Edmonton is Sacrificing Accessibility and Inclusion . . . For What?

On September 26, 2018 the City of Edmonton will be hosting yet another “Engagement Session” about “Neighbourhood Renewal” in Strathcona, where I live. With the ongoing construction of the 83 Avenue Bike Lane, my little bit of the neighbourhood has had an advanced taste of what “Neighbourhood Renewal” means. Below I’ve composed a little of what I’d like to say at that “Engagement Session” next Wednesday. I don’t suppose I’ll be given the opportunity.

I live on 83 Avenue. The new painted bike lane runs right in front of my house. I like the idea of bike lanes. But everyone agrees the little roundabouts on 83 Avenue west of 99th Street are confusing at best and probably dangerous. I remember Becky from the City who also agrees that the roundabouts are useless – telling me at one of these “engagement sessions” that the roundabouts will NOT be reconsidered or removed.

I don’t like some of the execution of this particular bike lane, but, we make sacrifices when we live in a community.

Homeowners on the north side of 83 Avenue are not allowed to have those little walkways across the boulevard from the sidewalk to the street. We’re supposed to only cross at the corner. Jay walking is now very specifically no longer allowed. But everybody still does it. Everybody that walks without trouble or rides a bike.

Not really a sacrifice.

My friend Marion, a marvellous hero in her 60s living with MS, now has a little more difficulty on her regular visits to stay with us. She needs to come to town every few months to shop for things she can’t get in the small town where she lives. Because the avenue is now one-way, we can’t drop her off on our side of the avenue. She has to struggle a little further with her walker. If we lived two blocks to the west, where the protected bike lane is, Marion would have to struggle even more.

Heroes make sacrifices.

My 93 year-old father, who volunteered for both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy in World War II now has similar difficulties to Marion when he comes to visit me. If we lived two blocks further west, where the protected bike lane is, he probably wouldn’t visit us anymore.

Veterans make sacrifices.

My daughter, with her many special needs, doesn’t have major mobility issues just yet, but she’s only 23. Still, getting around isn’t always a cake walk.

People with disabilities make sacrifices.

I am privileged.

I don’t have a disability, I don’t have a degenerative disease, I’m not old. Yet.

I haven’t had to go to war, I haven’t lived in poverty. I can go for walks for pleasure. I even have a bike.

My voice is the voice of privilege. The 83 Avenue bike lane hasn’t forced me to make much in the way of sacrifices.

Yes, the roundabouts are dangerous when I go for a walk.

Yes, the sidewalks are dangerously dark when I walk in the evening.

Yes, I’ve been sworn at by cyclists using the sidewalk when the bike lane has been closed for construction and “detour” seems to mean “usurp that pedestrian space”.

Yes, there’s still no north-south sidewalk on 97th street – the only route to Tubby Park – and all the traffic from 98th is about to be diverted there, but I’m not a little kid anymore and neither is my daughter, so we just won’t go to the park as much as we used to.

I can handle those unimportant sacrifices. I’m privileged with health and time and relative youth and yet a grown up voice with which to vent.

Marion? My father? My daughter? The neighbourhood kids?

Much less so.

Maybe I can try to use my privileged voice for them:

Please, when constructing this new neighbourhood, take more than a moment to consider those not privileged with easy mobility, time to go to public engagement sessions, and a voice.

Take a moment to consider:

How will Strathcona look for people who will never have the privilege of mobility you might enjoy?

How will Marion or my father, with their walkers or canes, get across that street from the car they’ve travelled in to the home they need to get to?

How will the DATS user negotiate the protected bike lanes?

How will a single mother – or anyone – get home at night on a pitch-black sidewalk?

How will those children get to Tubby Park safely, when all the traffic has been diverted from 98th to 97th – where there is STILL no north-south sidewalk – how’s that Vision Zero thing working out?

Edmonton has come so far in its efforts toward inclusion.

Don’t move backward.

Don’t make our neighbourhood less accessible, as you have on 83 Avenue.

Don’t move to further exclude people with mobility issues, as you have on 83 Avenue.

Please make Strathcona, and Edmonton, more accessible, not less.

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Idle Musings on Sir Richard Francis Burton and the Arab Slave Trade

Here again the Demon of Slavery will reign over a solitude of his own creation. Can it be, that, by some inexplicable law, where Nature has done her best for the happiness of mankind, man, doomed to misery, must work out his own unhappiness?

The Lake Regions of Central Africa, Volume I, p. 85.

I didn’t learn about the Arab Slave Trade in school. I don’t remember the Arab Slave Trade ever being the subject of any conversation I’ve ever been involved in, until recently, when I’ve started a few such conversations. Slavery, in modern times at least, seemed to always be assumed to be something White People made happen.

