Let’s just stop pretending that the Big Ideas still work. I’m talking about Capitalism, Democracy and Freedom, or CDF. It could be the name of a party, and in fact, it is: it’s the party line we’ve all been working for, all our lives. But it has delivered Trump, the gnashing of teeth and Climate Change. It’s time to say goodbye to all that. We need to realize that if we wait for our ‘dear leaders’ to deliver a better tomorrow, we’ll die waiting. Literally. Most of the experts disagree on causes, but they do agree on one thing: we know it’s a time of crisis but we have failed to come up with a better system to replace the ailing one we’ve got.
So. Is it actually time to hide, head for the hills, throw in the towel and wait for the coming Apocalypse? That is what thousands are already doing or contemplating. It has obvious attractions, but it is a declaration of defeat. I’m taking my marbles and going home. I won’t play anymore.
There are other ways, better ways. While we’re waiting for the system to completely collapse around us, and searching for the Next Idea that Actually Works, there are practical things we can do. Things that help alleviate misery, forge strong communal ties, solve on the ground problems that our ‘leadership’ can’t or won’t handle.
A shining example is a photographer named Sven Luedecke who became aware of the misery of the homeless population in Cologne, where he creates beautiful images like the X-ray photo of the flower above. He started to build a tiny hut on wheels barely big enough to contain a mattress, table and hooks for clothes, all built to comply with local building bylaws. He says the local building authorities proved ‘helpful’ and once word got out, the tiny rolling huts picked up speed. He’s spent all the money earmarked for better cameras and a holiday on these huts that are now built with the help of the homeless themselves. The first time he gave one to a homeless man, it went like this: “He embraced me, yanked the keys out of my hand and locked himself into the hut. After a while he came out again and thanked me profusely,” Sven says. The man has become more trusting since then and now shaves and showers regularly in public facilities. He no longer looks or acts like a homeless man.
Sven continues to build more huts in his spare time, to the official dismay of Cologne’s City Hall. They should feel embarrassed because he’s solving a massive problem for them, at least temporarily. Sven says that the huts are simply a temporary bridge back to society for the truly hopeless among us. Germany has an estimated 336,000 homeless people, and for one of the wealthiest countries on earth, that’s shameful. But clearly, it’s going to take individual acts like this to come to grips with it. Perhaps this one man’s kind heart will wake up the City Mothers and force them to start building more affordable housing, a problem that is now global and undermining the living standards of the sacrosanct middle classes.
It is not just a physical issue. I live in a city with the largest homeless population in Canada, and for almost a year, Victoria was that place that had a homeless ‘campground’ in front of the judiciary building, of all places. They were eventually moved into permanent housing, but without mental health support, they are not doing well there. People become homeless for many reasons, but mental health issues are often the cause. Without ongoing counselling and support, these populations can’t live normal lives. The profound lack of community, the endless pressure and competition that is considered ‘normal’ in capitalist society, cannot be tolerated by all. And as the system fails to deliver the jobs we depend on, more people will become hopeless, homeless, drop out, take drugs. Young people, old people, mentally ill people; they are all at risk. It’s not a long road at all. We live in a failing system, but that doesn’t mean we have to fail.
Which brings me to my point: Whatever is going on in our lives that’s dysfunctional and crazy, we have to fix it ourselves, right here. And we must be willing to pay the price. There is always a price, whether it’s simply welcoming radical new ideas or radical new approaches to old problems. Both require individual work and sacrifice. If we’re willing to do that, we can begin to solve our enormous and threatening problems. I think it was the anthropologist Margaret Mead who said,
“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Sven and his gang of homeless shelter builders embody that idea. I offer it as an antidote to handwringing and doing nothing while the world we know burns and crowns the clown Emperor. We must not be fooled into thinking he has any clothes whatsoever. He is simply the infotainment of the day. He will not last if we refuse to bow down and instead, start building our own versions of tiny huts. Remember, they have wheels.