portland Tribune describing the appalling achievement/testing gap between Black students and others who go through Portland public schools. If this doesn't change quickly, I will start talking to as many Black parents as I can find about pulling their children out of your schools.

Monday, September 6, 2010

TH, Back From SoC

I just got back from a Labor Day weekend trip to Southern California to visit relatives. Due to time constraints, I actually thought about flying there...but at the last minute, I chickened out. (One factor that influenced my decision was finding out that the cost of a plane ticket plus a car rental in Southern California was about the same as the cost of just renting a car in Portland and driving down and back.)

Driving allowed me a chance to take in some thought-provoking (and frankly disturbing) scenery. I am thinking of the “Congress Created Dust Bowl” signs lining Interstate 5 from south of Stockton to just north of Bakersfield. These signs have undergone a transformation; their creators have changed the signs to read, “Stop the Congress Created Dust Bowl” and have added the names of members of the U.S. Congress who have been targeted by the American Right wing for removal. The connection between these signs and the rhetoric of the Tea-bagger/Glenn Beck/Fox News crowd is unmistakable, with their growth-at-any-cost message and their vehement opposition to any restrictions on the rights of wealthy agricultural landowners for the sake of the common good.

These signs have been designed to look like an expression of small-time, homemade grassroots activists from a distance. But there was one such sign on a wooden utility pole in an unfenced field near a gas station where I stopped, and upon closer examination I saw that its professionally produced message had been printed on a sheet of nearly indestructible Tyvek. As I said, there are dozens of these signs, as well as much larger billboard-sized signs with the same message in fenced fields within sight of the freeway. Making and installing these signs must have cost a lot of money.

The location of the signs tells us a few other disturbing things. Prior to 2008, the cost of farmland in the Central Valley averaged around $15,000 per acre, although by March of 2009 it had fallen to around $10,000 per acre. (Source: California's Central Valley Farmland and Prices Not Immune to Recession”.) However, a quick search of agricultural land for sale revealed that most parcels under 40 acres cost over a million dollars. There are not very many small parcels near Interstate 5 that cost under $500,000. I only found one, and it was being marketed as a “home with property” for people who like “country living.” But then again, I only did a quick search. Those who want to try searching for themselves can go to a site like Schuil and Associates.

My point is that it seems to me that the people behind the “Stop The Congress Created Dust Bowl” campaign are all wealthy holders of large agricultural properties, and who are major players in the industrial factory farming model of agribusiness. They are not poor small farmers. Their signs are not homemade. They are not a display of grassroots activism.

They are, however, a display of the lengths to which the wealthy in this country are willing to go to seize, enlarge and consolidate their political and economic power at the expense of the rest of us and of the environment. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the same rights of “free speech” and paid political expression as individuals, the wealthiest and most powerful members of American society are pulling out all the stops. Farms are on my mind, so I'll mention the forest of “Chris Dudley for Governor” signs I saw on my way through Oregon on Interstate 5. I think it's probable that most of the farms sporting these signs are also large, expensive agribusinesses. But it's also interesting how many large buildings in the Portland Metro area have been covered with Chris Dudley banners, regardless of whether the tenants in those buildings like Dudley or not. And there's uber-wealthy Carly Fiorina's bid to become a U.S. Senator. (See also $200 Million GOP Campaign Avalanche Planned, Democrats Stunned”.)

The most disturbing sight I saw came when I arrived home again today shortly after midnight. I was on my computer checking my e-mail (and wasting time surfing a few sites) when I discovered that Thomas Nelson Publishers, who had released the "American Patriot's Bible" in 2009, was now agressively pushing this 'Bible' via Glenn Beck and Fox Television. Truly this would have been for me a “spew coffee all over keyboard” moment if I'd been drinking any coffee. According to several reviews, their “Patriot's Bible” is a compilation of stories of American patriots inserted into a New King James translation, along with commentary “illustrating” how Biblical principles “fit” into the founding of the United States. The aim of this “Bible” is to continue to promote the myth that the United States is an “exceptional” nation founded by God, and that the proof of this is unending material prosperity for America, as well as justifying all of this nation's wars of conquest.

