I’ve logged quite a few miles in the past six months; twelve countries in eastern Europe, almost as many states in the US, three countries in the southern horn of Africa, as well some time in the UK and Canada. I’ve seen a lot of exciting things in that time: cities and countries that have come to flourish since the fall of communism, education projects that challenge the status quo and give young people new ways to create knowledge and test their ideas in the world, universities working with communities to solve problems through cooperative knowledge generation, even as those universities are drained of public resources.
Most of these examples suggest the resilience of systems, but what stands out perhaps even more indelibly are the ghostly images of just how fragile our systems are and how quickly they rise and fall. Sometimes we are able to recreate something from the collapsed shell, sometimes people make the choice to ignore the lingering shadows of the past, and sometimes the failure is so horrific, swift and utter that there is no going back.
This last scenario emerges from my visit to the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power facility in Ukraine. Visitors can enter the area with permission and an escort, but due to the massive amounts of residual radiation in the general area, an ‘exclusion zone’ that covers several hundred square kilometer remains in place. The city of Chernobyl, at the edge of the zone, is actually populated by a small, rotating population of Russian military troops who are responsible for keeping an eye on the failed reactor. At the edge of the city, there is a grim memorial to the 186 nearby villages that were completely abandoned because of the fallout from the plant. Much nearer to the reactor itself, the city of Pripyat is evidence to the folly and hubris of the project—a new town built expressly for the scientists, engineers and other workers who managed the facility; once home to almost 50,000 people, it now stands completely empty. The roadways and buildings—opera houses, grocery stores, tower blocks—all being rapidly retaken by the surrounding forest. Not far from Pripyat is the shell of the reactor itself, the damaged building shrouded in a rough concrete and lead ‘sarcophagus’ built hastily at the height of the emergency and already beginning to collapse in on itself after only 27 years. Nearby a giant EU-funded ‘containment dome’ is in the midst of construction. The giant steel and lead hoophouse is being built about a half kilometer from the reactor. When finished, it will be slid on train rails until it covers and encloses the reactor building. The dome is expected to last a maximum of 200 years. By comparison, the radiation in the core of the reactor will remain active for the next 48,000 years. And not only the reactor itself, but the entire area for miles around the site still sends Geiger counters into frenzies. While this specter will linger on forever in a literal sense, it is already fading from collective memory and political consciousness as Europe and America are moving ahead with the construction of new nuclear plants after a period of public resistance nuclear energy.
In that sense, some of ghosts are simply more convenient to forget than to contend with. In a recent visit to Bulgaria, I had the peculiar experience of visiting Buzhlaja, the once grand congress hall of the Bulgarian communist party. The huge building is better known to the few foreign visitors who manage to reach the site as the ‘spaceship’. It sits isolated on a barren mountaintop overlooking a vast expanse of the Thracian plain. When my sister and I told the hotel owner in the nearby town of Kazanluk about our plans to climb up the mountain to the distant structure that we could just make out from the balcony of her hotel, she quickly tried to dissuade us by proffering a list of every orthodox church and ancient tomb within a 75 miles radius.
Buzhlaja is a paradox for Bulgarians and they don’t quite know what to do with it or with the numerous other monuments from the communist period. Unlike many of its eastern European neighbors, Bulgarians look back at the Soviet period as a time of prosperity and comfort. Having been liberated by the Russians from a 500-year Turkish occupation in the late 1870s, the Bulgarians have a historical fondness for their Russian neighbors. Moreover, Bulgaria saw the Soviet Union as convenient alliance which brought stability to the chronically turbulent Balkan region. In many ways the country has struggled since 1989 and few there would argue that things are better now than they were behind the Iron Curtain—most would tell you flatly that things are worse. Even after several years as a member of the EU, the country has failed to gain traction. Thus structures like Buzhlaja present a challenge. There is a sense of wanting to be perceived as modern, European and capitalist—hence the guidance from the hotel manager that we would be better off spending our time elsewhere than at the symbolic heart of Buglarian communist history. This is a prevailing sentiment and as such the building is abandoned. It is now a shell of what it once was—windows blown out, mosaics crumbling, roof giving way to sky. To maintain the building would be too oppositional to the wider political zeitgeist. But there is also clearly no appetite to tear the structure down, nor the other hundreds of Soviet memorials and monuments that populate the country—in contrast to the gleeful destruction of these structures that happened in so many other eastern bloc countries. Instead they are quietly ignored as they fall into ruin. Quiet defiance of the inevitable. How hard to let go of a system that you perceive to have been better than your current and future options.
