Saturday, January 29, 2011

My Resilient Neighborhood, Part 2 - A Homeschooling Experiment

In my last post, I said that as teaching has become an integral part of my strategy of personal resilience, so it has become the mainstay of my outreach to my neighborhood. I also began to describe my efforts in teaching guitar to some of the kids in my neighborhood. In this post I'd like to talk a little about a few of my motivations for teaching these kids.

Much of what has been written about building resilient neighborhoods has focused on the psychological, relational and social aspects and benefits of building community. So it is that many posts on building resilience have focused on the social power of collaborative efforts such as group cannings, neighborhood block parties, people meeting to sing together, and so forth.

Believe me, I value these aspects just as much as anyone else, and I see their importance. I think particularly of the human element of working with children, and how emotionally stretching such an exercise can be. Anyone who has taught kids (and who has cared whether they learn or not) knows that working with kids can break your heart sometimes – or be the source of some of the best experiences in life at other times. (The anticipation of those “best experiences” is what keeps me going.) I also think of how good it has felt to befriend some of my neighbors – especially those who are not originally from the U.S. – and for us to begin to learn to rely on each other.

But to focus only on the psychosocial or relational aspects of building resilient neighborhoods turns many resilience-building activities into mere symbolism rather than practical actions that can meet practical needs. Therefore I have also focused on the practical applications of initiating an neighborhood teaching effort. I am thinking particularly of a C-Realm podcast I heard of an interview with Jeff Vail back in July 2010, in which he described how the “nation-states” of the world are in decline due to the failure of various “states” (national and sub-national governments) to live up to their social contract to care for their constituent “nations” (that is, the people who actually live within the notional borders of the various “states.”) Of course, we can see that the failure of the social contract between states, especially in the First World, and their constituent nations is due to the hollowing out and wholesale ripoff of these states by the wealthiest members of the constituent nations.

What this means is that the median members of various nations are seeing their standard of living and quality of life being gutted in order to maintain the wealth and prerogatives of the richest members of those nations. Government programs and institutions which were created in order to raise the quality of life of all are now being gutted in order to maintain the wealth of society's richest members. The government's sole remaining claim to legitimacy is that it controls the official, visible market of the official, formal economy. However, the abandonment of median citizens by the state is opening a huge door for the emergence of a parallel, “diagonal economy” consisting of locally-created alternative arrangements for median citizens to get their needs met, or, as Jeff Vail puts it, “...for highly networked groups of scale-free, self-sufficient communities to begin taking care of themselves within the crumbling or increasingly irrelevant auspices of [the State].”

What does this look like where I live? Well, one parent I know told me a few months ago of her concern over the Portland school system's decision to cut school hours and class offerings for her elementary school kids. Social institutions such as public schools have already been largely turned away from providing median children with a real education, and now in many states the small benefit that public schools provide is in danger of being removed entirely due to strapped state budgets. The failure of the State to provide for the education of its median children (i.e., the vast majority of children who are not from rich families) opens a door for local, volunteer-based, grassroots educational solutions.

But the test of a “diagonal economy” or the emergence of local, grassroots alternatives to services no longer provided by the state or its official institutions is that these alternatives must work at least as well as the things they are replacing or supplanting. Otherwise the emergence of a “diagonal economy” or local alternatives is nothing more than useless symbolism. Thus it is that in my efforts to teach guitar, I am actually trying to teach guitar. I aim to make my lessons fun, engaging and relational; borrowing a page from Ivan Illich, I try to create a convivial learning environment. But I also am doing my best to make sure my students know all the chords in first position, how to tune a guitar in standard tuning, how to read music in standard notation, what a time signature is, what a key signature is, how to fingerpick ergonomically so that they don't develop tendinitis, and how to play interesting and challenging pieces.

This is all being done pro bono, after hours, informally, and I think it is the way a lot of people in a lot of neighborhoods are going to be doing things as they seek to meet the educational needs of their own neighborhoods. Moreover, if I can get away with providing a rigorous, technically exact basic education in music in this way, it will prove to me that I can also teach other subjects in this way – necessary subjects like mathematics, biology, basic Mendelian heredity including plant-breeding, small livestock husbandry and other subjects pertinent to a post-Peak future.

