Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Community Thinking

I really haven't gotten the hang of Google+ Mostly the way I've been using it so far is to send links to individual people, an attempt to share links in a fairly innocuousness way. So there's hardly anything in my public stream. However the other day I reblogged a link from Howard Rheingold to spacebank. It was Howard Rheingold's tag that caught my attention:
Don't hate banks, become the bank.
A friend responded saying that he'd been talking with friends about his neighborhood community and the link was barking up the same tree.

He gave me just enough encouragement for me to try to put together a few thoughts and a few links. Of course I'm so spacey that's easier said than done!

I was having dinner with another group of friends the other day and the subject of Occupy Wall Street came up. I was very surprised how negative my three friends were. One of them was down on it because she thought it was turning off--scaring--somewhat liberal professionals like her brother. As chance would have it, I had an opportunity to spend some time with her brother planting spring bulbs in his mother's garden yesterday. I was curious about what he thought and got him talking about it. One of the reasons I was so interested to hear his views is there's about ten years difference between us. I'm firmly in the Baby Boomer generation, and he's in Gen X. While Occupy! is a multi-generation movement, Gen Y seems to be getting most of the credit or blame for it. The names for generations are a bit fishy, indeed the whole construct of generations seems suspect, but painting with a broad brush there's something to it.

My fellow Baby-Boomer discomfort over Occupy Wall Street seems more her own than what her brother thinks, although there's discomfort all around. In any case the issues of Social Security and Medicare are beginning to have great salience for us Boomers. Most of the plans to "reform" Social Security and Medicare are premised on a generational divide and conquer pretext: Boomers will get theirs and screw the rest. But most Boomers aren't so far removed from Gen X to think we don't care about them. And having lived through so many years, it's hard to escape that Gen X has been dealt a bad hand. Generation X Doesn’t Want to Hear It is an eloquent lament and has a epic comment thread. So if Boomers and Gen X can find common cause, the best hope for divide and conquer is to gang up on Gen Y. Alas, this seems all too prevalent and gets my knickers in a twist. Perhaps the more obvious coalition is between Gen X and Gen Y against us Boomers, and that's frightening.

I scared myself in my conversation with friends because I swore like a drunken sailor. One of the messages of Occupy! is that the economic system which only benefits the 1% isn't working out so well for the rest of the 99%. That seems glaringly obvious to me, and the tenor of the conversation seemed to be along the lines that protesting isn't going to do a damn thing. So I found myself saying the F-word or variations about every other word in polite company. I know that's no way to win hearts and minds! I managed not to say much at all to my friend's brother and listened. Strange that he found me convincing in our conversation about Occupy Wall Street!

Early in September I had been ranting to one of the other friends at dinner about the Keystone xl Pipeline protests. What had me wigged out that evening was the largest civil disobedience action in front of the White House since the Vietnam War protests had garnered practically no press. My friend hadn't heard about it and quipped that she was terribly out of touch with the news. But I've know my friend since college and knew that she buys both the New York Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and reads them every day. That seemed a winning point to make about the discouraging the absence of coverage. My friend also had not heard about the Alberta Tar Sands. I told her that if she did nothing else to do a Google Image search for Alberta Tar Sands.

Anyhow at the more recent dinner, between my profanity strewn ranting, my friend pointed out that she had done some research about oil sands. Another friend interjected that nothing is gonna make a big difference in our lifetimes. But in the context of other stuff we had been talking about at dinner, especially concerning some children he's close to, I think this line of argument seemed weak even to him.

Vinay Gupta got some pushback for his post Templars of Earth but there was something of the message of the Templars of Earth oath which came up in our dinner conversation when my friend mentioned the tar sands. Here's the oath:
I understand and accept fully that the human race is harming the natural world by driving species to extinction, releasing long-lived pollutants, changing the climate and poisoning nature.

I understand and accept fully that the human race makes many suffer horribly and die in war, famine, injustice, poverty and oppression, and that we are not choosing to provide a good life for all of humanity.

I understand and fully accept that my own efforts appear unequal to the task of changing these facts.

I swear by the bones of the earth, the roots of the mountains to always treat those who understand and accept fully these Three Truths with dignity and respect, myself included.
Out of habit, I'm tempted to add the coda: We're fucked. The problem with that is profanity is disrespectful. I've got to mind my words better.

John Micheal Greer makes a very useful distinction between Problems and Predicaments. It seems what happened in our dinner conversation with all the contentiousness about Occupy! was thinking in terms of problems, but once the subject of oil sands was broached we made a turn towards predicaments. Now most of my friends are proudly not slackers like me. They don't like to think about predicaments. They go to work to solve problems and do the best they can. It seems to feel as if that should be enough. A common taunt directed at the Occupiers is: Get a Job! Still, sometimes most of us grok there's a gap; Here's Greer:
The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses. Those responses may succeed, they may fail, or they may fall somewhere in between, but none of them “solves” the predicament, in the sense that none of them makes it go away.

