Prevention or Cure

The intentional community I domicle in is having a story/poetry/book reading coming up next week and so I went to the library to find a copy of one of my favorite poems, A Fence or an Ambulance. I thought I’d comment about the poem briefly in the blog here since it is so applicable to urban planning and anarchism. I wasn’t an anarchist at the time when I first reading this poem, but it definitely has broad implications. There are apparently a lot of versions of the poem floating around the internet with many saying it was originally written in 1895, this edition of the poem I’ve pulled straight out of a printed book, Writing Verse as a Hobby: A Study of Versification, by Una Gilbert Reeves (1962), p.199-200, Boston: The Christopher Publishing House.

I’d originally read the book to understand how to better incorporate poetry into one’s own writing, but it is a brilliantly put together book that I highly recommend reading it if by chance run across a copy.

And now, the poem...

by Joseph Malins

’Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
  Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
But over its terrible edge there had slipped
  A Duke, and full many a peasant.
So the people said something would have to be done,
  But their projects did not at all tally.
Some said “Put a fence ’round the edge of the cliff,”
  Some, “An ambulance down in the valley.”

But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
  For it spread through the neighboring city;
A fence may be useful or not, it is true,
  But each heart was brimful of pity
For those who slipped over that dangerous cliff;
  And the dwellers in highway and valley
Gave pound and gave pence, not to put up a fence,
  But an ambulance down in the valley.

“For the cliff is all right if you’re careful,” they said,
  “And, if folks ever slip or are dropping,
It isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much
  As the shock down below when they’re stopping.”
Then an old sage remarked, “It’s a marvel to me
  That people give far more attention
To repairing results than to stopping the cause,
  Then they’d much better aim at prevention.

“Let us stop at its source all this mischief,” cried he.
  “Come neighbors and friends, let us rally;
If the cliff we will fence we might almost dispense
  With the ambulance down in the valley.”
“Oh, he’s a fanatic,” the others rejoined.
  “Dispense with the ambulance? Never!
He’d dispense with all charities, too, if he could.
  But no! We’ll protect them forever;
Aren’t we picking up folks just as fast as they fall?
  And shall this man dictate to us?  Shall he?
Why should people of sense stop to put up a fence
  While their ambulance works in the valley?”

But a sensible few who are practical, too,
  Will not bear with such nonsense much longer.
They believe that prevention is better than cure,
  And their party will soon be much stronger.
Encourage them then, with your purse, voice and pen,
  And (while other philanthropists dally)
They’ll scorn all pretense and put up a stout fence
  On the cliff that hangs over the valley.

From this lovely poem we see lot of things going on. One of the major things is the concept of “democracy” -- wherein the majority rule. In anarchism, there are no rulers. If you or some others think it would be good to put up a fence, you do it and that’s it. Nobody can tell you otherwise, unless you’re ruling other people, such as telling others they they can’t have an ambulance, or building a fence which will endanger the local eco-system or other people’s lives. This reminds me a lot of the dialogues about “resilience” that are currently popular, that when we design things and adapt landscapes, that what we make, gives when pressure is applied by the natural landscape, and that we allow the existing eco-system to maintain its own natural resilience in the face of human alterations, so as to not “rule” the natural landscape and how it behaves. We merely exist with it.

This poem also reminds me of the saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In urban planning, prevention is a BIG deal and that’s what is going on a lot of then time -- regulating that you can only have a fence just so high, or that it must be made of wood and not stone. Such may be to authoritarianly keep the continuity of a neighborhood’s character or not make a walkway quite so isolating to pedestrians, or for many other reasons.

Continuity is many times to keep market values similar (the more things are the same, the easier they are to exchange on a market. As anarchists, with no markets, and no ownership boundaries, in the functionality of keeping the rabbits from eating the lettuce in the garden or diverting river water to where you need it with walls, we find the prevention --- you need not shoo the rabbits out or wait for the rain.

May 17, 2009