The other night I finished reading Sir Richard Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration. Sir Richard Burton, the eccentric Nineteenth Century British explorer, not Richard Burton (CBE) the eccentric Twentieth Century British actor. The adventures of Burton and his rarely named “companion”, John Hanning Speke, read alternately like a dull economic travelogue, an extremely extended and excessively juvenile Monty Python sketch, a presentation and presumption of accuracy of the racist Hamitic Hypothesis, and, dissonantly, a lament for the tragic state of the people of East Africa in the mid-nineteenth century. As well, for a moment, Burton’s book is a sketch of a plan to eliminate slavery in the region. Clearly Burton was a conflicted fellow in a conflicted time, in East Africa, a terribly conflicted place in the mid-Nineteenth Century.

A particular incident of Burton’s journey has haunted me, as it seems to have haunted Burton — he mentions it twice in his book:

The Kirangozi or Mnyamwezi guide, who had accompanied the Expedition from the coast, remained behind, because his newly-purchased slave-girl had become foot-sore, and unable to advance; finding the case hopeless, he cut off her head, lest of his evil good might come to another.

Volume II, pp. 161-2

This indescribably horrible and likely oft repeated moment came at a time when there were perhaps a half dozen Europeans on the mainland of East Africa, at a time when the internal and Arabian slave trade had continued for untold generations. This was a developed, agricultural society whose economy was driven almost completely by the internal marketing and exporting to Arab lands of slaves and, to a lesser extent, the export of elephant ivory across the Indian Ocean. I can’t help but think that at that moment, unlike almost any other time in White, Upper Class, British, Victorian Burton’s life, there was no such thing as Race. In that moment, there was only Good and Evil, and Burton was seeing the Horror of Evil. Yes, that is a Heart of Darkness reference.

But what could Burton do? The Arab Slave Trade in East Africa was at least 1000 years old. It had been 700 years old when the European Transatlantic Slave Trade began. Burton was almost alone. To hear Burton describe him, his companion, Speke, wasn’t much better than useless. And they were lone Europeans, both very ill, in an extremely violent slaving society which saw them as nothing but (possibly) wealthy interlopers whose lives were worth nothing more than their merchandise that might be bought or stolen.

Burton stayed silent on that bloody path on that bloody day. The foot-sore young woman died, unnamed and unremembered but for Burton’s written memorial.

But, long before Burton ever laid eyes on the poor victim, he was campaigning in his way to end the slave trade in East Africa. Although he had almost died on an earlier journey, speared through the face at the hands of Somali warriors, he wrote home from a ship off the coast with concern for the people he had met and was yet to meet and a suggestion of a military/diplomatic remedy:

By means of two such steamers we shall, I believe, be prepared for any contingencies which might arise in the Red Sea; and if to this squadron be added an allowance for interpreters and a slave approver in each harbour, in fact a few of the precautions practised by the West African Squadron, the slave-trade in the Red Sea will soon have received its deathblow, and Eastern Africa its regeneration at our hands.

From a letter from R. F. Burton, sent to the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, London, from HEIC Sloop-of-War Elphinstone, 15 December 1856, reprinted in Appendix 2 of The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration, Volume II, p. 428.

His letter was not well received:

From H. L. Anderson, Esquire, Secretary to Government, Bombay, to Captain R. F. Burton, 18th Regiment Bombay N. I.

Dated the 23rd July, 1857.
Sir, — With reference to your letter, dated the 15th December, 1856, to the address of the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society of London, communicating your views on affairs in the Red Sea, and commenting on the political measures of the Government of India, I am directed by the Right Honourable the Governor in Council to state, your want of discretion, and due respect for the authorities to whom you are subordinate, has been regarded with displeasure by Government.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your most obedient Servant,

(Signed) H. L. Anderson,
Secretary to Government
Bombay Castle, 23rd July, 1857.”

Volume II, p. 428

It seems the British government had little stomach for interfering with Indigenous and Arab affairs in East Africa, and certainly not in playing the long game Burton had proposed.

But Burton continued. His book about his travels to the Lake Region is certainly a travel narrative, but Burton devotes a remarkable proportion of his tale to description of the economic and political facts and potentials of the region. These details may at first seem to be gathered as a guide to colonial exploitation of East Africa, for example when Burton suggests a Biblical/genetic basis for the European colonial urge to build railroads:

For long centuries past and for centuries to come the Semite and the Hamite have been and will be contented with human labour. The first thought which suggests itself to the sons of Japhet is a tramroad from the coast to the Lake regions.

Volume II, p. 411.

But Burton makes clear a few pages later what his true goal is:

To conclude the subject of commerce in East Africa. It is rather to the merchant than to the missionary that we must look for the regeneration of the country by the development of her resources. The attention of the civilized world, now turned towards this hitherto neglected region, will presently cause slavery to cease; man will not risk his all in petty and passionless feuds undertaken to sell his weaker neighbour ; and commerce, which induces mansuetude of manners, will create wants and interests at present unknown. As the remote is gradually drawn nigh, and the difficult becomes accessible, the intercourse of man — strongest instrument of civilisation in the hand of Providence — will raise Africa to that place in the great republic of nations from which she has hitherto been unhappily excluded.

