Archive for February 2012
An entry in the How To Be Poor series
To better understand the distorted viewpoint of our culture that I wrote about in the last post, I want to talk about food and diet. As I tend to reference my own experiences in these posts, I want to write initially about my own changing diet over the years.
I have spent a good portion of my life attempting to eat in a moral and ethical manner. This has boiled down, as often as not, to a focus on eating certain foods and not eating yet other foods. For sixteen years of my life, this approach underpinned my vegetarianism. I ate dairy and eggs during that time, but didn’t eat meat of any kind. I came to that diet while living in Arizona as a teenager and it was greatly influenced by the New Age community I found myself interacting with there. I became vegetarian largely for moral reasons and partly for health reasons (ironically, considering how poorly I ate as a vegetarian.) I even believed at times that eating meat would lower my body’s vibration level. Looking back, I feel a bit ridiculous about that.
As parenthetically noted, I didn’t eat well during my vegetarian days. Having never learned to cook much and rarely having anyone to cook for me, my diet tended toward prepared, processed and packaged foods. Boxed pasta mixes and frozen pizzas were staples and spaghetti made with jarred sauce constituted my primary culinary adventures. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I would think a diet of processed foods was a more ethical and healthy way of eating simply because it didn’t involve meat. That seems the very definition of blind reductionism, but it was a blindness I suffered.
Upon reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I began to warm to the idea of resuming my meat eating ways, but with a focus on eating sustainable and well raised meat. I eventually made that change and, not long after, discovered Nourishing Traditions and the Weston A. Price school of dietary thought. I read Nina Planck’s Real Food. I found a source of raw milk and started consuming it with abandon. I experimented with fermenting veggies and soaking grains, though I never integrated those foods into my diet on a regular basis. Finally, a few years ago, I read The Vegetarian Myth and reached the peak of my infatuation with a diet focused on the eating of healthy animal fats and proteins. I found myself convinced by Lierre Keith’s book, which argued that the healthiest, most ethical and most sustainable dietary choice was eating a good amount of animal fat and protein from animals raised well, as well as a certain amount of fresh fruits and veggies and minimal grain.
In conjunction with my focus on well raised animal products, I also had started to farm. This lifestyle greatly improved my diet, significantly boosting my cooking skills and knowledge and providing me plenty of abundant, fresh vegetables with which to work. I became more familiar with making simple, sustaining meals—the sorts of meals I should have been eating during my vegetarian days. In tandem with the increased physical labor of farming, I felt healthier, dropped some unnecessary weight, and began to see the joys of a local and seasonal diet. Not that I ate such a diet exclusively, but I moved much closer. And that has continued up until this day. I probably ate better and more local and seasonal this last year than any other, with much help from the fantastic people I lived with and our communal meals.
With all these different changes in diet over the years, a common thread starting with my vegetarianism (and, really, before then—I remember calling McDonald’s as a child and asking them to stop using styrofoam for their packaging after watching a 20/20 report with my parents) was the idea that what I ate played a large role in my moral and ethical well being. I couldn’t help but feel that my diet was important—that I influenced the world, its health and happiness, through what I ate. Of course, that’s true. Our collective diet plays a massive role in how we live in this world. Yet, I couldn’t stop looking at this effect through the prism of what I ate rather than how I ate.
This perhaps shows itself most clearly through my vegetarianism. I boiled my moral decision down to meat and failed to look at any of the other implications of my diet. Later, when I became convinced by The Vegetarian Myth that eating animal protein and fruits and veggies was the way to go, I looked at it with something more of a holistic viewpoint—questioning what kind of an agriculture could truly be practiced sustainably and realizing the destructive aspects of monoculture grain production, even if done organically—but I still boiled it down to a set diet with rigid guidelines, creating an ideal and only then trying to figure out how I might meet that ideal locally.
Our society, furthermore, is filled with these ideals. There are thousands of books laying out rigid dietary guidelines that promise you the world: a healthy body, a better environment, long life, good sex, happiness, joy, moral satisfaction, so on and so forth. What these diets typically have in common is that they have all kinds of guidelines that they attempt to apply to everyone, with little to no regard for local circumstances, the climate you live in, your particular body, your childhood diet, your likes and dislikes, the kind of work you do, or what kind of agriculture exists locally. The assumption is that you can eat whatever you choose. And this is an assumption that can only exist in the context of massive luxury. It’s, in other words, one of the very distorted viewpoints of our society borne out of a globalized, industrial economy floating on the warm waters of cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy.
Most of human history has not seen such luxury and personal diets formed accordingly. Most people have been constricted by their local agriculture or local wild foods, with minimal or no trade providing non-local foods. Most people, furthermore, have been limited by their own means of acquisition. Plenty of people have been subsistence farmers, eating largely food they have produced themselves and whatever they can acquire in trade using that same self-grown food. Others have eaten on a strict budget, unable to purchase a wide variety of luxury foods even if those foods have been available. It’s a unique circumstance in the history of humanity that we find ourselves in today, in which a significant portion of the populations of industrialized nations have access to food from across the world, throughout the year, and have enough money to buy most any of that food and thus craft whatever particular diet they should want.
