“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
(Howard Zinn, 1922-2010)
In the past week, I have emailed with two people who are considering moving up this way and met face-to-face with one. This has made me reflect more than usual on the weird meandering path that led us here in 2006. I have often thought that an interesting radio program or podcast would be “Who Let You In Here?”: a series of interviews with recent and not-so-recent arrivals to the Powell River region, digging into the reasons why people end up here, in this slightly out-of-the-way corner of the world. Everyone’s story seems a little cockeyed, as though there is some greater force drawing us all here.
To make a long and not-so-exciting story short: among the features of Powell River that looked interesting back in 2006, when we were doing some research on the internet about possible places to move to, the two that stick in my mind were the 50-mile eat-local challenge and the Powell River Regional District’s declaration to be a GE-free crop zone. Events and campaigns like these two act as beacons, sending a message out into the world: there are people here working against the grain, trying to preserve the special character of this region, trying to build something forward-thinking and new. That’s how it worked out for us. An intriguing signal sent out across the worldwide web; a promise of progressive action, enough to merit a second look.
Now, coming up to four years later, the internet footprint of Powell River is much larger, and it’s good to see the number of people blogging and sharing information about all the action happening in the region. If you look on the right sidebar of this blog, you will see my attempt to list some of the blogs which are in some way about the cultural life of this place. Some are more active than others, but they are all attempts to convey some small slice of the life of this place that might otherwise get lost in the noise. They are all beacons, flashing their message out into the world, seen by who knows how many people? who knows where? to what end?
I met today with one of the two people who were in town this past weekend looking for properties. This person is moving with his wife and two children from southern Ontario, and has decided that Powell River is the right place for his family to settle and begin making serious preparations for the effects of peak oil and economic meltdown. Our conversation wandered off into some very difficult territory at times — by which I mean: territory which is barely even on the map for most people. The possibility of rapid social collapse brought about by any number of threats which even now are visible and getting more worrisome. Things that no one wants to have to imagine, let alone try to plan for. Things that we pray we’ll be proven wrong about.
How many other people are quietly making preparations for a gradual, or a not-so-gradual, decline in our living standards? And looking at Powell River as a good place to move to, considering its relatively gentle climate, year-round growing conditions, somewhat affordable real estate, and its small but burgeoning subculture of activists, foodies, and do-it-yourselfers? And what is the picture they see of our community as they sit in Vancouver, or Edmonton, or Peterborough, scanning the internet for signs of intelligent life?
Climate, food security, affordability, and activist culture are the main reasons that drew us here three-and-a-half years ago. We picked up on the signals and homed in on their source. Now we are here contributing (we like to think) to the constellation of projects and activities which continue to pump the message out there: here is a place with many positive possibilities… we are making things happen… come and join us.
Against a backdrop of extreme uncertainty about the future, many people are starting to tune into new messages traveling on new frequencies. (Or maybe old frequencies now being brought back into commission after years — decades — of disuse.) We are developing new metaphors with which we can shape and make sense of the events taking place around us. There is an atmosphere of portent which like most things has a light and a dark side; although the dark side is carrying the day lately, every positive step forward makes the light more real.
Luckily, the beacons radiating outward from here are mostly very positive ones. I can see why Powell River is building a reputation for itself as a place where citizens are reclaiming the commons, naming the problems besetting the world and developing sensible solutions, and looking beyond the challenges we face to find the opportunities. This all makes a wonderful positive feedback loop: more people catching the signals → more people checking out this region as a place to get involved in a forward-thinking community → more new community initiatives and energy → more signals radiating outwards. And so on, round and round, gathering momentum all the time.
It’s exciting to think about the people we don’t even know about yet, picking up on the signals and deciding to take a closer look at this region as a place to find a community. We need all of the positive, imaginative, hard-working energy we can find. Maybe an incentive program to bring in the coolest, most skilled and knowledgeable doers we can find. These are your tools: word of mouth, radio, blogs, newspapers, magazines, email. Bring us our apple-graders, beekeepers, and cheesemakers; our reducers, reusers, and recyclers; our brewmasters and -mistresses; our cobbers and thatchers; our spinners, dyers, and weavers; our electrical improv artists and plumbing whiz-kids; our tubthumpers, tailors, and troublemakers; our town criers, navigators, and provisioners; our sowers, tillers, and reapers. Now go forth and radiate!