You can read some objective reviews of this “Bible” below:

It's interesting that this “Bible”, which was basically unheard-of for several months, should be aggressively pushed right now, only a few months before the November election. It's as if American evangelicalism with all of its entertainment/content “industries” had become simply another arm of a wealthy right-wing corporatist/materialist enterprise.

I'll say right here that I am a Christian – a Bible-believing, fundamentalist Christian. (Hopefully, that won't make you spew your coffee all over your keyboard;) But when I read the Bible, I come to conclusions that are radically different from those of the nationalists and xenophobes of the American right. I think that much of American history is an abomination. (Millions of former slaves, exterminated Native Americans and dead Iraqis would agree with me.)

I think of the religious parts of America not as Christian, but as Christ-haunted (in the Flannery O'Connor sense): destructive, materialist, greedy people who say the name of Jesus quite loudly, yet persecute as “Socialist!!!” anyone who suggests that maybe we should act like Jesus. The editors and publishers of the “Patriot's Bible” spent a lot of time inserting nationalist, war-mongering propaganda into their “Bible,” yet they failed to take heed to this passage from the Good Book: “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book, if anyone adds to them, may God add to him the plagues which are written in this book...”

The American Patriot's Bible is yet another expression of the longing of many Americans for a magical, something-for-nothing life in which one never has to face the negative consequences of one's own foolish choices. It is yet one more piece of propaganda pushed by the wealthiest members of a rapidly shrinking American “mainstream” who fear a multipolar world in which they must learn to live within their means. The shrinkage of our means and the rise of that multipolar world are coming, whether we like it or not. Meanwhile, beware of denialist propaganda. It can be found oozing out of surprising places.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

My (Somewhat) Walkable, (Somewhat) Russian Neighborhood

I'd like to begin this post with a greeting: “Привет!” Or, for those who want something more formal, “Здравствуйте.” (I think I said that right...)

In the waning months of 2007, I relocated to Portland from Southern California. Guided by information I had gleaned from Jules Dervaes and the Path to Freedom Urban Homestead project,I looked for smaller, cheaper houses with large yards. I found such a house, a Korean War-era home in what seemed to be a very ordinary neighborhood, with a big back yard and a price low enough that I could easily and quickly pay it off.

During that winter, I also bought a copy of Reinventing Collapse, a book by Dmitry Orlov. For those who are not familiar with the book, Orlov was something of an eyewitness to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he postulated that similarities between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. meant that the U.S. is likely to experience its own collapse in the near future. However, key differences between the former Soviet Union and the United States meant that a collapse which was difficult but survivable for the Soviets would prove to be much harder on Americans. I found myself agreeing with most of what Mr. Orlov wrote, yet I found some of his suggestions for adaptation a bit hard to swallow. I resolved that if I ever met any Russians who had experienced the collapse, I would check their version of the story against Orlov's.

A few months later, I started noticing that when I was out doing yardwork at certain times on Saturdays, I could see large groups of well-dressed people walking down the streets near my home. Some of these groups were families, led by men wearing leather jackets if they were young, or suits if they were older, with wives wearing what I would call “Sunday” dresses and occasional scarves on their heads, and leading quiet, serious-faced children behind them. I guessed that they were foreigners, and occasionally I waved at them. I was pretty sure they were Slavic, and one day on a hunch, I said “Добрый день” to an older man as he was walking by. He burst into a broad grin and returned the greeting, then started talking excitedly to me. I very quickly ran out of words, and he saw that he had over-taxed me.

From that time I became intrigued by these people. Who exactly were they, I wondered, and where did they all walk to on Saturdays? Several Saturdays later, I was going somewhere on my bike and I ran across a young group of these walkers. I greeted them in Russian, and they returned the greeting, and then I asked them in English where they were all going. “To church,” an eleven or twelve-year-old boy said. “Do you want to come?” “Well,” I replied, “I've got an errand to run...” “You should come some time,” he said. “You're welcome to visit.” And with that he and his friends kept walking.

