A Need For Response
For those following this blog, it’s likely become clear that I don’t expect our society, economy and general way of life—either here in America or elsewhere in the industrialized world—to last far into the future. Despite previous stages of this belief of mine, I don’t currently think that the end of our way of life will manifest itself in some extreme, apocalyptic moment. Rather, I have come to believe in the likelihood of a stairstep collapse, thanks to the writings of a certain Grand Archdruid. I think the underpinnings of what we consider modern society will come apart—as they, indeed, already have started to come apart—and this entire sorry game will unravel. I don’t expect that unraveling to happen entirely in my lifetime, but I expect to live through enough of its beginning to see and be forced to deal with quite the fallout. I have no illusions of a zombie apocalypse, but I neither have illusions of a relatively easy transition or the saving grace of new technology or a grand shift in consciousness that solves all our problems. We’ve made a mess of the world and we’re going to have to deal with the consequences.
Similarly, the mess we’ve made is a mess that most everyone in the industrialized nations have had a part in. That’s not to say there aren’t certain bad actors who have turned in virtuoso performances, but even they have almost certainly been functioning to some degree within the context of this insane society and culture we’ve all helped to create. I have been no stranger to bitter complaints about Obama’s failed promises—and much less a stranger to bitter and venomous rants about Bush the younger’s detestable administration—but Obama’s is a presidency in context as much as all the others. As a society, we have not shown a particular interest in being told the truth and even those of us who have opted out of our culture’s dominant narratives of myth have too often opted into alternate narratives of apocalypse that serve just as easily to protect us from the hard work a new way of life requires. That politicians are less than eager to tell us the truths that we are so quick to avoid ourselves is no surprise. It’s not particularly relevant whether they do it because they don’t know those truths or because they are actively ignoring them due to a recognition that speaking them would not be beneficial to them on a political or economic level. Either way, our broader society holds a certain level of culpability.
Within this mind frame, I wrote a recent post that served as something of a criticism of the Occupy movement. It was my attempt to advocate for a longer view within the movement: a recognition that our problems are not just about social and economic inequality—which is a serious issue, no question—but also a distorted view about what is a reasonable standard of living. I specifically called the American middle class way of life bullshit. I stand by those words. We have a worldview that is built on top of a fantasy of independence from hard ecological and environmental realities. That worldview is falling out from under us and we need to respond to that changing landscape immediately and with an intention based in community, care and cooperation. Unfortunately, that’s not a task that will be easy, and there are many forces, both external and internal, which will serve to push us toward more destructive responses.
The Risk of Demagoguery
One of those responses that I worry could happen is the Occupy movement turning more and more toward a movement of revenge. I’m not saying this is what will happen, but I do consider it a legitimate and reasonable concern. As the world economy continues to spiral out of control, austerity measures assert themselves ever more harshly and the ability to get by financially for a majority of the population becomes more challenging, our collective level of stress will rise. And the sort of harsh and stressful environment I think we’re facing in the near term will be a fantastic place for demagoguery to flourish.
Understand, I think many in the financial industry should be doing perp walks and the lack of that reality is a massive failure of justice and the rule of law. Similarly, the way Obama swept the war crimes of the Bush administration under the rug was despicable. But all of these injustices happened, again, within a societal context. And that context is something that all of us have played a role in. Hell, if you’re reading this blog, I can pretty much guarantee you that you had a role in this reality, because the internet and the vast infrastructure put in place to maintain it and provide access points to end users (i.e. me, you, and somewhere around two billion other people) is an infrastructure built on vast ecological destruction. It is an infrastructure built on economic and social inequality. It is, as well, an infrastructure that helps to perpetuate the sort of war crimes that the Bush administration engaged in. While the Iraq war might not have literally been conceived in a cartoonish, movie villain style plot geared toward oil capture (though it certainly may have) our country’s never-ending need for fossil fuels brought that war into existence. The outsized existence that we have become accustomed to powered the mechanizations that led, tragically, to that war. It’s easy to put it all on the head of W and Dick Cheney, but that’s the sort of short view that leads to demagoguery—of which I have engaged in, believe me—and the convenience of never having to examine oneself in the mirror.
