Thursday, January 31, 2008

Creative Living Arrangements

There is a lot of talk these days about making different arrangements as the economy continues to decline, and even accelerate, over the next several years and decades. Dick Cheney assures us that the American way of life is ‘non-negotiable.’ I guess that means that we can just sit back and watch it drain away, grain by grain, like some thermodynamic hour glass. Since we can no longer negotiate the steady passage of time and entropy (when could we ever?) we must ‘make other arrangements.’

What might those other arrangements be? Some people have suggested that the twentieth century will run in reverse as each of the more expensive components of our lives becomes prohibitively expensive. First, air travel goes away, followed by no longer cheap gadgets, then fast cars, fast food, all but rudimentary health care until we are left driving our Ramblers home from our second jobs just in time to catch The Honeymooners on our black and white TVs. It will be the Big Crunch following the twentieth century’s consumerist Big Bang, only not chronicled as such by any social or political commentators. Our spacious living arrangements will collapse and grow closer and closer to those around us until we are forced to rely on our neighbors and family members to survive.

But why did we build suburbia in the first place? Because we can’t stand living near other people. That’s right. We are anti social. Or at least anti large society. Forget communes. Forget bands of Pilgrims clinging to their bibles and sea tossed boats while searching for the New Jerusalem. Forget Shangri-La, El Dorado, Teaming Masses, Workers’ Paradises, Peoples’ Republics, Noble Savages and Enlightened Self Interested People (sorry. I haven’t gotten a clever sounding title for those yet.)

Forget permaculture communities (back in the old days these were called ‘towns.’) Forget George Bailey and his “…your money is in Bill’s house, and your money is in Fred’s house…” We’re all just happy neighbors paying each others’ bank account interest with our safe and secure fixed rate mortgages, while building a better world for our children, right? Not on your life.

People have a really hard time living close to other people. And not just Americans, either. It was true in the very old days when our ancestors first experimented with agricultural communities. They had to psychologically deal with such abrasive problems as division of labor, crowded living conditions, sod busters vs. ranchers, fair market values for bartered commodities, inequalities between rich and poor, and “Hey, who moved my boundary stone?” types of complaints, etc. And in all of this mischief, people were in closer proximity that they were accustomed. Much closer.

Your average hunter gatherer living in his Edenic community had a population density of about one person per square mile. This does not mean that he was five thousand two hundred eighty feet away from his closest neighbor, of course, but it does mean that there were a lot fewer people rattling around in his social zone. With farming communities and villages, that number got a lot bigger. Hunter gatherers are not as bucolic as some might think. They are as violent as anybody else (more, actually) but their population is sparser and so the opportunities for friction fewer, though sometimes dramatic when they do occur. As they are compressed together into villages of farmers, herders and tradesmen, pressures build up generating a lot of heat. Conflicts are unavoidable. Skills to deal with them are non existent.

Early people dealt with these problems with rules, religions and God dispensed legal codes. From the Code of Hammurabi to your local zoning board, legal systems have evolved to force people to do what they can’t do naturally: get along. Just do what you are told and you can be a nice villager. We will even give you some wheat, no?

For the past hundred years or so, prosperous human populations have been expanding, each person growing farther and farther away from every other person in his universe like galaxies stretched on a rubber sheet. Maybe we are subconsciously trying to regain that ‘one person per square mile’ perfect proportion. Our gadgets and technology should be able to give us the benefits of civilization and the psychological distance of primitives. I’ll stay in my cave, you stay in yours, and we’ll just text each other. Why, it’s the best of both worlds! Nice work if you can get it.

I always loved the Carrousel of Progress in the 1965 New York World’s Fair, now permanently housed at Disneyland (Walt Disney World in Orlando has one, too.) You may remember it. There is a central circular theatre with fixed stages and seats arranged in a mobile ring around the central theatre. The audience sees a five minute show and then the auditorium portion revolves to the next theatre, taking the audience with it.

Each little show captures a slice of American rural life in the twentieth century. In the earlier ones, life is depicted in small communities where family members are making their own costumes for local masquerade and Halloween parties and the father talks about going down to the drug store for a sarsaparilla. Later, with the introduction of electric appliances and ‘the rat race’, local activities seem to just drop away, making the earlier ones look quaint. The end depicts a modern world, mostly centered on video games and gadgets, with little reference to an outside world at all. Except, of course, that it contains ‘a great big beautiful tomorrow…’

So what exactly will happen if we spin our carrousel backwards? We will find that, like horses, progress does not like to go into reverse. We cannot shrink our houses or our mortgages. We cannot easily move back to mill towns and cities and rebuild trolleys and put up theatres, diners and five and dimes in the center square. When I was a child my mother would bring me to doctors in the eastern Connecticut city where we lived. They had their practices (and also lived, for all I knew) in the upstairs offices above businesses in the center of town. We actually lived slightly outside of the city by that time, but most of the activity was still down town. It really was like Bedford Falls.

As the carrousel goes in reverse, I expect soon we will see more and more adult children moving back in with their parents. This happens already. A friend of mine had to allow her daughter, son-in-law and two children to move back in with them so they would not loose their house. Imagine that for a living arrangement? They went from three people to seven over night. I expect this to get a lot more common.

Do you have borders? No? How about empty rooms in your house? That McMansion is mostly empty. You could easily take someone in on a weekly or monthly basis. Of course, you should know something about the person you are renting a room to. So now you will have to know more about your community and you neighbors. You will need to develop a network of trust and a source of information. “So-and-so needs to rent a room? Is he trustworthy? Oh, a cousin of yours, huh? Is he willing to do some work around the house? No? Well, the room will cost more, then. Just don’t move my boundary stone.”

We will have to learn what it means to be in a community. Grudgingly, of course, since we built suburbia to get away from community in the first place. Maybe we are in the new age of community re-evolution, like those early Holocene hunter gatherers trying to figure out how to live in villages without killing each other. Well, they did it, why can’t we? We just need to get out of our caves, abandon our lifeless iPods and say hello to our neighbors. Oh, and whip up a nice divine Code of Conduct, while you’re at it.

Who knows? We may even start making our own Halloween costumes again.

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