This is where we need to make a sharp distinction between necessity and luxury. Necessity is having something to eat—having enough to eat. Luxury is being able to eat whatever diet you decide you prefer, whether that be for matter of taste, health or ethical concern. In a world in which luxury is taken for granted, the morality of eating easily can be transformed from how you eat—by the care you take in eating the foods that are available to you—to what you eat, with little regard for your local circumstances. If you’re living by necessity and therefore feeding yourself within a very limited range of available foods, then moral concerns about your diet have to skew more toward the “how” side of things. What are the traditions of eating? How do you relate those traditions to your larger moral framework? How do you go about acquiring your food? How much do you eat? What kind of thanks do you give for it? What care do you take in the eating of it, the growing and raising of it if you have any control over that? If you’re living in luxury, then it’s much easier to skew your moral concerns toward the “what” side of things. Am I eating grass fed meat? Am I not eating meat? Am I eating grains that are destroying the prairies? Am I eating organic produce? Is my food locally produced? I’m not saying these questions are irrelevant or unimportant, but they are often borne of luxury.
If you find yourself in a famine, chances are you’re going to eat whatever food becomes available to you. If you’re starving, it’s unlikely that moral convictions about not eating meat are going to keep you from eating some goat meat stew if someone should offer it to you. Furthermore, if you’re someone who can’t seem to comprehend the idea of eating grains and vegetables as the core of your diet, then you better change your opinion real quick if you find yourself in the midst of a famine because you’re a lot more likely to get your hands on a meal in that dietary realm than you are a juicy hamburger. Do you think that grain production is inherently destructive of natural ecosystems and that a diet of grass fed meats, eggs from pastured poultry, raw dairy and a smattering of fruits and vegetables grown in rotation on farms incorporating animals is the most sustainable diet? Well, you might not find any such diet available to you a few decades from now, when constricted fossil fuel supplies and an overcrowded planet have greatly increased hunger rates and—in the rough and rocky crash following our current overshoot—grain staples are far easier to come by than pastured meat. The above diet may be one of the more sustainable ones available to human beings—and I don’t know if that’s true or not—but that’s going to support perhaps a tenth or less of our current population. If a few decades from now our governments and local economies are struggling to feed seven or eight billion people on a planet no longer sporting the sort of fossil fuel supply that can support such a population, you’re far more likely to gain access to a ration of grains or potatoes than a nice grass fed steak.
What this comes down to is the necessary imposition of limits and constraints. Much of the challenge facing us in terms of a transition to a more sustainable—and thus, much more poor—way of living is the fact that we have access to this luxury. It’s no surprise, then, that we take advantage of it. That’s pretty standard behavior for any species. If we can eat most anything we desire, it’s not a shock that we’ll eat foods that otherwise wouldn’t be available to us and it’s not a surprise that in determining the moral ideals of our diet, we’ll tend more toward what we eat than how we eat it. That’s the foreseeable outcome of having access to this level of luxury and functioning within the context of the distorted viewpoint that luxury affords us. We make our choices by working from the context of having everything available to us and then trying to come up with an unconstrained perfection. If we were working outside of this odd level of luxury, we would instead be looking at what our limited resources were and then trying to make the best of what was available to us.
We can’t live outsized, overabundant lives if we don’t have an abundance of wealth available to us. In the future, we’re unlikely to have the sort of abundance available that we do today. This, as I’ve said many times, is one very good reason to attempt to start living on less, so that we adjust to this way of life and figure out some of the better ways to do it—how to make the best of what’s available to us—before we find ourselves thrust into that poorer way of life. But if we’re going to figure that out, we’re going to have to change our context. We’re going to have to try to see more clearly, to remove some of the distortion, and to reintroduce limits and constraints into our lives. We’re going to have to craft a different context for ourselves—one rooted more in poverty than wealth, in constrained resources rather than abundance. This idea, of crafting a new context, is going to be at the root of several of the forthcoming posts in this series. I’ll write more about it in the next entry.
An entry in the How To Be Poor series
The idea that voluntary poverty is a challenge is one of the more ridiculous realities of our present situation. Yet it’s a reality, just the same. I was thinking of that this morning while reading a criticism of my How To Be Poor series of blog posts by John Ennis over at his blog, Degringolade. John’s right in noting that being poor is easy—you just run out of money, without recourse. But that’s not the sort of poverty I’m writing about here. I’m writing on the voluntary sort, not the desperation of forced poverty.
I don’t have any helpful advice for that sort of poverty. I haven’t experienced it, for one, and it seems there would be a limited number of responses to such circumstances—and that they would generally be dependent on your particular situation. What I can write about, and what I am attempting to write about with this series, is the idea of powering down our lifestyles, for those who are in position to take such a methodical and purposeful approach. I am writing, in other words, to people who are familiar with or living within something of a middle class American lifestyle. Considering my readers necessarily have access to the internet, I assume that most of them have some familiarity with that lifestyle, whether or not they are actively living it.
