Thursday, July 19, 2018

Catastrophe, Technology, Limits, and Localism

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Charles C. Mann's The Wizard and the Prophet, published earlier this year, is a fabulous book. Not a perfect book; sometimes, in order to bulk up this two-pronged thesis, he will throw in supplementary material that threatens to bog down his central investigation. But that investigation comes through loud and clear all the same, and it is one worth looking at closely.

Basically, Mann invites us to contemplate the (supposedly) inevitable end of the human species, and whether there is a way to escape that (possibly) biologically determined fate. He posits two alternatives, and picks representative champions of both. In the corner of scaling back and adopting smaller, more sustainable ways of living on the planet, so as to avoid ecological catastrophe, he chooses William Vogt, a little-known and often controversial but nonetheless pioneering figure in modern environmentalism. In the corner of science and technology, and the vision of ever expanding and improving our opportunities, he chooses Norman Borlaug, the somewhat better-known but still oft-overlooked (primarily because he wrote so little) partial father of the Green Revolution, and therefore the industrial agricultural system that today enables this planet's resources to feed more than 7 billion people. It may not seem like a fair fight, and it's pretty clear that Mann is on the side of Borlaug and technology (the "Wizards"). But he does a fine job laying out the warnings of those (the "Prophets") dubious of humanity's ability to always and everywhere grow more food, burn more fuel, build new things, and create new markets. For people who take the promise, or even the necessity, of localism seriously, whether for political or moral or environmental reasons (or all three), Mann gives us something vital to chew upon. Despite our collective affection for Wendell Berry (who is never mentioned in the book) and his warnings about how the promise of the new--new technologies, new jobs, new ideas--invariably causes people to lose touch with the wisdom of their limited, particular, embedded places, maybe localists in 2018 need Borlaug's wizardly to pull off something like our hopes? Or do localists need to content themselves with standing with the prophets, all the way down?

Mann introduces us to his investigation in light of the work of Lynn Margulis, a biologist whom he knew and respected greatly, and who pithily described human beings as "an unusually successful species." Unfortunately, in her view--and Mann basically accepts this, as a conclusion avoidable to anyone who takes seriously what the scientific method has allowed biologists to be basically certain about--successful species always end up in the same place: destroying themselves by exceeding the capacity and resources of their environment (which, in the case of human beings, is the whole planet). As Mann put it:

To avoid destroying itself, the human race would have to do something deeply unnatural, something no other species has ever done or ever could do: constrain its own growth....To a biologist like Margulis, who spent her career arguing that humans are simply part of evolution's handiwork, the answer should be clear....All species seek to make more of themselves--that is their [biological] goal. By multiplying until we reach our maximum possible numbers, we are following the laws of biology, even as we take out much of the planet. Eventually, in accordance with those same laws, the human enterprise will wipe itself out. Shouting from the edge of the petri dish, Borlaug and Vogt might has well be trying to hold back the tide (pp. 35-36).

To people of a religious bent, who disagree that evolution's logic fully imprisons human beings (even if they generally acknowledge the validity of the science which underlies it), this sort of talk often closes ears to the questions being asked. This is unfortunate, particularly in this case. While Mann never betrays any interest in non-scientific challenges to the laws and theories he is working with, he actually does to a much better job than most science journalists keep his readers aware of the conceptual limitations of the claims being made (he even has two whole appendices attached to the book, specifically considering all the problems with climate change research, though he himself completely accepts that global warming is both real, man-made, and a terrible threat). And more importantly, one has to get into a scientific frame of mind to understand the way in which the alternative paths that, as Mann presents it, Vogt and Borlaug sketched out shaped so many of the socio-economic and political debates over our day. So even if that isn't the way you see the world, try to see it for the duration of this book; you'll be rewarded, I think.

Along the way, you'll learn about these two fascinating men. Both, in their own ways, were profound outsiders to their respective disciplines and intellectual cultures. Both, despite their respective educations, were significantly self-taught. Both were mostly men of action, rather than theory. Both were radical thinkers who were captivated by paradigm-shifting scientific visions (the catastrophic environmental consequences of unregulated industrial consumption and unlimited population growth, in Vogt's case; the enormous agricultural possibilities of capital-intensive, industrially fertilized, genetically developed food resources, in Borlaug's), and both of them came to these insights through endeavors that were ridiculously underfunded, mostly unnoticed, and utterly orthogonal to where the disciplines they came to shape were focusing (in Borlaug's case, studying plant diseases in a generally ignored Mexican experimental station; counting guano-producing birds in total solitude on islands off the coast of Chile, for Vogt). They only met once, in an unproductive wheat and maize field east of Mexico City in 1946, where Borlaug was slowly hatching ideas about how the proper technology could make even that dusty, parched farmland productive, and Vogt was growing horrified at the idea that human beings never retreated before the kind of obvious environmental limitations he saw in front of him, but instead insisted on finding was to change or transcend them. They are almost certainly not the best possible examples of "apocalyptic environmentalism" or "techno-optimism," but they were fascinating shapers of those movements nonetheless.

After sketching out their lives and insights, Mann applies their perspectives to four environmental limitations which our species--which most demographers currently think is on track to top out at around 10 billion people by 2050--faces: food, fresh water, fuel, and the climate consequences of pursuing growth in all of the latter. The observations and conclusions of these chapters--though often thick with scientific jargon--are sometimes surprising. (Mann, for example, comes to the conclusion, after running through the long history of always-disproven oil shocks and panics, as well as the endlessly inventive ways humans have developed to find, retrieve, use, and restore oil, coal, and natural gas resources, that as a practical matter, "fossil-fuel supplies have no known bounds," thus dismissing peak oil in a sentence--p. 282.) They are mostly important, though, to show the breadth of the implications of committing to either the Vogtian or Borlaugian path--and for localists like myself, it is the former that seems the incumbent, rather than the latter. The one passage from the chapter on food captures the distinction between the two visions particularly well:

Which [type of farm] is more productive? Wizards and Prophets would disagree about the answer, because they disagree about the question. To Wizards, the question means: which farm creates more calories--more usable energy--per acre?....Every attempt to sum up the data that I know of has shown that in side-by-side comparisons, [small-scale, sustainable farms] grow less food per acre overall than [industrial-style, monocultural] farms--sometimes a little bit less, sometimes quite a lot. The implications for the world of 2050 are obvious, Wizards say....Prophets smite their brows in exasperation at this logic. To their minds, evaluating farming systems wholly in terms of calories produced....[ignores] the costs of overfertilization, habitat loss, watershed degradation, soil erosion and compaction, and pesticide and antibiotic overuse...[and] doesn't account for the destruction of rural communities....

