The Apocalypse as a Fluff Story

I go through life with a pretty solid sense that our economy is screwed up. And I know that the press is too deeply entangled to get a clear view of things. Even so, once in a while I have a moment of clarity about how deep the rabbit hole goes. For example, Thursday’s Washington Post featured a weird convergence of stories that highlighted the fantasy that we are in an economic “recovery.”

The front cover featured a photo of the Apocalypse, which is a new roller coaster at the nearby Six Flags amusement park, which is recovering from a 2009 bankruptcy; I guess this is supposed to be a sign of recovery from the financial crisis. Some workers were employed in its assembly, although the cars were made in Switzerland and the actual structure was recycled from a park in Illinois. A few teenaged or delayed-retirement service workers will be needed to attend this new spectacle. An engineer will be needed to occasionally inspect and maintain it. And from the looks of the “apocalyptic” fireball, the thing is going to go through a lot of propane, perhaps creating work for a commercial driver.

Woohoo! Jobs!

Elsewhere in the paper, I learned that Exxon Mobil is showing its thanks to suburban Fairfax County by pulling 2,100 jobs to a new campus in Houston where the extractive giant is consolidating its workforce. Fairfax, of course, is hoping to attract another corporation to fill the 1.2 million square feet of office vacated, presumably from somewhere not sufficiently responsive to corporate blackmail.

The Apocalypse story shared its page with an advertisement for a giant new casino, featuring  picture of a woman converted into a “strolling dessert table!” – oh, wait, I was wrong…that was supposed to be reporting.

There was also a more subdued story about how it will be necessary to drop a project labor agreement in order to hopefully extend the DC subway out to Dulles airport. I’m not sure that public transportation to an airport in the face of peak oil and the resultant contraction of air travel is really productive, but I do know that we’re not going to escape the clutches of economic contraction with used roller coasters and casinos.

Our economy is hollowed out and we don’t really make anything nowadays; we only sell each other roller coaster rides and various forms of gambling ranging from nickel slots to CDOs. If you need still convincing, just think about how many people you know actually physically create things. Or consider the recent big investment buzzes: Facebook did a face-plant as folks realized that it doesn’t even create ad revenue well. Similarly, Groupon, LinkedIn and a host of other companies don’t actually make anything except profits for “investors” who actually have no real investment in how the company does.

Last week, US News and World Report ran a helpful story by David Brodwin that addressed the remarkable benefits of the John Lewis Company – England’s largest department store chain, which is entirely owned by its 81,000 employees, who live without fear of layoffs because they control the company. Brodwin flagged what looks like an interesting book by Marjorie Kelly, Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution:

John Lewis Partnership is part of a paradigm shift from “extractive ownership” to “generative ownership,” as Kelly explains in her book. “Extractive ownership puts short-term financial gain above all else,” she says. “Generative ownership returns economies to their original purpose, which is to advance human well-being.” John Lewis Partnership certainly fits the generative model. Its stated purpose is the “happiness” of its staff, which results from “worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business.”

Kelly’s contrast between generation and extraction calls the question of whether our economy – at its core – is based on building something or looting what our parents built.

The heart of the old Copake iron works

I recently spent a week in Copake Falls, N.Y., which the site of an ironworks that closed nearly a century ago and now lingers in suspended “historical” animation as a small state park. The place triggered a lot of reflection about American industry has changed.

My reason for this trip was the East Coast planning retreat for CoFED, an inspiring young organization that I’ve been working for lately. This scrappy group specializes in supporting student organizers who seek cooperative access to more sustainable food on their campuses, by means of cafes, stores and garden projects. This gathering to scheme a part of the new economy this dying rural community was quite inspiring.

One of the more poignant moments was our visit to the Wassaic Community Farm. We spent a misty afternoon weeding and potting in a smallish plot wedged between the end of the Metro North commuter railroad and the site of Luther’s Livestock Commission Market. It was a lovely example of new growth sprouting in the cracks of the old, but I was struck by the extent to which we continue to lose infrastructure.

The railroad used to carry iron products from Copake Falls to New York but now ends at a giant park-and-ride lot a short walk away from Wassaic. Beyond that it is being repurposed for bicyling. Rail trails are nice, but it seems more important to avoid losing any more rail infrastructure. As gas prices rise, I think we’re going to find that we miss public transit more than we enjoy bike rides through the countryside.

The auction yard was more poignant still. It used to be the nerve center of the local livestock industry before it closed a decade ago. I heard that it now houses a number of artists’ studios as part of the Wassaic Project, which is better than its sitting vacant. Judging from the video on the project website, it is at least delivering bursts of economic activity to the town. That is good and I commend their success.

However, as we talk about building new local economies, we can’t afford to waste components that could be used for rebuilding local food systems. I’m not saying art is unimportant; just that it’s not an appropriate use for essential agricultural resources. It’s like using a factory for a childcare center. There’s probably no local market for cattle now, but would it be possible to return the old mill and auction yard to their original purposes if there were? Wouldn’t it be amazing for Manhattan chefs to ride the train out to buy meat, much in the way they now go to farmers markets to select the best heirloom tomatoes?

Just add cow!

I worry that well-intentioned preservation efforts may make it more difficult to bring these resources back into productive use. On the other hand, the artistic work in Wassaic is helping maintain the physical structure in a region where many old buildings are crumbling back into the earth. Perhaps the artists are buying time for the local markets to mature to the point that there are once again numerous growing dairies that can come together to trade stock. But I worry that we are losing these last chances to use old infrastructure in new ways.

Ultimately, apocalypse means “revelation” or “disclosure.” It is not about waiting in line for fireballs and carefully arranged scenes of destruction. I think events are revealing that we are at the point of making choices about how our future unfolds:

Would we rather have roller coasters or rail that actually takes us somewhere? Would we rather have art or meat? Would we rather have recreational bicycling or the means of supporting rural economies on which any hope of a local food system must rest? Do we want companies based on humane livelihoods for our neighbors, or enslavement to corporations that will drive down wages and then leave as soon as it is profitable to do so?

Ultimately, do we want an economy based on real generation or on gambling that we won’t be the next ones to be screwed?

The real apocalypse isn’t going to be like the ride at Six Flags. It will be a more quiet realization that we ultimately live in a market economy. And when we go to market, we’d better have something valuable to trade.

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