Last week, I drove down to Waltham, Massachusetts for the funeral of an aged and much loved aunt. The United States is a giant of a country so drawing conclusions from a quick visit to a small part can’t be conclusive, but what I saw and heard was deeply disturbing. It made me understand better why James Kunstler (author of The Long Emergency) who lives and works in this part of the country is so angry. To live this every day must be very difficult.
I met a librarian and her accountant husband. We chatted for a long time over a meal. She now works two days a week at the town library. The library is kept open by volunteers. Some of the volunteers work longer hours than she does, and because she is only part-time she receives no benefits. The town council is talking about ‘saving money’ by closing the library down entirely – as they are doing to neighbourhood libraries in large cities like Boston.
By their estimation, all the town’s public services, from schools to road surfaces were declining. Yet her town’s population has been growing vigorously. It’s twice the size it was when she and her husband were high school students there. I couldn’t help but ask – ‘what’s the point of growing if your quality of life services are declining? Who is it benefiting?’ They didn’t know.
It’s one thing to read factoids in the newspapers about more than half the U.S. federal budget going into the military. It’s another thing entirely to see the effects on the ground. Twelve hundred men from the Vermont National Guard have spent the last year in Iraq or Afghanistan, I didn’t get which – that’s about half the entire Canadian commitment. Meanwhile back home everywhere you go you see donation boxes and volunteers doing public services.
Much in the American news was Wisconsin where ‘to save money’ the Republican Governor wants to take away from public servants the right to collective bargain. This is after they have agreed to pay a bigger portion of their salaries for medical and pension benefits! This isn’t a good sign either. Eighty years ago governments began paying people reasonable wages and benefits so we could have a public services based on merit and honesty. People will not behave well if they feel they are being exploited.
They never do.
Everywhere I went I saw signs of a society in decay. The people in the Holiday Inn were very pleasant, the room was clean but the phones only worked intermittently, (the keys stuck) and I couldn’t shut the heat off. Outside, the hotel, the highways were jammed around the clock. People drove very cautiously, respecting the speed limits, staying in their lanes. With traffic that dense, it was easy to understand why people were so cautious. A big part of all daily newscast were highway traffic reports.
I wrote a book a few years ago called ‘Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual about how modern cities are slowly but surely slipping into insolvency and decay. It is one thing to write about it. It is another thing to experience it in cities that are much further along the curve. The same pattern of destructive resource allocation is happening in Canada. Our military budget is flying straight up while civic investments head towards the toilet without anyone able to stop it. People want their taxes stable or reduced. The military and police forces are sacred…that leaves what?
We are on the same road in the city of Ottawa as they are to the south of us. Investing too little in the city we have to sustain it. We just haven’t driven quite so far along it. It is not sustainable to invest $55 million in 1.2 kilometers of roadway as the present city budget is proposing in Alta Vista. The quality of Ottawa life will decline when the old growth forest in Kanata has been cut and the public space at Lansdowne replaced with a shopping centre. These are just three destructive examples, good ones, but just examples, related to a philosophy of government and growth which cannot be sustained and will eventually implode as it is now doing south of us. It can’t endure. The Berlin Wall didn’t. Nor will the military and car-first model of urban growth. Sooner or later it will change. Let’s hope it’s sooner.