The difficulty is that both arguments are correct on their own terms. At bottom, the disagreement is about the nature of agriculture--and with it, the best form of society. To Borlaugians, farming is a species of drudgery that should be eased and reduced as much as possible to maximize individual liberty....The farm is a springboard, essential as a base, but also a trap. [Small-scale, sustainable] farms may mimic natural ecosystems, but they are also ensnared in them, unable to rise above their limits. To Vogtians, by contrast, agriculture is about maintaining a set of communities, ecological and human....It can be drudgery, but it is also work that reinforces the human connection to the earth. The two arguments are like skew lines, not on the same plane
(pp. 209-210).

Anyone who has ever engaged in arguments with friends or foes (or family!) over anything pertaining to limits has probably felt the reality of those diverting skew lines. You argue about whether you should shop at Walmart or the local farmers market; the evidence on one side is about personal affordability and convenience, the other is about community health and ecological diversity. You argue about whether you should help your son buy his first car or insist he continue to be use his bicycle; while he talks about personal freedom and opportunity, you're talking about environmental impacts and long-term costs. You argue about how you should vote regarding a proposed cutback in city funding or regulations regarding bicycle paths; the supporters are focused on everything that you can choose to do with the tax money you save, whereas the opponents speak of civic pride and future generations. And so it goes. Shopping local (and thus missing out of cheap deals), mending your own clothes (thus failing to impress the visiting corporate bigwig), staying close to home (thus losing out on the job opportunities in the next city over)--these and thousands of other arguments, even when they have nothing to do with anything that specifically relates to our use of the natural environment, can be productively understood, I think, in light of the skewed perspectives of Vogt ("Cut back! Cut back! was his perspective. Otherwise, everyone will lose!") and Borlaug ("Innovate! Innovate! was his cry. Only in that way can everyone win!"--p. 6)

As one might guess, in a world where capitalist expansion and technological innovation is almost always celebrated (and industrial costs almost always either apologized for or shoved off for our children and grandchildren to deal with), Borlaug, in the due course of time, was celebrated, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and being praised around the world, while Vogt's later years consisted mostly of frustrated in-fighting among small organizations for often smaller stakes. But I should rein in my grousing, no matter how deep my Vogtian, "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" sympathies. After all, Borlaug's vision, and the whole panoply of efforts and ideas that have filled grain elevators and food pantries around the world, has resulted in tens of millions of people being alive today that almost certainly wouldn't have been otherwise. And isn't it likely that those tens of millions of lives have meant--often, anyway--tens of thousands of families, villages, and communities, creating their own cultural forms which have added to the excellence of human life, completely aside from the obvious moral imperative to help people live rather than suffer and die? While a more complete picture of Vogt's aims (which Mann provides in detail) would include not only how he became entangled with--and partially agreed with--some of the worst advocates of population control and enforced sterilization later in his life, but also how his vision aligned some aspects of environmentalism with the old, often racist, aristocratic and anti-industrial "alt-right," if you will: those members of the political and business elite who have never seen any good reason to pollute the world and break up established traditions in name of lifting up (or even just properly feeding) the masses, since most of those masses are probably uncivilized, un-Christian idiots, anyway.

But no--even with all those caveats, even while acknowledging all the ways that the technological empowerment of the individual and the spread of industrial solutions have saved lives and made the world a better place for hundreds of millions, I remain Vogtian at heart--my vision of the good life values "a kind of community" over "a kind of liberty," and is much more amenable to the notion that we have to be "tied to the land" than to the belief that progress will always leave us "free to roam the skies" (pp. 250, 362). The differences between Berry's agrarianism and Vogt's conservationism are deep, though; the Vogtian perspective is one that is filled with solar panels, crop diversification, reforestation, graywater reuse, drip irrigation--much that goes far beyond Berry's insistence on "local knowledge." (Though, to be fair, most of the sustainability-minded approaches to feeding and fueling billions of people are far more ground-level and participatory than the Borlaugian "hard path" of massive desalinization plants and deep-water oil wells.) Embracing the gospel of less, of the small and local and communal, need not oblige one to deny the talents and blessings that specialization has brought.

As with all hypothesized dyads, practical wisdom necessitates that even creatures of limits recognize the openings which science have brought us, how those have changed our daily lives, and think responsible about how to sustainably make use of them. Perhaps Vogtian localism would find a perfect match in the "do-it-yourself futurism" that characterizes the work of economists like Juliet Schor. Perhaps a half-century of growth in statist and capitalist Borlaugian systems--the top-down impositions of industrial agriculture and wireless networks and interstate highways and the global marketplace--has by now reached far enough that individuals and communities really can use them to create, in their own particular places, specific and sustainable paths towards the good life. I'd like to think so. If we are to escape the species extinction that Mann assumes would normally be our biological destiny, then I would like our escape route to look more like one of Vogt's envisioned patchwork of communes, than one Borlaug's endless rows of nutritious, delicious, genetically modified corn. (Though I'll still eat the latter, sometimes, same as all of you.)

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Songs of '78: "Who Are You?"

