I’m a guy who’s into the global Transition movement, who worries about peak oil and even thinks that Occupy Wall Street makes some good points. That’s why I’m running for public office (see my campaign website). And today is election day.
But don’t expect to see anything about my race on MSNBC or even in one of those emails asking you to give five bucks to some candidate in another state who used to be an environmental or labor activist but still, somehow, has a chance to win.
Even the daily paper here, which is not above inventing news on local politics if none is readily available, could barely bring itself to notice this city council race. That’s because today’s election happens to be uncontested, just like 14% of Congressional races across the US, untold elections in cities, towns and counties in all fifty states, and every election ever held in North Korea.
So, with four open slots for at-large council members and just four candidates on the ballot, the campaign has been pretty low key.
However, early this morning, we learned that a local Tea Party organizer has decided to run a last-minute write-in campaign, angry about a modest tax increase approved by the current council last week. Such campaigns typically have a low rate of success. Nevertheless, I’m not getting complacent. The election is not over until all the votes are in and I’ll be waiting and wondering just like any other candidate until the polls close at 7 pm. You never know what can happen.
If I do get elected, I’ve got a few ideas for the city of Staunton, Virginia (founded 1746, pop. 25,000, birthplace of Woodrow Wilson and longtime home of Gospel legends the Statler Brothers).
I’ll be eager to see if ways to prepare for the long-term challenges of peak oil, climate change and a contracting economy might also help with the short-term issues that dominate talk over biscuits and gravy down at the Beverley Restaurant.
And just like in your town, what’s on voters’ minds here these days is the economy.
Locally, people are spending less money and their homes have declined in value. That means the city collects less in taxes. Meanwhile, people are still out of work and families are still losing their homes to foreclosures, which creates more demand for city services from healthcare and public transportation to public schools and yes, even police.
It’s a tough spot for local governments — to have to spend more at exactly the same time they’re making less. As a business plan, it can’t go on for very long.
Our current city council already made some big cuts but refused to accept the more draconian ones proposed to cover this year’s budget shortfall such as shuttering the public library. Instead, they made up the difference with the tax increase I mentioned earlier.
Raising taxes is never popular. During a down economy it hits especially hard. Of course, that’s exactly when you need to raise taxes. And that’s another kind of business that can’t go on for very long either. Which means that, unless the economy begins to pick up, then something’s got to give.
I know that some very smart people who worry about climate change don’t want the economy to pick up, as that would mean more carbon emissions. And like many other people who care about peak oil, I wonder if the days of global economic growth on a finite planet are over.
Easy enough to say. But if you’re involved in local government, in charge of keeping the school buses running and the streetlights on at night, when the economy fails to deliver the prosperity that we planned for, then it’s clear that real people are going to start suffering.
And those people are not just some points on a graph on DieOff.com. They’re your family and your neighbors.
Maybe somebody like James Howard Kunstler would warn us that today’s Great Recession is just the beginning of decades of a Long Emergency where local governments will be squeezed further and further until they have to scale back and then ultimately abandon services that Americans have considered essential for the last century like universal public education or water and sewer service.
I hope it never comes to that. But responsible governments need to plan for a variety of scenarios to make their communities resilient and protect their citizens.
The next twenty years
I don’t know exactly what the future will bring but I agree with financial analyst Chris Martenson that the next twenty years are sure to be different from the last twenty. If I have the chance to serve my fellow citizens in City Hall, I’ll try to look at everything the city does through the lens of a changing world.
If I’m elected, I’ll use my one vote out of seven on city council to stop putting resources into things that are passing with the end of cheap energy. Things like car culture, sprawl development and big-box retail. Then, I’ll do my part to start investing in things that will help us in the future, everything from energy efficiency to urban farming to local, small-scale manufacturing.
If they’ll have me, I’ll even work with the local Tea Party group on trying to de-criminalize raw milk.
And the prepper in me will be very interested to see what city government has done to prepare Staunton for a natural disaster, oil shock, currency collapse, nuclear plant meltdown or other emergency.
Should we help every homeowner acquire a rain barrel, a couple chickens and a kilowatt’s worth of solar panels to keep the fridge running? Or are we talking more about cans in the basement, firearms training and beefing up the neighborhood watch program?
It would be nice for the city to start doing our part, no matter how small, to fight climate change by joining a program like Cool Cities that would help Staunton measure and cut its carbon emissions. But how can you help prepare a community for a world where a certain amount of climate disruption is already locked in for a century or longer no matter what we do?
Staunton’s location in the temperate Shenandoah Valley, protected from sea-level rise and surrounded by rain-fed farmland, seems about as good as any place to ride out climate change. But really, when dry areas get dryer, wet areas get wetter and tornadoes and hurricanes start popping up in all the wrong places, then we get climate chaos and all bets are off.
Sometimes I wonder if the only thing left for the climate is the power of prayer?
Fortunately, our city has many picturesque houses of worship, from Trinity Episcopal whose 19th century Gothic Revival church features stained glass by Tiffany to Temple House of Israel, founded after The War (down here there was only one) by a Jewish major in the Confederate army.
Maybe we do need to get busy on that whole prayer thing.
Meanwhile, to paraphrase Oliver Cromwell, even if you trust in God, you still need to keep your powder dry.
The city has a lot to work with, not the least of which is that it’s still small enough to fly under the radar of the big corporations that have captured both Washington and the state government in Richmond.
For preserving its historic walkable downtown and supporting an impressive local arts scene including a recreation of William Shakespeare’s indoor theater, Staunton was just chosen one of the Smithsonian’s 20 Best Small Towns in America.
Here, it’s not all about hanging out at Walmart or at the multiplex at the mall.
Instead, serving at church lunch programs, sitting on volunteer boards of local non-profit arts groups and putting your kids in community theater productions of Hairspray all remain popular pastimes. And that means we have lots of what business gurus call “social capital” — basically, that we work together well.
So far, Staunton has survived Indian wars, the American Revolution, the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Depression and a deep economic slump from about 1945 until the 1990s when one Main Street shop after another shut its doors while America’s wealth got sucked out of small towns and into big cities. It seems like Staunton is a good candidate to keep both its trust in God and its powder dry in the changes that are coming to our area’s prosperity, America’s democracy and the world’s atmosphere.
I’ll let you know how the election goes. Meanwhile, if you happen to be one registered to vote in Staunton, please don’t forget to go to the polls. They’re open until 7 o’clock.
UPDATE May 2, 2012: I won! I’m grateful to everyone who showed their support. Now, I look forward to the adventure of learning how a city government works from the inside and then trying to help make it more resilient. Meantime, I encourage anyone with a public service bent who cares about peak oil and climate change to consider running for local office in their community. Wendell Berry recently told the New York Times that change towards a more humane and workable system will come not from the top, but from ordinary people doing things differently. More of us should step up to be those agents of change.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice