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:

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