The single "Who Are You" was released 40 years ago today; it was the lead song off of The Who's album of the same title, which would get its full release in August. There are, to be sure, multiple other songs by The Who which might even better reflect their brash, undisciplined, whip-smart excellence: "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Behind Blue Eyes," and, of course, "My Generation." But this song has become, I think, simply iconic in its association with the band, far beyond any of the others (personally, I'd attribute a lot of this to CSI, but maybe that's because my wife and I were addicted to the original version of the show for several seasons, and thus had this song hammered into our skulls weekly.) But regardless of how the song gets into your head, you can't deny: it's their to stay. Keith Moon's drug addiction and alcoholism was killing him, but he could still smash those cymbals; Pete Townshend's guitar was echoing all over the room; Jon Entwistle's bass was steady and pulsing throughout; and, of course, Roger Daltrey was screeching and preaching (from a chair!) like nobody's business. Forty years on, it still rocks.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Songs of '78: "Fool (If You Think It's Over)"

Chris Rea, an English musician who has had a long and productive career in the United Kingdom and throughout western Europe, released his debut album, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini?, 40 years ago this month, and this sweet bit of heart-break poetry was its lead single. It was the only song of his to receive anything like significant radio-play in the United States, thus earning this talented, idiosyncratic, introspective artist the "one-hit wonder" label, which is really disrespectful to a guy who has had multiple hit albums in his home country. Still, that's what I thought of him for decades--he was the writer of that cool, sly, surprisingly deep little soft-rock number, the one that crept around the corners of my consciousness, catching me unawares and throwing me back to my childhood when I'd hear it on the radio. Rea himself apparently is ambivalent about the song--it's nothing like the sort of music he's mostly committed himself to over the years, but then, how can you distance yourself from the one song much of your English-speaking audience knows you best for? Of course, given the subject matter of the song, maybe such ambivalence is appropriate. The past is the past--except when it isn't, right?

Friday, July 06, 2018

What Do Farmers Want?

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

The obvious response to the title of this post is: I don't know; why don't you ask one? Well, Robert Wuthnow and his researches did, at great length. The result is In The Blood: Understanding America's Farm Families, the last (it was published in 2015) of a list of books which Wuthnow's extended sociological study of America's small, rural, mostly agricultural, mostly Midwestern places, and the people who live there, has produced. Earlier this year, while thinking about Wuthnow's latest book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, I ended up exploring this series by Wuthnow to learn what it can tell us about how those of us who are part of, or next door to, or have memories of, or are in other ways dependent upon, the productive world of those who work the land think about the changing world around them. In The Blood didn't change my mind about that analysis, but it did deepen it quite a bit.

The clearest point which comes through Wuthnow's thoughtful engagement with the dozens of farmers he and his assistants interviewed, and with the reams of data about rural populations, farm economics, and more that they assessed, is simply this: most American farmers, most of the time, are not agrarians. This is hardly news to anyone who takes conversations about localism and sustainability at all seriously--but still, for people like me, for whom the appeal of agrarian thinking is strong, such reminders are necessary. When Rod Dreher quotes, as he did just recently, Wendell Berry's "The Work of Local Culture," with its determined placing of hope in the few surviving rural places in America--because "rural people...see all around them, every day, the marks and scars of an exploitive national economy....and in rural communities there are still farms and small businesses that can be changed according to the will and the desire of individual people"--he adds mournfully "Berry published that thirty years ago. I don’t know how true any of it still is. Very little, perhaps." He was right to say so. Wuthnow isn't focused on the farming families of the 1970s and 1980s, much less on the farming families of the 1870s and 1880s (even assuming the more community-oriented, nature-connected, and self-sufficient world which agrarianism holds as an ideal was achievable then, which is doubtful). Rather, he's focused on those farmers who still live today in small towns or on isolated plots throughout the American South, Midwest, and Great Plains, farming families and individuals who have survived multiple financial crises and technological transformations and found a way to survive in the 21st century. That survival has required huge changes in how farmers think, and what they hope for.

I recently finished a beautiful little book, Water at the Roots: Poems and Insights of the Visionary Farmer, a collection of writings by and a brief biography of a man named Philip Britts, an Englishman born in 1917 who became a pacifist, joined the Brudehof community, relocated with that group to Paraguay in the early days of World War II, and spent the rest of his short life (he died in 1949) farming, writing poetry, and preaching to his fellows. There is much beauty in his thoughts, and a quiet radicalism too; in a 1946 essay, "How Shall We Farm?," Britts urged caution in regards to post-WWII trends in agriculture science; while he said there was no reason to reject all technical achievements--"we still believe in 'the useful plow'"--he warned that the worst possibility of progress would be to lose the organic connection with and intimate, tactile knowledge of the land: unlike "that indescribable sensation that comes, perhaps rarely, when one walks through a field of alfalfa in the morning sun, when one smells earth after rain, or when one watches the ripples on a field of wheat." That is the agrarian spirit, the spirit of Wendell Berry and so many localists everywhere. It is a spirit, unfortunately, which Wuthnow's respectful engagement with the rural world of today reveals to be mainly quaint, and little more. True, there are farmers whom Wuthnow interviewed that shared that kind of immediate connection with their land (he writes about a wheat farmer who likes to drive out to one of his fields in the evening. "I just listen to the crops grow...listen to nature, take time to meditate, soak it all in")--but more of them were quick to downplay any view of the land that was "too pretty and romantic." Instead, they conveyed--insisted, really--that the "real business of farming" today is "managing information" (pp. 127, 132, 134). As Wuthnow summarizes:

Among farmers whose relationship to the land was becoming more important result was that their understanding of the land was less visceral and more conceptual. The land was still a matter of bodily experience to the extent that it felt a certain way when walking across it and looked and smelled in familiar wars after a warm spring rain or during harvest. The embodied relationship to the land, though, was less prominent in farmers' descriptions than accounts of its size, history, ownership, and use....Acreage that used to be measured by walking a field in yard-length steps was now measured by satellite imagery. An experienced farmer could still guess the approximate yield by walking into a field of wheat or cotton, but computerized information could now tell the exact yield for each part of the field. Seeds were distinguished by the numbers assigned to them by agribusiness companies rather than by feel. There was no regret in farmers' descriptions of these changes, only an awareness that the meanings of farmland were shifting as a result (pp. 132-34).

