Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Monday, May 9, 2011

Silver Linings

A recurring theme on this blog is the coming third-world status of the United States. Well, third-world won't be the right adjective. We'll probably still be first-world, it's just that the standard of living associated with the adjective will have slipped somewhat. A first-world country in 100 years will be one where the overwhelming majority of citizens aren't openly starving in streets filled with flies and filth. The first-world metropolis of the future will probably look an awful lot like Havana, Cuba, a vibrant but poor (by western standards) city that produces much of its own food and is more thoroughly integrated with its countryside than we are used to. Cuba in general is an amazing case study for peak-oil social response, in fact, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the sudden loss of the majority of their petroleum imports. That's another post, though.

Rather than looking on all of this with sadness or horror, I'm actually encouraged. I think it might be because I've actually BEEN poor and dirty, living in crowded substandard housing with an odd mix of friends and strangers. I've sheltered homeless people on my living room floor, both because I cared for their well-being and because I realized objectively that I had nothing worth stealing, anyway. I'm not going to pretend that the day to day struggle of finding work, holding on to it as long as possible before it was expedient to get rid of you, rinsing, and repeating, struggling to keep the roof over your head and the power on and food on the table, wasn't stressful as hell. I'm also not going to pretend that I know all of the struggles and pains facing the endemically poor; my experience with true poverty lasted a few years, and was ameliorated by the fact that I'm a white male citizen and reasonably well-educated, amongst other unearned advantages. But it WAS an enlightening exercise in community, and a lot of the coping strategies I learned during a few years living hand to mouth will, I suspect, come in handy again in the post-carbon world. After bringing this experience up in the occasional comment stream, Ed encouraged me to flesh it out more thoroughly for the main stream.


I moved to Oregon in the summer of 2005, with a bunch of other college students who had the idea to start a free-love commune and make the world a better place, etc. We were even less prepared than most people who undertake this sort of endeavor, so we rapidly found ourselves packed six strong (then, quickly, seven when a homeless couch surfer started throwing food stamps into the pot, a not insignificant contribution at that point!) into an 80-year-old three bedroom house in Springfield, Oregon's "Little Mexico." The place was so old that the outlets that actually worked were two-prong only, with no ground; I estimated the wiring hadn't been overhauled since the '50s. The roof leaked, the place was full of cobwebs and spiders, and there was mold everywhere. The insulation was so bad that the house was cruelly hot in the summer and fucking frigid in the winter. The electric heat didn't work and the landlord wouldn't fix it, but we were barely keeping the power on anyway so it mattered very little. Rent was $600 a month, and even for 7 people this would prove to be a hardship. We were all unemployed and had spent all of our resources just getting TO Oregon. Most of us had plans to go back to school, but we all wanted to establish residency first, so we set forth to make a living for a year as penniless migrants with poor job histories and no college degrees.

Hoo, boy.

Needless to say, it was pretty touch and go. We were pretty close to the bottom of the social ladder. We were all white and US citizens, which are NOT trivial advantages, but otherwise we pretty closely resembled our Hispanic neighbors, economically. I've stood in front of a Home Depot in hopes of picking up some day labor, worked nights on construction crews, and worked as a groundskeeper in gated communities and upscale apartment complexes. The latter was a weird fucking experience; I'd never been completely invisible to the people I was working for before. Rich people are dicks.

Ahem. The point of all this, is that had I tried to hack this alone, I would never have made it. In our household, only a few of us were holding down work at any given time. Only by sharing resources and buffering one another through rough patches were we able to hang on, moving our resources around to deal with one financial calamity after another. A traffic ticket of $100 strained the resources of the entire community, and we lived in collective uninsured terror of the illness or injury that would require any sort of medical intervention, and level us as surely as a bomb dropped on a tar-paper shack. And that community extended beyond our own walls; we sought and gave help with a number of friends and acquaintances, neighbors, homeless kids crashing for the night, co-workers at shitty dead-end jobs. I've never in my life known so many people to share so much of so little. At the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum there is an awareness that one cannot stand alone, that problems have to be met collectively and friends and neighbors held up when they are knocked down. This holds regardless of political alignment; most of the people we were living with and around were actually quite conservative, nominally. But the realities of the situation trump all, and we were rarely short a helping hand when it was needed. Help from ABOVE was conspicuously lacking, except for a handful of grudging government aid programs, mostly food stamps (for which I'm grateful, don't get me wrong); rather, helping hands came from down in the shit next to us.


Even after our commune collapsed due to relationship drama (turns out moving across the country to start a polyamorous commune where not everyone had even met everyone else was a bad idea; who knew?), this pattern of community held when J and I moved into an apartment complex in the roughest neighborhood in the city, a run-down little place with '60s architecture, a pool filled in and lawned over, and a pair of bird-shit covered lion statues proclaiming "The Royal Chateau Apartments" to the stripjoint across the street. We knew our neighbors. Something else that I'd rarely encountered in a more affluent childhood; when we moved in, people came 'round to introduce themselves, welcome us, check us out. Cautious at first, then pleased to discover a young couple who seemed clean. Have some cookies. Watch out for apartment so-and-so, that guy deals drugs out the back door, we all avoid him. Don't make eye contact with the guys who hang out at the Seven-Eleven, this is their turf but they won't bother you if you don't make eye contact. That sort of thing.