This leads to the question of what sort of subjects would make a good curriculum for post-Peak education and how rigorously those subjects should be developed. Although some writers have already tackled this question, I'd like to add my two cents. But not tonight; I've got to practice guitar for a bit.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Resilient Neighborhood, Part 1 - Laying The Foundation

As I promised in my post, Adjusting My Own Oxygen Mask,” I want to write a bit about the steps I am taking to make my life and my neighborhood more resilient in the face of uncertain times. In this post, I will briefly state some of these steps.

The Personal: I see the need for a proper balance between the pursuit of money and the achievement of other life goals. This is especially true now that the money economy is fragile and my place in it is uncertain. My time goal now is to work between half time and ¾ time so that I can have the remainder of my week devoted to building a healthy lifestyle and a healthy neighborhood. My money goal is to be able to live on less than half of my salary so that the rest can be devoted to meeting personal and neighborhood needs. So far I am doing well on the money part of this goal, although the time part has lately been a bit harder to achieve.

Both the time and the money goal are important, and cannot be neglected. In this time in which many powerful politicians, rich people and media voices are promoting selfishness, in which many government social safety nets are being shredded, it is ever more important to prepare oneself to live a life of charity. As the Good Book says, “Let our people also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that they may not be unfruitful.” (Titus 3:14) I intend to use my spare time and money in some interesting ways. There'll be no room for certain right-wingers to howl “Socialism!!!”, because, after all, it's my time and money to do with as I please, isn't it?

I've been working part time as an engineer and teaching part time as an adjunct engineering instructor. I'm thinking of going back to school myself to get my master's degree. Such a move would make it easier to get a job teaching full time. If I decide to go back, I might study semiconductor fabrication with a view to learning more about organic semiconductors. It's not that I think organic semiconductors will enable us to live a high tech lifestyle, but rather, that I believe that in a low-energy future, the only semiconductor technology that will be available to society will be based on organic materials with performance that is not nearly as great as the silicon-based semiconductors we enjoy now. But a little bit of something is better than nothing at all.

I've almost finished building a chicken coop in my backyard. (I can hear people saying, “What?! You write a blog like the Well Run Dry and you don't have chickens yet?!!” Hey, I'm working on it...) One of my other projects is quite mundane: I need to clean out my garage this spring, so that I can start a workshop. I intend to explore home-based small-scale manufacturing and refurbishing. I am also continuing to study Russian, although my effort is confined to self-study right now. Once I become reasonably competent, I'll brush up on my Spanish.

The Neighborhood: As teaching has become an integral part of my strategy of personal resilience, so it has become the mainstay of my outreach to my neighborhood. In “My (Somewhat) Walkable, (Somewhat) Russian Neighborhood,” I wrote about the Russians and eastern Europeans I have met here where I live. One of them found out that I play guitar, and he asked me if I could teach some of his relatives. So over the last year I have had a handful of kids over at my house once or twice a week. It has been an experience, believe me! The kids are typical of kids everywhere: warm, sensitive souls one minute and crazed creatures the next. (The fact that I'm teaching them shows that the Almighty has a sublime sense of humor...)

I also may get to enjoy the privilege of being a learner in my neighborhood, as I have been talking to one of my Russian neighbors about having one of his relatives teach a beekeeping class to some of us. Hopefully that will happen this summer.

Teaching, both at a university and in my home, has gotten me thinking about many things – things such as pedagogy, the “diagonal economy” of Jeff Vail's writings, neighborhood-based solutions to neighborhood needs, and the process of developing a curriculum for the learning of skills appropriate for a post-Peak society. In future posts, I will explore these themes as I describe them through the lens of my weekly guitar class and my other neighborhood initiatives. My aim will be to show how a neighborhood composed of diverse cultures can come together in a calm and reasonable frame of mind to improve its quality of life even in the midst of a declining economy.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Laser Bigotry

I'll start this post with an illustration.

Lasers are interesting devices. The word “laser” is actually an acronym formed from the first letters of the words “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” Lasers work as follows: a “lasing” material (either a special crystal or gas or semiconducting material) is “pumped” with electromagnetic energy. This energy raises the electrons in the atoms of the material to higher “orbits” as the electrons store the energy pumped into the material. Then as electrons start to give up this energy and fall back to lower energy states, the energy is released as photons (light), which strike other atoms in the material, causing them to give up their pumped energy as well, ultimately resulting in a cascading flood of photons which comprise the light of the resulting laser beam. The laser beam has some unusual characteristics, which make it both interesting and useful. First, the light of the beam is monochromatic; that is, it is composed of light of one color only. Second, the beam is coherent; that is, it does not spread out except over very great distances. The light of the laser beam is the result of a series of deliberate choices by the designers and makers of lasers, as laser light is almost never found in nature.

