The parachute problem

By Gene Miller, March 2012

Three local events, three different ways of looking at what the future might hold.

You wake from the dream dislocated, exhausted, a sweaty mess. It was a sci-fi doozy: a narrow wisp of silver-grey dust, manifest and purposeful, blows in between the bedroom window and the window-frame, floats toward your sleeping form, settles on your face; and within seconds, a tracery of grey veins begins to spread across your cheeks, moving toward your eyes, nostrils, lips....

Aaaarrggghhhh!

Hoping to smooth the corduroy in your nervous system, you go to the darkened bathroom and root around in the medicine cabinet to find the Atarax. Your jumpy fingers grope for the pill bottle and you turn on the light. There it is, behind the lip cream. Waiting for the water to run cold, you glance in the mirror. Faint but visible, is a spreading web of grey lines marching across your cheeks, moving toward your eyes, nostrils, lips....

Aaaarrrggghhhh!

This nightmare setup parallels a Monday afternoon event at the end of January that left me drowning in worry and mentally sketching an escape route to Zeballos. 

Agent of all this anxiety was Nicole Foss, co-editor of the blog site The Automatic Earth, who delivered a doom appetizer to about three-dozen of us in the small gym of the Vic West Community Centre—a windowless, hermetic cube that felt increasingly like the express elevator to hell, the longer she went on with her more-than-two-hour threnody.

Foss, an energy industry consultant, peak-oiler and economic analyst, believes that the “recovery” (global, American, Canadian) is a complete illusion—nothing but whistling in the dark. She predicts a catastrophic loss by Canadian real estate of up to 90 percent of its value, especially in the bubble markets of Vancouver and Victoria; makes a persuasive case for the collapse of global wealth; anticipates deflation triggered by numerous causes including Europe’s insuperable economic woes; and patiently ticks off the “knock-on” consequences including paralysis of the credit market, production and demand slowdowns, increasing joblessness, collapse of global trade, shredding of the social safety net as we know it—in all, a Dark Age for the latter days. 

We will survive, she comfortingly concludes, by functioning within “hundred-mile economies” (my phrase) featuring regional food production, the exchange of skills, abandonment of the consumption economy and a shift to the production of essentials, greater levels of mutuality and community, and so on—all the features, in other words, described in the growing body of transition towns literature, or maybe somewhat less brutish and more cooperative versions of the post-apocalyptic barter economies portrayed in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome or Waterworld.

Her advice? Eliminate debt. Save. Go to cash. Stay liquid. Make only very short-term investments. Stock up on tools, supplies, a range of functional items, and things you can trade. Grow food if you can. Learn a range of practical skills. Plan for your safety and security (“When I say this to US audiences, they think I mean guns,” she quips). 

She believes the hammer will drop in the next two to five years, following which there will be a years-long regime of worse-than-‘30’s Depression-era conditions. Foss, in a surreally matter-of-fact voice, given the catastrophic content, reminds us that all of this has happened many times before in many places, and that it will happen again. She finishes on a nearly chipper note, words to this effect: Stay in a constructive, positive head space. Make an effort to understand the financial situation to develop your sense of urgency so you can build a different world. If you know you’re going off the cliff, Foss argues, better to have your parachute securely strapped on than to be scrambling for it in free fall.

Cliff? Parachute? Future-proofing ourselves, our families, our communities? I’m 68, a frail pensioner. My palsied hands are shaking. I’m saddled with debt, have no marketable skills. When the marauding mob comes to take my few remaining cans of tuna fish (or worse, my can opener), what can I do—shoo them away with a broom? Foss’ snapshot of a crappy near-future left me depressed and cursing myself for all the failures and bad choices of my long life. Future-proofing? I’m a war baby! Happiness and the satisfaction of all my needs, not the breadline, is my birthright! It’s right there, written into my Contract With History!

Aaaarrrggghhhh!

Cue the pioneers. In a movie-like high-camera cutaway, a mere 26 hours after Foss’ last words dissolve against the high gym ceiling, an overflow crowd of more than 200 people—a fairly good embodiment of the usual cast of shoppers at the Moss Street Saturday Market (the “do well by doing good” crowd, as someone near me muttered)—fills the Ambrosia Conference Centre downtown to listen to a peppy speaker panel make the case for local investment. The event, a barn-burner by Victoria standards and relevantly titled “Invest Your Money In Local Change,” was sponsored jointly by Transition Victoria, Vancity Savings and Focus Magazine. 

It was as if Foss’ bracing advice, minus her overt sense of urgency or her arguments about collapse, had found incarnation. Honestly, you couldn’t ask for a more constructive and hopeful group. The panel of speakers, invoking images not of cataclysm, but community empowerment, took ten minutes or less each (thank you, panel) to focus on constructive, homegrown economic possibilities. A basic message during the evening: why not use RRSP and other eligible funds to achieve positive local impacts? Speakers included Stephen Whipp promoting local investment; the enterprising Lisa Helps, founder of a local micro-lending initiative, small-time creator of affordable housing and a new Victoria City Councillor, discussing her work and ideas for community self-improvement; Vancity community business banking representative Rebecca Pearson profiling Vancity’s extraordinary business relationships with the communities it serves; John Ehrlich, manager of Duncan-area Alderlea farms which serves some of the food needs of 200 “shareholder” families; and Rupert Downing from the Community Council.

The localizing idea is breaking out all over (locally)—people articulating and creatively acting on the niggling worry that most of us harbour privately: that there’s far too much system stress in our current social arrangements, and that if there’s a really serious judder, leave alone collapse, better to be constructively prepared rather than shocked and paralyzed. A recent commenter on social critic James Kunstler’s blog writes:

 

“James, your amusingly serious words in your books Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency (among others) have been buzzing in my head for years and I have urged many to read them. My numerous years of thinking about how to go from sprawl to a sustainable social, economic, and environmental reality is beginning to take shape. On February 18 our (Los Angeles) group will hold an advisory meeting to start laying our nonprofit organizational foundation to take the first step, “The Holigent Seed Project,” toward a local to global transition program that could prepare communities to survive and thrive in the approaching collapse.” (See www.holigent.org)

It’s not hard to discern in this web of ideas for renewal an outline of how things might play out in the future. And even if things don’t blow up, what’s the matter with local, anyway? 

Two days later in the same week, I stood in a very different geography, again in the company of 200—the business suit and $40 haircut crowd—noshing on teriyaki chicken skewers, mini-wontons and other finger food at the Colliers annual commercial real estate market survey reception, held at the Grand Pacific. 

After introductory remarks from Dave Ganong, Colliers’ manager in Victoria, John McLernon, eminence grise of Colliers International, told us in his keynote remarks that everything was basically all right. He has lived a long life in business and seen it all—bubbles, booms and busts. While he never invoked oceanic imagery, I was put in a trancelike calm as he spoke: cap rates get a little worse, cap rates get a little better, vacancies trend up or down, markets swell or contract. Yes, he remarked in passing, there were the rocky shoals of European debt...but the ship sails on. 

As Colliers managers came to the podium to deliver informative reports on apartment investment, industrial, commercial, office and other segments of the market, reality slipped for a moment and I saw the entire event as ritual—Pope John, Cardinal David and the cowled acolytes of commercial real estate intoning the ceremonial lines, us hopefuls in the cheap seats ritually mumbling our prayers. The message of this tableau: “The Church endures.” 

And after three bad nights of Nicole Foss-induced weltschmerz and despair, I went home and slept like a baby.

Gene Miller is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.