Finding each other in hard times
by Cynthia Beal
John Neal wrote:
Do you fear the economically deprived sections of our large
cities? History has proven that these people are better
equipped to survive hard times than the "upper" classes. In
1929 when the suicide rate on Wall Street soared, it didn't
change at all in Harlem. Instead of fleeing from this
sector of society, you should probably migrate toward it.
This sector of society has, through necessity, preserved the
skills you need to acquire in order to make it through hard
I very much appreciated this from John Neal, as it speaks to the edge
of fear I sense in so many cities of half-strangers about to face the
threat of y2k together. For a quick view on the history he refers to, a
read of Studs Terkel's "Hard Times" is illuminating.
We Americans live an average of 7 years in a place; maybe even less today.
We often don't know our neighbors very well - certainly, we've not grown
with them - and sometimes we're very suspicious about others' intents and
purposes, since we don't have a life background in which to place each
Our friends and family are scattered around the world but we don't notice
that as much, thanks to the telephone, electricity, gasoline, and air
travel - all facilitated by computing technology. We depend upon our
"network of connections" for our survival, in business and personal
and so no wonder it's difficult for folks to see and imagine that such a
thing as a series of y2k glitches that gum up the works could even be
"allowed" to happen.
If you look closely, you'll probably see it's in the poorer areas where
people stay longer, because they often can't afford to leave or, more
importantly, value the social capital of community more than the material
capital of rising equity in a suburban home. And so, when truly hard times
hit, these dense areas resonate with family, and neighbors, and people who
aren't strangers to one another. Even if you've had hard times, you know
each other - and real, bigger-than-the-neighborhood trouble mends fences
quickly if people are allowed to work together.
The challeges y2k presents to this community are, however, more difficult
than ever before, because the infrastructure challenges of food, water,
heat, fuel, waste removal, health care and social order are only partly
addressed by clan resilience. Assuming that more policing is what these
urban areas really need is doing a disservice to their greatest strength.
Continued disinformation to these communities only heightens the likely
material stressors upon them, and it's here that I am most frustrated by
the lack of attention to y2k-impacts by our established
I also appreciated John Neal's statement because I am a small grocer in
a downtown mid-urban setting who is trying to do many of the things
Robert Mangus suggests with respect to staff and customers and key partners
whom I trade with. It isn't easy, but it's the best next thing to do.
[Reader: I am trying to get the Mangus suggestions referred to here, and
will post them on this site. -- Tom Atlee]
My grandmother was a grocer in Harlan County, Kentucky during the
Depression. She went out of business with her neighbors owing her $30,000
for food she gave away, on credit that was never re-paid. Her store was
community cushion - her bank account the community deep-pockets. My
grandfather was in the coal mines, and worked with the United Mine Workers'
strikes that resulted in a change for Appalachia. We can anticipate both
recession/depressions and strikes (both worker and nation-based) - related
to y2k, since the time is useful for both natural market correction and
artificial market pressure.
Those were hard times. My grandmother would be one of the people blythely
referred to by national "leaders" in current "expert"
fiscal reports, one
of that acceptable "5%-10% of affected small businesses that will fail,"
whatever the statistic is by now. I suppose, as her grandaughter, it's only
fitting that I be in these grocer's shoes today. And, like she, I do not
find being - one more time - in the "acceptable" group of those
through the cracks any more appealing than I have in the past.
But Granny also said there were always those who wouldn't help themselves,
even in the Depression, sitting on the porch in the summer when they should
have been growing and putting up food, and then begging in the winter when
they were hungry, their children without clothes, school books or shoes.
Granny also said that anyone could have a small yard garden and feed
themselves enough extra to make it feel like "good", or at least
Something was better than nothing. She said the main thing you had to do
was work, and that there was always plenty of work to do, and that the
payment could be other than cash money, and anyone who said otherwise just
Although I'm a lover of the land, I am not recommending a "flee to
hills", though I have, for over twenty years, been advocating an
urban-rural partnership that keeps communities in touch with their
interdependence on the strengths of both metropolitan and open-land values.
I call this "sustainability." A huge body of current well-reasoned
exists to support this, housed in the Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable
Development, Natural Step, the Human Potential, and Community Food Security
movements, to name just a few.
