When Mother Nature Forecloses

The Internet can be weird and spooky some days; and not just because I post stuff on it. It’s been about three days since I finished the James Howard Kuntsler novel, World Made By Hand. I cruise through Wizbang this AM and see a link to this post, right here, about feral housing in Detroit, MI.

Societal decline has weighed heavily on the minds of many thinkers. Kuntsler has weighed in with a book entitled The Long Emergency. He hypothesizes that collapse comes from resource exhaustion, through unsustainable lifestyles, which in turn catalyzes a series of cascading disasters. This gives us the dystopic world of his fiction piece World Made By Hand.

Yet something scares me more than the atomic bombs and the plagues and the gangs of marauders from a geographically removed Mad Max movie. None of these things have actually happened full blast to the US. Still, however, we have neighborhoods in Detroit that can be described as follows.

Abandoned houses are really no big deal here. Some estimate that there are as many as 10,000 abandoned structures at any given time, and that seems conservative. But for a few beautiful months during the summer, some of these houses become “feral” in every sense: they disappear behind ivy or the untended shrubs and trees planted generations ago to decorate their yards. The wood that framed the rooms gets crushed by trees rooted still in the earth. The burnt lime, sand, gravel, and plaster slowly erode into dust, encouraged by ivy spreading tentacles in its endless search for more sunlight.(HT: Sweet Juniper)

So that goes and begs the following question. How does a place go Mad Max, before WW III? The KOTM theory of societal failure in the absence of collapse follows below.

All aspects of our modern society require maintenance. Maintenance is dull, unrewarded, repetitive, drudge work that doesn’t provide much at all in the way of spontaneous positive reinforcement. I used to really get up for playing rugby on Saturday. I used to have to drag my sorry butt out of bed to mow the lawn for Dad. What if an entire city stopped caring enough to drag their sorry posteriors out of the sack?

That question is easy to answer. An operations research professor of mine gave an explicit explanation. “Things break down, things fall apart, things fail.” Everything on that list is a bad thing.

Most logical people would rather not let that sort of thing happen. The more pressing question becomes, why would anyone just stand there and let it go to ruin? Therein lies a tale that should scare and galvanize us all.

People basically care about things for three reasons. They can feel pride of ownership, they can find the thing useful or they can find the thing pleasurable. If at least one or two of these conditions apply, I’ll man up and pull some of the necessary maintenance to keep it running. If all three apply, I’ll make sure it stays nice and shiny – whatever this thing happens to be.

The first thing that makes people stop caring is a lack of ownership. This problem has been described academically as the Tragedy of The Commons. As I blogged about the Phoenix Light Rail, the alienation that results from people not owning or having any real stake in things leads to poor results every time.

The second problem involves a sense that we no longer derive any utility from what we own. Living in Detroit lost utility steadily as the economy declined. The failure of the auto industry caused the jobs these homeowners worked at to dissipate. Foolish and shortsighted local leadership resulted in nothing being done to help these people.

As Mayor Kwami Kilpatrick was too busy looting the system while he held the fasces, and Governor Granholm was too busy blaming George Bush!!!!, nobody assumed responsibility on behalf of the people. Leaders like Kilpatrick and Granholm made what Peggy Noonan famously described as A Separate Peace. They’ve both upped their standards of living, Detroit, now up yours!

Finally, with the ownership of what people care about diffused by economic failures, and the utility of remaining destroyed by a government that only cares about raping their privileges for what they are worth and shifting blame to others, the only thing tying a person to a possession could be a sense of satisfaction. Yet that doesn’t come about often in Detroit either.

Detroit does make some Top 10 Lists. They are #7 on the Forbes Top 10 Most Miserable Cities. They rank # 1 on the list of Most Murderous Cities. A risk analyst describes the Detroit problem succinctly.

“Detroit has, historically, been one of the more violent cities in the U.S.,” says Megan Wolfram, an analyst at iJet Intelligent Risk Systems, a Maryland-based risk-assessment firm. “They have a number of local crime syndicates there — a number of small gangs who tend to compete over territory.”(HT: Forbes.com)

If escapism beckons, if it’s all just too much to deal with, just crack open a cold one this Sunday. The Detroit Lions will once again take the field. It takes a Google search to find their last regular season victory.

So people give up. They throw in the towel. They abandon the place and lose all hope. Their mood mirrors the despair Constance Cafavy attributed to the Late Romans in his poem “Waiting For The Barbarians.”

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

No, we don’t even get a decent set of marauding barbarians. The closest we get is the midget Kanye West. Everything disappoints and withers these days. There’s no need for a long emergency. I’m not so sure anyone would even make it out of bed.

The ennui partners with entropy. The disillusioned nihilism spreads apace. Most folks just don’t care. Meanwhile a tree grows in Detroit. It just happens to grow in what was intended to be a living room. So many were poor stewards of the Lords Blessings, and this is how Mother Nature forecloses.