In other words, what is found in the rural parts of America today, and the probably fewer than 3 millions people total engaged in agricultural work there (in an age of concentrated animal feeding operations and global seed and fertilizer corporations, definitions of "agricultural worker" can get a little vague), isn't, by and large, clones of Wendell Berry, Philip Britts, and others who have articulated a vision of the good life intimately connected to the land. But to decide that I, therefore, don't have anything to learn from what the farmers of today hope for would not only make my localism even more hypocritical than it already is, but would out me as, in Rod's words, one of those "educated elites who read Wendell Berry sympathetically but have no use for actual rural white people who aren’t Wendell Berry." I don't want that. So....what else does Wuthnow's research reveal about those who occupy that place which Jefferson once imagined to be the heart of a pastoral nation, but which today--at least if economic power and cultural authority is taken to be the measure of where a nation's heart is to be found--is anything but? Well, of the many points the book makes about family, faith, and farming in rural America, here are a few take-aways:

--Economics and social patterns and history and race all play into the political conservatism of nearly all of white rural America, but that shouldn't eclipse the fundamental dispositional conservatism of those who choose to farm, or choose to stick with it. Generational continuity and "being significantly connected to the past" is central to "the mentality of farming," in Wuthnow's judgment. Some of the farmers he interviewed make statements about family traditions and the legacy of the dead which sound straight out of out of Edmund Burke or Alasdair MacIntyre: "this experience of intergenerational continuity," Wuthnow observes, is what farmers mean when they say that farming is in their blood" (p. 14). Unlike the great bulk of professions in America today, the few farmers which remain regularly see their work as an inherited vocation, and a meaningful one at that.

--Farmers are deeply aware of how the community consciousness which shaped the world they inherited from their parents has been weakened by the reach of modern technology (more here), the demands of commodity agriculture (more here), the abandonment of controls which once privileged sustainability over profit (more here), and the competitive mindset which all three have exacerbated. Distances are greater, towns have emptied, fields have grown larger, and the farmers which manage to hold on economically are obliged/encouraged/pushed to pick up distant plots that keep them even further away from one another. "Mr Hebner...said the farmers in his community simply are less visibly present than they were when he started farming. He thinks about this when he cuts wheat at night. There used to be a kind of togetherness from seeing a neighboring farmer's combine lights in an adjacent field. Now those lights are much further away, if they are still visible at all" (p. 53).

--If there is one political commonality which has likely been continuous with the majority of the whole history of farming in America, it is that farmers understand themselves to be, and insist upon the right to be, their own bosses. At times this really did present itself in Jeffersonian terms (such as the one farmer who commented that there were "two classes of people...there were people in business for themselves....and there were those who worked for wages: they were in second place"--p. 103). It affects the way those committed to farming think about authenticity, responsibility, accomplishment, and knowledge: real independence means being true to one's own fundamental character, accepting responsibility for one's own mistakes and not hiding the value of one's own work, and prioritizing that which is learned through and is specific to particular experiences. Hence there was, again and again in the farmers' comments, a strong defense of property rights, a skepticism towards (or, just as often, a worried concern about) abstract, non-contextualized knowledge claims, and an emphasis upon practical education and respecting the rules (pp. 111, 115, 155).

--That commonality, though, is exactly what leaves so many of the farmers Wuthnow and his team interviewed feeling such ambivalence about matters of technology and trade. No serious, non-intentional-community-dwelling (e.g., non-Amish), full-time commodity farmer or rancher in America today fails to understand themselves as businesspeople, and that means they are always conscious of how using advanced technologies and expanding into new trading markets can increase their revenue and provide them with more financial security. But that financial security, many of them seem to think, comes with the price of reduced independence. The development of new breeds of crops has been going on "since the dawn of time," according to one farmer--but now genetically modified seeds and grains "all are copyrighted and owned by agribusinesses somewhere," forcing farmers to accept legal consequences if they don't follow specific instructions while using the seed. The ability of large agricultural corporations to dominate trade opportunities are seen as only speeding the destruction of rural communities--as another farmer put it, Monsanto, Tysons, and Archer-Daniels-Midlands may "have a community outreach program, but it ain't nothing compared to what the family farmer can do." Hence, even the most independent-minded farmer Wuthnow spoke with still insisted, like everyone else, that farming subsidies from the federal government were essential: "If you want the government out of it, then you get the Rockerfellers in there....and it'll be one big guy who will dictate things" (pp. 161, 179-181).

It may be that ultimately we won't be able to avoid that end; the constant drumbeat of production, production, production ("if we want to avoid mass malnutrition, we're going to have to up our food production by 70 percent by 2050"!) makes it almost impossible to contemplate turning American farmers in a more organic and localized direction, even if there was either the will or a strategy for doing so, which there isn't. What that will mean for the ways of life and particular virtues (admirable if, unfortunately, not necessarily agrarian ones) of America's farming population? Little good, perhaps. Depression and suicide in farming communities is a huge and growing problem social problem. The trade wars which President Trump seems determined to wage divide one group of farmers and ranchers from another, along partisan and regional lines. Perhaps the future envisioned by some farmers, of "robotic-driven machinery that would permit farmers to avoid fieldwork altogether and genetically engineered seed that would dramatically increase yields and render irrigation unnecessary," a future where family farming would still exist for only for ever "fewer and fewer families" (p. 161), is the best that can be hoped for.

Wuthnow though, for his part, doesn't think so. He is not a critical or comprehensive thinker; rather, he reports on what he sees and hears, and puts it together as best he can. He feels no loss for the mostly mythical agrarian worlds of the past, nor (unfortunately, in my view) for the various intentional agrarian communities and programs that have, on occasion, managed to allow the visions of people like Britts and Berry to flourish. He does note, that, that human beings are inventive, changing definitions and narratives of meaning and schemes of valuation as their contexts change as well. He concludes:

Whether the deep meanings inherent in farming are sufficiently robust to withstand contemporary challenges remains to the be seen. It worries farmers that neighbors behave like sharks in the water and that more of these neighbors are investors who have little understanding of farm life or are corporations....[But] farming is fundamentally local and thus inherently diverse. If there is a subculture shared to an extent by farmers in different parts of the country, it is a pattern of meanings and values that is also refracted through the local adaptations that each family has made. It reflects the distinctive opportunities and constraints that the land provides (p. 189).