The Need for Good Work
It also leads to the convenience of not having to throw oneself into the challenge of doing good work. The myth of progress leads inevitably toward desires for utopian schemes. We imagine new ways to structure our economy or our government or our cultural institutions to lead to a gloried future, a cornucopian golden land in which we have everything we’ve ever needed or wanted. We proclaim the ability to smooth out the inherent vagaries and fallibility of human behavior, if only we create the proper context for their existence. The problem here is that we seem too quick to place our hopes into the utopian basket of revolutionary change (or forced utopia that always seems to be waiting on the other side of apocalypse, once all the people we don’t like have died) and too hesitant to engage in the long, hard work of actually creating new cultural and economic contexts that can indeed inspire better behavior and constrain damaging impulses.
Let me provide an example. I have been meaning to write this blog post all day. However, I didn’t start it until late afternoon. For multiple hours before that, I poked around on the internet engaging in largely useless but satisfyingly distracting behavior. This is a common theme of mine: the lack of self-discipline and the propensity toward distraction. Overcoming it can only happen through restraining my own behavior, dedicating myself to what I consider worthwhile pursuits, and ignoring the need for overstimulation. This is all hard—oddly hard—and it as often as not devolves into me wasting hours of time looking at shiny things on the internet because, you know, it’s easy. Writing, on the other hand, is intensely satisfying when it comes out well but also, often, extremely hard. It’s so much easier to read about the NBA or look at my blog stats or read someone else’s hard work. This, of course, extrapolates out to TV, shopping, bitching about whatever we happen to not like at the moment, speaking rapturously about whatever we happen to like at the moment, eating, drinking, and a thousand other ingrained societal behaviors that serve to distract us and keep us from the hard work of making our life and community better.
Another example. I have participated in the Occupy movement and thoroughly enjoyed my time marching and shouting, protesting and bonding. I met great people, I felt empowered, I believe without question that I did good things. I also thrived off the emotional power of laying the blame for our very messed up world at the feet of other people. I felt the bonds of shared outrage and anger. I felt the easy pull of demagoguery. This is a fine line, of course—where does a legitimate demand for justice end and the blaming of problems on everyone else but yourself began?—and I have not figured out the exact placement of that line. I probably will never figure it out exactly. But there is a line and I think all of us need to both be very aware of it and be constantly vigilant in wondering whether or not we are crossing it. This is especially true in our culture, where distraction and shallow soothings are constantly championed at the expense of the long, hard work of figuring out how to live and work well in this world.
And that is the idea I keep coming back to. This is an idea championed by Wendell Berry, and there’s no question that I have been greatly inspired and influenced by my readings of him. We have to begin—or for those who have already begun, continue—the hard work of figuring out how to live and work well in this world. That’s an incredible challenge. I would argue it’s the central challenge of being human, of being alive in this world. What else could be the point? For what other reason could we be here? It’s not to see who can die with the most toys. It’s not to see how high a percentage of our life we can spend being distracted by shiny, technological toys. It’s not to discover how quickly we can convert the living creatures of this world into cheaply-made commodities. And it’s not to find the one person who’s screwing everything up for the rest of us. It’s the very personal work of living well in this world. That is a challenge. That is a huge, never-ending challenge—a lifetime of work, the question that only has incomplete, always changing answers.
Globalization, Centralization and Resilience
Yet despite my concerns, I don’t believe for a moment that the Occupy movement can’t have massive, positive effects on our society. It already has. The conversation has been changed. There is a renewed sense that voices that haven’t been heard may yet be capable of rising above the din, the assurances and platitudes meant to drown out honest criticism. There is an empowerment that is beautiful, and heartening, and radical.