Eventually I did visit a few of their Saturday services, which were all conducted in Russian, and consisted of three or four Russian men from the congregation delivering sermons of short to medium length, interspersed with Psalm-singing, and ending with a time of prayer. I had to rely entirely on an interpreter in order to understand anything, and at first I wound up with a different interpreter every time I went. But eventually I befriended one of the volunteer translators, a young married man with a dry sense of humor.

I loaned him a copy of Reinventing Collapse, and as he slowly made his way through it, I asked him from time to time what he thought. He confessed that he probably wouldn't be much help in confirming any of the statements about the Soviet Union in the book, as he was very young when he came to the United States, and didn't remember much of Russia. But he had some very interesting observations about how his community fit into our local area, and the ways in which Russian young men and women come to terms with American culture. Through him I have made the acquaintance, and in some cases, the friendship, of a few Russian families and their children.

In talking to them all, certain things became evident. First, as to their church, they all believe in keeping a literal Sabbath once a week. For them, this Sabbath is Saturday. The devoted members among them believe that Sabbath-keeping means giving a rest not only to oneself but also to the gadgets one normally uses, including automobiles. Thus they don't drive on Saturdays, and they walk to church. Now I am not a member of their church, nor do I subscribe to everything they believe, but I do see that this view of theirs has led to the formation of geographically tight, closely connected sub-communities of people – communities such as the people I see walking to church every Saturday. Maintaining physical connectedness in a neighborhood of such people is not difficult.

Secondly, the culture of their church combines with the culture of their native lands to produce a definite separation from mainstream Americanism. There are at least some of their number who do not own a television set, and among the rest, there is a strong tendency to create opportunities for face-to-face, participatory activities like weeknight volleyball and soccer leagues that leave no time for passively sitting in front of a TV. A big contributor to the separation from Americanism is the fact that Russian is the primary language spoken in many of their households, and those who can afford it often send their children to a special Russian school after regular public school in order to learn to read and write in Russian.

Thirdly, there are those Russian customs which they maintain apart from religion, customs which are characteristic of a people who have had to make do for themselves to a much greater extent than most Americans have experienced. I remember talking to two Russian boys about summer vacation, and what they were doing with themselves while school was out. They began describing to me their adventures in building a chicken coop and getting baby chicks; then they told me about the cat, the dog and the pigeons they also have, as well as their very large food garden and the two dozen or so fruit trees in their yard. (It was enough to make any would-be urban homesteader drool...) A few days later, I questioned their mom about these things, and told her how her family's lifestyle wasn't quite the typical “American” experience, and she said, “I don't understand Americans. In my country, we don't throw anything away, and we don't buy special food for the dog. The dog eats the scraps that the people don't eat.”

Speaking of chickens, my neighborhood is not near the trendy downtown of Portland, with its base of yuppies who are “discovering” the joys of sustainable living, including chicken-keeping. In my neighborhood, most native-born Americans still think that chicken-keeping is something of an oddity. But they do know of certain families who keep chickens, and these families just happen to be...Russian! Within the church community I have been describing, there is also at least one very competent bee-keeper. And within that church community, the Russian heritage of self-sufficiency is somewhat amplified by a religiously motivated distrust of certain aspects of Americanism.

Now note this: most of these people have never heard of Peak Oil or the Transition Towns movement, nor are they familiar with the writings of some of the deep thinkers and heavyweights who write about our present economic collapse. Yet many of them have a common-sense awareness that these times will require us to live differently, and their common culture has led them quite independently to adopt a resilient living arrangement. Thus they have:

  • a close-knit, walkable community

  • a heritage of practices of self-sufficiency

  • and a cultural identity which is their own, and which can't be commercially redefined away from them.

