The Day the World Stood Still – and for some it stopped

On a recent brief visit to Crimea to the sea, while exploring the area near my hotel, I noticed a partially constructed building, obviously left derelict for a number of years.  It was similar to so many that can be seen in cities, towns and villages all across the country.  It would appear that on a particular day, whether a Friday or a Monday, someone decided to stop construction and the workers just left.  Obviously the demise of the Soviet system, which led to an independent Ukraine and a different set of circumstances for all, happened over time not just on a singular day.  But these buildings are indicative that at one point in time, the world for many had stood still and time apparently stopped. 

The proliferation of abandoned factories and industrial sites, some visible in this particular area of exploration, tell a similar story.   There is the vast array of former collective farms, where you now see collapsing decaying buildings.  These farms are devoid of livestock or anything resembling the farming centres they once were.  Most are being reclaimed by the natural environment.  Each of these symbols is a manifestation of human reach perhaps that went to far.  They certainly demonstrate what happens when human intelligence is exaggerated and human arrogance abounds.   Systems are built which are insular, having little regard for people and life’s realities and thus are unsustainable.

These crumbling edifices demonstrate the folly of making a system the end not the means of accomplishment.  They amplify the danger of a belief taken to an extreme.  The belief in an ideal rather than the belief in our human potential and fundamental spiritual being, encompassed in a life of mystery, where time and evolution are continuous.  The collapse of the Soviet “system” did not signify at all the stopping of the world, but only something which had outlived its usefulness and was no longer beneficial to those entrapped within it.  It was neither immediate, nor earth shattering in the lives of people such as these partially constructed buildings and other decaying edifices would suggest; even though for most it felt that way.

My mind reflected on similar scenes in my life and in my own world as I have walked, worked and wandered. Each had signified the collapse of a particular system, relationship or way of doing things that no longer functioned or was beneficial.  Stark in my mind at that particular moment and hauntingly for the past fifteen years has been the collapse of the Atlantic Canadian Fishery.  One community, in particular stands out, Trepassey, Newfoundland; although there were many others affected as dramatically.

It was in Trepassey, where time had placed me the day after the fish plant (factory) had shut and for the people of this community, their world had stopped.  My work in community development had taken me there to engage people in a “development process” which had started a few months before this “fateful” day.  Of course, the politicians, policy makers, bureaucrats and those who research such events knew that such a closure was inevitable.  I am sure many local people knew as well but didn’t want to believe.  They had placed so much faith in the system, which had, until now supported and subsidized activities that would lead to inevitable tragedy.  The trauma of that day will ever haunt my soul.

The creative exercise that people engaged in on that day, despite their trauma, demonstrates the genuine capabilities of the human soul to endure and be constructive even in the face of disaster.  Unfortunately, human creativity was not the focus of the Canadian system, at this juncture, the underlying message was – what good are fishing communities without fish.

Those who control and manage the system were faced with the question – How do we solve the dilemma of these people?  Their answer was mostly with money, training and mobility (The money would mostly pay for training which would enable people to work elsewhere).  There was little consideration that people, given the right encouragement and support, would solve the dilemma themselves, even though they had done so on many other occasions in the history of this community.

Today this community is in decline and a shadow of its former self as people have been forced to leave to find other means of livelihood, while local opportunities which they had identified still are untapped – the money (mainly because of misguided thinking by those who make up the system) has gone elsewhere.  Trepassey will always be a stark reminder of dramatic change and its potential impacts and how systems often create bigger dilemmas for people with their solutions.

My experience in Quebec provided similar experiences, many different insights and much learning.  While working there one could sense and see many glimmers of the significant change that had taken place in this French province during the 1970’s and afterwards as English domination ended and control went to  majority French population.  There were glimpses of the many industrial and institutional closures that emanated from this transition and other economic changes that have been impacting the whole of Canada since the 1960’s.  The general pervasive theme of most of the English communities, in which I worked, was that of a sense of loss, of being left out and left behind.  There appeared a constant struggle for them to find a new footing and a foundation from which to work, albeit the Canadian government had provided untold fiscal support and programs for this cause.  But again these endeavours were mainly driven by the system rather than by a local human process of transition – in fact process had all but been ignored.

In Quebec a small rural community, Stanstead stands out in my mind.  The main factory and employer, which spanned the Canadian and United States border had fallen victim to of the Quebec French transition.  The Canadian component was closed long ago while the United States operation still functions.  What was stark was the fact that people in this community still talked about the closure, as if it happened yesterday, instead of nearly thirty years ago.  The community has been kept alive by the largess of the Canadian system rather than the natural imagination and talents of its people.