But we need to take note of why that empowerment is so radical. To a large degree it’s because, in the industrialized world, we have turned our back on the local world and embraced a centralized, globalized one. Of course, some of that embracing has been less an embrace and more an imposition. The WTO, IMF, other global economic institutions and many governments have pushed the hell out of globalization and centralization, imposing rules and laws that help force these realities upon us. Yet we have allowed this to happen, as well. I sit here on my computer, writing a blog post to be put on the internet, drinking coffee, and I happen to have a large jar of coconut oil sitting on the table next to my computer. It hardly matters that the coffee is organic and microroasted by a small, local business, or that the coconut oil is organic, raw, cold pressed and was purchased at a co-op. Sure, this is better, but it’s still a functioning within the context of a globalized, industrialized infrastructure. I’m still perpetuating a status quo, just in a bit less of a status quo sort of way.
Within such a dominantly global and centralized reality, local voices and modes of living are inevitably going to be squeezed out. While we are capable of living on this planet with some sort of sustainable global trade, it must necessarily function as a minor element of commerce. It has to be in the background, not in the forefront. To live sustainably, we will have to live locally—very locally. And that is not a bad thing. Within a local context, we can have community and local control, a sense of power over our lives and the ability to be heard when we speak. As our context becomes bigger, all those things are harder to maintain. There’s nothing surprising about losing voices in a world in which we live globally. There’s a reason they needed the Human Mic in Zuccotti Park—it was too big a place, holding too many people, for one unamplified voice to be heard by all.
This, then, is where the promise and hope of the Occupy movement shows itself to me. This is a massive movement that is decentralized, messy and capable of hyper-localized action. This thought was reinforced as I read a brilliant blog post on the Occupy movement over at Feral Scholar. In the essay, the author, Stan, delves deep into the strategies and tactics of the Occupy movement, weaving quite the web of insight, consideration and wisdom, and using a bevy of outside sources to make sense of the successes and potential of the movement. He speaks of the unpredictability, the spontaneity and the decentralization of the movement and notes that “In nature, decentralized diversity generates resilience. Centralized monoculture, on the other hand, is vulnerable precisely because it is centralized. One electrical failure can plunge 50 million people into opaque helplessness. One new fungus can wipe out a monocropped food staple.”
This, of course, starts to get at the root of the danger we’re facing. We do not have a resilient system in place in this country. The industrialized world, in general, has traded resiliency for efficiency. John Michael Greer wrote about this at his blog, arguing that “Efficiency, in other words, is not resilient. What makes a system resilient is the presence of unused resources, and these are inefficient by definition. A bridge is resilient, for example, if it contains a good deal more steel and concrete than is actually needed to support its normal maximum load; that way, when some outside factor such as a hurricane puts unexpected stresses on the bridge, the previously unnecessary structural strength of all that extra steel and concrete comes into play, and keeps the bridge from falling down. Most bridges are designed and built with that sort of inefficiency in place, because the downside of too little efficiency (the bridge costs more to build) is a good deal less troubling than the downside of too little resiliency (the bridge collapses in a storm). Like every project worth doing, a good bridge has to strike a balance between many conflicting factors, no one of which can be maximized except at the expense of others of equal importance.”
Our Failing Infrastructure
Both Stan’s and Greer’s examples are relevant. Greer uses the metaphor of a bridge to deal with the difference between efficiency and resiliency. It’s a simple metaphor, helping to drive home his point, but it also functions within a larger context. The kind of infrastructure represented by that bridge is the infrastructure that is falling apart around us. The hard infrastructure of roads and bridges, sidewalks, our sewer systems and electrical grids are all falling behind in their maintenance. There’s a massive backlog and it’s a backlog that will never be filled. In a world of peak oil, resource shortages and an imploding financial system, we simply don’t have the means to fix all this infrastructure and it will only get worse as the increasing commonality of extreme climate events wreak havoc and destruction upon vulnerable infrastructure. There will be patches and jerry-riggings, for sure, but we’re not going to replace it or bring it up to “21st century standards.” As it falls apart, more and more of it won’t be put back together. Standards of living will drop. This is already our reality; already we are growing used to it.