Volume II, p. 419

This is nothing other than a manifesto of economic development and globalisation as tools to give all people a hand up to greater welfare, happiness, and self-sufficiency. Some might argue that it is also a recipe for colonial exploitation, but exploitation is clearly not the dish Burton dreams of cooking up. “That place in the great republic of nations from which she has hitherto been unhappily excluded” is an aspirational phrase that ranks alongside any of the great Declarations of the United Nations. Perhaps Burton is expressing some paternalism, but nothing in the final sentiments of The Lake Regions of Africa smacks of colonial exploitation.

Burton returned to Britain after this journey with his health shattered. After a heroic series of dangerous adventures in Arabia, Asia, and finally Africa, he never made another journey of exploration more dangerous than a brief visit to Brigham Young’s Salt Lake City. He took a series of uneventful diplomatic postings and turned his attention to writing and translating works from some of the dozens of languages in which he had become fluent. Thirty years after the death of the footsore young lady on that path in East Africa, Burton died at the age of sixty-nine. The slave trade on the island of Zanzibar was abolished seven years later.

In 1953, almost a century after Burton witnessed the beheading of a tired young woman, slaves were part of the Qatari delegation to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Mauritania, in Northwest Africa, banned slavery in 2007.

And I was pretty much unaware of the Arab Slave Trade until I read The Lake Regions of Central Africa. Thank you, Sir Richard Francis Burton, for enlightening me.

An open letter to (some) advocates for those with intellectual disabilities

Dear intellectual disability inclusion advocates who are anti-“segregation” & want full integration, always, everywhere:

Would you never let the intellectually disabled gather with peers? Must they always be integrated into the larger society? As physical challenges often accompany intellectual disabilities, would you prevent them from taking part in adapted physical activities/education? No Special Olympics? Would you prevent them from joining an artists’ collective (I’ve witnessed such a denial myself)? Deny them the opportunity to publicly exhibit their art?

Would you also ban self-support groups for the physically disabled? For Veterans? For cancer survivors? Would you ban the Paralympics?

Would you also ban GSAs? Gay and lesbian nightclubs? Ladies’ Art Nights? Chinese students’ associations? Native Friendship Centres?

I hope not.

But seems that when it comes to people with intellectual disabilities, some people’s idea of “inclusion” has as a fundamental tenet “isolation from peers at all costs, whatever the actual needs or desires of the individual.”

That is a tragically dangerous and damaging mission statement that would not be tolerated by any group that has a voice, indeed, would not be tolerated in a truly inclusive society. And it is a betrayal of a disparate group of too-often-isolated individuals that desperately needs its myriad of long-silenced and ignored voices heard.

Like any other group in our society, those with intellectual disabilities have a need and a fundamental human right to freely associate with their peers. Not enabling  that right — or outright banning it as some “advocates” and groups desire — is not inclusion. It is segregation as damaging to the individual and to the individual’s human spirit and potential as any other form of segregation.

I simply have to end with a song:

A Few Privileged and Hasty Notes on Two Edmonton Planning Concerns

I have a bit of time on my hands, unlike the majority of people in my neighbourhood. Most people around me are still students, parents, renters, workers, homeless, marginalized, seniors, mobility challenged, with an “and/or” between each item. With each passing year the proportion of well-off, privileged, work-from-home, non-parent, chronically healthy, house/condo-owning individuals increases in my neighbourhood. I confess I am one of the privileged, fortunate enough to have moved into the neighbourhood in the 80s and stayed on through the decades of change. I have time to sit and do online surveys where the City attempts to “engage” with citizens (but really just gives the time-privileged a place to vent about their pet projects) and write blog posts.

Right now I have two pet beefs: the “planned” Centre Line LRT and the ongoing “Renewal” of the infrastructure of Strathcona. I’ll begin with the renewal because it is the one that has actually had a concrete start on the avenue in front of my house.

Renewal in Strathcona

Over the last few summers, 83 Avenue, most thoroughly in the stretch between 99 Street and the Mill Creek Ravine, has been closed for long periods while the road has been rebuilt, sidewalks and streetlights have been replaced, and a dedicated bike lane has been added. Superficially and in principle I love it all. I will soon be able to cycle to my little bit of part-time retirement work in (confusion and) safety (sort of). I can walk safely to the wonderful amenities of Strathcona, in my case, particularly the theatres and restaurants, and pretty much only in daylight. Bus service is wonderful for all the places I need to get that are a little too far to walk or too cold to cycle. And I’m privileged to have a car for the further trips or when I’ve a little too much to carry. The neighbourhood is good to me.

But. There has to be a but.

When the planners came up with the bike lane design, they decided on a multitude of them, particularly if the 106 Street doubled, multi-level, skinny lanes are considered. Between the Ravine and 99 Street on 83 Ave the lane is painted, dedicated to bikes one way and shared with cars the other, with wacky little roundabouts at the intersections and no left turns for cars off 99th. The roundabouts are a dangerous and confusing menace to pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. They limit access for emergency vehicles, city maintenance vehicles, and moving and delivery trucks. The restriction on left turns off 99th forces resident motorists and visitor motorists to make convoluted loops through the neighbourhood, or to make dangerous left turns down back alleys, merely to get to their home/destination.