Which brings me to the Arizona shootings this weekend, and to further reflections on American social life in these troubled times. There are many who write and comment on the societal consequences of resource depletion and economic collapse, and who state their belief that such times promote the rise of fascism, bigotry and intolerance. The way these writers talk, however, makes it sound as if adverse conditions cause fascism, bigotry and intolerance to just bubble up from the body politic in some inexplicable way that can only be described as a mysterious social force untraceable to any one individual.

I think such an explanation is nonsense. There are, to be sure, many idiots, bigots, and all-around doofuses in the United States these days. Our American society is now faced with post-Peak Oil, the depletion of a host of other resources, an economy which is long since past its peak, an environment which is increasingly degraded to such an extent that it can no longer support life, and the decline of our influence and hegemony in the world. Even within the U.S., the dominant Anglo sons and daughters of privilege are finding that they must now function within a multipolar, multicultural society. They have been used to being the sole center of attention for too long. For too long, they have been overloaded with all the toys a kid could want, and they have not had to share with anyone else. Our post-Peak nation in a post-Peak world will be forced to learn to share. This is a cause of angst and resentment among some of the sons and daughters of privilege.

Given the right environment, this angst and resentment could be constructively worked out. After all, having to share is not the end of the world. On a purely physical, technical level, it is quite possible that we could all live securely in a managed contraction of our economy, with high quality of life, if we were simply willing to share what we have with each other. But ours is not the right environment.

The present social environment of mainstream America is the deliberate product of its makers and designers, who are the wealthiest of the sons and daughters of privilege. They would rather tear this country apart than share the mountains of things they have piled up to themselves via the impoverishment of the rest of the nation and the world. They own the majority of the media and the majority of its politicians and most prominent mouthpieces.

So we have Fox TV and Fox News telling us that the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 arose because banks were forced to lend to minorities. We have Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh making all kinds of bigoted, racist statements to the world. We have Fox News agitating for war in Iraq even though the war was unjustified. We have all the Fox talking heads calling Obama a closet Muslim, a terrorist and a Nazi, even though their accusations had no basis in fact. We have Steve Forbes and Dick Armey creating the “Tea Party” and we have nearly all mainstream American media focusing an inordinate amount of attention on the Tea Baggers while ignoring genuine grassroots expressions of public opinion that run counter to the “me first” message of the Tea Baggers. We have Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes now able to vomit their hatred through thousands of mouthpieces. We have the Arizona immigration law and Republicans poised to try to push similar laws in several other states. We have the primary school textbook industry now taken over by right wing zealots who want to use public schools to push their jingoist propaganda. We have places like Walmart and Fred Meyer hawking books by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and George Bush – right next to the newsstands carrying Star, the National Enquirer and Cosmopolitan. And we have Sarah Palin targeting her opponents in the crosshairs.

Under such a media onslaught, it's not surprising that a few narrow-minded working-class redneck types would find themselves getting “lased.” Like atoms being pumped by light of a certain frequency, these people are gladly allowing themselves to get pumped by propaganda that validates their evil beliefs and desires. Is it any wonder that when they release their “pumping energy”, the result is violently destructive deeds?

To be sure, there is now a “debate” in the mainstream media over whether the right-wing garbage now emanating from most American media mouthpieces is actually responsible for the appearance of white supremacist militias and acts of violence such as the Arizona shootings. According to the McClatchy Tribune, a professor from USC “cautioned against coming to any conclusions about the motivations of the shooter in Tucson.” Similar backpedaling can be seen from Fox TV and Sarah Palin. And one person wrote, “Leave it to the liberals to expect one person to be held accountable for the individual actions of every person who hears them. It's representative of the liberal nanny state dream come true!”

Funny thing, though, is that a couple of decades ago, when these very same right-wingers were religiously campaigning against indecency on television, their opponents tried to deny any causal link between indecency in the media and sexual activity among young watchers of TV and movies. Now the right wingers are trying to use the same defense. Ah, well, to borrow a line from the Crucible, “God damns (punishes) all liars.” (By the way, the Good Book says something similar in Revelation 22:15.)