Stan’s example of the centralized food system is something that I consider even more critical. At the end of the day, humans can survive with poor transportation infrastructure and a failed sewer system. We can’t survive without food, though, and along with water, shelter and heating, those are the critical needs that we need to be most focused on going forward. Yes, there are other legitimate focuses, but these are the ones that will dominate—probably far more than most of us ever expected. As these systems currently function in our industrialized economy, though, they are not resilient. The industrial food system is at extreme risk of failing, and failing badly. It is dependent on monocropping, cheap fuel, massive energy inputs, degraded farm land and minimal human labor. It is based upon mechanization and standardization, rather than the resiliency of an ecosystem model. It is antithetical to thought, consideration, wisdom, knowledge and good work. It is inhumane.
Luckily, there’s a better way. We have multiple successful models of agriculture. We know of ways to sustainably grow fruits, vegetables and other food and how to raise animals well on pasture and in natural environments. We have a growing food movement spreading across the country, a flourishing of farmer’s markets, a return to gardening and home preservation, an increasing popularity of homesteading and young people learning to farm. This is still small compared to industrial agriculture—far too small. But it is there, it’s established, and it’s growing. That’s more than can be said about many aspects of our infrastructure that need to be changed.
This is crucial, too. As Stan notes in his essay, “One of the most powerful dependencies we have on the grid is food. The power of the food institutions is already well known and well understood, from Monsanto, to ADM and Cargill, to the Food and Drug Administration. Our very survival has been lashed to this grid by food-production monopolies.” Our dependency to the food system relinquishes our power. Our dependency to the entire economic system of the industrialized world—a system that holds the fate of most industrialized people, determining their very survival via market forces—necessitates that we perpetuate that system so that we may continue to live. It is a trap of the worst kind. The system is decimating this planet and all of us in the process, yet we depend upon it for our food, our water, our shelter, our heating and cooling, our transportation and movement, even the shiny-object entertainment that has become so crucial for distracting us from our reliance on a murderous system. Thus, we have given away our power. Without taking it back, we cannot effectively fight that system.
Stan’s Million Gardens
This, finally, is where I place my hope in the Occupy movement. As a flexible and decentralized movement, it has the power to change the context within which we live. If we want to deal with the coming fall out of peak oil, resource depletion and the collapse of our financial system, we’re going to have to change the way we live. We are going to have to relearn how to provide a good portion of our own living, how to do good work, how to live local and well. We are going to have to rebuild our local community and reacquaint ourselves with the land we live on—because that is the land that is going to have to start supporting us, not colonized lands that exist elsewhere, out of sight, and are thus more capable of being destroyed. We are going to have to introduce ourselves to our neighbors and learn how to work with them, whether or not we particularly like them. We are going to have to engage in a crash course education the touchstones of which are local, small, salvaged, low-energy, poor. It’s not going to be an easy reality, but it won’t be an apocalypse, either. Likely, it will be harsh. Certainly, we will muddle, we will stumble, and we will often have no idea if we’re doing the right thing.
The great challenge of this new reality is going to be building appropriate infrastructure for it. The infrastructure we have now is not well-suited for a future in which energy is limited and expensive, most people are poor, money is harder to access or less capable of purchasing goods or both, and mechanization is uneconomical. We need new infrastructure, but we have a political and financial class that is uninterested in championing it, as well as a population that doesn’t yet get it—or isn’t being honest enough with itself to get it. There isn’t going to be a grand solution offered up any time soon. And, really, there isn’t a grand solution. There are local solutions rooted in thousands or millions of permutations and individuals. There is us, doing whatever we can, now.
In response to our dependence on a centralized, industrial food system, Stan has an idea for the Occupy movement and its adherents—particularly those who are not actually out protesting. He advocates “we build a million food gardens. Two million. However many. However many conditions. However many designs. There is the strategic direction: make food, and not just for the same reasons Gandhi made salt. Make food because it puts that much of our lives back into our own hands, and the hands of our communities. Into the hands of our friends, our families, our covenantal relations.”
