The Western Path

The Western Path

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Overcrowded Neighborhood

On a day-to-day basis, the most frequent manifestation of overpopulation and social dysfunction is the death of the neighborhood and the rise of the Neighbor from Hell. I myself have been followed around by this character for a while. He wears various disguises, but he's easy to spot, and I can be sure that by the time I've spent a month in a new house or apartment he'll be playing Elvis Presley music at 3 a.m. His ability to find me is supernatural, and entire oceans don't keep him away. But in reality his name is Legion. A woman once told me, out of the blue, that the company her husband owneds had built most of the houses in her neighborhood, but where she lives was now plagued with such creatures. The N from H, in other words, no longer preys only on the poor -- I've heard just as many stories from people who have quite high incomes. The usual real-estate statement, that "location is everything," is no longer correct. Location is nothing.

Except in very small communities, most people hardly know their neighbors anymore. The dying rituals of capitalism mean that families must pack their bags and move on every couple of years, or the wage-earners will be replaced by more highly motivated people. So the family moves into a new block in a new town, and that block has neither a history nor a name. All that is certain is that it consists mainly of strangers surrounded by other strangers. And whoever is not a friend is almost certain to be regarded as an enemy.

To learn a new language, one might start with words that mean "hello," "goodbye," "please," "thank you," and "excuse me." Yet I have had, as neighbors, children who have never used such words in English, even though English is their first language.

Once there was an unusually heavy snowfall on a Saturday night. I knew the road wouldn't be plowed until late the next day, so I decided to spend the Sunday catching up on some studying. First, though, I took my plastic shovel and spent half an hour cleaning the driveway where my Toyota Yaris was parked. My neighbor, on the other hand, owned two huge vehicles, neither of which was used for carrying loads of any consequence. He also had a large and powerful snow-blower. It took him about three hours to clear his own driveway -- six times longer than I had taken. Because of the noise, I got no studying done in the morning, and my nerves were too shot by lunchtime for me to get much done for the rest of the day.

Somehow Westerners never caught on to the idea that increased crowding -- and now a world population of well over 7 billion -- might be a good moment for people to learn how to live more closely without basically getting on one another's nerves. Yet there are cultures in this world that figured that out centuries ago, hence their traditions of modesty, politeness, and simple living.

You would think Westerners would learn that collectivism wins over individualism. When there's trouble, it's time to start closing ranks, not to start a war of each against all. Two hundred years ago, Westerners did have such an ability. When someone needed a new barn, all the neighbors gathered and finished the job quickly. Some people could saw, some could hammer, and some could do the cooking. In modern suburbia, that just doesn't happen.

The most one can do to defeat a neighbor's loud noise is to make a louder noise oneself. Such a trick works, even if not very well. I once left a recording of Bach organ music blasting away on my high-rise porch, hoping my neighbor would get the message while I headed downtown for a few hours. It seemed to keep him quiet for a day or two, but there's always the horrible possibility that he actually enjoyed it. I'll never know.

Never mind. Time for another day in the library. Well, it's not really a library anymore, it's a "multi-purpose center." Besides, why would quiet be a necessity for grabbing a few Hollwood videos and heading out again? And if anyone wonders why municipal taxes are being spent on the distribution of videos, the answer is that in the modern world of pedagogy almost anything can be considered a learning experience.

I always sneak into the library the moment it opens, knowing that most of the world will still be half asleep. I can probably do some studying for a couple of hours at least. Later I might have to deal with stereophonic cell phones, as teenage underachievers use the cozy library chairs to call their friends. But eventually someone will come in and shout, "I'm here! It's me! The center of the universe! I'm Captain Ahab, and I'm looking for the White Whale!" But I should cheer up -- after all, it was the whale who won.

Still, whatever plan one makes in terms of survival bunkers, survival plans, etc., there will perhaps always be the problem of what might be called "accelerating decline." What I mean is that, because of continually diminishing resources, as well as the decline of everything else that constitutes the elements of collapse, any community is going to be dealing with an increasing problem of what is sometimes called "the quality of life." Decline will be happening in material terms, but that in turn will lead to decline in more psychological or sociological terms. It's hard even to find a name for such things -- grottiness, shoddiness, grimness? The human soul can handle occasional "ups" and "downs," but it cannot readily handle an interminable series of "downs," each more severe than the previous.

The result, not very far along, will be like what I discovered in rural Nova Scotia in 2011, a world which is slowly being taken over by creepy-crawlies. And that was in the middle of the northern coast. I've heard that the western and eastern tips, Yarmouth and Sydney, are much worse. Someone born and raised in Yarmouth told me that the town is now "just drugs, alcohol, and crime," and I heard similar stories about Sydney. But even my next-door neighbor, halfway between Yarmouth and Sydney, had quite a gun collection and was often threatening to shoot the people across the road, a gang that ran a marijuana operation and didn't think anyone else should be living in the vicinity.

A certain amount of animosity is bearable. But what happens as the years go by? How often can you hear gunshots in the middle of the night before you realize you can't take it anymore? What happens as you face the fact that you have to pack your bags and start living the homeless life? And what do you do when you understand that there are no UN volunteers at the end of that road, waiting for you with a tent and a hot meal?

Peter Goodchild

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