They already know things that so many in the English-speaking world are “discovering” (or more accurately, “re-discovering”). This is true also of other Slavic and Eastern European sub-communities in the United States. I think especially of the aspect of maintaining one's culture in the midst of a larger culture that seeks to dissolve everything else in order to extract maximal wealth from all that it dissolves, and I think of a Romanian man I know who has a large family, and who will not allow a television in his house. Instead, he has paid for instruments and music lessons for all his children, and they regularly get together on weekends for jam sessions. I have never visited his church, but I'd like to go some day and see how well it has resisted “Americanization.”

I also think of how, when gas prices were first starting to spike from 2005 to 2007, there were yuppie writers on “sustainability” fretting over whether mainstream America would “discover” alternatives to driving, like bicycle commuting. It seemed like they were waiting for the day when the streets would be full of pale-skinned Anglo people in lycra riding pannier-laden recumbents to work. But in 2007, it began to dawn on me that a large number of people had already discovered bicycle commuting (or more accurately, had never forgotten it). They were the Mexican laborers whom I saw at 5:30 in the morning riding the streets with me on their older Magna bicycles, yet they never made it onto the radar of the “sustainability” writers. (The Mexicans also knew about buses long before the mainstream began to "rediscover" mass transit in 2008.)

I don't wish to disparage the efforts of mainstream Americans to “discover” sustainable living and to create resilient communities. But I think as time passes, many of these people will find that they are “discovering” things that immigrant communities already knew long ago.

In my next post on this subject, I will discuss a particular group of people who are trying to break out from the American mainstream. There is no shortage of people who are trying to do this, but there are elements of the stories of the people I will write about that I think you all will find to be quite relevant. (And if you read the Energy Bulletin website this next week, you might find writers trying to second-guess what I will say... ;) Stay tuned, or to put it another way, Watch This Space.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Polyculture of Resilient Neighborhoods

I've been “out-of-pocket” for the last several weeks. This has been mainly due to my part-time teaching position as an adjunct at a local college. But now that finals have been administered and grades have been given, I have a bit of time to breathe and think.

One of the themes that was in the back of my mind is the subject of people, families and communities whose choices have positioned them for maximum survivability in this present time of resource depletion and economic collapse – even though they made their choices for entirely different reasons at the time those choices were made. I've recently met or read about a few such people and families, and have noted those elements of survivability in their lives which they chose for cultural or religious reasons, without necessarily thinking beforehand of the application of those elements to hard times. One characteristic of all these people is their separateness from the prevailing American culture. Over the next few posts, I'd like to explore the cultural roots (both religious and secular) of that separation, how it has made these people resistant to assimilation in present American culture, and lessons we can learn from these people as we seek to form resilient neighborhoods and communities in the face of ongoing economic collapse.

I'll state at the outset my hypothesis that the most resilient neighborhoods in the United States will turn out to be composed of a number of heterogeneous cultures whose members maintain certain key cultural distinctions while learning from members of differing cultures. The members of the component cultures of such neighborhoods will engage in reaching out to members of differing cultures within their neighborhoods, forming a common, somewhat weakly binding meta-culture of common courtesy and customs within which the component cultures exist as distinct entities. Within the over-arching meta-culture, there will be opportunities for cross-pollination between the members of the component cultures, with results that are hopefully beneficial to all.

On the other hand, neighborhoods (and larger entities such as cities, counties and states) which are predominantly monocultural will probably tend to be less resilient. If the predominant monoculture is that of present-day commercial America, these neighborhoods will likely be far less resilient.

Why is a polyculture more resilient than a monoculture in the face of changing times and hardships? Examples of the answer to that question can be seen in the realms of biology, ecology and computational networks. Regarding computing, it's no secret that Microsoft Windows is at present the main operating system used by computers in the United States (although Linux distributions are chipping away at this dominance). It's also no secret that the vast majority of computers in the world use processor chips made by Intel. And it's no secret that, as stated in Wikipedia, “all [such] computers have the same vulnerabilities, and like agricultural monocultures, are subject to catastrophic failure in the event of a successful attack.” That's why antivirus companies like McAfee and Norton have a brisk business, and it is also why Windows can be such a royal pain to use. Polycultural computing is inherently more resistant to damage and attacks from viruses; thus it is more resilient.

