Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Individual VS Collective Action

Every now and then, you are going to come across a post on this blog that constitutes nothing but my wandering thoughts. Being the uneducated person that I am, they may be hard to follow, but hopefully, they prove a worthwhile exercise none-the-less.

We here in the West, the past three or four generations at least, have been brought up to believe that the individual is god and collective action lies on the periphery with the freaks and weirdoes. That we have the power to mold our own future and if we fail, it is the fault of our own lack of "protestant work ethic" or drive. I feel this constantly in my own life and I know that the majority of my peers feel it as well.

So, what does this have to do with the future of our community? Everything, in my perspective. I know that Windsor will not crawl out of its cave without collective action towards "something", yet the individual is the one calling the shots.

There are many individuals in Windsor who are doing remarkable, progressive things. True, a lot of them belong to groups who are constantly working at changing something. Yet it is the effort of individual action that materializes the quickest that gets noticed. For example, local architect Joe Passa has made "Green Architecture" the focus of his practice. He has accomplished much in the ways of making others see the benefits of investing in sustainable methods of construction, including seemingly immoveable organizations such as the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board. He is a talented individual and his success is proof positive that there is a desire to change out there.

Yet, a green building lying in the solitude of urban sprawl can be considered an anomaly - a distraction. Nothing exists in a vacuum. In and of itself, it will lead to little change in the way our day-to-day life is affecting the health of our society and planet. The same transportation habits will be required to access these schools: those big, yellow school buses will continue to roll and kids won't be able to walk from their suburban raised ranches; partly out of the media-induced fear of strangers, and partly because we've designed their neighbourhood to be unwalkable. It could be argued that we will not move in the necessary directions without shining examples of successful projects, but the necessary next step requires collective action. Is our society ready to take that next step?

Our older, walkable communities offer some hope, yet they are being squeezed as well. With the heavy subsidization of brand new exurban development beaconing, and the crumbling infrastructure that nobody wants to fix in these older communities, can anyone blame homebuyers for fleeing with their needed tax dollars out to the fringe bedroom communities of Tecumseh or LaSalle? It is in their individual best interest to do so. It would be nice to be able to think that these scenarios are out of our control, yet the politicians that each of us individually elected into office over the course of our lifetimes have set the stage for the product we are now forced into buying.

Which brings us back to the theme of this post: Individual VS. Collective Action. Ideally, it is up to the individual to recognize the positive effect of collective action and act accordingly, but are they making that connection? It is easy to blame "them" for making a mess as we go about sleepwalking through our daily routine. What is it going to take to shake people out of their comfort zone - the one that is slowly dragging us down this road in the first place - and have them join with their neighbours in improving our daily existence?

I have always been of the mindset that it will take a revolution before any noticeable changes occur. It is during the tumultuous transitionary periods in history when necessary changed is deemed acceptable. However, today - the French have established a political environment where their government is afraid of the people, and not vice versa as it is here. They will take anything to the streets, regardless of how small and petty the issue seems to us. They don't take any shit, and they have earned the respect of their elected leaders because of it. What was it that made the French make the connection between direct collective action and accountable government without the spark of societal collapse?

So what future episode in Windsor/Essex County residents lives will act as the catalyst towards direct collective action? Our crumbling economy? Our crumbling infrastructure? Our deadly air and water quality? So far, I have seen more revolt over the price of gasoline, yet nothing comes about other than silly little boycott schemes. This leads me to believe that with all these life and health altering issues that we are currently dealing with, that we are in for a long summer of collective abuses that will continue unchecked until that final "straw that broke the camels back" is laid down upon us.

What will it take for us to begin demanding better; in our homes, our communities, our workplaces, our schools and our elected officials?


pushing my button said...

I have been working with many of my neighbors to get rid of several forms of blight in our neighborhood (trash, illegal zoning uses, street racing etc.) with very little success. We take a very active roll. It seems our City councilors come to the meetings and agree to help us but in the end the issues never seem to get resolved. I'm starting to realize that they seem to have good intentions but once the issues are handed over to City administration they get lost and never resolved. Our councilors don't seem to hold as much power as we think. I see the level of frustration they have. It seems they work for the administration
instead of the other way around. We have heard every excuse and reason for not getting things done all usually from some City official. There is a strong defeatist attitude among our City officials.
At the same time there seems to be very little accountability. When is the last time you heard of any City employee being fired for not preforming or achieving the standards of the job they are given.

We started out as a large group with the intent of making changes that would benefit the community. We are now a small group that just refuses to go away. We will keep fighting as long as were here but quite honestly it tiring and time consuming. I think in order to change things we need to give our councilors (our Voice) more power. I think City officials need to be held just as accountable as we hold our councilors.

While many at the City look at us and label us "complainers" and say "nothing will make these people happy"(yes we do have some friends at City Hall and ...yes they have let us know this what they say about us) We will continue to fight until we get the results. So hopefully other will see changes can occur and start taking action as well.

Anonymous said...


All this insight and good looks too! You are a golden child Topher Holt.


Damn Tree Hugger said...

