The Importance of Altering Our Geographies

A Change in Perspective

From Denver…

…to Seattle.

Whenever I travel, the places in which I find myself influence the way I write. Unfamiliar geographies spur my creativity, not always rationally, and the more exciting elements of local language, climate, ecology, or history infuse me with something fantastical, providing the foundations for new stories. Sometimes the link emerges strong as spider silk, as in Cut Adrift, a tale of alien abduction which came to me whole cloth as I sped along Montana’s highways, deep in the night, with dark skies and lightning on the horizon. Other times, the creative connection dangles by a tenuous thread; in “Where No Fox Should Follow”, with a nod to Aesop, the five fancy foxes and their forest entered my mind during a hike above Italy’s Cinque Terre.

On a rainy, forested trail between Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza, a sopping fox crossed the path. Thus a dark fairytale was born.

Without such journeys, those stories would not exist. Places tell their own stories, including fantastical ones.

For a few weeks, I have the great privilege of retreating to the rural valleys east of Seattle, Washington, as well as spending time in the city. Seattle has always been one of my homes, and I’m happy to return.

Geographies — A Changing Seattle

Seattle remains one of my favorite cities in the world.1 My first time here was in 1992, and I have returned regularly. With every visit, climate change becomes more apparent across the Pacific Northwest, among the more obvious impacts of growth, gentrification, and corporate hegemony. I remember Seattle rain as a constant drizzle, but my observations and locals’ confirmations suggest that while more rain falls than ever before, it arrives in drenching waves interrupted by cloudlessness and even (gasp!) sunlight.

More than altered weather, this time Seattle’s now infamous challenges with its homeless population demand my attention. I witnessed this too during my last visit to Portland, but the Seattle-Tacoma area is larger, and at first impression its homeless seem ubiquitous. Tents along highways. Lean-tos in parking lots. Tarps strung along as makeshift homes encompassing multiple families or loose bachelor gatherings. Men and women at street corners bear cardboard signs.

Temporarily Homeless, declared one woman’s placard. She stood along a roadside in Redmond, within sight of buildings occupied by many of the world’s wealthiest corporations.

Temporarily Homeless.

How many of us consider that we too may be nothing more than temporarily homed? Too few, I fear.

The Great Wheel

Seattle Great Wheel Molly Black J.L. ForrestIn the first edition of Delicate Ministrations, I included a novelette titled Molly Black and the Visitation of Mr. Griff. If you’re one of the few who own a copy, hold onto it; the second edition removed that story. I rewrote Molly, added 95,000 words, and completed plot lines for 300,000 more. Later this year, Molly will reach Amazon as a series of novellas.

In the fourth of those, Molly Black and the Altar of Kadath, I introduce The Great Wheel, which simultaneously describes the entire spacetime of the Milky Way, the life cycle of H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, and the Hindu Yuga. This last weekend, I visited Seattle’s Great Wheel. Considerably less impressive than our entire galaxy, the Great Wheel nonetheless provided a fun ride, offering magnificent views of Seattle, Elliott Bay, and Bainbridge Island.

While in line, I asked a local what he thought of his magnificent city.

“It’s getting worse all the time,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“The homeless are everywhere. They shit all over the streets. Every morning, the city literally hoses off the feces from the sidewalks.”

“That sounds terrible,” I said. “Why is it so bad?”

Not enough bathrooms? I wondered. No facilities for critically ill mental-health patients?

“The liberal agenda,” he replied.

Oh, boy, I thought. He’s one of thoseSo much for the stereotype of the leftwing Seattleite.

“How do you figure?” I asked.

“They ship the homeless here.”

The ominous they.

“Wait,” I said. “What?”

“They ship the homeless here,” he repeated. “They kick them out and Seattle takes them in, in busloads. They come here and they become our problem.”

“What you’re saying is that other cities eject their homeless?” I wanted to confirm his meaning. “They put them on a bus, and Seattle is one of the few cities who accept these buses?”

“Yeah,” he said. “We should kick them out. It’s not our problem. Liberals are ruining this city.”

“Huh,” I opined.

Shame on me, but I let the conversation die. I’d come for the views, and to spend time with family, not to debate politics. Being an introvert, I also needed time to reflect on what this man was saying. What I didn’t add, which I so desired to, was this:

“Let me get this straight,” I’d wanted to say, “other cities export their homeless? These cities shirk their moral duties, take no responsibility for failing their own citizens. They make their problem Seattle’s problem, and Seattle is one of the few great metropolises capable enough, humane enough, and open-hearted enough to take in the disaffected instead of kicking them into the wilderness to die? Do I understand that correctly?”