Here in Kansas, where nearly 90% of the total land area is given over to industrial agriculture, such adaptations and opportunities are hard to find. But nonetheless they exist--as local co-ops, entrepreneurial experiments, small-scale grants, and more. My father, born in 1943, was convinced that by the time his children were grown, we'd all be living off vitamin pills, and that the feed mill he took over from his father would go the way of all the earth. But that hasn't happened (yet); some kind of real work with plants and animals and the land, corporatized and industrialized as so much of it is, yet remains. My father is gone now, and the agricultural world he knew and brought us kids up in--milking cows by hand, cutting alfalfa, bailing hay, etc.--is gone for the majority of those who had access to it a half-century ago as well. Hence, I can sympathize with Rod, once again, when speaking of his own father: "People of my generation and younger don’t know the land like they did, because we didn’t live on it, and with it, like they did....There’s so much we don’t know, and never will know, because they are gone, and there aren’t enough of us to carry on their work." All true...and yet, the families and towns--some of them, anyway--are still there. They have a greater understanding of their ambivalent situation, and greater energy to engage its challenges on the local level, than simple-minded red-blue, Republican-Democrat readings of rural America allow. What do farmers want? For help and assistance in rethinking and thereby preserving their livelihood, one place at a time. It's a good work to be called to, I think.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Songs of '78: "Driver's Seat"

Pop radio and the music industry which enabled and profited from it was a mystery 40 years ago--at least from the excruciatingly well-documented, Instagram-everything-and-put-it-all-on-the-cloud standards of today. It's difficult to believe you could have a major radio hit in 2018 whose every specific detail regarding its origin isn't to be found on the web. But that's the case for "Driver's Seat," a jamming, propulsive, proto-New Wave rock tune that is pretty much the only thing anyone except their immediate friends and neighbors remembers about the one-hit-wonder English band, Sniff 'n' the Tears. I suppose that's unfair to Paul Roberts, the composer of "Driver's Seat" and a working musician who has assembled multiple iterations of Sniff 'n' The Tears over the years. But for someone like me, who only knows the one song, and has never so much as seen a copy of the album it came off, Fickle Heart, nor heard more than a couple of other songs off of it--well, I'll take what I can get. At some point in my youth I heard this song (probably after its much-delayed released in America in 1979, but maybe not until a Dutch advertising campaign brought it back until general circulation in 1991), and its smooth, slick, driving sound buried in deep enough in my head that I figured it must have been one of the first pop songs I'd ever heard. As it turns out, I was kind of right. Hashed out as an early demo sometime in 1973, finally properly recorded in 1977, it was the lead single off the band's first album, where it went nowhere. But nonetheless, it was out there, in the airwaves, at some point in 1978, though for the life of me I can't figure out exactly when. So today, halfway through the year, seems good enough. Enjoy everyone. The mysterious, partly lost, definitely partly forgotten of world of 40 years ago still beckons.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Getting Political in Response to Wichita's Problems

[This is an expanded and more contextualized version of the editorial which appeared in the Wichita Eagle this morning.]

James Chung is a business analyst and professional number-cruncher, as well as native of Wichita, KS, though he's lived in Cambridge, MA, for many years. Four years ago, the Wichita Community Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by local business leaders and activists who want to see Wichita's cultural diversify and its economy grow, started occasionally bringing Chung to the city to do interviews, analyze data, and draw conclusions based on what he sees. Chung latest visit ended on Monday, and his report then was easily his most important yet.

Why? Because he sees Wichita as facing a catastrophe of its own making.

Specifically, while other mid-sized, traditionally manufacturing-based cities in the Midwest and Great Plains have grown in line with the national economy over the past four years, sometimes outpacing it, Wichita hasn't. There are, as I and others have written about at length, many reasons, grounded in history and economics and demographics, why mid-sized cities have struggled to take advantage of various nationalized and globalized flows of human and financial capital, opening them up to all sorts of debt-driven growth temptations to make up for the productive work which the larger urban agglomerations of America and the world increasingly suck up. But while the details deep in the weeds can always be argued about, Chung seems to have controlled for most of that. Broadly speaking, while huge problems remain, comparable cities like Grand Rapids, Des Moines, Youngstown, Toledo, Muncie, Omaha, Cedar Rapids, and others, have basically done well, from the perspective of a growth-minded business analyst like Chung at least. They have increased their GDP, they have seen their work force expand and diversify, and their home values have gone up. And none of those things are true of Wichita. In fact, every single one of them is the opposite.

Chung brings this together into three mutually re-inforcing and inter-related obstacles, two of them economic, one of them cultural. First, our city fails to hold on to many able workers, particularly single and professional women between 20 and 45, and racial minorities who have earn associate degrees or more. In other words, the pay gap many women experience in Wichita (which is greater than in many of our peer cities), and the lack of inclusion and support which ambitious, college-educated non-whites experience when they attempt to attain jobs and capital in the midst of our old-boys network business climate, leads them to leave the city. Add to that the fact that Wichita State University, as the largest college in the city, exports to other communities and states a far greater percentage of its graduates than any other other state university, and you have a recipe for a city that 1) grows slowly in population, and 2) sees its population gradually become older, even as the percentages of Wichita's overall urban population becomes, like all cities across the country, increasingly diverse. (Hence the tension in the city over higher education; while one must allow for the influence of Republican partisanship, the fact that only a third of Wichitans claimed in a recent poll to believe that higher education served a positive role in our country can't be entirely blamed on Fox News talking points).

The second economic factor is more straightforward: our city’s donor and professional class--again, in comparison to the levels of public and private investment in other comparably sized cities in the Midwest--is terribly cheap, consistently choosing not to invest in local arts and commerce, and often refusing to support even minimal taxation schemes to provide seed money for crucial civic projects. The funds which the Wichita Community Foundation, for example, is able to raise from individuals or corporations, either for entirely privately funded projects or projects which would supplement public expenditures, is not just tens, but sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars less than other equivalent cities have been able to make available. This defensiveness, this stinginess, is related to the former, labor-constraining, anti-education and anti-inclusion attitude, and best encapsulated into Chung's final, broadly cultural conclusion: Wichita's city and corporate leaders too often simply say “no” to any proposal with the aim of making Wichita more cosmopolitan, or to projects which would require significant capital investment. There is, in Chung's view, a "wiring" problem in Wichita which incentivizes close-minded behavior that simply doesn't limit civic options in other similar cities the same way it appears to do so here.