When speaking of culture as applied to human communities, I am thinking of the dictionary definition: “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes a company...” (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Ninth Edition). What can be said of present-day American culture? (By the way, this applies, more or less, to the entire English-speaking world.)

It is first of all a culture of consumption and consumerism. People are trained from an early age to base their identity on the quantities and types of things they own. The definition of who is “normal” and how much is “enough” is left up to advertisers, marketers and growth capitalists who are forever “moving the goal-posts” in order to promote ever-increasing consumption. Cultural norms are routinely redefined so that what was “cool” five minutes ago is no longer cool. This produces an ever-present restlessness, an ever-accelerating struggle to “keep up with the times,” and an ever-increasing outlay of cash for those things that will make a person fit in with those who are “with it.”

This culture acts as a “universal solvent” in that it puts pressure on those who don't fit in or who haven't been assimilated into it. Recent immigrants and their children are judged on whether they have been properly “Americanized”; if their children lag behind in this process, they are deemed to be somehow “unhealthy.” “What?! He doesn't have an i-Phone?? You're isolating him; that's not good for his socialization!” As a universal solvent, mass American culture gradually strips away all competing cultural identities and distinctions. (An example of this: I was riding the MAX a few weeks ago when I saw four Asian teens getting on at one of the stops. Their accents were unmistakable, and marked them clearly as foreign-born, yet they were each wearing baggy shorts at least three sizes too big for them, along with oversized T-shirts that hadn't been washed in a few days and bling jewelry and sideways baseball hats with flat brims, and they were all cussing and swearing like homeboys – even down to the rhythm of the cuss words. Mighty strange...)

It's no surprise that the mass-produced culture of American consumerism should be hostile to all other cultures, since the existence of these other entities poses a threat to the growth of the profits of the masters of American culture. But there are other maladaptive cultures which are distinctively American and which seek to make themselves a dominant monoculture to the exclusion of all other cultures in America. I am thinking specifically of certain tendencies and ways of thinking embodied in the Tea-baggers and the more hard-core members of the Republican Party, who seem to want to create a pure white-bread version of the United States centered on some sort of Southern Baptist/Pentecostal/Revived Confederate-Antebellum culture in which members of other races and non-English speaking members of any other culture are either wiped out or subjugated.

There are two ways in which this thinking is expressed. First, there are those who through political action are seeking to “take back America for God!!!” – at least, for the God of their own imaginations, who seems to have promised them everlasting material prosperity which they would never be required to share with anyone else. Second, there are those who correctly see that the prospects for “taking America back” don't look very good; therefore they have chosen to buy gold, guns, baked beans and land, and to form militias to combat the waiting hordes of savage zombies who will arrive when their version of the Apocalypse kicks off.

In my opinion, elements of this second kind of thinking can be seen in the Life After the Oil Crash website of Matt Savinar. When I was first learning about Peak Oil in 2007, I used to read his site a lot, but over the last year, I've lost my taste for the some of the adaptive strategies he seems to espouse, as I think they are actually maladptive from a social and moral standpoint. We can't all run off to the hills. If we all try, many of us will find that our mutually exclusive claims to the best mountain hideaways are being extinguished via 30-06 or 5.56 mm ball ammunition. For that matter, those who try to purge America's various neighborhoods and communities of all cultural inputs and presences which they deem to be “un-American” will only make a destroyed mess. After all, those who are being “purged” will rightly object to such treatment, and they may object quite effectively.

How then should we view the existence of multiple distinct cultures in our neighborhoods? First, we who have been thoroughly Americanized should recognize that we have many things to learn from those who haven't been. Those who come from countries where life was harder and poorer have much to teach us about adaptive strategies for our own upcoming times of hardship and poverty. The biggest thing we can learn from them is the cultivation of a healthy, realistic state of mind – something which is lacking among many people who are “Americanized.” I am thinking of my neighborhood, which not only contains native-born Americans, but which also has large Russian and Hispanic populations, along with Asians and people from various African nations. Over the next few posts I will explore some of the lessons I have discovered in talking with these people (many of whom refuse to “fit into” American culture entirely) as well as telling the stories of some Americans who have begun to withdraw themselves from some of the worst and most corrosive elements of American culture. I also have a technology-related interview I am trying to line up. Stay tuned...

