News flash: Gene is thinking of relocating to Mexico! This is his final (for now) column in Focus.
WHICH EMAIL TO OPEN FIRST: “Brain Surgery” or “Get Instahard”—my brain or my Richard, my ability to pay attention or to stand at attention? In these parlous times I respond to any offer or sunlit promise.
Speaking of such times, can one be both an optimist and an apocalyptarian?
Well, you can believe everything will turn out for the best, while nursing an Old Testament hellfire-tinged definition of “the best.”
You may have noticed, an angry mood of retribution is spicing the air right now.
I’m informed by online commentary that we are in “a new era of existential unease”—a matter of particular interest to me as I continue research and ideation for a book titled Futurecide: Catastrophe is Ecological. While not likely to survive the final draft, the preface presently opens with: “Shit happens.”
It will examine various ideas of catastrophe—for example, the speculation that the energetic signature of the universe itself carries the ingredients for catastrophe (in other words, it’s ‘built in’); or that human social aspirations are blunted by ‘flawed’ neural design; or that the profound fact of death imposes an existential handicap—and that neither civilizations nor individuals can step outside such conditions (try though we do) any more than we can cross time.
And while we’re on about the passage of time, you are reading my last Focus column.
And after 53 years here in Victoria, I’m considering relocating to historic, hilly Guanajuato— “Europe in Mexico,” they call the city—a cultured but also an elemental place, site of five hundred years of silver and gold mining (the city for a while supplied three-quarters of the world’s silver), a place of mile-deep holes and an extraordinary web of traffic tunnels that perforate the ubiquitous, hulking mountains that define the contours and vertical character of the city.
I turned 80 on August 2nd. Time for the next—okay, one last—show of courage, yes?
How’s all that for a news package? “Wow!”
You can say that again.
If you’re a fan of my particular brand of bummerismo and irony, you’re going to have to shop for another accomplished pessimist. Given current circumstances and conditions, there must be plenty arou—whoops, there I go again!
I leave you with some parting thoughts below.
Social revolution, if history to-date offers lessons, is one of life’s essential and often messy facts. Currents of change run everywhere through existence: new information, new tools (and weapons), scientific discovery, new technologies or economies, new ways to suffer or grow rich, new political, cultural or religious ideologies…all these and more show up when they will, always packaged on their own novel terms. They challenge, disrupt or destroy history, habits and institutions—the social infrastructure and undergirding belief systems we designed to meet earlier ops or probs.
You’ll remember from high school science or chance reading that the universe began in explosion (the “Big Bang” or “Original Expansion Event”), and this remains a durable existential condition, a vibration, that resonates in every cell of every thing that has a physical identity. Reader, these times, our lifetimes, here, everywhere, now...we are being lofted by the latest explosion, the combustion phase in some natural cycle or rhythm. History is cracking (again), chunks are shooting off in all directions, and when things re-stitch, the world will be different. Life will be different. Vigilance, wisdom, poise, preparedness, adaptability are small defense and no guarantee against such elemental force, just the only tools we have. Still, they’re better than a populace covering its eyes and chanting: “Nothing’s really changing! It’s business-as-usual!” Look at it from explosion’s point of view: catastrophe is just something novel wanting to get out.
By the way, I just read that 60 percent of Americans believe, based on biblical assertion, that the universe is 6,000 years old. Fortunately all of this stops at the Canadian border, where magic gives way to fact. Whew! No need for a royal commission.
You may remember that the daily featured some late-February/early March content and follow-on commentary and letters about the state and fate of downtown Victoria, worries triggered by Covid’s forced scouring, the growing damage caused by the technology-enabled work-from-home trend (the Province is a big fan) and by online shopping and commerce, and diminished social investment in the downtown public realm and in its image as a place of appeal and safety.
I ventured then in Focus that maybe it was time for a week-long all-stakeholder conversation/visioning session about downtown’s future, and idly added that such a session might do well to start with a blueprint for a projected downtown/ central area residential population of 40 thousand over a hundred square blocks, Humboldt to Bay, Wharf to Cook, accompanied by a thorough contemporizing and phased re-making and re-acculturating of the entire public realm within that area—esthetics; urban design; cultural, recreational, social amenities; natural assets; services; everything, right down to the look of the manhole covers—to produce a downtown of unequalled urbanity, utility and compelling beauty.
