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...