Friday, December 5, 2008

A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Cross-Cultural Community Building

I am in the preliminary stages of writing some closing posts on the subject of alternative transportation. Those posts will provide a few final words on bicycle commuting, as well as discussing the challenges and promises regarding bus and commuter rail transit. But there's a bit of research to do before those posts are ready, so I'd like to introduce a rather different “safety net” suggestion for this week's blog post.

We are witnessing the emergence of a new era, brought to birth by Peak Oil and other resource peaks, climate change, and the economic turmoil resulting from these things. The times now upon us are bringing and will continue to bring challenges too great for people to face as mere individuals. Yet the institutions on which people rely are failing, and may soon be of no help to people in trouble. These failing institutions – governmental and economic – are large and centralized for the most part, and they treat their clients impersonally, as isolated individuals, as mere consumers. It's easy for individuals to fall through their cracks. And the circumstances which have been favorable to the creation and maintenance of these institutions are now disappearing.

Most writers and thinkers who have forecast something of our present economic and resource troubles have pointed to the need for each of us to re-localize our lives as a way of coping with our present times. A key part of this re-localization is the reestablishment and rebuilding of local communities and community associations. There are many illustrative examples of the benefits of community for those experiencing economic and social hard times. One such example is the experience of Cuban citizens during the painful period of Cuba's history immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the supply of petroleum products and other supplies to Cuba was suddenly cut off. The adaptations undertaken by ordinary members of that society are documented in the film, The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil ( There is also a book, From Redlining to Reinvestment (Gregory D. Squires, editor, Temple University Press), which describes community responses to business and government efforts to destroy neighborhoods targeted because of racial prejudice. Those who are willing to do a bit of historical digging can find examples of local community responses to the pressures of the Great Depression. Lastly, there are some useful sites which have documented the role of community in coping with disasters such as Hurricane Katrina (Two such sites are found here:, and here:

The re-birth of community, experienced on a local level, is then a very good resource for coping with our present troubles. By community locally experienced I mean having a circle of others who each watch the other person's back, who lend to and trade with and give help outright as a gift to and generally support each other in practical, physical, tangible, necessary ways. Such communities are able to address the problems and challenges faced by their members in ways that large, “official” institutions cannot or will not.

Now many people who read these words will say, “Ah, community! Of course! I need to find a group of people who see things just like I do, people with whom I am totally compatible, so that we can run off to the mountains and form an “intentional” community or an ecovillage or a survivalist hideout.” Or, at least they will be thinking somewhat along these lines. Such people will set up a very strict “ideal community” in their minds, and will establish very strict entrance requirements for anyone who wishes to join their “community”. Yet most people will never be able to establish such an ideal community.

Why is this so? There are two reasons: first, that most Americans increasingly lack the resources required to relocate and build such a community from scratch, and secondly, that no two humans see perfectly eye-to-eye 100 percent of the time, much less a community of several dozen humans. As to the first reason, the evidence of failing resources for most Americans is obvious. There have been 23 American bank failures this year. The Big Three automakers are desperately crying for a bailout. The “official” U.S. unemployment rate is now 6.7 percent, although the actual figure may be over 12 percent. According to a report today, one in ten American homeowners is behind on his mortgage payments. Today on my commute in to work, I passed a McMansion in Lake Oswego which had been for sale for at least three months and which now has a “Bank Owned” sign in front. (I call Lake Oswego the “Orange County” of Oregon, so you know things are getting bad when you see things like foreclosures in Lake Oswego.)

That means that if most of us are going to rely on the experience of local community in dealing with our present times, we're going to have to build communities consisting of the people close at hand. And that brings us to the second problem with community-building: the fact that we're not all identical, not all clones, not all made perfectly to suit the tastes of one particular person or group or demographic or business bloc. Too many of us find this fact difficult to bear. There is abundant historical evidence of this in the U.S.: redlining and other racist tactics used to exclude ethnic minorities from “good” neighborhoods; the recent furor of the Right over illegal immigration; the segregationist mindset of many “survivalist” groups; and the war waged by many municipalities against the homeless. The motivation for all of these deeds has been the squeamishness of mainstream American society when faced with anything that's different from the norm that people are used to. But that squeamishness has been coddled especially by the American real estate industry which has ever been zealous of increased profits and ever vigilant against anything that threatened those profits. The real estate industry has sold most of us an image of successful life in the United States, and of those who live that successful life, and they have told us that this successful life is to be found in ever-more exurban and upscale neighborhoods full of “nice” people with “nice” schools attended by “nice” blond children. There are no signs of poverty to be seen in such neighborhoods – no clotheslines, no public transit, and no homeless people or illegals, or anything else that smacks of something less than affluence.