Walking home from the bus stop in the evenings, I noticed that one of the upper floor apartments always had a group of older gents on the balcony, overlooking the complex parking lot. They were usually playing cards, often smoking, always talking and laughing. There were different men there from night to night, but there was always someone up there, and frequently until two or three in the morning. I asked them about it once, and I was told they were the volunteer "night-watch" (this was said with a laugh). The kept an eye on the parking lot, which was the sort of dark, well covered place that usually attracted all sorts of dangerous activity. Since they'd started their watch, no one had had a car busted into, and the local dealers had moved on to an abandoned plot next door. It was a simple, proactive community solution to a problem unfixed by overworked and indifferent police. I was impressed.

One day, a few months after we moved in, one of our neighbors showed up at the door. Did we have a shovel? Another neighbor's cat had been killed by a car, and distraught he was asking for help in burying him. I had a trowel from when we'd tried to get a vegetable garden going back at the first house, and J went off to see if someone had a box we could use as a coffin while I went with our neighbor to find a suitable place. Word spread through the complex pretty quickly, and I was amazed to see an impromptu wake for the cat develop in the complex's ratty courtyard. By the time we'd laid Garfield to rest, a couple dozen people had pooled resources and we returned to burgers, hot dogs, a few bottles of cheap wine. The cat's owner, an elderly widower who was nigh inconsolable, was looked after, and the community took the excuse to celebrate the simple pleasures, the only ones we could afford anyway. It had all happened so smoothly, so spontaneously, it was more like watching an organism react than a group of people. Shared sorrow was halved, and shared joy, doubled, as Spider Robinson used to say.


One of the biggest fallacies brought about by the industrial revolution and the technology glut that followed is the idea that people are islands. Excessively mobile, always seeking the next job or financial opportunity, the affluent in our society have lost community, the symbiotic relations with people around you that serve as a social safety net when all else fails. The Great Depression, I think, was the single greatest realization of this, when a broad systemic economic crash hammered into a country that had lost a lot of its internal resilience. As much as I support government social programs, I think they can only go so far in replacing the community connections that sustained people for so long. A widespread and sustained economic contraction like the one we face in the coming decades will force communities to reconnect and become a driving force in our society again. I think that's a good thing.


  1. Just wanted to say thanks so much for writing this! I have reflected on this piece for the last several days, and I'm trying to formulate some further contemplations inspired by it.

    It seems that, in addition to the Third World-ization of the United States, another main theme on this blog is "community" -- what it is, what a community can do to prepare for what's coming, and what a community's relationship is to the larger political and economic situation in the country and the world. Your writing really helps me think about those topics in a tangible, real-world way, divorced from over-cerebral academic theorizing.

    Given what's about to happen in the world (i.e. an apocalypse that will continue long after we're dead), what we can and should do in combination with others is really the most important question for this blog and for all of us in our personal lives. A lot of my writing focuses on large-scale events and cosmic philosophical speculations; I think it's very important, though, to connect such themes to our everyday, nitty-gritty experience. It's fine for me to speculate on the nature of future societies and rage about Obama's latest pathetic surrender, but what's most crucial is to answer questions like how are we ourselves and people we love going to feed ourselves, house ourselves, educate ourselves, and work with neighbors on all of these things. I have never been much of an activist or organizer, so I feel inherently unqualified to deal with such questions. I've always been the consummate academic and intellectual, fascinated by theories and stories, lost in my own head, cut off from neighbors and people more generally by my own introversion. I'm trying to work on changing that.

    I'm also struck, in reading your work and that of others, by how sheltered and fortunate I've been in my own life circumstances, for the most part. I've been through two periods of under-employment since leaving grad school in 1996, and those were my closest personal encounters with real economic uncertainty. But they were nothing like the experience of genuine, profound poverty that you and J went through. It's humbling to ask myself whether I could adapt as well as you guys did. But, as you point out, I will have to adapt, and so will we all.

    More soon, in the main body of the blog -- sorry for the delay!

  2. Great post. Good stories. Good point. Have never experienced that degree of urban poverty, but often miss the sense of community with which I grew up in rural western Oregon... even with the nearest neighbor a quarter of a mile away.

    On a related note, one of the themes explored in Hot is that of the disproportionate impacts of climate change on the poor as compared to the rich. Although much of the authors conclusions were as one might expect (those who are most vulnerable now are going to be hit the hardest as resources get scarcer, etc), the author also developed a counter scenario: the poor who are currently managing to survive have developed coping (and sometimes even thriving) strategies that are far beyond the abilities of the rich to imagine. Also, the poor in many developing countries are already experiencing the real effects of climate change and are adapting to them as they come, whereas the rich can keep buffering their environments with the power of petroleum and coal, and would have a much tougher time adapting, should their energy infrastructure (and the food and water infrastructures that depend on it) suddenly fail them.