My friend talking with his friends about their community are probably talking in some sort of hybrid mode between problems and predicaments. They all know it's a problem that so many young people not only can't find work, but have little chance to. It's a problem that so many dwellings in the neighborhood are abandoned and decrepit. There's even a sense there's a solution along the lines of putting the unemployed to work on the dilapidated structures. Alas, the devil is in the details. And it's when we begin tumbling around in those damned details that solutions begin to seem remote and alternative responses more promising. Indeed as community members the heart of the discussion isn't so much how to solve problems, but how to respond constructively in these dire circumstances we're facing.

Among the damned details--ha and I said I'd watch my mouth--is money. Besides the point, the Flying Lizard's rendition of Money is compelling. Yeah, money is such a strange topic. Bazungu Bucks was a lame attempt to create a special purpose alternative currency. While the experiment didn't work in any way, shape or form, it did pique my interests about alternative currencies. I do think that alternative currencies can be appropriate in many situations. As strange as alternative currencies may seem, good old money is seeming strange these days too.

Julian Assange says Wikileaks is starved for cash. Here's a link to a New York Times article about that. The article of course is subject to the Times's wimpy paywall. You can't give money to Wikileaks without having the banks do it for you and the banks refuse. Back with the legislative arguments about banking reform, Dick Durbin in a fit of candor said: Frankly, the banks own the place. Meaning the government is hamstrung to regulate them, but it rather holds for the Wikileaks financial woes too. People want to give Wikileaks money, but the banks tell them they may not. It's a bit obscure, and perhaps far afield, but Louisiana has made it essentially illegal to sell secondhand items in the state using cash. The law requires sellers accept payment only through banks. Old assumptions about legal tender are falling by the way. Increasingly in order to pay for some good or service or to give money away, we're being told that first we must ask a bank: "Mother may I?" Like they own the place!

Well, the sorts of responses my friends are imagining for their community are the sorts of things one can be reasonably sure that banks will say "No!" to. That negative answer stops thinking in terms of solving problems dead, but has the advantage of opening up a range of responses if instead we're trying to respond to a predicament.

I have more to say but I've blathered on too long as it is, so I'll put it to rest now and will write some more tomorrow or next.


The 27th Comrade said...

I cannot imagine you swearing. That would be fucking entertaining!

I have just googled the Alberta Tar Sands. Right. :-o

The 27th Comrade said...

You know, I once asked you why you were reading a certain blog (when you linked to it, either here or over at mine), the blog of that crazy druid.
It is a very wise blog (the wisdom that comes effortlessly after realism has come). But I asked you what had made you read that kind of thing—Americans are generally more into the optimistic shit—and you dodged the question so expertly that I decided to honour your efforts and leave it sit. But now …

The 27th Comrade said...

Oh, and by the way, you could always use Bug Me Not to enter into New York Times. Paywalls for the fail.

John Powers said...

I do swear too much, it's a waste of good words.

I like that Druid guy, John Michael Greer, as well as Sharon Astyk. Greer is, I suppose, about my age, so I remember lot of the 70's sensibility that we both lived through. Astyk is at least ten years younger. Somehow people of my generation lost the plot in the 1980's. So while most people Astyk's age, as well as many Baby Boomers like me, came to ridicule "all that hippie shit" it's reassuring that Astyk picked up the mantel without the cloud of marijuana smoke and mysticism.

It's very pleasing to me that you would even attempt to wade through Greer's writing. As much as I mention and recommend it, I can't think of a single friend who's even taken a peek.

The 27th Comrade said...

I read JMG’s blog, and it seems to me to be very much worth every single second. I do not like how he looks down on any sensibility that he does not share, but I guess that is hard to avoid when you see so much stupid around you for so long.

It is interesting indeed—was surprising for me—that there were some Americans who knew that collapse would come, but not necessarily in the ways the movies like to use (because, you know, explosions fit well in a movie, while “catabolic collapse” is much harder to implement). His error on that, of course, is that he seems to have a false dichotomy: either apocalyptic sudden collapse, or slow-descent “catabolic collapse”. He is wrong. In fact, his latest article, saying that what we are living in is “what peak oil looks like” is right on the money; but the events of this year, for the less-cushioned polities of the World (the Northern Arabs, sensitive as they are to oil-based political problems) this year has been of apocalyptic cataclysmic proportions; an Armageddon in many ways.
So I think we get both. A relatively smooth descent with absolutely shocking landmarks.

Otherwise, a bearable blogger.