Bravo to Seattle, sort of. But how much of a burden does Seattle actually carry?

Homelessness in Seattle

In January 2018, the rough head count of homeless in Seattle proper was a smidgen over 12,000, or about 1.7% of the population. In the greater Seattle-Tacoma area, the homeless population is about 0.8% of the total. In other words, as in most places, the concentration of the homeless feels greater than it is because they make themselves so visible.2 To be fair, these rates exceed the national average, which is about 0.5%, but it’s not as if the 1.56 million U.S. homeless have all settled in Washington.

Yet much of Seattle’s problem is home-grown, not imported. Like many prosperous U.S. cities, Seattle isn’t building housing fast enough, or affordable enough. When the cost of housing rises faster than median wages, homelessness increases.3

As of today, the median rent in Seattle is $2,700 per month. The median home price is $725,000. Ignoring the Pacific Northwest’s white-hot real estate market, and assuming someone can actually win a bid on a home with a 20% down payment, that means most folks would need $145,000 liquid in order to acquire a house.4

In Seattle, the median household income is $78,600.

After taxes, $78,600 becomes about $55,000. With a mortgage of $580,0005 at a 4% APR, that’s $2,800 per month, or 62% of that household’s income—more than twice the amount recommended both for household sanity and for healthy banking. In other words, this is more than most people can possibly afford, even if they can “afford” the mortgage. No wonder so many are either homeless or stressed out about their cost of housing.

This is not sustainable, and it does not look to change anytime soon. Why?

Hint: It doesn’t have anything to do with bleeding-heart liberal “agendas.”

A Dystopian Future?

I’ve completed 90,000 words of a cyberpunk story I’ve titled The Reality Courier. I started the first draft around Christmas—maybe it will see readers before Christmas 2018. It takes place two hundred years in the future, in Seattle, after major meltdowns in the global order:

  • Cryptocurrencies break the control which the nation states exercise over the economy.
  • Bankruptcy drives the nation states to collapse.
  • Unfettered from state charters, mega-corporations become borderless states, though in practice they exude regional influence on Earth and throughout the solar system.
  • Financial exchanges continue only through ever-evolving agreements between corporations.
  • Corporations merge until only a handful of top-level holding corporations remain. All other brands operate as whole or partial subsidiaries.
  • Automated exchanges obscure the ownership of any subsidiary or any other property. Trillions of trades occur per second. No human mind knows who owns what. In today’s world, we’re approaching this reality, made more complex by the vast icebergs which are derivatives.
  • A few dozen families hold the vast majority of wealth—99.9%—both real and virtual. A second tier holds the remainder of fluid stock. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are near this reality.
  • Two distinct economies emerge: The business-to-business tug-of-war between holding companies, and the rest, including the consumer economy. Consumerism no longer matters to economic growth.
  • Quasi-corporations, whose ownership splits between holding companies, neither enjoy independence nor do they follow a clear directive. Their marching orders may depend on who owns them that day. The corporate environment looks increasingly schizophrenic.
  • In this future, the consumer economy serves only one purpose—control of the masses. The corporations stop short of pogroms, but they exercise crushing control through pacification, entertainment, desensitization, incidental labor, mass poisoning, and propaganda.
  • That propaganda deposits layers of mistruth and bullshit, burying the public in ignorance.
  • Likewise, corporations cannot comprehensively verify each other’s statements, the statements of analysts, or the rumor mill which flows throughout the economy. All information is suspect.
  • Without a government, a central culture, or non-commercial institutions, there are no trusted arbiters of fact. Anything like an objective, predictable, shared reality slips ever further over the cultural event horizon.

George Orwell expressed many of these ideas in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but his concern was totalitarian governments. Today, our worry should be oligopolist corporations, which already exercise overwhelming control in the Americas, parts of Europe, and Russia. Unlike Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, an oligopolist system doesn’t destroy truth centrally; it destroys it by using our entire lexicon as marketing language, and by contradicting one another in these usages. Words devolve into sales pitches and consumerist placeholders, stripped of any consistent meaning. “Truth” orients to profit, rather than adhering to societal agreements. Competition fractures the social system; after all, one way to compete is to manipulate consumers’ psychology. Microsoft culture is not Apple culture, for example, and to create brand loyalty is both an exercise in psychological control and in Cold Warfare; e.g., a Microsoft mind is in a literal sense not an Apple mind.