It always amazes me the amount of money that is spent on continuing the sprawl of Windsor and yet, for a fraction of that cost, you could rehabilitate an entire neighbourhood. Take the homes east of the Casino, west of Walker and north of Wyandotte. I would say that at least half of those homes still sport some of the most fantastic architecture in the city (albeit hidden, covered, or in various rates of decay).

Alas, what we need is someone with deep pockets AND a vision to start a cultural revolution in Windsor. Don't expect it happen any time soon though -- Windsor is destined to become a speed-bump on the 401 if Queens Park has anything to say about it.

Topher Holt said...

From the August 16 Windsor Star:

"Until something fails, who really cares?

Lloyd Brown-John
Special to The Windsor Star

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Almost without exception , it usually takes a tragedy to focus public attention upon public necessity. The collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis-St. Paul is one example. Other bridges have collapsed elsewhere and, regretfully, are likely to do so in future.

Ironically, there is a link between a bridge collapse in Minnesota and higher water rates in the city of Windsor. It is all about infrastructure and, more to the point, it is all about governments and how they spend public money.

In May 2000, the Town of Walkerton experienced another public tragedy when several people died and others were impaired for life due to contaminated water. Putting aside the stupidity of some public officials, that tragedy was also about infrastructure or its lack thereof.

We dwell in complex communities. Despite my personal notes to my British friends about how we draw water from our local creek and cut wood for winter -- "out here in the colony"-- the fact is that virtually all of us are linked (whether we like it or not) in a complex series of interactive and interrelated networks that provide us with everything from a means to heat our home, watch our telly, wash our faces and bathe and dispose of our human waste.

We are also linked through communication and transportation networks which permit us to reach a place of recreation or employment, speak with other people or -- if one is so inclined -- indulge in pornography on a highly complex communications system called the Internet.

Many of these interrelated networks exist by virtue of the profit motive. Thus, our Internet provider or our cellphone provider exist for the one and only purpose of making a profit for investors.

Governments tend to pick up the leftovers -- that is, those services which either contribute to the public good, or which nobody else has found worthy of profit.

Thus toll roads vs. public roads becomes an issue only when a government determines (or is convinced) that a toll road can be constructed and maintained at a profit. Many countries rely upon private firms to construct and operate toll roads -- France, Spain, Malaysia and the U.S.

Even Ontario has a toll road -- albeit it was a bit of a gift to the original company -- and is now owned by a large Spanish holding company. And, as Ontario has discovered, trying to control that toll road in the public interest is close to impossible. So it is unlikely that we will see many more toll roads in Ontario in the near future.

Generally, therefore, highways, water mains, sewers, policing, fire services, etc., are provided at public expense. But, like everything else on this planet including ourselves, time tends to eat away at longevity. Thus, a 50-year -old bridge -- perhaps depending upon its mode of construction -- is potentially hazardous. So too is a 50-year-old cast iron water main or storm sewer.

Governments tend to be caught in real binds. On the one hand, populations are growing, demand for serviced property is insatiable and tax dollars -- be they in a municipal budget or via a government grant -- are always limited in large measure because we object to paying higher taxes.

On the other hand, service infrastructures which were installed several, to many years ago need to be replaced. In Lakeshore, for example, old water mains, complete with murky water, need replacement. In Windsor, old rusty cast iron water mains need replacement. Roads always seem to need replacement or repair. Overpasses, sidewalks, sewers also are in need of replacement and/or repair. So where does the money come from?

All too often, cash-strapped municipal governments have been under so much public and political pressure to provide new or expanded services (one of the delightful downsides to the former Conservative provincial governments' off-loading of responsibilities and amalgamation) that few local governments have had the spare cash, time or -- perhaps more to the point -- political wherewithal to set aside long-term infrastructure funding.

Strangely, the behaviour of many municipal governments tends to parallel the spending habits of many individuals who seek immediate gratification (we need a new HDTV!) without serious consideration for their long-term economic well-being -- that proverbial rainy day.

How many elected local council members have been delighted to hold the line on taxes without any consideration for the future of the community?

The recent controversy in Windsor over substantial water rate increases addresses the issue spot-on.

Water rates, traditionally, have been well below market value because we have always assumed an abundance of water -- cheap, almost free, like air. Yet that water needs purification and delivery and to do so requires expenditures on infrastructure.

Infrastructure issues have been on the public policy agenda for years. The problem has been, however, that neither taxpayers nor politicians have had much incentive to bank public money today for infrastructure needs some years hence. Indeed, some municipal governments have established long-term contingency funds for infrastructure renewal. Some, now realizing the magnitude of the challenge ahead, are having to do what Windsor has just done, drastically increase water rates (Yes, water user fees are essentially a form of tax!) in order to start building that absolutely essential infrastructure fund.

I am certainly not a fan of taxes and certainly not a fan of dramatic increases in taxes, but I tried to apply a little reality thinking to the future. If you are content to live with the risk of inadequately inspected bridges, or turbid domestic water, or overloaded sewers or massive road failures, then you can enjoy lower taxes.

Infrastructure renewal may finally become one of those proverbial hot-button public policy issues for taxpayers. For many public administrators, the issue has been alive and well for many years. Sometimes, it takes a tragedy to drive home those things many of us already understand.

Lloyd Brown-John is professor emeritus, public administration at the University of Windsor.

© The Windsor Star 2007"