How to respond to these mutually re-enforcing problems? Chung is right that there is no “silver bullet”; re-igniting Wichita’s economy, and re-envisioning its culture, will require doing lots of small things differently, not just one large thing. But that said, there is one large thing which Chung–perhaps wisely–has never mentioned in any of his presentations: that is, politically addressing just who those city and corporate leaders are, and challenging their beliefs when they contribute to the aforementioned obstacles. True, the “wiring” that Chung describes as generating negativity in Wichita can't be entirely reduced the city's often conservative, insular, individualistic political culture–but to be sure, the system-wide incentives which that culture creates certainly are inseparable from it. Addressing these Wichita-specific problems must include at least attempting to make political changes, at the very least.

The Wichita Community Foundation made a set of “Truth and Dare” cards to accompany Chung’s presentation, each one highlighting a challenging fact about Wichita and inviting those reading to respond. The Dares included in these cards are thoughtful, touching on the need to learn more about alternative transportation, to participate in programs aimed at expanding literacy, to contribute time to non-profit organizations, to better appreciate the diversity of worship services in the city, to visit parks and restaurants in parts of the city where you usually don't go, and much more here. But only two of them directly mention politics or government, and those two are pretty mild: attend city council meetings! Remember to vote! And while I say the same thing to my students all the time, I think something being labeled a "catastrophe" deserves a little bit more.

So if I may, allow me to take Chung’s conclusions directly into the realm of political action, and suggest a few, more demanding, Truth and Dare cards of my own, for the benefit of any Wichita resident who might happen to be reading this:

There are city and county leaders in Wichita and Sedgwick County who consistently oppose resolutions and projects which would demonstrate greater openness to the concerns of non-whites, non-home-owners, immigrants, and LGBT individuals in our city. Often these issues aren't even expressed in terms of immediate, costly achievements; they just reflect a demand to be heard. This sets a tone which discourages many workers (particularly young ones) from remaining in our city, and discourages many college graduates (particularly of minority populations) from taking jobs here. So find out who these leaders are, contact them, attend meetings with them, push them to change their positions--and if they won’t, run against them in the next election, or support someone who will.

There are city and county leaders who consistently support developments which, however attractive they may seem on paper and however seriously they appear to take environmental or entertainment concerns, ultimately will only expand the city’s suburban footprint, stretching out and disconnecting our human and financial resources into an often alienating--even if nicely designed!--sprawl. This, in turn, discourages many donors from attempting to address Wichita’s needs in a comprehensive, unifying way, to say nothing empowering those interests who think getting money into building roads is the only thing that matters (Wichita's current, unsupplemented sales tax is required by law to be spent on bridges and streets) in their quest to push available charitable funds outside the city, or into suburban projects not at all tied to the cities core civic needs. So fight those developments, protest them, and run against those who support them, or get involved in electing someone who will.

Finally, and most importantly, there are people serving as our representatives on the state and national level who pay no attention whatsoever to the fact that there are Wichitans, like other urban populations across the country, who are organizing to affect change in this city, regarding wages, police policies, civil rights, environmental sustainability, and more. Instead, these (admittedly, almost entirely Republican) leaders lean on the same national talking points, the same partisan tropes, all under the assumption that Wichita’s voters always have been and will always remain a defensive, unimaginative bunch, and thus will re-elect them. My challenge? Exactly what you can expect by now: get informed, organize, volunteer, door knock, make phone calls, donate, and prove our current political class wrong.

No, I am not saying that a political upheaval among our leadership class will automatically fix the bad, systemic economic and cultural habits which Chung has laid before us. But if we refuse to challenge reigning political assumptions entirely, if we refuse to allow for the possibility of actually electing someone other than business-minded, developer-friendly, civically disconnected conservatives (hence the need for parties!)--or even, given the hold which partisan perspectives have on both leaders and voters, if we refuse to contemplate forcing a different kind of conservatism into the local Republican mix--then the incentives those habits reward will only continue to make Wichita’s tendency to say “no” seem reasonable, and nothing besides small, symbolic changes will ever be possible. True, a “yes” mentality probably won’t emerge with any one election. But we here in Wichita will never know unless we try.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Songs of '78: "Hot Child in the City"

Forty years ago today "Hot Child in the City," the first and only single off Nick Gilder's album City Nights, was released. Three quick points: 1) Don't even pretend to deny it: it's a sultry, catchy, utterly stereotypical and therefore sleazily awesome 1970s-summertime rock song. (Diesel's "Sausalito Summernight" rivals it, but Gilder's is better.) 2) Besides being a great slice of 70s pop-rock, this song is about as perfect an example of One-Hit-Wonderism that you can imagine. True, Gilder had other hits in his native Canada, but you know, Canada. 3) Even after I learned the name of the singer, even after I saw him on television, I though he was a woman. Shut up; so did you.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Songs of '78: "Far Awar Eyes" and "Just My Imagination"

I said the Rolling Stones' Some Girls was the big one, as far as my memories of 1978 are concerned, and I wasn't kidding. "Miss You" was just the beginning; there was song after song after song on this album that made it onto the radio and into my head, and has stayed there, on and off, for 40 years. The album itself was released in the U.S. four decades ago today, and I don't know when I first listened to the whole thing all the way through. I know it was one of the first tape cassettes I ever bought (not the very first, by any means, but it definite among that first wave of youthful purchases), and I'm amazed the tape lasted as long as it has, considering how often I've listened to it. There are at least a couple of other singles off Some Girls that I'll have to highlight in the coming months, as they were eventually released by the studio, but today, let me mention a couple of other notable songs on the album which I heard plenty of, even if they never made it onto the charts.

"Far Away Eyes" was the B-side of "Miss You," and I have occasionally wondered what might have become of the song if the Stones had arranged to release it secretly, under a different name, to country-western stations in the U.S. I mean, the lyrics are obviously a parody of a certain kind of California-style redneck and/or African-American pentecostal sensibility, and the music (with Ronnie Wood plucking away at a steel-pedal guitar and Mick Jagger hamming it up on the piano) is just stereotypical of that lazy country style to the max. And yet...there's not really an inauthentic moment in it. The Stones are totally owning this parody of low-brow, hillbilly, radio-station Christianity, enough to make you realize they really dig this kind of music. And that makes me kind of dig it too.

