Monday, 10 October 2011

The ongoing stumble

Houseboats on the canal in a nearby town
When I moved here several years ago, Ireland seemed a charming mash-up of a landscape: medieval towers, straw roofs and horse-carts alongside modern suburbs, shopping malls and traffic jams. It had also just won a survey of best places to live in the world, an island boom town.

My wife, however, was returning to a home she did not recognise. The Ireland she grew up in, in the 1970s and 80s, had been one of the poorest countries in Europe, with a lower per-capita GDP than some African nations. Not all her neighbours had electricity or indoor plumbing, and many had a self-sufficiency that Americans associate with their 19th-century frontier.

Fifteen years ago, however, an influx of computer companies made this island nation -- with half the population of the Chicago metro area -- the planet’s top exporter of software, and it jumped from being one of the poorest nations in Europe to one of the richest. Everyone sunk their money into houses, and villages dating from medieval times suddenly acquired vast tumours of modern development. Immigrants flooded into the country following the jobs – mostly former Soviets – until one out of every ten people in Ireland were foreigners.

About 100 metres from the houseboats.
Three years ago, the global economy “crashed,” although that sounded too absolute and final for me, like a doomer fantasy; I preferred “stumbled,” implying that after the stumble,  might stabilise for a while, but we could still fall further.

Fifteen months ago I wrote an article for Big Questions Online, describing why my neighbours here in Ireland might be better prepared for recession than many other Westerners. I mentioned that people had strong ties of family and community, that public transportation was widespread, that some homes and even schools and hospitals had kitchen gardens. Few here imagined that the boom would last forever, or felt devastated when it ended. Most importantly –unlike in my native USA -- two generations still alive remember how to live comfortably in Third World poverty.

Eleven months ago Ireland’s government effectively went bust, and asked the European Union and International Monetary Fund to bail them out. During those tense weeks everyone went about their regular routine as usual, but everyone checked the new updates and talked about whether they would have a job, a bank or even a government the following week. For better or worse, however, the country received its bailout, the banks were saved, the mass protests in Dublin remained peaceful and the basic infrastructure – hospitals, police, buses, electricity -- continued running. Local stores ran out of milk and other staples as everyone stocked up, but there was no crime wave and no panic.

Ten months ago an angry populace punished Ireland’s main political party – in power for most of the history of the country, including the boom and bust – by turning it into a third party overnight. What had been the country’s second-and-third-largest parties took power in a coalition, and previously fringe groups like the IRA-linked Sinn Fein surged in votes and power.

Abandoned car in the Wicklow Mountains
The new leaders have been able to do little, however, except greet US President Obama and Britain’s Queen during their historic visits; the country remains locked into its bailout agreements, and continues to muddle along in a recessional limbo. Watching this drama, close-up but with foreign eyes, brings home several lessons, which might be useful for other Westerners facing their own crash.

First of all, almost all change looks slow when it’s happening. Ireland’s boom seemed sudden to my wife, who was living abroad, but for my neighbours every day was normal, and only looking back did the changes hit them. Younger generations, meanwhile, find it difficult to believe that middle-aged Irish walked miles to school barefoot in all weather, or wove their chicken coops out of straw.

The same principle works all the way down, which will be a threat and a mercy for all of us going that direction. The world around us seems as constant as the faces of your loved ones, until an old photograph brings home how much has changed. Middle-aged people might recall flying thousands of miles on holiday or going to the doctor for every minor illness, but children will not feel the loss of things they never had. Such is mercy.

This also carries danger, when young people forget, or refuse to accept, that people once lived happily with little money, or that neighbours in the USA and UK once kept pigs in their common yard, or greeted each other with ritual politeness on the road. If young people forget those things, they might forget many more things in a continued crash; that women once had the rights of men, or that humans stepped on the moon, or that violent death was once shocking.