Between 99th and 103 and beyond 104 it seems to be largely a physically separated two way lane with one way car traffic and greatly reduced parking, largely in front of walk up, largely rental apartments, rather than single family-owned homes. Clearly those who depend on cars, particularly renters and the mobility challenged, were not considered in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Between 103 and 104 the bike lane is a slightly elevated abomination which I expect will lead to countless trips, falls, and injuries during summer festival season. Clearly pedestrian safety was not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

The north-south lane on 106 street is an ugly and confusing collections of winding curbs and green pillars that make driving or cycling feel like flying an x-wing down the trench on the Death Star. With speed bumps. Bus stops are separated from sidewalks by bicycle traffic lanes, and busses are boarded from a thin curb on the edge of the bike lane, a virtual impossibility for those with walkers or in wheelchairs. Clearly transit users and the mobility challenged were not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

I won’t even imagine the headaches of snow removal.

The sidewalks that have been rebuilt so far are very nice and walkable. A+ on the final concrete work.

The new streetlights on 83 Ave east of 99th are very pretty in the daytime, I expect they save energy at night, and the adequately light the road and bike lane after dark. But after dark the sidewalks are a pitch black abyss. Often when walking home after dark — which, face it, is any time after 4 pm for a good part of the year — I have been infinitely grateful for the home owner who has left a porch light on to help guide my steps. Clearly pedestrians with or without mobility issues were not a huge consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Given the inconsistency of the designs used in these really quite small and straight stretches of bike lanes and the confusion and danger this inconsistency will cause, I feel it clear that cyclists weren’t actually a huge consideration in this particular planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Right now the City is “consulting” with citizens (who have the privilege of leisure and time to go online and do a survey or show up at open houses) about the future steps in this reconstruction of Strathcona’s infrastructure. Much of the open and less open thrust of what little discussion there has been has been a giddy push for more bike lanes, apparently whatever the design or consequences of that design.

The Centre Line

There seems to be a desire on the part of unnamed planners to have a surface, low-floor LRT line down Whyte Avenue between the University of Alberta and Bonnie Doon, replicating one of Edmonton’s wonderful old streetcar lines. Right now that stretch is well serviced by a fleet of convenient kneeling buses which are regularly filled with citizens of all social and mobility levels. But, okay. I like the LRT. I take it fairly regularly. Having a stop a block from home would be nice.

But.

Where are these planners? Have they ever been to Edmonton? Have they never even looked at a map of the current LRT lines? “. . . connections between Downtown, the Alberta Legislature, the University of Alberta, Strathcona, Bonnie Doon, east Edmonton and the wider LRT network” the blabbity says. But, Downtown, the Legislature and the U of A have had LRT connections for years. For decades! If you look at the map accompanying the “plan”, every bit of the proposed route, except the bit down Whyte Avenue, parallels/duplicates an existing and expensively constructed underground LRT line — through downtown it would be the third east west line! And a new bridge will have to be built almost on top of two existing ones. Why? What is the reason for duplicating that line on the surface and those bridges? Are they trying to justify the (inevitably monumentally disruptive) line down Whyte Avenue? Why not just build a surface line from Health Sciences station to Bonnie Doon and beyond? Even just between Health Sciences and Bonnie Doon the line would be significantly longer than the current continually troubled NAIT line, and it would be a good start on a long overdue commuter line to Sherwood Park. And no redundancy (if we forget about the buses which are doing so nicely on that route).

As someone who uses/has used all transportation modes in the city –car, bus, LRT, High Level Streetcar, walking, cycling, motorscooter — even unicycling in my younger days — but not those Segway river valley tours, I wish Edmonton’s planners would spend less time on narrowly focused dreams and misleading consultations with privileged single-issue citizen activists and a little more time actually walking, driving, cycling, LRTing, and bussing through the areas they’re treating like big sandboxes of expensive experiment.

Bourgeois Thoughts

 

In no civilization is city life evolved independently of commerce and industry. Neither antiquity nor modern times show any exception to this rule. Diversity of climates, peoples or religions is as immaterial as diversity of eras. It is a rule which held true, in the past, in the cities of Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and the Roman and Arab Empires, just as in our day it has held true in the cities of Europe, America, India, Japan, and China.

Its universality is explained by exigence. A city group, in fact, can live only by importing its food-supply from outside. But with this importation must correspond, on the other hand, an exportation of manufactured products constituting a counterpart or countervalue. Thus is established, between the city and the surrounding country, a close interrelation of services. Commerce and industry are indispensable to the maintenance of this reciprocal dependence; without the first, to assure a steady traffic, without the second, to furnish goods for exchange, the city would perish.

— Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, tr. Frank D. Halsey (Princeton, 1952) p.130-131.

 

Recently my residential property tax assessment arrived from the City of Edmonton. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was actually three dollars lower than last year’s. Meanwhile, a friend received his business property tax assessment and found it had increased about twenty-five percent over the previous year. As a note, my friend’s business is a very small business with (apart from himself) one full-time employee and two part-timers. His small shop provides local products to the local market employing local people and is owned by a local person who also pays residential property tax locally on his own home. This friend is the epitome of “buy local”, “shop local”, “support local”. He is also the quintessence of true “Capitalism” and an example of the fundamentally “bourgeois”. And, if you are one of the 30% or so of Edmonton’s workforce who work for the Government (in healthcare, education, the civil service, or in the government-grant-supported arts), my friend and people like him are paying your salary.