The trouble is that if people are going to face our present times intelligently and wisely, they're going to have to live within their means. And this means that most of us won't get to live in the “nice” neighborhoods. We'll have to live wherever we can. This also means that if we are going to build community as a response to these present times, we're going to have to form bonds with people who don't fit the Sunset Magazine or Ladies Home Journal profile, people whose kids don't look like many of the kids seen in Parenting Magazine. You might have to buy or rent in a working-class neighborhood; your kids might have to play with working-class kids. And your family might have to form communal ties with families who are very different from the American “ideal.”

I am thinking particularly of immigrants, both legal and illegal. The Right sought to make illegal immigration a major issue both in 2006 and this year, and they even sought to drastically curtail legal immigration as well. I'd like to suggest that it's too late for such thoughts; immigration cannot be reversed. The cost of trying is too high. And in most cases it would be immoral for anyone to attempt to do so – especially when one considers that many people are coming to the US from Latin America in order to escape the destruction of their livelihoods due to American corporate and governmental policies inflicted on their home countries. According to the Brookings Institute, there are an estimated 36 million immigrants in the U.S., one-third of whom are illegal. In the working-class neighborhood where I live, I run into immigrants of Mexican, Ethiopian, Asian and Russian descent whenever I go to Winco to shop.

These immigrants – and by “immigrant” I mean first-generation immigrants – have much to offer. Most of them come from countries whose standard of living is much lower than that of the U.S. Their families have not been corrupted by materialism and worthless mass entertainment to the same extent as native-born American families. They have learned to make do practically with much less – and to be happy in the process. Therefore they have valuable lessons to teach a nation whose wild ride of consumerism is crashing, a nation of jittery people, many of whom have never before gone down the path we are now on. If there are immigrants in your neighborhood, they may have valuable tricks and tips to teach you about living more simply.

Then there are the homeless. According to a study by HUD, during a twelve month period between October 2006 and September 2007, there were 1,589,000 people who used a transitional or emergency shelter in the U.S. However, because this number was generated by a government agency under the authority of the Bush administration, this number may be far too low to be accurate. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, many people who live in rural areas are not counted in official Government statistics. (See The Coalition also reports that in 2007, 3.5 million people (1.35 million of them children) were likely to experience homelessness. (See The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has also recently published a fact sheet detailing the drastic increase in homelessness resulting from the present mortgage crisis (See If communities can't separate themselves from their immigrants, they certainly won't be able to separate themselves from their homeless. And just as builders of community need the contributions of immigrants, they will also need the contributions of the homeless. Those who have been homeless for a significant time, and who have managed to retain something of their mental health and dignity, have usually learned to be incredibly resourceful and adaptable, and they too have valuable lessons to teach a society that's going to have to learn quickly to make do, to keep things until they wear out and to fix them when they break, to keep a cheerful perspective in less-than-comfortable circumstances.

To put all this in a few words, it is those who are successfully coping with hard times who can teach the rest of us to successfully cope with the times we are now facing. These people are a valuable and readily available asset to those who want to build community. But the other members of that community must also give in return. So if you want the immigrants and the homeless of your community to give their wisdom to you, you be a giver of material resources in return – clothes, food, volunteer time at a rescue mission, rides in your car if you have one, maybe even a place for someone to stay. Let those who have share with those who have not, and do not try to isolate yourself from the “have-nots.” If you have to, learn another language besides English. (I'm working on my Russian right now.) You never can tell when the roles will be reversed, and you will be one of the “have-nots” and one of them will be among the “haves.”

Building a community out of “less-than-nice” people will take some work, some up-front building of trust, and a willingness to reach out. But deeds of practical mercy on the part of community-builders will smooth the way. And as the “official” systems of society break down, we will find ourselves increasingly relying on the people close at hand, the people who live no more than a few blocks away from us, people who because of their culture or experiences have the sort of wisdom needed to guide their communities through hard times.

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