Will The Apocalypse Bring Us Closer? Or, Why I Love My Town

Will the end of cheap oil bring us closer to our communities? An article in this month’s Elle got me thinking about that, and about my community, which happens to be Iowa City.

In “Do Worry. Be Happy,” Lisa Chase writes about Transition, a movement based on the idea that world oil production is declining, that we need to learn to live on much less oil, and (this is the “be happy” part) that we are totally capable of doing it. The key, according to Transition founder Rob Hopkins, is producing more stuff locally, relearning to do things ourselves (like growing food), and developing resiliency. A resilient culture, says Hopkins, is “a culture based on its ability to function indefinitely and to live within its limits, and to be able to thrive for having done so.” This sounds a lot like today’s popular buzzword, sustainability, with a little adaptability thrown in the mix. It also sounds kind of appealing.

Chase thinks that resiliency and community are linked, that the challenges of the future will force us back into a closeness with our neighbors that modernity has destroyed. She writes:

When I try to conjure the times that New York has felt communal to me in the 16 years I’ve lived here, I can think of three. The first was during the weeks after 9/11. The second was during the 2003 blackout, when people fired up their grills and invited their neighbors over to eat candlelit feasts of all the food that was going bad in their refrigerators. The third time was November 4, 2008, when Barack Obama was elected and New Yorkers spilled into the streets cheering and hugging and honking their horns in impromptu parades. It took seismic events to bring us out of our houses and actually act like neighbors. In that sense, I guess I am optimistic that global warming and Peak Oil probably will push us into one another’s arms.

Chase’s list made me think of the times Iowa City has felt communal to me. I came up with three pretty quickly. One is the same as Chase’s: election night. Iowans too took to the streets on November 4, for a night of hugging friends, yelling with strangers, yelling with friends, and hugging strangers. The night was doubly special for us because we were part of the Iowa caucus that was so instrumental in getting Obama on the ballot in the first place. Caucus night involved plenty of its own yelling, some of it angry, and it also involved the owner of our local liquor store giving a pro-Obama speech during which he wore a wine cork in his hair and used the word “table” at least ten times (the table: he will bring you to it). But, for the sake of threeness, let’s call election and caucus night one thing.

The second time was during the flood last June. Once the Iowa River had swallowed our park and began menacing houses and buildings, everyone from college students and hippies and kids and old people converged on downtown to help sandbag what we could. With a whole bunch of other volunteers, I helped pass books and dissertations from the basement of the university library to safety on the upper floors. One kid next to me kept hoping to find his dad’s chemistry dissertation from the seventies. We managed to empty the basement before the floodwaters showed up — then I went to help a bunch of other people tie sandbags. Sandbagging with strangers is a great way to take your mind off the raging UTI that you get every goddamn summer — it’s also a great way to remind yourself that there are times when people unquestioningly help each other with no expectation of a reward.

The third time was just a couple of weeks ago. The Mountain Goats came to play our yearly music festival, Mission Creek, and John Darnielle asked the assembled crowd what we were going to do after the show. Someone yelled “Get gay-married!” It sounds a little crass when I type it out (not a lot of gay couples, after all, announce their intention to get “gay-married”) but at the time we took it for what it was — a celebration of a right that had been denied Iowa’s citizens too long. Everyone cheered, and Darnielle played a song in honor of the decision. That night I was one of many people celebrating together the righting of a wrong, and I got a sense not only of joy but of collective relief — it was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had, and one of the most communal.

What’s common to all these events — and Chase’s experiences as well — is that they reminded us that some things affect all of us. Sometimes it’s easier to remember this in a smallish town. In Iowa City, the communal spirit tends to be obvious: the post office thanks me for complaining to them, and a woman recently stopped me at the food co-op to let me know the brand of rain boots I was wearing could be slippery. But even in big cities — or in suburbs, which can often feel more isolating — I think community still exists, though it may be underground a little. And I think — or at least I hope — it will only grow stronger as we realize that what’s happening to our planet is happening to each and to all of us, and that we all need to do something about it. I don’t know if that something is necessarily producing everything locally (there are problems with this approach too), but I do believe that it will require us to think about one another in a way that we sometimes get out of the habit of doing. And to help us get back in the habit, can you think of times when your city or town or suburb felt truly communal?

Do Worry. Be Happy. [Elle]

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