For more on this subject, check out the following:

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Short Station Break While I Grade Papers

I have a lot to write about, but this weekend I also have a ton of student papers to grade from my short-term teaching gig. I'll try to have another post ready soon. Stay tuned...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Place-Making For People of Small Means

Placemaking (or place-making) can be defined as, “the process of creating squares, plazas, parks, streets and waterfronts that will attract people because they are pleasurable or interesting...Being in places involves social encounters, immersion in the sights, sounds, sun, wind and atmosphere of a locale, and curiosity about the traces of thought, imagination and investment that have guided their construction and use over time. ” (Wikipedia, Placemaking.)

Another definition is, “An integrated and transformative process that connects creative and cultural resources to build authentic, dynamic and resilient communities or place.” (Toronto Artscape, Glossary.) I like this definition much better.

One of the challenges of this present time of economic contraction is figuring out how to make the places where we live into places that sustain us on a number of levels. This involves not only trying to create places that provide some or all of the essentials we need, but also creating places that encourage and promote a sense of community.

Some writers and thinkers have addressed this challenge, notably architects and urban planners from the “New Urbanist” movement. Their assumption has been that placemaking is primarily an activity reserved for governments, developers and other large entities with lots of resources to create well-designed, resilient communities from the ground up, or to re-fashion defunct, poorly designed communities into the sorts of communities that could be called good places to live. Things like redevelopment, transit-oriented development and gentrification come to mind when discussing the re-fashioning process.

The problem is that the money and resources for such a refashioning have already been largely blown in the United States. It's as if the nation collectively went to a store with $5 in its pocket, and blew the money on candy and soda instead of beans, rice and vegetables. Some key writers and economic analysts believe that the industrialized world in general, and the United States in particular, are in the early stages of a massive deflationary depression which will destroy the ability of large-scale entities like governments to do anything on a large scale.

It will therefore be up to ordinary citizens to make good places out of the places where they live. But there's another challenge, namely, that not that many of us own our own living places outright, and even now, not many can afford to pay for a place in cash. A deflationary depression will cause a drop in prices of assets like real estate, yet it will depress wages even faster. Such a drop in wages will make it hard for people who own “on margin” (that is, who owe money on the houses they “own”) to continue making payments on their debt, and it will turn many other people into sojourners without definite roots, as many young people in college and recent college graduates are now.

How can these renters - young people in college or recently graduated, and working poor people - make sustainable places for themselves in the places they rent? How can they make their neighborhoods into sustainable places? How can they engage in good placemaking?

In an attempt to answer that question, I interviewed Neil and Naomi Montacre, proprietors of Naomi's Organic Farm Supply in inner southeast Portland, Oregon. I first met Neil and Naomi during a tour of homes with backyard chicken coops in 2008. Their house impressed me, with its large chicken coop, its varied gardens, its “Hens for Obama” sign and a poster with pictures giving a guided tour of the place and their efforts. I asked them several questions about their place, the plans and steps they had taken in altering the place, and its impact on the neighborhood. In 2009, they added a greenhouse and more garden plantings. This year, they moved to a leased property of about an acre where they set up their store, and they continued with the activities and philosophy they had developed while living in their former house. In all these things, they took bold steps with property they were renting, to make that property a place that could at least partially sustain them.

In this week's interview, Neil talks in more detail about their activities with rental properties, and his philosophy regarding making good places out of the places where people live. The interview can be found at the Internet Archive, under the title, “Place-making For People Of Small Means.” There's also a video on Vimeo which shows a partial tour of Naomi and Neil's new location, as well as an interview with another renter in inner southeast Portland. The video can be found at Place-Making for People of Small Means, or you can watch it by clicking on the link below. Note how prominently urban agriculture figures in both examples of placemaking.

Place-Making for People of Small Means from TH in SoC on Vimeo.