I remember well a fledgling movement which began in Gaspe, another area in Quebec decimated by political change and economic shifts, including the collapse of the fishery.  Several thousand people were motivated and moved to action around a concept of a legal challenge in international courts of both the federal and provincial governments for economic genocide perpetrated by both with policies created years before.  This show of human imagination and creative thought was quickly deflected and repelled by the system, as it provided new programs and even more money to silence the unrest.

There were also other fishery closures in northeastern Quebec which spawned new traumas for impacted communities.  The economic hardship evoked near violent response as affected workers commandeered the local government office in protest to gain attention to their plight.  This show of human initiative got them attention and instantaneous support, but at a human price; much of their dignity.  My organization was able to intervene with some of those affected and start a process to at least give people back some of their self respect.  This process continues today, but has never fully been appreciated or sanctioned by the system, which had other aspirations for people.  These are more geared to mobility rather than human development and a “quick fix” rather than the tiny steps of human progress.

Fortunately my work and travels have taken me to many other places in the world which have provided other insights into human progress, and more particularly, to the concepts of place and time – two of the most important and integral aspects of humanness and humanity.  Place provides security and comfort and time is required to live, adapt and to grow.  My visits to Asia, India and other places have given me exposure to very ancient communities and cultures.  My work in Scotland allowed me to work in towns and communities who could claim a thousand years and more of longevity.  And, of course here in Ukraine, many of its cities, towns and villages can even rival those timelines.  I have often reflected upon the many transitions, in the often stark histories, of these communities that they have experienced and endured.  How many times have the world appeared to have stood still for these places and how many have suffered through the slow process of time for recovery and rejuvenation?   What is most important; is that they still exist.

In my own lifetime, a mere speck in life’s time, there have been many shifts, transitions and changes – geographies, relationships and employment.  On many occasions, it appeared the world had stopped, indeed there were pervasive feelings that time would end, much less stop.  But our human capacity for change is enormous and our ability to endure tremendous.  Our capabilities to adapt are immeasurable.  Once we reach the point of accepting life and adapting to its evolving rhythms, one discovers that it can not only be bearable, but exciting and enjoyable.  This is not to say that there are still not occasions when the feeling of being overwhelmed permeates my mind and there appears not an ounce of capacity left to respond to life’s challenges.  There are still those moments when the world appears to stand still and time becomes elongated giving the appearance of stopping.  That’s when greater guidance is sought and when I tap into the mysterious world of the spirit to reconnect to life’s real time piece.  This provides the reality of life’s continuance.

It is times like this that the sea and the ocean have special meaning to me because its where it is possible to hear and see the relentlessness of the waves, never ceasing, never stopping just continuing on in their journey, as part of the continuance of nature and life.  The same can be witnessed in the changing seasons and other displays of natural change that make up the rhythm that is life.

This brings me back to my original thoughts, stimulated by seeing the derelict buildings, industrial sites, and collective farms and the subsequent impact on people’s feelings and thoughts.  In Atlantic Canada the fishery collapse has spawned one of Newfoundland’s most dynamic out migration; perhaps, even greater, than the resettlement program foisted upon people by another system.  Some people have abandoned their communities (their place of security and comfort) for opportunity elsewhere, without thought of the opportunities around them.  In Quebec, since the ‘quiet revolution’ changed the political and economic balance, the out migration of English has been endless, but economic decline and change has also forced many French people out as well.

You will find many communities of migrants across Canada – whether from the Atlantic Region or Quebec.  In the mid 1980s, along with a group of colleagues from western Newfoundland on a study tour of economic development across Canada, we decided to visit some of our Newfoundland expatriate communities.  In one Cambridge, Ontario we were greeted by over one hundred and fifty expat Newfoundlanders who came to hear our message from home.  The show of emotions, of anger and sadness was a shock to us all.  Here were people who had lived most of their adult lives in another place, had thrived financially, and yet still were pining for home: just waiting for the call that told them it was alright to return.  For most, their world had stopped years before, time put on hold while they waited some magic moment to go home and resume their real lives; not the artificial ones they had been forced to adopt.

This is the tragedy of the Canadian System, which emulates that of the United States, a system geared to mobility; with little respect for place, and because of the need for a quick fix and instantaneous results, little regard for the time of more natural processes.  Inherent in the beliefs perpetuated within this system; when someone, something or some place has outlived its usefulness, then it is time to let it go and move on.

This belief and approach to development is such a destructive force that, not only are communities fading and dying, but the concept of society and human relationships is in jeopardy: apparently people don’t know.  The mess that is being left for others to clean up in derelict and polluted industrial sites, mining wastes and ruined natural resources (of which there are many) is a real tragedy.  The waste inherent in the abandonment of homes, schools and other properties is another story.