Secondly, all crashes are relative. My acquaintances back in the USA tell me that they struggle every day in this economy of high unemployment and fuel prices; I believe them, but I also mention that our unemployment is 50 per cent higher, and we pay the litre-and-euro equivalent of $8.00 a gallon. Today’s Irish, meanwhile, remain wealthy compared to the Irish of 20 years ago, who might, in turn, have been in the wealthiest half of the world. To use another comparison, the average American still makes twice the annual salary today as in the 1930s, even adjusting for inflation, and unemployment was three to four times higher then. Many Americans suffer, but their suffering comes not just from a lack of money, but from a lack of experience.
My neighbour's shed.

Thirdly, a post-boom community can return to how they lived before a boom, but only if they remember how and set themselves to the task. Many local towns here had rows of small stores and pubs, driven out by the high prices and more fashionable stores of the boom. Now that the boom has gone bust those neighbourhood businesses don’t magically re-appear; rather, some spaces remain empty and vandalised, like a ten-metre slice of East St. Louis or Detroit were dropped into a bucolic village. Those storefronts could be restored, but only if neighbours organise and resolve to restore them; if owners or zoning boards waste years waiting for the next boom, for example, people might get used to having a graffiti-covered space and lose the will to change it.

In the USA, I lived in Missouri and Kansas towns that were healthy in the 1950s; today the townspeople drive a day’s horse ride to Wal-Mart, and forgot the days when men walked the streets in suits and ties. When such megastores shut down locals could turn it into a cattle barn or stud stables, but how many people would think of doing so, and how many officials would accept such a use?

Finally, the more traditional your family, the less you stumble when the world does. More than one of my neighbours here said they knew the boom and bust mainly through the news; they continued harvesting turf, planting crops and raising chickens, as always. We Americans think such people would be survivalist loners, hoarding well-stocked shelters, but I find the opposite is true; the ones I have met tend to have extended families and few possessions, but were skilled at using whatever was around. Their lack of unneeded possessions means they never have far to fall, and the presence of loved ones cushions the weight of the world.


Ann said...

Thought provoking, as always. Thank you.

Roger Boldt said...

We very much liked your piece on Mayberry and believe that it captures both the devastation of the bust and the more abiding connectiveness of the people through community and a not so distant past. While Ireland can reasonanably connect with its past practices -- gardening, local stores, small community institutions -- we think that that is largely out of the question for what has happened here in America. The destruction of these kind of sustaining institutions in Ireland were virtually complete here in the U.S. by the end of the 1940s and have just accelerated through today. Here in Iowa where we live, whole parts of the state have been entirely hollowed out, where no local businesses survive, so there is very little to fall back on to recreate community. Agriculture has just gotten bigger and bigger with two to three or four thousand acre farms where no small community can survive. By contrast Ireland seems blessed.

Suzanne, Kiva Fellow, Graduate Student, and Mom said...

Living within one's means in the United States is socially gruesome. How so? I've made my children's Christmas and birthday gifts for years, but our society has evolved to a place where for the most part my efforts are considered subpar. Yes, there is the new handcraft movement but still people BUY handmade items vs making the stuff themselves. Do you know how many jaw dropping stares people give me when I say that most if not all of my kids gifts were handmade by me from recycled materials? It is jawdropping to me that people would go into debt to buy a cheap piece of plastic made in China (but that is just me). Trust me, it feels weird to be treated like a social subversive for living within my means. Maybe in my soul I am Irish too, because my foot dare not once step beyond/above the poverty line. My lifeskills of survival were self taught...but my thoughts were what choice do I have but to give up? Americans on the whole have become complacent to what survival really means, this is why it was so easy for corporations to take over.

Brian Kaller said...

Ann, thank you.

Roger, thanks for the compliment, and for your thoughts. I agree that community self-reliance is easier in some places than others, and as a Midwest guy who knows Iowa well, I believe you. One reason I write about our experiences, though, is because it helps to hear about others struggling with the same thing, and sometimes succeeding.


Absolutely, these things are easier said than done -- we all find ourselves compromising with the world. I know you put up with a great deal of grief to do swim against the current, but one way or another the current will change, and people like you make it easier for others.