As the US battles with itself over the debt crisis, and Europe struggles to get to grips with economically weaker nations threatening the Euro, I’ve been mulling over a conversation I had with Tom Sine and another significant leader who’ll I’ll call B at Wild Goose a month or so ago (I won’t name him, as I feel it might be unfair to put his name to a conversation he didn’t know I might share). Tom Sine has long worked in ‘futures’ – helping community groups to think about the sort of future that they want, and how they might achieve it, and is essentially an optimist. B, who’d I’d not met before, but with whom I enjoyed a number of very interesting conversations, lives and works in a very poor city in the US, and is pretty pessimistic about where things are going.
To summarise his position: there are a number of ‘triggers’ – economic, environmental, political – which could pull the US and other parts of the world into a scenario where the normal societal structures collapse. Food distribution, welfare payments, fuel networks, healthcare and policing – all of these could effectively cease functioning (and with some US cities close to bankruptcy, how far off is that?).
The problem that B sees is that the US has developed a new type of poor person: one who is not simply economically poor, but seemingly incapable of existing independently of state welfare. Unlike the poor of, say, Malawi, the unemployed urban poor of the US have no knowledge of agriculture nor any ability to innovate with basic tools and technology. They simply await their welfare payment, and that’s it, and the huge amount of charitable money that has been put into this demographic group has done little to really change the core problem of zero positive engagement with education or labour. What this means is that if these state systems do collapse, these people will be totally incapable of supporting themselves, other than by looting.
Some people in the community B is part of run a community garden, from which they harvest vegetables etc. B’s point was this: what happens when the hungry urban poor march on the garden, demanding food from it? The garden cannot sustain everyone in the area, and if the garden is ravaged by a mob it will cease to sustain anyone in the area. So he’s foresees a scenario where he would have to train Christian people to take aim and fire on the poor – in order to survive themselves.
Both Tom and I were pretty shocked by his analysis. But on reflection, I’m not sure quite how far off he is. For those of you who have read or seen The Road, any major collapse is going to throw up terrible ethical questions. And what I like about what B is doing is that he’s not afraid to get people thinking about them now.
There’s a call to arms here: whether you are going to start making swords or ploughshares, it’s going to pay to be ready.