Friday, April 13, 2007

Wandering in the Desert

Vacations can be wonderful things. Life on vacation can seem so simple, with the world reduced to the few objects along for the trip and even fewer worries. A vacation can be a time for extended daydreaming and fantasy. Being away makes it easier to get lost in an alternate reality.

When I visit a new place, I like to think about how it would be to live there (See “Could I Live Here?”, August 26, 2006). I also wonder where all of us middle-agers might go when we retire (See “Boomers on the Move”, May 18, 2006). When on vacation, I also like to pick up a good book that will help set the tone for my noodlings. Often, it seems, something from a newspaper or magazine will help assemble pieces of the mental framework. All these things came together for me last week.

I just got back from an extended stay in Scottsdale, Arizona. Yes, many Boomers will likely move there, and no, I could not live there. The book was Deep Economy by Bill McKibben, and the newspaper article was a piece on cohousing in the New York Times.

Scottsdale and Phoenix, for me, typify what seems so common in the New West. Everywhere one looks there is mile after mile of bulldozed desert with acre after acre of new subdivisions and strip after strip of malls and big box stores. The beautiful, smooth, efficient highways carry big, shiny, new SUV’s, many of them touting “Flexfuel” labels. The sun beats down and there is not a solar panel in sight. The desert is parched, and yet and canals carry water from miles away and the golf courses are green.

One of my favorite places to make pilgrimage in Scottsdale is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. On a tour I took there I saw a photo of the compound taken from the nearby McDowell Mountains. Taliesin stood alone in miles of unbroken desert. Way off in the distance was Old Scottsdale. Now, development presses in from every side and off in every direction. Gated compounds even push up into the mountains themselves. I was shocked to notice that the photo was taken in 1970. In less than forty years, well within the span of my own memory, Scottsdale has exploded from a sleepy little town in the hot, dusty desert to a vast, sprawling modern suburb.

I think of Scottsdale as a town with no soul. There are no neighborhoods, only alternating subdivisions and shopping centers that all look the same. There are bike lanes and sidewalks along most of the wide boulevards, but no one uses them, even in the beautiful spring weather. Walking through a development, there is nowhere to go on foot. There are no community stores or coffee shops. Want a newspaper? Hop in the car, turn on the AC, and drive. For the life of me, I can’t imagine where all the water, electricity and gasoline to support this mirage in the desert will come from.

Scottsdale is a great place to read a book like Deep Economy. Bill McKibben paints a grim picture indeed about how we are running out of money, energy, water and atmosphere. He argues that in our zeal to grow and become ever more efficient by concentrating everything – from water, to agriculture, to power production - in the hands of big producers, we have come to rely on the slave of fossil fuel. That fuel is running out and the carbon dioxide released by burning it is changing the atmosphere in ways that are accelerating and may well be irreversible. Moreover, he argues that our unending quest for personal wealth is not making us happier.

He suggests that by living more cooperatively and trying to live together in tight-knit communities, we can decentralize the production of food, water, energy and many other things we need. As key examples, he offers the local food movement and solar and wind power.

McKibben is a dreamer, but acknowledges the challenges. It is inherent in the American dream that we all want our own piece of the pie to eat as we choose. He calls it “hyper individualism.” He has a tough row to hoe. In this one trip I saw three little examples of behavior and human nature that lead me to believe we have little basis for hope.

At the airport baggage carousel, everyone rushes forward to stand next to the moving belt, blocking the view and way for everyone else. If we all stood back and waited, everyone could clearly see their bags emerge and calmly walk forward to pick them up.

At the resort, people rise early in the morning to place towels and magazines on prime poolside chairs to stake a claim, even if they don’t plan to sit in the sun until after lunch. If sunbathers only sat when they wanted to and cleaned up after themselves when they were done, there would be chairs for everybody.

In a busy parking lot, drivers circled for several minutes waiting for a space to become available. Even though spaces were clearly rare and in demand, a driver in a big new gas hog had no compunctions about perfectly straddling a line to take up two spaces for himself.

Just as I was thinking about what it might be like to live in a community of like-minded souls who want to respect the Earth and cooperate to make life better for everyone I came upon an article in the New York Times that described a variety cohousing projects. (See I don’t know much about cohousing yet, but imagine it as something like forming a commune or kibbutz for the twenty-first century. Some resources are private, some are shared, and all members are drawn together by common interests and worldviews.

I used to wonder where all the Boomers would retire to. I may have been asking the wrong question. What may be more important for our generation is who we retire with. I hope enough of us find creative ways to live together in sustainable communities that leave something for future generations. And soon.

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At 12:30 PM, Blogger Raines said...

MojoMan, you ask some good questions. In the Cohousing movement, we've been doing similar exploration, learning from experience now that nearly 10,000 people are living in nearly 100 built intergenerational neighborhoods, some for more than 15 years, and the senior cohousing movement is getting off the ground in the U.S. (as a recent import from Denmark).

As you've identified, who you live with is critical, but with the right physical and social systems in place, it doesn't need to be the particular people you think it will be.

What we've found is that a lot of people talk about "retiring together" but it is challenging for a small group of friends to all be ready for the same kind of place in the same location at the same time... at Glacier Circle in Davis, CA, a group talked about it for decades and by the time they finally got moved in the youngest was 70... and a couple of members died within the first year.

What we're learning is that if you get started BEFORE you need it, you can get much greater flexibility and choices and control over your aging process... and build a community on a scale that encourages resiliency and fosters community, builds connections with people you didn't necessarily know when you started. It becomes much easier to connect with people when you have enough privacy.

If you're interested in learning more, there's a Massachusetts bus tour on May 19, starting in Cambridge or JP. Details are on that cohousing site you linked to.

Raines Cohen, Cohousing Coach
Certified Senior Cohousing Facilitator
Certified Green Building Profesional
Living in a Cohousing Neighborhood in Berkeley, CA

(who will be in Eastern MA in early May to learn about the Beacon Hill Village model for "aging in community")

At 6:29 PM, Blogger Lynne said...

What an interesting post Mojoman! We drove from the Phoenix airport to Art's folks' place in Sun City West taking the non-freeway route. Once past the urban areas surrounding downtown we were struck by the layers of sprawling development. One subdivision followed another, all identical, some just more affluent than others. We were also amazed at the tiny pockets of low income/working class scattered between the "developements". We never got the sense of neighborhood and the absense of schools and kids felt just plain weird. I must say though, that the little area of Sun City West where my in-laws live does have a common backyard space. There are maybe 12 twinhomes sharing their common space and they have found a strong sense of commuity there. All are retirees from varying backgrounds and all seem to carefully look out for one another.
I also worry about the feverish development of the desert. On a day trip from Phoenix to Wickenburg, all along both side of the highway were flagged wooden stakes indicating future subdivion.


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