Monday, August 8, 2011

Future Shock

The markets are going to hell, riots are tearing into London, the U.S. is downgraded to AA+ by S&P, spree killings and cop assassinations erupt across the U.S. and I've had no time to blog.

Well, we'll just have to make time.

I'll leave the obvious stories to your normal news grazing. Today I want to drill down on a nugget at the end of a story that, if you read it at all, you probably read for a far different reason.

Finding the Potential in Vacant Lots
By Michael Tortorello, The New York Times
This city contains 20,000 vacant lots, more or less. Probably more. Every year, demolition crews knock down another 1,000 houses. And the housing market being what it is, few souls are returning...

This is the kind of story I would normally take and riff on about re-purposing vacant lots through urban gardening or some sort of on-the-sly repurposing via planting things like raspberries, squash, strawberries - but without making it look too obvious as a cultivated area.  Part of my standard spiel that you should be thinking about adding small amounts of resiliency to your life and your community, bracing for the day you may need to face a world where the division of labor has dramatically shrunk and you will be forced to do more with less.

However, there is a far more significant (in my opinion) item to be gleaned from this article - the mindset of the vast majority of people out there, woefully unprepared for a world radically different than the one in which they were raised or the one they are still told to expect.

...A man with a straw hat and a brown paper bag — Eddie Thomas, 55 — charged across the street. “When are you going to mow that place?” he yelled, including a few other words for emphasis. The answer, “Not today,” appeared neither to please nor surprise him.

Mr. Thomas lives in Ms. McGriff’s house, and Dr. Gardiner had met him in the yard before. “The first time we came out, he was very nice,” she said. “And every time we come back, he gets progressively more frustrated.” For this, Dr. Gardiner blamed him not at all.

With Ultra-Ex researchers visiting the site every week, “there’s 40 people walking around here, looking in the air, vacuuming the leaves,” she said. ”He’s sick of a lot of people coming up here and doing a lot of things, except the one thing he wants done. Which is to mow the grass.”

Driving away from Site 6 and Cleveland’s east side, you can imagine someone like Mr. Thomas cursing the unmown grass every morning and evening, for years on end. Until one day, he will look over from the porch and the grass will be gone. And a wood will have taken its place...

There are going to be tens of millions of "Mr. Thomas"'s mentioned in this article spread all over this country. As municipalities go bankrupt and services implode, imagine trying to explain to someone who grew up in the heart of the Baby Boomer Generation - a generation that saw vast wealth deployed in the service of making communities comfortable, drivable and beautiful - all without the citizens having to actively take part in that beautification. Millions of dollars in a budget to mow lawns? When the choice comes between paying cops or mowing vacant lots, I expect the lots will go umowed (and the cops unpaid a short time later).

In my view, the beating, raging heart of the coming wave of anger is going to be "little" things like the unmowed lots above. The expectation for all living generations of Americans is extremely high in what they view as the services local, state and federal governments provide. Imagine the anger that will build if the food stamp program implodes or the interstate highway system begins to crumble as maintenance money dries up, or levees go unrepaired after flooding.

This is where the "Green Religion" I expect to see rise up could come into play. News and philosophies are, in the mian, stories we tell ourselves to help us work out the emotional herding pattern we are bound up in. Stories such as the one above will get rebranded into glorious nature reclaiming her own. That power outage that lasted two weeks before you could get connected back to the grid? An energy-fast that is helpful in getting you closer to nature by turning down the noise of television and the internet. Who knows what tales we will craft to tell ourselves as the infrastructure crumbles. They will be dark tales, I imagine.

Don't be one of the ones left raging over things like unmowed lots. Either get to work repurposing it to our new conditions, or get over it.

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