As for the Stones' jangly, R&B version of "Just My Imagination," let this simply stand as yet another example of how ill-informed and limited by pop music sensibilities were during my formative years, even as I drank from the fire hose of pop and rock radio: when I first heard it, and for years afterwards, I didn't know "Just My Imagination" was a cover. (Didn't I wonder who "Whitfield/Strong" were on the album credits? Nope.) It was a Stones tune as far as I was concerned, and I loved it. Thus, inevitably, while I was at BYU, and The Temptations came and did a tremendous show (I think during my sophomore year), and a couple of friends of mine--who happened to start a great a cappella group which later went on to some significant local fame--finagled a chance to talk with some of the members after the show, and I tagged along, I congratulated them on their superb Rolling Stones cover. Um...yeah. Ah well. The music endures.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Songs of '78: "Copacabana"

Yes, there were the Cars, and the Rolling Stones, and Joe Walsh, and Van Halen, and Cheap Trick, and Eric Clapton, and more. But it was still, you know, the Seventies. And that means we had Barry Manilow on the radio; deal with it.

I have on very clear memory of this song, from the summer of 1978. We were building a new home on my grandfather's property; I would end up living there until I left home for college nine years later. My father was intensely involved in the construction (how much of it he did himself I'm not sure, but he brought all us young kids to the site at many points along the way, and were recruited to haul bricks and stones, help drywall and paint, and hunt down the many insects that kept infiltrating the construction project when no one was looking (I can remember the discovery of a huge wasps nest that had been built above one of the ceiling tiles). Anyway, at some point, I think fairly early in the process, we were there, doing I don't know what (helping sand window shelving, maybe?), and this song came on the old, paint-splattered transistor radio which Dad had set up. I'd heard it before that day; why did that listening stick in my mind? Because I became obsessed with wondering whether Rico "called her over" (why would that be a problem?, thought not-quite-10-year-old me) or "called her Rover" (that makes more sense; he insulted Lola, calling her a dog! He even whistled at her! No wonder Tony took such great offense). I suspect I must have bugged my Dad to get his opinion; I don't remember if he had an answer. Yes, kids, this is what listening to the radio was like before the internet.

Oh well. A goofy fun song, released in June of 1978. Enjoy, everyone.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Mid-Sized Meditations #15: Naftzger Park, Planning, and the Problem of "Growth"

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Naftzger Memorial Park was a small, pleasantly run-down city block of trees, grass, and benches, near the center of downtown Wichita, KS, just a block north of Intrust Bank Arena, recently of much-heralded (in the local media, anyway) NCAA March Madness fame. The park had a gazebo for wedding photos and a decorative waterfall that flowed into a pond that was often (though not always) kept clean of trash. It wasn't anyone's example of a perfect civic space--can there be such a thing?--but it had its historic place along the Douglas Avenue, one of the main drives through Wichita's downtown. Built on land that the city acquired in 1980, with money donated by the Naftzger family, it was a place where idiosyncratic lovers of urban landscapes, offbeat photographers, causal walkers with their brown bag lunches, and, yes, many of the city's homeless used to gather, rest on the grass, and lean against the Carrie Nation memorial, spring and summer and fall and winter alike.

I put everything in that paragraph in the past tense, because beginning last week, following months of meetings, where proposals were put forward and audience input requested--but never, and this is crucial, truly and fully assessed--Naftzger Park is being torn apart and rebuilt. Supposedly, in a year's time or so, it will look more or less like this:

That's not a bad result, I suppose, all things considered. The new development right to its east will have an attractive (and presumably, though almost no one will say so directly, at least slightly less homeless friendly) and cleaned-up greenspace at its doorstep, the park will have a stage to host mid-sized events and a dog run for local dog-walkers and owners, and the old decorative iron fencing around it will be removed, opening it up to the "eyes on the street," in the classic Jane Jacobs sense. Considering the sort of boondoggles that some cities have committed significant expense to in the name of enlivening their downtowns, this could have been much worse.

Unfortunately, "could have been much worse" is about the best I can say about this redesign, for reasons that go far beyond any number of specific arguments that attended the long process through which the city of Wichita--or at least, those of us who got out to the meetings and attended the various advisory board meetings--has arrived at this point. (For example: wasn't this just a sweetheart arrangement between downtown urban boosters and local property-owners looking to attract buyers to and offset the costs of developing a not-terribly-in-demand Douglas Avenue location? Or: is there any solid reason to believe that the area's TIF district--which was extended to incorporate the property in question--will generate sufficient revenue to pay off the $1.5 million bond the city floated to begin construction, much less generate the additional money later to complete it? And, of particular interest to students of politics like myself: was there really any genuine interest in trying to measure citizen input about the park, or were all those public discussions only cosmetically relevant, with the real decisions having been pre-determined by the hiring of an NYC-based urban park design team to draft various options for the space?)

But no, beyond all those questions, I have a more basic one: why do some of us have problems with an old park? A "worn and outdated" park, in the words or some, that was a "destination for only neighborhood residents" only? An "underutilized" greenspace, in the words of others, that was lacking in "flexibility"? I don't deny at all that public spaces, and their design, matter; we are, after all, embodied and spatial creatures, and become who we are in part through our interactions with the buildings and streets and fields and parks which make up our lived environments. But just what is this frequently felt imperative that such environments be updated, programmed, and "activated"? That's my most fundamental question here. And the answer, I think, revolves around how so many people in cities (which means, allowing for some definitional slippage, more than three-quarters of us) fine ourselves necessarily thinking about growth.

Here in Wichita, the obsession of many is with the same problem which bedevils a great many mid-sized cities in America and around the world: we're not growing, either in population (20-year projections suggest that Wichita will grow at an average of .8% a year) or in economic heft (recent employment numbers suggest only around a 1% average increase in available jobs each year)--or if we are growing, we're still not growing at a rate sufficient to generate the increased revenue necessary to the match the obligations of our existing infrastructure. (Those same 20-year projections suggest that the city of Wichita will have $9-10 billion in repair and maintenance costs over that time period which it won't be able to pay.) As I and others have discussed at length, the current stage of economic globalization is one which has overwhelmingly concentrated financial resources, and hence human and cultural incentives, in large (if not always solely the world's largest) urban agglomerations. Wichita, the 50th-largest city in the U.S., is a good-sized city, but not big enough to generate the sort of gravity which would pull in those capital and creativity flows.