There is no such thing in civilized society as self-support. In a state of society so barbarous as not even to know family cooperation, each individual may possibly support himself, though even then for a part of his life only; but from the moment that men begin to live together, and constitute even the rudest of society, self-support becomes impossible. As men grow more civilized, and the subdivision of occupations and services is carried out, a complex mutual dependence becomes the universal rule. Every man, however solitary may seem his occupation, is a member of a vast industrial partnership, as large as the nation, as large as humanity. The necessity of mutual dependence should imply the duty and guarantee of mutual support . . .
— Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, chapter XII, 1888.

Consider:

Pretty much all of us pay various forms of taxes and in return, of course, we all gratefully receive public services and infrastructure. To describe things very simply, those public services and infrastructure are bought with the revenue raised through taxes. And some of us, the above-mentioned 30% or so, get our wages or salary out of that same tax revenue in return for providing those services to, or building and maintaining that infrastructure for our fellow citizens. That seems a fair description, doesn’t it? Sort of?

But . . .

Let’s pretend there are 1000 people in the world, 30% government workers and 70% Bourgeois Capitalists and their employed proletarians. Furthermore, we’ll pretend each Government worker is paid $10,000 and pays 10% of that, $100,as taxes. That’s $30,000 in tax revenue contributed from workers with a combined income of $300,000. But that income comes directly from Government revenue. Clearly, $270,000 of Government revenue has to come from somewhere else, and that somewhere else must necessarily be the 70% of the population, 700 people, who are Bourgeois Capitalists and their employed proletarians. On average then, the non-Government workers and their employers will have to pay over $370 in taxes, *just to pay the Government workers wages and salaries*. Why would anyone chose to start a business? Indeed, why would anyone chose to work in the private sector?

And, really, when you sit down and think about it, even ignoring (sort of) the public/private split, how is this whole economic system in any way sustainable?

Consider again:

(the following is really just a rehash of a bit of Classical Social Credit)

My Bourgeois Capitalist friend is in debt and some months just breaks even after dealing with expenses. He and his (government employed) wife are managing to make mortgage payments on their modest house in a working-class neighbourhood — they have no extravagance. He pays his three employees a little better than minimum wage. Each employee, including the Bourgeois Capitalist, produces in an hour an amount of product which retails for more than his hourly income. This is as it must be as it is a vanishingly rare product that has the cost of labour as its only production cost. Even if profit were ignored, there must always be other input costs. So, like pretty much everyone in the private sector, each worker produces more value than he can afford to buy. If the workers cannot afford to buy that which they produce, who can? An external seems necessary for all the widgets the private sector produces or there must someday come a collapse of either price or economy. If the price collapses to an affordable level, the widgets will be priced below cost, and there will come a more general collapse. But in today’s interconnected world, where can this outside market be?

Is this necessary “external” market provided by the public sector and public sector employees? Perhaps, in the short term. But remember, the buying power of the public sector is nothing other than tax revenue from the private sector. The public sector is, in a sense, a somewhat parasitic appendage of the private sector. But, to be kind, each public sector worker, we hope, produces more value in services and infrastructure, than that worker can afford to buy on her salary. Just as the private sector can’t afford to buy all the widgets he makes in an hour, the public sector worker can’t afford to buy the bridge she helps to build.

With the ever growing interconnectedness of the global economy, there are really no longer true external markets: the global workforce of consumers produces more widgets than it can collectively afford to consume. Why do so many Canadians carry more debt than they can reasonably hope to pay off? Maybe because so many Canadians can’t afford to buy what they produce and so must borrow.

How has this continued so long? Can it be our whole economic system is nothing other than an exceptionally long-lasting financial bubble. Or, less generously, a multi-generational Ponzi scheme?

Han-headed Cathay saw it first,
Bright as brightest solar burst;
Whipped it into boy and girl,
The blinding spiral-sliced swirl:
Yang
And Yin . . .
Hegel saw it, saw it clear;
Jackal Marx drew near, drew near:
O’er his shoulder saw it plain,
Turned it upside down again:
Yang
and Yin . . .

–Frederik Pohl, “The Midas Plague”, Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954, p. 32.

 

“Long live the Communist Revolution!” I hear some of you yelling at the back, and I read some similar cry on the malignancy of Twitter nearly every day.

But is that a serious solution? Surely things called Communism have been experimented with. Yes, Cuban health-care has been marketed well around the world, but some of us are old enough to remember Peter Fechter lying beside the Wall. I once had a dedicated Marxist-Leninist professor tell me that Soviet-style and even Maoist Communism weren’t “real” communism — that the only “real” experiment with communism was Hoxha’s Albania, and he held it up as a glorious example Canada should follow. I suspect that none of you, if you had any awareness of Albanian history, would choose to live in Hoxha’s Albania instead of 21st Century Canada.