To any of you unsettled by such a vision and by the idea of so much change, I note that the assumed stability, the status quo, we have enjoyed locally for years—the sense of definition and continuity within generally understood social boundaries —is now disappearing with shocking speed.
That “new era of existential unease” is just grownup for “ka-boom!” Ex-mayor Lisa Helps saw the coming change, saw the future, embraced it, championed fresh responses and policies. The unprecedented levels of public animus and criticism she attracted were, in my view, simply proof of her courage, singularity and political acumen.
Current Lilliputian preoccupations with Victoria’s potholes, or antipathy toward bike lanes, or worries over provincial approval of fourplexes and the possible loss of some trees, or finger-wagging from budget scolds and the prevailing vigorous promotion of the entire yesteryear culture of Victoria reveal a collapse of both civic intelligence and courage, and demonstrate the antithesis of citizenship in times like these. Social conditions change (as this piece argues) and the very meaning of ‘city’—this city and cities everywhere—is undergoing profound change. The future’s knocking and there’s a city (both its physical and social expression) to re-fashion, and tremendous need for collective bravado. Time to learn a new dance. Consider, for example, that the single-family home must be seen as an ecological squander that particularly in urban settings has maybe a decade left. Houses in century-old neighbourhoods near the city centre? Turn ‘em into eightplexes!
If you put current and pending changes in the stewpot—things like the AI takeover and the collapse of human work/employment as an organizing social principle and economic method; the waning of globalism and re-tribalization of nations (accompanied by spreading autocracy and growing risk of in- and inter- country violence); and the looming collapse of most ecological systems (also known as ‘life’)—a staggering volume of accumulated social behaviour and habit must be jettisoned. Much of the past, in so many of its beliefs and practices, is over and going away, sure to be reflected by vast social rupture (this stuff doesn’t go easily). Forced into a flexible posture, most of us retreat from the future’s message: if you can’t bend, you break.
Turn the page.
Three words, effortless to write. Yes, I appreciate that page-turning is easy to propose and very hard to do. It’s disruptive, and people hate disruption. When history’s page turns, some benefit, many may lose; some see advantage, many see a loss of fragile security. This, I think, is one of the reasons that anticipatory social change is so difficult. It may also help to explain the purpose of catastrophe: no negotiation, no consensus, just consequences. Seen in this light, catastrophe may be community’s best friend.
I take three projects with me into my eighties: the aforementioned study of catastrophe; another book of themed stories and essays entitled “Virgin Mary,” concerned with the growing re-subordination of women; and The Centre for the Design of the Future (CDF)—essentially, an idea factory (workshops, conferences, online publishing, etc.) for the production of a new social language and protocols, new ‘tools and rules,’ now, just as liberal democracy flickers and threatens to go dark. With appropriate humility, I would suggest that CDF hopes to contemporize the universal message of Christ and to elevate it above the ooga-booga of biblical Creation storytelling, and above the current scary faith-driven political agenda.
“Der Mensch liegt in größter Not! Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!”/Man lies in direst need! Man lies in greatest pain! wrote Mahler in Urlicht (Primordial Light), a short movement in his Second Symphony The Resurrection.
PS Thank you for reading my Focus columns published over nearly two decades. You’re welcome to email me anytime (firstname.lastname@example.org). I promise a timely response.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, and originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, He is currently writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, “Houseplex—Density Without Damage,” presenting and editing the website “Shit Sandwich—the Best of the Bad News,” and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future.
Editor’s Note: I have enjoyed Gene’s columns—way too many to count—and our association over the past 25 years. I didn’t so much edit him as occasionally ask, “What the heck do you mean?” Or “You can’t say that!” But he did. And I don’t expect this is really the last we’ll hear from him. He admitted to having “a rant or two left in me” recently. Meanwhile, thanks for the wonderful, thought-provoking, writing, Gene. I do believe our community is the better for it. And, if you do move to Mexico, all the best in lucky Guanajuato!
(Image at opening by jcomp on Freepik)