The human waste, as people are left behind, because of their traumatic experiences and lack of adequate support, is a real catastrophe and a growing phenomenon in rural areas.  We only need look at aboriginal communities in Canada to capture a glimpse of what happens when people fall behind and are considered worthless.  We only need glimpse at some of the inner city ghettos that have grown in leaps and bounds as people are displaced.  And, we only need to glance at statistics of homelessness and addictions that plague almost everywhere to appreciate the human damage happening because of “our” system.

The fishery in eastern Canada had been in decline since the 1960’s because of mismanagement and destructive technology.  If this truth had been accepted earlier and different approaches to adjustment had been adopted, the trauma and damage caused to the people and communities in this region would have been lessened. In Quebec if the “Quiet Revolution” of the French, based on people and grass roots movements, were emulated by the English in their communities, would they not be a stronger component and play a more integral role in the life of that province.  If people and their communities were valued more and systems respected less, would so many of these communities in Canada be in distress.  Would there not be fewer moments; when the world appears to stand still.

If people were considered more integral to their own development process and felt stronger and more secure in their place; would less people feel like time has stopped?  The world never stands still and time advances relentlessly: it only appears to some to stop.  Unfortunately those who gain power and control wish to ensure it doesn’t stop for them, they create the systems that benefit the few, maintained by the many, no matter the cost to people and communities.

How, you may you ask, does that fit with derelict sites in Ukraine?  The partially constructed buildings (now nearly twenty years old), the closed factories and decimated collective farms owe as much to their existence to the systems of the west, as  they do to the collapse of the Soviet system.  A different approach to development or re-development might have salvaged some of this unnecessary waste.

When the Soviet system collapsed there was a stampede from the west to “help” most often driven by the sight of opportunities, not necessarily, for local people.  Here there were plentiful resources, cheap, highly educated and skilled labour and much naivety.  There was, as well, the mistaken belief, if there was any belief at all, that the Soviet system was devoid of  usefulness, entirely flawed without any positive attributes.   The near perfect system of the west had triumphed and demonstrated its obviously more sophisticated and more beneficial mode of operation.

The belief was that the system of the west, more particularly, that of the United States would last eternally, continually rejuvenate itself and like the perpetual motion machine, just go on and on.  Modern capitalism and western democracy had triumphed.  All that was needed was for the former Soviet states to emulate this system.  The results of this emulation are evident in the rampant out migration, the derelict businesses and buildings here in Ukraine and elsewhere and in many new European countries, where street and homeless people abound and more and more visible.

How much different could it have been with a different approach and a different push?  How much this transition might have been lessened, if there had been a different belief system at work in the west?  If there had been a different appreciation of the Soviet system and its inequities, but also some realization of its positive elements, perhaps, much of the hardships of so many might have been avoided.

Appreciate what might have been, if place was important instead of profit and time was valued as the limitless commodity that it is.  Imagine a process which considered “what existed” and introduced new management approaches and new technologies.  Consider a market built around “what is” rather than what others thought “should be”.  Then maybe, much of the destructive nature of this transition could have been avoided.

These destructive approaches are not unique to this part of the world: they and been exported to other places as well.  It has been the experience, wherever the west, mainly United States driven, have intervened.  It has left behind tragedy, trauma, broken dreams, wasted lives and broken systems.  Only in the countries with their own sense of self and their own inner strength have the positive aspects of capitalism and democracy been assimilated into whatever system that is used to make it more effective.

In a place like Ukraine, there is still “time” and enough of a caring family rural oriented society remaining to salvage people and their “places”.  What is needed is belief – not in another system – but in themselves to make the hard decisions required to build a country that could be a model for the world.  This would be a country that puts people and their dreams at the apex of a new socio-economic model based on genuine opportunity, with caring and sharing as its foundations – not greed.  Many of these idle derelict buildings still can be salvaged, as can the transition that began so long ago.  Ukraine has the potential to be the modern, vibrant country that has been in the hearts of Ukrainians for generations.

Systems are a necessity and ideas and ideals are important for human progress.  But both are only tools that allow people to fulfill their aspirations.  It is imperative that both the systems and the ideals that drive it belong to people and that adequate and human processes are put in place to allow their evolvement (over time).  The value of place and true appreciation of natural time has once again to take precedence over instantaneous development no matter the cost.  The near panic responses to restoring our very damaged environment and the growing terrorists movement of people willing to self destruct and end their time (because they lack place) should be a wake up call that something within “our” system is flawed.  Most importantly, it is people and our values that need consideration and our system that needs overhaul.  In time the natural environment will sort itself with or without our help.

Written by Bill Pardy

July 7th, 2007

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