Whatever -ism we use to describe the “system” by which our economy is organized, I don’t quite see how we can avoid real functional elements we might call, “labour”, “production”, “consumption”, “management”, and, yes, “Capital”. And, whatever its limits, there will be a good deal of dissatisfaction if there is not “Growth” of “Markets”. If there is not growth, however equitable the distribution, in very short order none of us will be able to afford to consume what our labour produces. And the bubble that began to expand with the growth of mercantile cities in Late Medieval Europe will finally burst and we will be forced into something like a barter economy. While I fully realize many vocal persons on social media and elsewhere think a simple barter economy an attractive and nostalgic solution, I doubt many of them would truly enjoy living in a Medieval world. And a barter economy didn’t produce smart phones or the xanthan gum that makes their gluten-free, egg-free, vegan bread possible.

What is the answer?

How would I know? I’m just another Bourgeois in my ivory tower. But since you ask, I don’t think there are any easy answers, and, I kind of have a feeling we — especially you Basic Income campaigners — would do well to revisit the thoughts of a British engineer by the name of Clifford Douglas. But there’s a fair amount of mathematics involved in that. And math, like Revolution, is hard.

But not hard like understanding the world’s money supply . . .

When we start talking about money supply, we have to talk about fractional reserve banking, and then the mind-bending headache really sets in. Fractional reserve banking may well be a contract with the Devil.

“Zu wissen sei es jedem, der’s begehrt:
Der Zettel hier ist tausend Kronen wert.
Ihm liegt gesichert, als gewisses Pfand,
Unzahl vergrabnen Guts im Kaiserland.
Nun ist gesorgt, damit der reiche Schatz,
Sogleich gehoben, diene zum Ersatz.”
— Goethe, Faust, Part II, Act I

But the magic (slight of hand?) of fractional reserve banking is stunning! And I, for one, have a strong feeling that fractional reserve banking is the single pillar — a pillar of blind faith and/or ignorance — supporting the inconceivably heavy roof of the bubble we live under.

On a spring day more than 5,000 years ago in the Mesopotamian city of Ur, a foreign merchant sold his wares in exchange for a large bundle of silver. He didn’t want to carry the bundle home because he knew he’d be back in Ur again to buy grain at the end of harvest season. Instead the merchant walked to the local temple, where valuables were often stored, and asked the priest to hold onto the silver for him. . . .
“Breaking the Bank”, Alexander Lipton and Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Scientific American, January 2018, p. 28.

In brief, fractional reserve banking creates concrete value-added through a more efficient use of money. I have cash I’m not using at the moment. Need capital to open a pie booth at the farmer’s market and to make a lottery deposit for your new play at the Fringe Festival? Use my cash and pay me back before I need the cash to start my new coffee roasting place. When the fractional reserve banking is finished there’s a new coffee roasting joint, a new pie booth at the farmer’s market, and we’re enjoying a new play at the Fringe. Concrete value added to our community. If I’d had to sit on my cash we’d just be roasting coffee. No play. No pies. Less value. A poorer community.

Could it be that fractional reserve banking is what lets us consume all the stuff we produce even though we aren’t paid enough to afford what we make?

Well, yes, perhaps mainly because governments and businesses and most private individuals avail themselves of the value-creating opportunities of fractional reserve banking. Those private sector tax payers don’t have to pay much of the salaries of government workers because governments borrow money to pay workers, borrowing from the worker’s own assets as often as not. And businesses do the same. And when my bourgeois friend makes his mortgage payment each month, he’s paying back money he’s borrowed from himself, and from his employees, and from every person with a bank account. We’re all shopping with money borrowed from our bank accounts and from the future and that’s all just fine — in fact, it seems to be the wonderful source of the amazing science fiction world we live in — but look out, brother, if we all decide to cash in our savings on the same day!

 

 

Pirenne, writing in the early 20th Century, concluded that “The antagonism between capital and labour is . . . as old as the middle class” (p. 154). But who is it in more recent, social-media fevered days, that cries out against capital and embraces the cause of labour? Who, too often for comfort, throws twitter stones through the windows of business, both small and large, local and global, willy-nilly? It is a rare person in Canada who is not living on capital leveraged from their own future capital, or intends (perhaps without full understanding) to one day soon be such a bourgeois, home-owning petty capitalist.

But few of us are interested in quitting working for others in order to invest our (usually meager) savings in a personal business making widgets we hope will interest the public. Instead, without realizing that we are ourselves Capital, we rail against Capital while continuing to play at being the proletariat. And we in the West do this while consoled to varying degrees with the comforts and protections of the Welfare State that has developed for most of us over the course of the last century. This isn’t the world of Marx and Engels, of Lenin and Hoxha. We live in a world of fiat currency, not of the gold standard. We live in the world envisioned through a fog by Goethe and Clifford Douglas and Robert Heinlein in his early days. We live in a world of imaginary money that buys more and greater real things than ever could have been produced at any other time in history. And we live in a world the workings of which few if any understand, of dangers we can little imagine, and of unprecedented feelings of entitlement, unprecedented levels of misinformation and ignorance masked as knowledge and wisdom, and of unprecedented ability to communicate masses of sophistry to vast numbers of minds aching to be filled with something.