A first casualty of such competitions must always be a shared foundation; sociologically, marketing competition results in “us vs. them-isms.” This isn’t a description of some far and dark future. We’re already experiencing it and, if we’re not careful, it will only worsen.

We live a cyberpunk reality—it simply isn’t equally awful yet.

It should be obvious to any fan of cyberpunk, or any student of Nietzsche, that the central evil is wealth disparity. Greed is the problem.

Homelessness in America—and in Seattle

Wealth disparity, not a “liberal agenda,” drives homelessness. Greed births disparity, and it also exacerbates ecological degradation, illness, political division, and ignorance. Greed is the primary cause of homelessness in America. Not laziness, not liberalism, not economic realities, not land shortages, not job shortages—but greed.

In America, no political party has addressed greed.

At best, the Democratic party is complicit in the corporate hegemony. The Republican party has, for thirty-eight years, willfully pursued a laissez faire market which will, at its most natural outcome, elevate a tiny number of corporations above all other market powers, shattering shared values in the environment, civil rights, education, health, and freedom. In our society, corporations and major shareholders possess extreme power. My neighbor’s freedom to throw a punch may end before the tip of my nose, but a corporation’s freedom to poison me, defame me, impoverish me, steal from me, manipulate me, or exile me is limited only by the payroll of its attorneys and the reach of its public-relations department. Even if a corporation loses in court, it cannot serve a jail term.

Corporations are, by and large, pathological. Homelessness should not surprise us when we reflect that our real-estate system is also largely corporatized.

Privateering in real estate—treating houses as investments rather than as homes—is one of many forces which drive homelessness, and which eat into the savings and purchasing power of the middle class.6 This privateering results in profit-oriented development, land speculation, mineral speculation, water speculation, and other forms of corporate control. Corporations and billionaires use real estate as a piggy bank, and these practices make us collectively poorer.

As to that poverty, federal measures of it are woefully out of date, and the middle class such as it is continues to shrink despite today’s low unemployment rate—due to the way we report unemployment numbers, the continued weakening of collective bargaining, and other factors such as disproportionate rises in the costs of housing, healthcare, and education. The middle class shrinks and homelessness rises.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Could corporations reverse this?

They could, if so motivated. Last year, Amazon was among the cash-poorest of the major tech companies, with only about $25 billion on hand. By comparison, Apple hoarded more than ten times that. How do these billions compare to the national price tag of homelessness?

Quite possibly, we could end homelessness across the United States for about $20 billion. As a relative share of this, Seattle could quash its homelessness problem with some thoughtful programs, some patience, and about $480 million—less than 1/20th of Amazon’s current cash holdings, and less than 1/200th of Apple’s. Apple could end homelessness across the United States a dozen times over.

But don’t hold your breath, not even in light of Jeff Bezos’s recent hints about philanthropic aspirations. He’s bloviated about philanthropy before, though he remains one of the world’s richest skinflints.

When asked to tackle disparities in Seattle, some of the biggest corporations balked—most notably Amazon. Corporations may be people, and corporations may use the words “corporate responsibility” in their marketing materials, but no publicly traded corporation practices good citizenship. They can’t.7  The primary concern of corporations is profit, and the function of profit is ultimately not to make more profit, but to acquire and control capital—real estate, resources, materials, energies, and people. By definition, corporations are anti-communitarian. The competition for real capital is fierce, and it leaves no room for communitarianism, which is expensive and which has a terrible short-term ROI.

Helping the homeless is fundamentally a communitarian act.

Seattle is a bastion of bleeding liberal hearts. There are people in it who want to make life better for others, including the city’s homeless, who arrive on buses from Portland, Reno, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Salt Lake City, Denver, and even Phoenix. Seattle is, thus far, more responsible than its urban peers.

Can it last?

Over the long haul, we have no reason to assume the middle class will grow, that homelessness will shrink, that the cost of living will drop, or that education will become more available or universal. There is no indication that housing will, over time, become more affordable or that our natural resources will be better managed—not until we tackle wealth disparity, not until the gaps between have-nots, the haves, and the have-almost-everythings narrow.

For now, greed continues unabated, and corporate concentrations of wealth drive disparity more than any other factor. No corporation can afford to dampen its search for profit—anything less than maximum profits reduces the company’s ability to compete and risks its destruction at the hands of its competitors. Furthermore, corporations must compete over short horizons—the next product cycle, the next year, the next quarter. Long-range thinking loses to the demands of immediate competition, and this not only drives wealth disparity but other horrors. As of last year, for example, a mere 100 corporations were responsible for 71% of all global carbon emissions,8 and meanwhile everyday people are still trying to reduce, reuse, and recycle like their individual efforts aren’t mostly panacea.

