Shelter turns to retreat

By David Parkinson

Dilapidation. Cracks appear in the surface. So far, the wall retains its integrity...

There are not only wrong answers, there are also wrong questions, and these wrong questions are ideology.
(Slavoj Žižek)

Walls are for making distinctions in the physical world. On one side of the wall: warmth; on the other side: cold and wet. One one side: freedom; on the other: captivity. One side: mine; other side: yours. Walls also make divisions in the worlds inside our heads. Sometimes these are useful ones and sometimes harmful. We’re dualists through cultural indoctrination, talented at cutting the world with knives that split things in two. The more we cut the more we end up with fragments of what was once whole. Love/hate, good/bad, rich/poor, friend/enemy, and so on. We fall in love with these simplistic pieces of the world, to the point where they mean more to us than the real world — if we can even tell what it means anymore for the world to be real.

The amazing wealth we possess has allowed us to build strong, thick, high walls between us, and between the human and the non-human world. We have become adept at insulating ourselves from traditional human challenges: the need to shelter from the elements, to feed ourselves, to live together in communities with a high degree of interdependence. We have achieved the luxury of choosing our means of solving these problems, and of doing so as a matter of individual choice. We do not hunt or gather as a collective, nor do we travel together or live together in any meaningful way. Our wealth has allowed us to exile children and old people from the family home, since they interfere with the main business of living. And almost everything we do is mediated by money or other technologies.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy to deform human society to the point where we have become almost entirely dependent on forces beyond anyone’s control for the provision of our basic needs. There are no shadowy figures pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The incredible wealth derived from our plunder of the planet’s resources, all of which has been made possible by the exploitation of fossil fuels, has concentrated power in corporate hands. At the same time, there has been such an excess that it could be spread around, so nation-states (especially those in Europe and North America) could afford to liberalize the distribution of the surplus. Public education, the right to vote, houses, cars, travel, retirement, health care — there has been so much wealth that elites could afford to let go of enough of it to ensure widespread participation in and support for the rules of the game. Nothing nefarious in all that; just pure calculation of costs and benefits.

Now it feels as though the system is cracking. The kleptocracy that was always winked at (if we bothered to acknowledge it at all) is coming out into the open. Cynicism is spreading, as is fear of what the future holds. (Right now we can still afford to call it ‘nervousness’.) The walls we had the luxury to build during the good times are starting to look less like containers to hold the good times in, and more like barriers that keep us separated at the time when we need to start re-learning the ancient arts of collective effort.

Our political class wants us to imagine that the good times are heading our way again. Perhaps they’re right, although it’s hard to imagine how, once you read all the symptoms and their interconnectedness. If it were in the interests of our elected leaders to be frank with us, that would be a different business altogether. As it is, we’re on our own and getting more so everyday. We can choose to work our way out of this walled-in predicament, but it’s going to take constant effort after a recognition that separation and isolation are neither natural nor useful.

And yet — each step we take in the direction of collaboration and collective risk-sharing seems to take forever, as though we’re swimming against a strong current. (We are.) Maybe the best we can hope for is to be ready for the idea of sharing and working together, so that when historical forces make it inevitable we’ll be able to snap into action quickly. Of course, the only real way to get used to working together is by doing so; and we might as well be working together on creating the structures that will become more important to the community as the economy declines, the cost of fuel rises, and jobs become scarcer and worse-paying. These changes will disproportionately affect people at the low end; the ones who are already close to the edge with chaotic lives and few resources. One horrifying aspect of our walled-in individualistic culture is that we do not need to see these people and their situation for what it really is. Our lovely things and our annual winter getaways don’t have to seem connected to the desperate struggles of our own neighbours, since we can always tell ourselves that it must be their fault for living the way they do.

The first task is to understand that the way things are is not inevitable. Next is to understand that they are not the result of some gigantic conspiracy against which we are powerless. Lastly, we need to accept that there is a great deal we can all do, in many small ways, to create connections among people, to attack isolation, to see over the walls we’ve let grow up around us.

To learn about one way that we can start to build common tools for working together and overcoming our separateness, come out at 6:00 PM on Wednesday February 9 to the United Church Hall at 6932 Crofton St. in Powell River to hear Carol Murray talk about cooperatives: what they can do and how to create them. Carol is the Director of Co-op Development at the BC Co-operative Association. This event is sponsored by Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative, and will start off with food at 6:00 PM and a presentation at 7:00 PM.

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