Reality is hard. The world is difficult.

Nothing will change that.

But we really should make the effort to understand how things actually work .

Go ahead and dream of utopias — but not all the time!

 

Good luck.

 

I’ve Been Thinking About the End of the World

 It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged . . . .
— H. G. Wells, The Time Machine

An image has haunted me since at least some time after my eleventh birthday when a school chum gave me a lovely one volume copy of The Time Machine and The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells:

A steady twilight brooded over the earth. And the band of light that had indicated the sun had, I now noticed, become fainter, had faded indeed to invisibility in the east, and in the west was increasingly broader and redder. The circling of the stars growing slower and slower had given place to creeping points of light. At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat. The work of the tidal drag was accomplished. The earth had come to rest with one face to the sun even as in our own time the moon faces the earth.

The Time Machine (1895 version)

This image of the ancient sun, “a vast dome glowing with dull heat” rests forever on my mind and returns for me in readings as an instant image of the last days of a world, if not devoid of life, emptied of living humanity and, most likely, cleansed by time even of human artifact.

Wells, of course, as a man of science, grounded his description in rational predictive extrapolation from known geological and astrophysical principals. But even such a hopelessly unscientific fellow as C. S. Lewis (his Cosmic Trilogy notwithstanding) conjured this same bloated sun when he needed a bit of shorthand for a world on its death-bed. Consider Chapter V of the penultimate Chronicle of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew:

Much more light than they had yet seen in that country was pouring in through the now empty doorway, and when the Queen led them out through it they were not surprised to find themselves in the open air. The wind that blew in their faces was cold, yet somehow stale. They were looking from a high terrace and there was a great landscape spread out below them.

Low down and near the horizon hung a great red sun, far bigger than our sun. Digory felt at once that it was also older than ours: a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was a single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky; they made a dismal group. And on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen. And all the temples, towers, palaces, pyramids, and bridges cast long, disastrous-looking shadows in the light of the withered sun. Once a great river had flowed through the city, but the water had long since vanished, and it was now only a wide ditch of grey dust.

So many echoes of Wells. But here is added the dead, empty city. A world at its end, humanity and, indeed, life wiped away, but still humanity’s works stand mighty.

Almost a century before Well’s Time Machine and far in time from Lewis’ dead city under a swollen sun, the poet Shelley and his friend Horace Smith challenged each other to compose a sonnet on the subject of some newly discovered bits of Egyptian statuary. The result of the challenge was, on Smith’s side, a sadly overshadowed and forgotten poem, and on Shelley’s, Ozymandias, one of the world’s greatest elegies to humanity’s doomed striving against entropy. “Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!” Despair indeed, for these great works, intended and expected to last an eternity, have been reduced to dust in a few dozen lifetimes. One can almost see the red giant sun looming over Shelley’s antique land, as it looms over each of us, doomed to age and die on an aging Earth.

And Smith’s sonnet more explicitly tells us to consider our entropic future:

. . . some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London Stood, holding the wolf in Chace,
He meets some fragment huge and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I think of an inversion of Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness sitting on the deck of the Nellie and intoning into the London night “This too [again will be] one of the dark places of the earth.” Smith’s hunter stands like John in New York, in Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon”, like Charlton Heston’s Taylor in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in The Planet of the Apes. So many apocalypses.

Most often at the ends of these worlds there is a survivor to observe “the lone and level sands.” The Time Traveler sees the final snows of Earth’s condensing atmosphere; Polly and Digory look on the bloated sun and empty city of the Witch’s world; Matthew Arnold and his unnamed love stand at the window hearing the “long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith in “Dover Beach”. But there is one notable but little-noted work in which not a single human observer survives in the landscape of apocalypse. In 1920, the dark shadow of the trenches still brooding on Europe’s collective mind, Sara Teasdale gave us a beautiful and hopeless little poem usually titled “There will come Soft Rains”:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

The first septet (save the fence wire) is all wild nature. The wire in line 6 and the war in line 7 are the pivot of the piece. Most of the last three couplets is about absent humanity: “war”, “mankind”, “we”. But “we” are not in the landscape. We have left the landscape to nature, and nature is indifferent. Unlike so many other imaginings of human autumn and winter, Teasdale allows of no survivors in her vision. Where Horace Smith imagined a future hunter, Shelley a traveler from an antique land, Wells a traveler in time, Lewis children with world-jumping magic,, and Arnold a meaningless meaning of faithfulness to a companion in a faithless world, Teasdale does not shy away from a world with neither humanity nor human meaning.

