Ramshackle Nation, ramshackle world

Ramshackle: adj., (especially of buildings) badly constructed or maintained; rickety, shaky, or derelict.

You don’t see this word too much anymore. However, you do see a lot of buildings, whole towns and regions, and even nations where the label fits.

Would that it were the other way around…that ramshackle was commonplace in the vernacular, but conspicuous by its absence in reality!

Ramshackle begins at home. And in the Hooke household, we have one person whose behavior, and actions (or inaction) is such as to lead us to a ramshackle condition. “Dripping faucet? What drip? I don’t hear a drip! Leaky gutters and downspouts? Maybe next year’s leaf-fall will serendipitously clog it up. That noise under the car hood? You’re imagining things!”

That would be me.

Fortunately, we have in our home another person who has been given what scientists will know doubt soon discover as the all-important “ramshackle-aversion” gene. Someone who is reality-based. Who unflinchingly faces facts and shoulders and meets responsibilities.

That would be my wife.

Let’s go back nearly 25 years, when my wife and I first moved to the Washington DC area from Boulder. The bottom had fallen out of the Boulder housing market then, while prices remained strong here. We were therefore forced to buy a 40-year-old home – one in some need of some repair and upkeep.

Very quickly, my wife had a list. At first, that list contained only jobs and tasks of some urgency. But over the first several months, and then the first year or so, we got on top of that bunch. I looked forward to a time of comfort and ease.

To my dismay, a list of longer term projects of larger scale turned up. Repaving the driveway. Pointing up the brickwork. Reshingling the roof. Ripping out the plywood paneling on the downstairs and replacing that with drywall. Remodeling the bathroom. New countertops for the kitchen. A small addition…

The list has changed over the years, but has never gone entirely away. Each of these projects has had the same story: Wife has a great idea. Bill objects, citing cost. Wife ignores objections, dives into project, drags Bill. House and yard are not ramshackle. After some time passes, Bill notices we weren’t bankrupted after all, likes results, compliments wife on her vision…then objects to the next project.

[ok, ok…There is a failure to learn from experience here.]

______________________________________

Why have I belabored this?

Because each of us, individually, and our Nation as a whole, seems to embrace the same two warring factions. There is our lazy, short-sighted, selfish nature, which is averse to facing reality, and is prone to letting things slide into decline. There is our better nature, which we call the American spirit (and which is, in fact, our image of ourselves), which is independent, innovative, creative, vigorous, and responsible – which tends to propel us to a better place.

Think about this with respect to our three big issues: resource acquisition, extraction, use; environmental protection; and resilience to hazards.

Natural resources. We have, quite understandably, focused on grabbing the low-hanging fruit first. That’s true whether the resource in question is food, or energy, or water, or minerals. However –and this is less forgivable – we’ve been slow to recognize the true cost of our resource use, the end-to-end cost that also internalizes any externalities such as environmental degradation or decline in the future availability of vital ecosystem services. Our use of land, groundwater, and energy look to be unsustainable.

Environmental protection. We have treated this as nice-to-have, as opposed to essential. We have cleaned up our air and our rivers as much by outsourcing the messy resource extraction and heavy industry overseas, where it’s hidden from view, as we have by facing up to the challenges they pose domestically.

Resilience to hazards. Instead of learning from experience (there’s that phrase again!), we tend to rebuild as before, and that leads to repetitive loss. So, as the states in the lower Mississippi brace themselves for the water surging their way from the upper Mississippi watershed, we make comparisons to flood threats in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and note that the floodwaters may not be much higher, but the potential for loss is great because we’ve moved people and economic activity behind mile after mile of vulnerable (ramshackle?) levees. We flinch in the face of tornadoes and hurricanes in part because they’re part of the American landscape, but in part because we’ve persist in coastal development building on floodplain and because we’re content to leave building codes untouched.

And then there’s that subject of our decaying national infrastructure (our roads, our rail, our bridges, and so much more). There’s our reluctance to really invest in K-12 education and health care for all, and our failure to come to grips with endemic joblessness and poverty that have become the subject of so much analysis and tongue-clucking – and so little action.

Ramshackle Nation…and, for that matter, ramshackle world.

What to do?

If you’ve read this far, the answer should be obvious: ask my wife…

…and people like her.

Turns out they’re all over the place. And they have a lot of ideas. You and I see them everywhere, in front of us in the newspapers, magazines, books, the television, and on our computer-, IPad, and smartphone screens. Trouble is, you and I blow them off. We need, instead, to learn from experience. We need to recognize that whenever we’ve responded, that is, really dealt with a threat, or a need, or a responsibility, we’ve felt good about the result, and good about ourselves in the bargain.

So instead of fighting my wife and friends, every step of the way – instead of forcing them to drag us – we need to examine ourselves, and overcome that tragic deficiency in our body chemistry – what a friend of mine used to call

“the asthenic reaction,” where the iron in your blood turns into lead in your pants.

You and I don’t have to look far afield. Not working on infrastructure? Or you’re only involved with one piece? Leave that to the rest of us. Tackle what’s at hand. I promise to do the same.

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