The Closed Intersection

And you thought you had a tough commute!

Last month’s visit to Nicaragua was memorable for any number of reasons, not the least of which was an encounter we experienced on our way north for some meetings.  Near the community of Ciudad Dario, traffic started to slow down significantly.  Within a few miles it had crawled to a halt.  Protesters at a major intersection had taken over the highway some miles ahead in a well-planned protest of high bus fares.  They made their point by making everything stop.    Buses, trucks, cars, all stationary .  And there we sat, wedged in from behind and in front, traffic halted both north and southbound, a complete gridlock in the countryside.

The impassability of the highway turned out to be significant enough to make the news around the country, including the front page photograph of one of the daily newspapers, shown above.  The protesters were successful in making their unhappiness known, if not corrected.  They were upset over the increases in bus fares which they had recently experienced and were essentially demonstrating that if they were unable to travel by bus, no one else would travel, either.  I’ve thought about those protesters and their bottleneck and wondered about the both the genesis of their actions and whether it portends anything for the future at large.

I’m fairly certain that the reason for the rise in bus fares would be blamed on the cost of fuel, and that as fuel prices rise, bus fares must follow suit.  It’s the same formula the world over, but the bite taken out of the personal budgets of poor people is felt sooner and more deeply than for many of the rest of us.  Additionally, rural Nicaraguans have no practical alternatives to the overcrowded buses that comb the countrysides; they are truly hostage to both the circuitous routes and the fares charged.  When fuel prices rise in the United States, drivers grumble and pay the increase.  When fuel prices rise in  rural Nicaragua, the resulting fare increases change the ebb and flow of life dramatically, and very quickly.  Hence, the protests.

There was no point in cursing the jam and no real inconvenience to us.  The delay provided a welcome opportunity, in fact, to get out and stretch along the highway, a diversion which was actually appreciated.    In each direction, the highway was filled with vehicles for as far as one could see.  On several occasions during the wait, vehicles moved ahead, ever so slightly, causing all other drivers to scamper back into their vehicles in the expectation of an end to the gridlock.  But each time, the short movement proved to be nothing more than the wishful thinking of impatient drivers trying to fill every available space in the hopes of moving ahead.  (In one particularly “urgent” case, the sudden lurch forward interrupted one truck passenger whose need to relieve himself could wait no longer, but whose cover was suddenly “blown” when his driver unexpectedly lurched the truck forward .)

The traffic jam made for some interesting people-watching and it raised some curiosities.  Seeing the tremendous impact that this one relatively small protest was having upon the daily lives of many Nicaraguans got me to thinking about what kinds of scenarios might be playing out across the world in the months and years immediately ahead.  Of course, some scenarios are already unfolding, as in Greece and Spain.  The immediate situation here represented but one small portion of Nicaraguan society in the face of one or several fare hikes, but what will the consequences look like when the increases are even larger and more frequent?  What will the landscape look like when these impacts begin to be felt more deeply within the U.S. and other large economies?  Witnessing the extensive backup of vehicles on a Nicaraguan roadway is one thing; what does a similar effect bring to the major cities and the very rural locations elsewhere in the world?  Quite suddenly, the jam before me shrunk in its dimensions as I contemplated energy shortages and higher prices making themselves felt the world over.  Imagine no traffic in and around Los Angeles, for example.

Futurist Chris Martenson has managed to synchronize a great deal of this thinking in his work, Crash Course.  In it, he articulates with great clarity the looming intersections of overpopulation, increasing energy demands in a finite energy world, energy-dependent economies and the costs of degrading environments.  A scientist by training, Martenson offers his work not as a futuristic dreamer, but as one who has data at his disposal to support the vision of what these intersections will mean to all of us in the years immediately ahead.  The picture is not necessarily one of doom and gloom, but it is a vision of a very different existence for most of us.  And the lineup of vehicles on a rural stretch of highway in central Nicaragua is but a small and early manifestation of what we might well experience in the near-term.

On this day, some drivers lounged in the grass by the side of the road, surrendered to the reality that they were not going anywhere very soon.  I heard only a few frustrated blasts from car horns.  Passengers who were headed north climbed down from their buses and began walking to where the southbound buses were stopped; the southbound passengers did the same in reverse.  The strategy was to turn the respective buses around, exchange passengers and resume their journeys north and south.  I don’t know whether it worked, given the way the vehicles were tightly wedged together, but it seemed a good plan.  The shared dilemma created an almost festive atmosphere among the drivers and passengers stuck there along the road, giving credence to the adage that misery really does love company.  For us, the delay didn’t interfere with anything except our arrival at the hotel for the night, a slight inconvenience at worst.

But for many, the long halt in traffic flow created great inconvenience or worse.  In seeing the massive backup stretch for as far as I could see, I felt as though witnessing a preview of a world soon to come, an intersection of realities with the potential to bring much of the world to a halt, a blockage in the flow of economic, energy and environmental life that will demand extraordinary patience, a strong sense of community and an increased acknowledgement of those who possess far fewer resources than the rest of us.  For ultimately, none of us can ever be as well as we might as long as others around us are unwell; it’s the limitation of the weakest link.

Perhaps we all need to be halted in our tracks for long enough to look for that closed intersection and what it will do to our respective journeys….




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