Teasdale’s audacity is a rare thing. Think of Ray Bradbury’s post-nuclear-holocaust story titled after Teasdale’s poem. Bradbury’s 1950 “There will come soft rains”, part of his The Martian Chronicles, tells the story of the final days of an automated house, emptied of humanity by nuclear war. As in Teasdale’s poem, the landscape contains only nature and humanity’s artifacts, no humanity. But Bradbury does not allow himself to fully face humanity’s extinction. In the universe of The Martian Chronicles, humanity survives as a small colony on Mars, and , Bradbury expresses an extreme optimism in the title of the next and final story of the Chronicles: humanity’s stay on Mars will be “The Million Year Picnic”.

Evidently it is a difficult thing to imagine, as Teasdale somehow has, the absolute extinction of ourselves. As I’ve been considering this essay, I’ve looked back at a number of works and I found that complete pessimism is a rare thing. I made a little list of works, each with a flippant précis appended:

“Ozymandias” (Shelley/Smith, 1818) Fortune’s Wheel turns.

The Last Man (Mary Shelley, 1826) We are excruciatingly done!

The Time Machine (Wells, 1895) – It’ll be done a long, long, long time in the future and we’ll have an unimaginably long run.

“The Machine Stops” (E. M. Forster, 1909) There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“There will come soft rains” (Teasdale, 1920) – We’re done and the birds don’t care.

“Twilight” (John W. Campbell, 1934) We’ll be done eventually, but we’ll build android replacements for ourselves.

Against the Fall of Night/The City and the Stars (Arthur C. Clark, 1948/1956) Same tunnel as Forster’s, but a whole lot longer.

“There will come soft rains (Bradbury, 1950) – We’re done for on Earth, but we’re picnicking on Mars!

The Magician’s Nephew (Lewis, 1955) It’s done in that other place but we’re okay.

Wall-E (Disney/Pixar, 2008) – Everything’s going to be okay in the end!

 

I won’t draw any conclusions from the fact that the two totally pessimistic works on my list, the two utterly without the offer of hope, are the two written by women. I expect I could look through my library a moment and find something hopeless by a man and something hopeful by a woman. What I find more interesting is the apparent need to provide light at the end of the existential tunnel.

As I was pondering the end of the world, I came across philosopher John Leslie’s The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (1996) which discusses at length the likelihood that a particular individual – you or I, for example – would be kicking around closer to the beginning or the end of humanity’s run on the planet. I won’t get into the argument in any detail at all, but basically Leslie demonstrates that we’re most likely living close to the end of our run on earth. But, interestingly, Leslie still seems to find hope for our future, that we will outwit probability. Even after a few hundred pages of careful argument of mathematical probabilities, the philosopher desperately clutches at the straws of optimism.

As I read Leslie’s book I came to realize that his probabilistic argument rests on a continued expansion of human population to 10 billion and it remaining there until 2250. I couldn’t help thinking of the closing pages of Colin Tudge’s The Time Before History (1996) in which he argues that if humanity could drastically reduce its numbers by a voluntary two-children-or-less policy, then humanity’s run on earth could last indefinitely and with a high standard of living for all. Such a future would offer far more individuals a happy life than would continued population increase to the point of crash and/or extinction. Again there is hope, if we can control our disastrous drive to spawn large numbers of children.

I also, sadly, found myself reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007), ostensibly a scientifically grounded speculation into what the world would be like if humanity disappeared as in Teasdale’s poem. What a hopeless piece of writing! As well as being rife with factual error and bad writing, this is a book with a social agenda that is not susceptible to argument. It pretends to be “What if?” but is actually, “This, Gentle Reader, is NOW, you selfish pig! You’re the problem! And when it really comes down to it, I don’t care about science!” A toxic Trojan horse of a book. And, to top it off, on page 272, in a typically ill-constructed (and cruelly compulsory) sentence, Weisman paraphrases Tudge, whom he never once cites:

 

“. . . henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.”

Compare Tudge’s hopeful argument, an optimistic argument based not simply upon a dread of Wells’ “huge red-hot dome of the sun” glowing over an empty future earth, but rather on humanity’s better angels:

In practice, common sense plus the experience of the past few decades shows that several preconditions must be met if the two-child family is to become the norm worldwide, all of which are difficult in practice, but are conceptually undramatic. First, all efforts must be made to minimize infant mortality. People must know that two children out of two are liable to survive. Second, everyone worldwide needs a pension, so that they do not need to rely upon their children when they stop working. Third, the trend in rich countries toward earlier and earlier retirement must be reversed, for if people retire earlier and the birth rate goes down, then within a couple of decades or less, we will find there are too few young recruits for the job market and indeed that only a small minority of the population is actually working. . . . As modern family planners say, the point is not to coerce but to empower. Coercion is obviously undesirable, but modern experience shows that it is also unnecessary.

The Time Before History, p. 320.

Tudge’s hopeful vision is awfully attractive: A world in which couples are happy with one or two or no children, where being single carries no stigma, where society smiles equally on all the small, happy, healthy, prosperous families, where humanity and nature both have a long life ahead of them on a green and pleasant Earth.

I hope there will come soft rains to that Earth, falling gently on both birds and humans. And I hope, in that fine future, and in this difficult present, every human will very much mind if any bird or tree perishes utterly, whatever the birds and trees might think about us.