These movements are replete with methodologies for communicating rapidly
lots of people, and working out effective strategies for change. In fact,
one reason a number of the best ideas from these movements haven't been
picked up by a lot of people, even though they make great sense, is that
the inertia of the status quo has been impossible to overcome in small
bites. With y2k, this inertia will be temporarily upset, and there is a
huge possibility for people to redirect lives and businesses and community
goals opening up temporarily, and very soon.
I will not be leaving my downtown store because of y2. I'll be staying as
put as I can afford to. I will not be leaving my rural rented farmstead
unless the same thing happens. One foot in the country and one foot in the
city - each of us who works this way becomes a bridge for country and city
to trade with one another, and there must be many more of us, independent,
small scale and vitally redundant, to heal the brittle infrastructure that
embeds us. There's no money to be made here, but there's a living.
I guess I, too, join Leon Kappelman as an apologist for The Economy
(whatever That is) - a dynamic economy that makes room for as many
different ways to approach y2k, and any phenomena that affects value, as
there are people to do the approaching.
I'd say that y2k community preparedness consists of, basically, everything
that anyone can do to mitigate or become interruptible - John Neal's work,
Robert Mangus's work, Leon Kappelman's work - as soon as we can do it, to
secure healthful life and a more sane continuity.
Everything anyone does to heed and heal this problem wisely will
reverberate throughout the technologically dependent world. Any gift of
time or thought we give that repairs damage here, and communicates that
freely to everyone else, is a gift that surpasses cash a thousandfold. A
stitch in time saves...
The risk in actively raising our communities' awareness on y2k (aside from
diverting too much time to the larger civic arenas when we need to be
taking care of our own back yards) is mostly a risk to Ego - if we're
successful enough in raising mitigative awareness so that no damage results
anywhere in the world, we'll look like fools. Norman Kurland of CPSR said
that our goal at this late date is to look as foolish as we possibly can
2000-01-01; the last thing we should wish is to look sage and wise in an
aftermath of expensive and damaging global nuisances and catastrophes. If
we end up fools, friends, we've succeeded! [CPSR = Computer Professionals
for Social Responsibility]
The more time we have to do this work of mitigation, the more equitable
pervasive the preparations can become, and the more politely we can make
them. Because really, when you get down to it, aren't we simply doing the
same thing we've always done - secure food, water, shelter, health, and
future for our children and the precious lives of this planet, upon the
bedrock of the shared technical infrastructures we've collectively built?
Don't we always hope to discard the destructive and support the best, and
don't we despair when we can't?
What's wonderfully different at this juncture is that, if we can get our
poots in gear, the frame of y2k has many of us looking to each other for
the first time in recent history and asking "are you ok? are you y2k
Not "I'm ok, you're ok" but a true inquiry - "are you REALLY
it's motivated by self-interest, but even old Socrates himself points out
that the larger one's idea of Self is, the more deeply rewarding
self-interest can become ("On Friendship", Versenyi's translation).
[Frances Moore Lappe and Paul DuBois addresses this in their book,
as well, "The Quickening of America." -- Tom Atlee]
And sure, we can continue to complain about the selfishness we see. We can
pundit from the sidelines, and judge the people who are actually dealing
with y2k in the open, and sort them into camps, and denigrate or exult them
as our personal preference dictates. We can exploit the scene for our own
agendas of living - and in fact, will have to, because we've been charged
with picking out what is most important and then preserving only that.
We can continuously rant on about the human frailties that have lead us,
largely unaware, to this pass, and the downsides of narrowed self-interest
that funnel certain types of gain into certain types of pockets, but each
moment spent complaining is a moment not spent motivated by the
self-interest that fixes the problems and changes the world. We all have
the same dead-line to meet.
Attention is a currency today, and it will reap as it sows, with a bounty
that can be shared by all of us. Thank you so much, all of you, for paying
attention. I owe you a huge debt, and I'm grateful.
[PS from Tom Atlee: I join Cynthia in not liking the ranting and complaining.
Perhaps we need to distinguish between ranting and reflection. I would
urge us to reflect on those "human frailties" that Cynthia has
asked us to not rant about. Reflecting -- individually and together --
on how we came to be where we are, is a vital part of moving together in
directions that we find more satisfying. And so, for me, part of my "agenda"
is instigating dialogue on these issues as we move through this time, as
an important complement to physical preparedness.]