I love this idea. As a farmer, I of course love this idea. But it goes beyond this. Building a million or two gardens across the country gets right to the root of one of the problems. We need to gain some independence from the machine if we’re going to attempt to subvert it. Just as important, we need to prepare for when that machine ceases to function. We’re facing a harsh future: the more options we open up for ourselves, the more resilient we are, the more equipped we are to come out the other side with as little pain and suffering as possible. Putting a million gardens in the ground is not particularly efficient, but it sure is resilient. It sure does provide fallbacks and options, a support system right there in the dirt, quite literally at our feet
It also functions on other levels. It is necessarily local. It necessarily requires good and thoughtful work. A garden is an ecosystem, and you can only create a good one by thinking about what kind of ecosystem will function well in your particular place. A garden takes work, as well—hand work, human work. We need to reacquaint ourselves with physical labor. It will be necessary in the future. A garden, further, nourishes the soul—and I simply refuse to believe that we don’t need some serious nourishing of the soul right now. We have subjugated ourselves to a culture of transience and shiny objects. We have slaughtered much of the base upon which our culture was until very recently built. It’s not entirely gone, but as we’ve lost more and more skills, we’ve become less unique, less particular, and more captured by memes and passing fads. We too often are barely able to pay attention to anything of length or depth, scoff at thoughtful and penetrating works of art, and prove incapable of learning a particular place and learning it well. We are generalists in all the wrong ways and rarely specialists in the right ways.
Growing food, herbs and medicinals counteracts that. It teaches us about the particular place we live and demands we learn about it. It familiarizes us with natural cycles. It very often familiarizes us with neighbors and our community. It teaches us how to labor and blesses us with fruit in return. It provides a meditative space within which to think, consider, observe and notice. It makes us better people, healthier people, happier people.
I would take Stan’s idea still further. I believe the Occupy movement should focus some of its efforts on a building of stealth infrastructure. This is what I would call the gardens that Stan speaks of. This is the infrastructure that flies under the radar, seemingly innocuous but a major cushion to fall back on as the obvious infrastructure of our industrialized and centralized society begins to deteriorate. We may not be able to build very many stealth roads, but we could plant millions of gardens. And those millions of gardens can help feed millions of people, independent of the industrial food system.
An attempt to build a stealth infrastructure would go beyond that, though. It would focus on food, water, shelter, health, and small scale energy and transportation. The gardens fall in the food category, of course. Gardens should be everywhere, as Stan wrote in his essay. Not just backyard gardens, but on abandoned public lands, on the property of churches, granges, lodges, schools, hospitals and other public or quasi-public lands. They will necessarily need to be tended and, as such, will work as fine centers of organization. Gardens bring people together, create community and bridge differences. It is amazing the ways in which food connects people of all political stripes and social and cultural backgrounds.
These gardens do not just have to be about food, though. They can include herbs and medicinal plants. Many of these are perennials and thus there may be a greater flexibility here. Aside from the aforementioned gardens, they might be able to be tucked away in wilder corners of parks and other hidden areas. There is a necessary caution here, as you don’t want to introduce invasive species into native ecologies. But some research should suggest what kind of plants can be safely confined to small corners, where they are unlikely to be removed, won’t overrun an area, and will be there for harvest when needed. Maps of these plantings can be created—a catalogue of what plants are where and what they can be used for.
There are perennial food plants, as well, that may be able to be planted outside of the strict confines of a garden. Berry bushes, fruit and nut trees, rhubarb, strawberries, sunchokes, asparagus, artichokes, and plenty more. Permaculture groups love perennials. If there’s one in your area, they could probably provide resources on them.
Along with planting food and medicinal crops, the ability to utilize them needs to be cultivated. Unfortunately, we have in just a few decades decimated the household economy. While many people still preserve and do basic processing of foods at home, far less do now than did in the past. Much of that work has been outsourced to massive agricultural conglomerates. We are going to have to work to bring it back in-house. To do that, we will need to teach the skills that have been lost and reintroduce people to the joy of the household economy. As such, a big piece of the stealth infrastructure is education. We need homesteading classes covering a wide variety of topics, offered for free or at very low cost. Community schooling and volunteer education will be critical for the future. Putting together those networks of community members now and putting in place the structure of informal classes and education will pay off big in the future. It gets us ahead of the game and creates a base from which to scale up as the need for these skills and services increases. At the same time, these same informal networks can be tending the gardens, taking home food from them, and utilizing their produce to learn these new skills. It all connects.