The world of The Reality Courier is one in which this corporate hegemony plays out along its dark and logical conclusion, unchecked. Of course, my cyberpunk writings share this in common with the entire canon of cyberpunk, beginning with William Gibson’s Neuromancer. As a subgenre, cyberpunk endures because it is eerily prescient. It will remain so until we have the knowledge, wherewithal, and political will to break corporate hegemony and stigmatize greed the way we stigmatize murder or rape. Until we do, expect the problem of homelessness—and so many other problems—to get nothing but worse.

The Importance of Altering Our Geographies

Carnation Washington King CountyAs a writer, I find great value in changing my geographies, in seeing new things, of physically and literally changing my perspective. On this latest drive into Seattle, the tent cities and lean-tos juxtaposed with the architecture of power and the still-encompassing greenery of the city. It cannot help but shock, to see something one is writing as fiction become truer by the day.

On this trip, as well, I’ve explored rural King County more than in the past. I’ve enjoyed its exquisite beauty, even while imagining the hellscape it might one day become.9 I rode a ferry to the islands, noted the jetsam swirling in the currents, too much of it plastic. The Sound’s currents are changing, with unguessable impacts on the region’s ecosystems, and the waters are growing warmer. I have more than enough inspirational material for Reality Courier’s two sequels.

But it isn’t all going to shit tomorrow. I’m still optimistic, no matter what the more dystopian bents of my writing seem to say. Like all dystopian fiction, I hope mine serves as a warning, not as a foregone conclusion. Inadvertently, humanity is changing its geography by loading its atmosphere with carbon dioxide, by polluting its air and oceans, and by enforcing unsustainable patterns of fishing, agriculture, and development on the land.

Do we have the wisdom, intelligence, and will to change our geography more intentionally, sustainably, and gracefully? I don’t know. Saving the world isn’t so much a technical problem as it is a social one, and human behavior is notoriously unpredictable and shortsighted.

In coming back to the Pacific Northwest, I changed my geography, and it’s shown me how much its geography has changed. The world is changing, and our challenges are growing. Do we have the collective power to transform our geography for the better?

I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.

The Two Legacies of Harlan Ellison
Reading no. 5 — Darynda Jones & Jeffe Kennedy

Footnotes

  1. Along with Rome, Venice, Sydney, Stockholm, London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Paris, Innsbruck, Santa Fe, Vancouver, Barcelona, Florence, San Francisco, Portland, and Munich.
  2. They make themselves visible in order not to be invisible and therefore forgotten. Only the heartless or the willfully ignorant do not understand this.
  3. As a rule, cities don’t build housing. Developers build housing, and cities approve those developments. Developers must turn a profit, with enough margin, to justify the risk. This is their pro forma. In the past, U.S. public housing failed so spectacularly and publicly that it has led to a belief that the public sector simply cannot itself provide functional housing. Nonsense. Though not without challenges, other countries have shown us models which work.
  4. Taking that white-hot market into account, most bids with 20% down are currently lost to buyers with larger bids or who can pay for houses in cash, including investors who often buy many houses in cash. Considering the average American has less than $1,000 in savings, $145,000 is an immense hurdle for most people, never mind competing in cash.
  5. $725,000 minus that huge $145,000 down payment.
  6. Those in the middle class lucky enough to own a home may, in good markets, enjoy capital gains, sometimes greater than the combined drag of inflation and mortgage rates. For some individuals, this may prove something like a retirement plan, though upon liquidating that retirement, they must engage in the housing market at its inflated rate. While this may still turn out to be a good thing for the fortunate minority, for the rest it balloons the cost of housing, which necessarily outstrips both normal inflation and wage increases. What would we otherwise do? For starters, the cost of land should be tied to overall inflation and population increases. The value of improvements to land should be added, then depreciated, in the same way cars and computers depreciate, albeit more slowly.
  7. Bakan, J. (2005). The Corporation.
  8. Some argue that the corporations wouldn’t pollute if we didn’t buy their petroleum products. That’s a vacuous truth. People wouldn’t buy petroleum products if they had a cleaner, better, cheaper alternative.
  9. Much of the valleys would be below sea level after extreme glacial melting. Wildfires are expected to worsen. Imbalances which are allowing the spread of beetle populations could accelerate this.

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