While the case of Bulgaria may seem unique, the modern world itself is facing no less of a challenge and paradox. We are aware at so many levels of how unsustainable our current economic system is, particularly with regards to the environment. There is little doubt that our current practices will sooner or later result in catastrophic consequences for our planet and our progeny, but it is politically and emotionally convenient to ignore this looming threat. Like Bulgarians we are unwilling to lay down the system that we have become attached to even when we know it has failed—and because the alternatives seem even more dire. Politically we are uncomfortable acknowledging the failures and collapses of the current system. We have spent half of a decade now blaming political leaders for not being unable to fix the global recession—as though it were in their capacity do so. It is easier to lay blame than to face up to the fact that the era of cheap resources and fast growth, extended by a decades of credit and borrowing, is coming to an end.
For those who look unflinchingly into the future, there is great desire to understand and shape how our systems will emerge and evolve beyond this paradigm. My teaching work with the Future Generations Graduate School recently took me to Detroit. The masters students in the program were looking at Detroit as an example of a ‘post-development’ city, exploring the way that citizens organize and attempt to recreate a city socially and economically when the engine that drives progress fails. The world after development and big industry doesn't have to look like Bulgaria in the aftermath of communism. By contrast, Detroit is rife with many examples of urban innovation and repurposing. There were many inspiring examples of people working to reimagine their city at the cultural, agricultural and industrial levels, from urban gardening to community peace zones and high schools kitted out with MIT-style 'fab-labs'—design studios equipped with state-of-the-art 3-D printers and CNC machines, in what may be a first small step toward the decentralization industrial production, with the aim of creating more locally fabricated goods and parts. However, the larger powers at work seem resistant to this reorganization because of its implicit assumption that the Detroit cannot be rebuilt on the same model and system that has already failed. Indeed, the larger discourse on industrialism and capitalism must demonstrate that one of its birthplaces is not dead and will not die. As such there is much effort to reinvigorate Detroit by selling its assets to the lowest bidder. While this may clear the city’s debt there is little evidence that this will actually generate anything new. However, this evisceration of the city’s neighborhoods and cultural heritage could potentially drive out the good work that die-hard Detroiters are doing all over the city.
Encouragingly there are examples of this Detroit-style resilience showing up in other places as well, such as at the Emerging Leader Lab (ELL) program in Chatham, New York. In a nutshell, the ELL is a free school for social entrepreneurs that exists outside of the cash economy (see the three previous blogsposts for more about the ELL). The students there, through their projects, are imaging radically different organizational and economic structures. Their physical plant is emblematic of this thinking. They are housed in a defunct paper mill. The facility closed about 10 years ago and was purchased by a solar technology firm which now uses part of the factory to make solar cells and systems. However much of the massive physical plant remains unused so the company granted the ELL permission to use part of the building as their social enterprise hacker space. It is powerful to see quite literally the seeds of new paradigm taking roots in the derelict shell of the old one.
Our economic, industrial and political systems are fragile, as the examples above show. They can explode in an instant or collapse in the course of days and rarely is there an opportunity to return to the status quo ante. Rather than continuing to ignore these breakdowns, or misguidedly to expect from politicians for a deus ex machina solution, we should turn to the Detroits and the ELLs of the world for inspiration. We can look with optimism and creativity at the future, recreate our systems from the inside out, not expecting silver bullets, but acknowledging the need for new ideas that are rooted in place, using local resources and knowledge, building resilient systems and structures that are premised on continual regeneration and reimagining.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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