From there, these networks can expand still further. Skills are taught, services are bartered and exchanged, friends are made, teachers and students learn from each other, swap places, spread their abilities. Tool and seed libraries sprout up, community work days are scheduled, community kitchens are cobbled together to give people the space to create at a scale they may not be able to in their own kitchen. Cottage industries then can arise from these networks as the dominant economic structures begin to fray and collapse, creating openings for more localized economic activity. A world that is falling apart suddenly is not as harsh than if a stealth infrastructure had not been created. There still is a drop, but the landing is cushioned.
The Big Picture
These are only a few ideas for how we can build a stealth infrastructure in this country. My ideas are mostly focused on food, as that’s where much of my own experience lies. But there are plenty of possibilities. We will need small, localized energy systems that can be maintained in the face of a decreasingly reliable electrical grid and increasing energy prices. Microhydro generators and small wind turbines can be cobbled together from salvaged parts—there’s no reason not to work on getting these into service now. Buildings can be retrofitted to conserve energy. This can be done at the community level and learning those skills now will make it easier to respond to future energy price increases.
Our health industry is massively complex, expensive, out of reach for millions and bound to become out of reach for yet more as it teeters under its own weight. So how do we provide a certain level of public health at the very local level? Food is a part of it. So are cooking classes and education on how to craft meals out of whole food ingredients. Herbs and medicinals have many excellent uses in a low energy, money-poor world. Herbs aren’t going to fix a broken leg, but there are plenty of small maladies they can greatly assist. We will need more midwifery. We will need more alternative ways to bolster general health—yoga, acupuncture, chiropractic care. Anything that can at least to some degree be provided through training and human care, without dependence on expensive machines and the backing of an energy-hungry, industrial infrastructure, will be helpful. It may even be critical. Let’s start building that now.
I’m speaking in very ambitious terms, but the Occupy movement is an ambitious movement. It can help with such a project. In fact, it seems made for such a project. We have thousands of people who care deeply, who understand that the world is falling to pieces around them, and who are desperate to live in a fair society and have their voices heard. Getting them to work on building a stealth infrastructure is not the only possible application of that energy, but I do think it’s a particularly helpful and empowering one. It provides fulfilling work, immediately and noticeably improves local lives and communities, creates networks of people who can help as our economic reality becomes more challenging, and helps to address the root causes of social and economic inequality. It furthermore decreases dependence on those structured inequalities, helping free us from the insane and destructive system we agitate against. One of the great beauties of the Occupy movement is that it understands we’re dealing with an extremely complex, interconnected system that is corrupt on multiple levels. But the way we live our lives is a piece of that interconnection. If we can begin to liberate ourselves from it—if we can begin to be honest with ourselves and learn to live differently—then we can more effectively fight it and work for justice.
At the same time, changing our lives puts us in a position of greater resilience and security. This is critical, because we are dealing with something far larger than an unjust economic system. We are dealing with a series of harsh wake up calls related to hard ecological limits. Some have already hit; worse ones are on their way. If we don’t have a long perspective on this, we risk being swept up in a series of angry and futile reactions that will serve only to worsen our suffering. We risk confusing the austerity measures imposed by our physical realities with the ones imposed by corrupt bankers and politicians. If we, instead, have at least a partial understanding of the hard realities underlying these changes and are effectively able to differentiate between corruptions and physical realities, then we can begin to restructure and rebuild our lives to more effectively fight corruption while simultaneously dealing with honest environmental limits. We can begin the hard but rewarding work of learning to live and work well within this world. We can put aside all these shiny, distracting objects and rediscover our humanity.