Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Last Man

I'm currently at work developing a new paper, which I hope will be the first publication from my investigation of the tragic outlook in the ethics of the built environment.

Since I cannot, yet, take on the whole thing at once I have, for the purposes of this paper, narrowed the focus down to the charge that, by attempting to promulgate a tragic outlook, I am guilty of creating a moral hazard.

(I first mentioned the charge here.)

The argument goes something like this: If you give people reason to think there is no solution to the problems of sustainability and/or environmental protection, they will stop looking for solutions. In fact, they may just give up and engage in all sorts of self-indulgent and self- and nature-destroying behavior.

If the game is up anyway, they might say to themselves, we may as well have fun on our way out.

My goal will be to set out a reply to this charge, an argument that a tragic outlook, as distinct from a fatalistic or apocalyptic outlook, does not set up a moral hazard.

Friday, January 27, 2012

21 Days and Counting

I could hardly resist buying and reading a book titled Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs. It falls into that happy category I call "train reading": engaging enough to hold my attention at the beginnings and ends of work days, but not so demanding that I can't break off from it when I have to change trains or start walking.

The author, Wendy Brown, is a writer and homeschooler living in New England.

The premise of the book is straightforward: imagine you live in a house in the American suburbs, and you learn that the world as we know it will end in 21 days. "It does not mean that life will cease to exist," Brown clarifies, "and it does not mean that humans will be obliterated from the Earth" (p.9).  Rather, it means the social and technological systems on which we have come to depend will simply and abruptly stop working.
Twenty-one days from right now, it will happen overnight. Just like that. The light switch goes off . . . and does not come back on. The grocery store shelves are mostly bare, and the manager just doesn't know when . . . or if . .  the next supply truck will arrive. The gas station does not have lines, because there is simply no gasoline on most days, and when there is some available, it sells out before a line can even form. The tap is dry. The power grid has collapsed. Blackouts are the norm, and having electricity is an anomaly. No Internet, no cable, no cellphones. (p.9).
Now, Brown is not presenting this as a serious possibility, but as a (blog-inspired) thought experiment: given that you're stuck in the suburbs - a landscape more than any other abjectly dependent on the smooth and ceaseless functioning complex technological systems -  how could you prepare yourself and your family to survive or, indeed, to thrive?

It's an intriguing experiment, one that can be a spur to imagine the scope and the fragility of the systems on which we are, in fact, dependent, and to imagine alternatives that might have us living more adaptably, closer to the ground, as it were. On the other hand, even though I have read only the first few chapters, the experiment is problematic on a number of counts, and may do more to foster resignation than hope.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Quick Take: Move Along! Nothing Unusual Here!

I walk by this building in Midtown Atlanta nearly every day, on my way to and from work. The bank that once occupied the building has moved to a newer, larger, altogether shinier building about a block away.

(Incidentally, the new bank building is a one-story structure on a site once occupied by a multi-story office building. This seems counter to recent trends in Midtown toward greater density, but that's an issue for another time.)

Notice the windows of the vacant building. It has, in effect, been boarded up, but in a way that serves as a kind of camouflage - though only selectively.

I don't know how many times I walked by the building before I noticed but, one morning last week, I was about half a block from the building when it occurred to me there really shouldn't have been a window where the ATM used to be. Then, it seemed to me the windows had a matte, dead look to them.

I stopped for a moment to look. The windows were obviously fake, likely wood panels painted to look like windows. It took a moment to put that together with the padlocked wooden door that had been added just inside the glass front door to see through the ruse to the intentions of the building's owners.

The aim is for the building not to draw attention to itself or, more precisely, for the building to be secured without telegraphing to all and sundry passers-by that the building is in need of being secured. Had they simply boarded up the building, with bare plywood, or even with wood painted black, it would have all but screamed: VACANT BANK!

The camouflage really is selective though.

Standing next to the building, looking directly at it, the effect is utterly unconvincing. The trick is to give passers-by no cause to stop and look.

As I say, I may have walked by the building any number of times before I stopped but, given my walking pace and lack of other distractions, there was time for the oddness of the windows to catch my eye.

Most people who pass the site do so in cars, at speed, on a one-way street. To a driver absorbed in the flow of driving, or distracted by radio or by cell phone, nothing about the building would indicate that it is in any way unusual.

For that target population, the vacancy of the building is all but invisible.