For our June meeting, 7:00 pm on Wednesday, June 19, Transition Ferndale will be showing the documentary film “Detropia,” (91 minutes running time) with discussion following. The location will be the Ferndale Public library, 220 E. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale, Michigan. The event is free for anyone who wants to attend. You need not be a resident of Ferndale. Light refreshments will be available.

Detropia” is a recent documentary about the collapse of industrial prosperity in Detroit. Detroit was never utopia for ordinary working people, though an auto industry job did mean steady work and good wages for some decades. Over later decades, the number of Detroit auto jobs lurched downward in fits and starts. As the number of union workers declined, so did their wages and political influence.

This is a thoughtful film which tries to give some sense of what has happened to create today’s distopia. It listens to several residents who are struggling to understand it, to explain it or just cope with it. The film’s cover image – a well-dressed couple standing in front of a burned-out mansion and wearing golden gas masks and goggles – is striking, but the scene in which they appear is not essential to the film. That scene is more about how hard it is to find anything positive or possibly humorous in Detroit’s trajectory.

In the ongoing collapse, things move fast. It’s still only a few months since the voters of Michigan repealed 2012’s Emergency Manager law. In short order, the state legislature passed a new EM law (and a right-to work law as a bonus). The governor signed both new laws. Kevin Orr was appointed Emergency Manager for Detroit and immediately began the process of looting Detroit’s remaining assets.

In view of recent developments, we might be tempted to think the film is so far behind the times there is no point to watching it. It is certainly behind the times, for the same reasons that last weeks’s Metro Times or yesterday’s Detroit News are behind the times. Collapse is moving so fast here that our understanding would lag even if we had live coverage of Orr’s secret negotiations, and Governor Snyder’s, and the Koch brothers plan for the mountain of petroleum coke growing on the riverfront near Matty Moroun’s bridge.

As fast as things change, the hundred-year old Michigan Central train station (prominently featured in the film) is still rotting in place. The population of Detroit is still shrinking, despite the occasional person intending to run for mayor who moves in. The auto jobs that moved to Mexico and elsewhere are not coming back. Detroit still has so many abandoned houses that the number can’t be counted, only estimated.

Like the people featured in “Detropia,” we are caught up in the consequences of the collapse of prosperity based on the manufacturing industry. We are still trying to comprehend what has happened to us, and why, and how we might cope with it. None of the problems shown in the film have been solved.

In this context, the kind of searching for answers shown in the film is a far better starting point for discussion than hoping our elected and unelected officials will manage to bring back growth and prosperity. It’s clear that cutting city services and selling off public assets is not going to solve our problems, or even address them. We had better not expect help from our current crop of political leaders.

We are on our own here. “Solidarity Forever,” the theme song of the union movement, said, “we can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” That seemed a reasonable goal, because they were expecting to create a new, egalitarian political arrangement with plentiful resources of materials and energy.

Now we know the unlimited supplies of cheap energy needed for industrial society are not unlimited, and the available supply is not cheap. Creating an egalitarian society amid the actual ruins of industrial society seems difficult. It’ll take something besides a simple political revolution. It will take everything the Transition Towns movement has learned about building a resilient local economy, plus a few things we have not yet learned. That’s what we’ll discuss.

Art Myatt

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