The harbingers of Transition

By David Parkinson


You’ll never live like common people,
You’ll never do what common people do,
You’ll never fail like common people,
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view,
And dance and drink and screw,
Because there’s nothing else to do.

(Pulp, “Common People“)

Today I attended a meeting at the Four Square Church in Powell River whose purpose was to bring people together who are concerned about poverty, especially its effects on children and youth. BC has had the highest rate of children living in poverty in Canada for six years now. Meanwhile, the funding that helps to alleviate some of the worst effects of this poverty is drying up as a result of government funding cuts, resources and volunteers are stretched thin, and children and youth are waking up hungry, going to school hungry, and going to bed hungry.

There were about fifty people present, many of them from the social service agencies in the region which provide services to children and their families. Representatives of numerous churches and service clubs were also in attendance, as were various members of the community.

The main part of the two-hour meeting gave everyone an opportunity to speak for about two minutes, so that we could give our perspective on the situation, what we are trying to do about it, and where we see a need for more effort. The top three concerns which emerged as we went around the room were food, housing, and transportation. That makes perfect sense: if for whatever reason you’re living on a low income, you’re going to be struggling at the most basic level: keeping food on the table, keeping a roof over your head, and affording to keep a car on the road (or taking the bus if you’re unable to afford a car).

What occurred to me as we went around he room and the same themes kept coming up over and over, is that poor people are ahead of the rest of us in their struggle with the absolute basics. Everything I have read about the effects of peak oil, climate mayhem, and economic decline, compounded by the special problems of a small isolated community, leads me to believe that we are all going to be struggling to keep food on the table, a roof over your heads (including the heating and utilities), and a car on the road (or some alternative way to get around).

So far, we are still able to keep the problem of poverty on the margins, out of sight where it is conveniently out of mind. The mass media keep pumping out the message that everything is returning to normal, the recession is ending, and soon we will all be back to the froth and frivolities of the industrial economy. This news comes as a constant relief, because it means that we will not have to face the breakdown of the simplest and most essential aspects of living in society: food, shelter, and transportation (plus a few others not yet even up for discussion, among them a reliable supply of potable water and a functioning electrical grid).

We are raised to associate poverty with shame and failure, specifically personal failure. We are almost entirely unable to see poverty as a collective or systemic failure; instead we choose to see it as the unfortunate side-effect of an otherwise perfectly functioning system. And although we may acknowledge — when we think about directly — that some poverty is not solely the fault of the poor themselves, we aren’t good at thinking of how our social systems make it easy to fall into poverty, and hard to climb out of it. We are uncomfortable in the face of real poverty, and we have a hard time coming to grips with people who are suffering in the midst of a social system which is supposed to be the best and richest one the world has yet seen. Poor people confound our worldview.

What we all try  hard not to recognize is the non-accidental nature of poverty and other forms of human misery, many of which are on the rise in this society which promises so much and delivers much of it, increasingly to a select few. Any social system which produces so much teenage suicide, death by chronic alcoholism or other substance abuse, beaten children, beaten wives, chronic depression, and the rest of the panoply of ‘unfortunate side-effects’ really has a lot to answer for. And so we put a tremendous amount of collective effort into ignorance, denial, and victim-blaming. The myth that everything is OK is a powerful one.

As it all starts to slowly come unwound, as we all start to slide downhill a little bit at a time, almost imperceptibly but nonetheless surely and steadily, as we begin to lose our collective faith in the stories we grew up believing, as we face the fact that we are struggling to put food on our tables, to keep a roof over our heads, and to easily get from one place to another at will, at what point will we wake up to realize that we have slid into the margins of the world we knew? Will we have to admit to ourselves that we have joined the ranks of the poor? As this becomes a general phenomenon, not limited to people who have made bad choices or were just born less fortunate, who will be there to provide the services that we need in order to make it through the day? When almost everyone is poor, who takes care of relieving the poor?

This all sounds pretty grim. I could be wrong: we might not be on the downside of Hubbert’s Curve after all; the economy might just have a case of the hiccups; technology will save our bacon after all. But if the peak oil prophets and so-called ‘collapsniks‘ are right that we are entering a protracted period of economic decline and social turbulence, then we are going to have to learn that poverty is not necessarily a pathology to be treated by means of band-aid programs like soup kitchens, food handouts, and vouchers redeemable at local stores. Poverty will become a general condition of life as some of the things we now take for granted become scarcer. And dealing with this poverty, which will be much more widespread, is going to have to take place at the centre of economic activity, not — as now happens — as a kind of afterthought which gets by on the surplus of the main activities in the economy, the crumbs which fall from the table.

Looked at from this angle, there is actually much to celebrate in the generalization of poverty. It’s time we recognized, as a society and as individuals, that there are limits to the things we can take without someone somewhere getting burned. And it’s time we saw to it that everyone has a basic level of decent subsistence in the areas that matter, the ones which are pinching the poor most severely now. In this respect, the poor of our society are like the harbingers of where we’re all headed. The sooner we figure out how to address their problems, and to do so in a sustained manner, the sooner we assure everyone’s safety and security in the time of transition to a post-carbon economy.


2 Responses to “The harbingers of Transition”

  1. 1 juliethorne November 17, 2009 at 10:23

    Well said.

  2. 2 David Parkinson November 17, 2009 at 10:36

    Thank you. There wasn’t enough room in such a short post to cover everything. But it was clear from that meeting that the resource available to the ‘palliative’ model of poverty relief are really getting stretched to the utmost: businesses are getting hit up left right and centre; volunteers are tapped out (and Mike from the Salvation Army noted that the real challenge is to find capable and reliable volunteers); the monies trickling down from gaming and charitable sources are drying up; and meanwhile the cost of housing has gone through the roof in the past couple of years. One of the things that struck me was when someone mentioned that housing prices jumped as soon as the 2010 Olympics were announced. A few people nodded their heads at this. I’d never heard that before nor noticed that that was how it went, but it makes sense (given the main purpose of the Olympics).

    We need breakfast programs for kids! And community kitchens! (A few of the attendees brought this up, so I think the time is right.) Somehow we have to learn how to make these programs recover their costs or else we’re hooped long-term.

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