Apocalypse Now


This story first appeared on The Healthy City Local.

The 19th century saw a great expansion of global connectivity and vast increases in productivity. The century didn’t begin in 1800, but at Waterloo in 1815; and it ended in 1914, in Sarajevo. What then followed were three catastrophic decades of destruction, a reckoning for contradictions embedded in 19th century progress. In 1945 a new period of expanded global connectivity and increased productivity began: the “post-War era.”

I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that the post-War era ended in Wuhan late in 2019.

How does it feel, living during a historical moment? The Covid-19 pandemic looks to be the defining moment of the first half of the 21st century. Future historians will study us. How will we, the people of the world, deal with the contradictions embedded in post-War progress?

My son is getting a Ph.D. in ancient history, focusing on the last years of what’s called “Late Antiquity,” meaning when the Roman world fell apart. He has professor who makes the point that around the fifth century people in the western Mediterranean and western Europe grew up in a world that had not changed from a material perspective for a thousand years, but their grandchildren lived in a completely changed world. And not a better one.

Apocalypse is not inevitable. We are not helpless. But history teaches that when unprecedented environmental, economic or social stress coincides with a lack of world order and leadership, calamity happens. Bad luck can be a factor, too. What were the odds that the pandemic that scientists (and popular culture) predicted, would arrive when America had its first president in nearly a century who didn’t care about the rest of the world?

Many civilizations have fallen since Sumerians and Egyptians and other ancient literate peoples began recording history, but if it happens to us, we’ll be the first to have been aware it was happening and why. (This goes for global warming, too.) We have the knowledge, and the resources, to confront epidemiological and environmental crises, but we will we have the will and wisdom?

Will and wisdom. That brings us to the situation in Santa Monica. Our little city, because so much of its economy and wealth is based on globalization (tourism, entertainment, technology), has abruptly felt the impact of the pandemic. When tourism collapsed about two months ago, the city’s tax revenues, of which about 25 percent come from visitors, collapsed.

The first impact, once the scope of the disaster became evident, was that City Manager Rick Cole departed. I don’t know whether Cole voluntarily quit or was fired. His departure did remind me, however, that when he took the job five years ago, leaving a Deputy Mayor position in the City of L.A., Cole said he wanted to work in a city where there was enough money to pay for the kind of programs he thought a city government should deliver. Speaking of Santa Monica, he said at the time, “it has the resources to do some incredible things.”

Incredible things. Many Santa Monicans felt the same way. Tuesday evening, I listened to much of the nearly eight-hour City Council meeting, the one where the council voted to cut nearly 500 jobs (about 20 percent of the City’s total) (and including non-permanent positions). Many residents spoke. Most of them politely pleaded to the council not to cut the City programs that they believed were most important.

Like everyone else, I could rank City programs on a scale from essential to “what were they thinking, and why the hell are they paying so much for it?” I won’t go there. Let’s face it, we were all willing to drink from, or have the thirsts of our favorite programs quenched at, the public trough. Nor was it irrational to expect that the water for the trough would continue to flow from tourism. Hotels and restaurants, and stores where tourists shopped, were not, after all, like factories that could be moved to China or Mexico.

The City should have screened Contagion or Outbreak on the Pier every summer.

What I did not hear Tuesday night was anyone (although I’ll admit I didn’t hear everyone who spoke) giving any credit to the tourism industry or the people who work in it for generating the money that once filled that trough. Over the years I’ve heard many disgruntled residents appear at council and commission meetings to complain about tourists. Many of these residents would complain that UNITE HERE, the union that represents hotel workers, had too much influence over City policies. Some of those same residents appeared Tuesday night to plead on behalf of the programs they like.

How about a word of appreciation for those workers? They are now unemployed, and not likely to go back to work for a while. They never made much money, and few could afford to live in Santa Monica, yet it was their labor that underpinned extensive services that benefited the residents of Santa Monica and the city employees who provided the services.

And I know this will be hard for some, but how about a little sympathy for the owners of and investors in the hotels, too? Let’s recall now the many times some council members said that the economy of Santa Monica would always be booming and profitable for (always greedy) investors.

But I don’t want to be tough on residents. Santa Monica voters have rarely turned down a new tax or bond issue. There have been some scrooges (I used to call them right-wing nihilists), but, like Rick Cole, Santa Monica residents for the most part have appreciated a city with the resources to do incredible things, and they have been willing to tax themselves. What many perhaps didn’t realize until now was how much of those resources came not from them, but from somewhere else in the world.

Thanks for reading.

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