So do we content ourselves with holding on to what we have? Ideally, yes, we would address ourselves to pioneering some kind of urban conservation or contraction, pursing a "steady-state" or "strong towns" model. Unfortunately, figuring out how to do so, when faced with the economic and political realities which characterize cities in an era of finance capitalism, is a puzzle.

In any community that reaches a certain size (and leave off for now figuring out exactly what that size is or how it gets there; suffice to say that there are towns, and there are cities, and the differences between them can be persuasively articulated, even if not exactly innumerated), various cultural and economic factions will emerge. Achieving urban political power in the midst of those factions--for whatever purpose, however high-minded or venal--will almost inevitably involve building something, whether a highway or a museum or a program. Cities in the United States do not have the taxing and regulatory authority made legitimate by being handed down via constitutional channels; on the contrary, cities emerge organically through history, and are legitimated through governmental fiat (though much democratic agitation may precede that). Consequently, the policy tools available to them (especially if the city in question is not just a major urban metropolis as to be able to harness the political and economic power to make demands on the states they exist within, or the federal government itself) are generally pretty circumscribed. As a result, with broad issues of social import mostly off their table, and extensive funding mechanisms usually forbidden them as well, crudely relying upon, and then satisfying in turn, the aforementioned local factions, through the sort of construction enabled by sales taxes and subsidies and CIDs, usually becomes almost inseparable from the ordinary business of a city.

The above is, reductively speaking, the story of what multiple scholars have called the "growth machine" of American urbanism. Interestingly, you don't actually have to have real growth for that logic to take hold. Here in Wichita, Chase Billingham, a sociologist at Wichita State University, has argued that city leaders in small and mid-sized cities will feel impelled to discover growth wherever they can, so as to be able to justify, to themselves and others, the belief (or presumption) that they are actually responding to the needs of the city--which, in the end, generally means building things. So they will, for example, invest urban guerilla pop-up parks or resurgent local symbols with sufficient meaning as to make them count as signs of growth. Which, in turn, justifies more growth, and the cycle of promotion and promises continue.

To be sure, not all schemes of transformation and growth are equal; if a combination of urban factions in my city--downtown boosters looking to engage in "placemaking," city workers enamored of the prospect of addressing what some residents consider an eyesore, restaurant and club owners that want to increase foot traffic between the Arena and Douglas Avenue, ambivalent developers and business owners that would be happy for an upgrade to their property if some of the costs could be shared--come together with an idea to remake a rundown but still perfectly adequate local space, and the alternative to such is to see that invariably generated reconstructive energy invested in adding to our already far-overbuilt highway infrastructure, spreading suburbanization ever further out along the east-west corridor, believe me, I'll choose the park. After all, it's not like any urban development will ever truly be a simply matter of black and white; there really were downtown residents who wanted the Naftzger Park opened up, with better lighting and more amenities. And of course, those two options weren't placed in opposition to each other on the table; the former, for all the questions attached to it, is driven at least in part by genuine civic concerns, not pure capitalist expansion. For that reason, while I stood with a lot of doubters through the long meetings over Naftzger, I never quite thought the "leave it alone!" voices had a fair take on what the options for Naftzger really were. (To his credit, Chase's defense of the park's history likely moderated some of the architect's original plans, saving at least a couple of the park's historical features.)

Still, recognizing the way communities change and grow (if they do), in their organic, push-and-pull way, with government in the mix with all the other constituencies of the city, doesn't mean that the very idea of a "programmed" and "activated" public space should escape critique. Because, frankly, even if the idea fits seamlessly into the reigning logic of built-on-credit American cities of today (and, for that matter, of the past couple of generations), it's still pretty questionable as a human matter. Remember that urban communities have, most essentially, a kind of anarchist quality to them; Jane Jacobs observed that, as have many other urban scholars and activists. Planning events is one thing, but planning spaces themselves around the presumed gathering of people in coordination with planned events is, perhaps, something else entirely.

Various Wichita boosters have lately gone all-in on the vital need for "placemaking" in the city, and I know and like and respect a lot of these folks. When they talk about "underused spaces" being "activated with...a touch of theater," I'm sympathetic--I like public art and creative pathfinding and all the other stuff employed to generate a desire to walk or bike around a community and look at it (and, therefore, at the people who inhabit it alongside oneself), rather than one's phone. But there has to be a fine line walked here, I think. The goal of "programming" said places easily can (and, unfortunately, frequently does) take over, becoming an end to itself, bypassing the people that presumably would actually gather in any of those places in favor of those connected enough to the aforementioned factions to get their preferences written into the imposed programming in the first place. (When one of these well-intentioned factional leaders in Wichita defensively says, in regards to criticism of the above-mentioned bit of pop-up urban programming, that all is well from "the public standpoint," you may be forgiven for feeling some sympathy for the article's final quote, from a downtown resident: "I’m their biggest advocate...but it’s like they almost forget that we’re here once they have you.")

The world has become thoroughly urbanized, and will only become more so, so long a resource extraction and finance capitalism continues to reign. We can work to change that, and in the meantime struggle to find different, more sustainable and local and democratic, trajectories for our lives and communities. But while engaged in all those important tasks, and while responsibly accepting the compromises they will have to entail, let's hold in front of our eyes the simple fact that, whatever imperatives seem to rise up in our communities, nailing down, specifying, programming, and "activating" the public spaces in our midst needn't be one of them. People can, in fact, gather on their own. Maybe, in such unstructured environments, the people that will gather won't always be of the sort which will most effectively contribute to one possible economic consequence of the space in question. But we don't live in communities to be cogs in a process of producing economic consequences--or at least we shouldn't. We live where we do, and we become what we are through that lived environment, organically. If there is a consequence to it, it might be best, at the very least, that it not be one already determined by a planning board, because however well-meaning, their logic is likely not to be wholly their own.