The problem with the American culture is that it provides a very distorted view of reality. What luxury is, what poverty is, and what a decent standard of living is all have been twisted by the extreme abundance and material wealth that the standard American has come to consider normal. Further, that idea of normality is on a nasty collision course with what I consider to be the likely normality of the future—which is, as John notes in his criticism, probably going to be one of forced poverty for a good many of us.
Again, I don’t have an answer for that forced poverty. If it comes to pass, there isn’t much of an answer, just local adaptation and millions of individuals struggling to get by. That will prove different for everyone and it’s impossible to predict the course of those multitudes of paths. If we are facing that future of forced poverty, though, then one course of action available to us is voluntarily beginning the process of powering down our overabundant lives so that, when forced poverty begins to assert itself, we face less of a fall.
In my opinion, dealing with that fall while having already begun the process of reorienting yourself to a life with less stimulation and distraction, reacquainting yourself with physical work, learning to accept limitations and figuring out what joys will be available to you regardless of your income will be quite a bit easier than dealing with it while still living a standard middle class American lifestyle and considering, say, the loss of your iPod as an epochal event. That doesn’t mean that dealing with forced poverty will be easy, or that it’s going to be comfortable and joyous—it just means that a reorientation of standards cushions the blow.
What I’m therefore writing about, as much as anything, is that reorientation of standards. I wrote in the third part of the introduction to this series that I thought that reorientation was “the more important aspect” of living in poverty. I already look back at that sentence a bit sheepishly, as I think it too cavalierly plays down the hard realities of poverty, especially in comparison to the American standard of living. But my point was that the mental challenges are a huge obstacle to living less abundantly, and that those are ever present in our culture. Since we have such a distorted view of wealth, luxury, and comfort, we have a hard time seeing the comfort that can be available to us even with little money. We also can distort the realities that we should be wary of. The daily drudgery of repetitive, brutal physical work can break you down indeed. But there’s a realm of daily physical labor that’s not so crushing, and that can even be rewarding. Physical labor, in general, is viewed as something to be avoided by a large percentage of our population. That view point is insane, it’s unhelpful, and it’s false. There’s much joy to be found in physical labor and reintroducing it into our lives can both bring about that joy and help to prepare us for a much less abundant future.
When people talk about a decent standard of living in America—and, I imagine, in many other industrialized nations—they are standardizing a very luxurious way of living. And in that standardization, they tend to distort the idea of what’s necessary for a good life. While I have no personal familiarity with hunter-gatherer ways of life, I imagine there have been quite a few hunter-gatherer societies in the past that lived quite lovely lives, and with a lack of material wealth that most of us in industrialized nations would find ghastly. But that was the life they knew, and I’m sure they found their joys in it and dealt with their miseries, as well. Most civilizations throughout human history have had much less material wealth than we do today and they have often managed those realities just fine. They’ve had their joys, their miseries, their many days of passing time, their exuberances and upheavals and desperations. It can be done, and there’s no sense in us not giving it a try if we acknowledge that our future likely includes much less material wealth than we are used to today.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that any one of us could be plopped down into one of those past civilizations and be perfectly happy with it. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t find ourselves terribly miserable. But that, again, is as much about a disconnect between expectations and reality as it is about necessity. Trying to close the gap between our current expectations and our likely future realities is what I would consider a useful and necessary task. It’s the task this series on voluntary poverty is about.
Now, all this flies out the window if we’re looking at a poverty in which the necessities of life are hard to come by. We may very well be facing that poverty. But even in that case, I’d rather be closer to that future reality if forced to deal with it then falling into it head on with no experience of anything other than middle class luxury. I’d like to go into it having some of the skills necessary to make my own living and possibly craft my own survival than go into it having never gained myself food outside of a grocery store. I might still be screwed, but at least I’ll have a bit more agency in it.
So if our culture’s distorted view about what is a decent standard of living is one of the road blocks to downsizing our lives and learning to live with much less, then what’s our response to that road block? Well, it would seem to me that we must first start better seeing what is and is not necessary for a good quality of life. Of course, that view point is relative to a certain degree, so for the next post I’m going be talking about food to try to understand some of the ways in which we mix up luxury and necessity.
An entry in Encounters
It strikes me that one of the great challenges we face at the moment is getting a grip on our own hubris. We need, first of all, to recognize its existence, which we too often do not recognize. We need also to understand the danger its existence bestows upon us. I believe it’s due to our hubris that we think we can control the world. More to the point, it’s due to our hubris that we think we can understand the world. I suspect the tendency toward that belief is one of the greater dangers we face and divesting ourselves of such beliefs would go a long way toward helping us to deal with a future that’s likely going to be very much out of our control.
One of the better ways of ridding ourselves of such hubris is to embrace this world of ours in all its mystery, messiness, confusion and contradiction. Every day we find ourselves a part of a planet so brimming with life and magic that an honest appraisal of its reality would make it clear to us that we have very little understanding of it. It is, after all, a trickster, and seems always ready to prove our folly—to place into sharp relief our arrogance. We approach this world as though its mechanics are simple and straightforward, as though they can be understood and modeled and thus predicted, and as though we can therefore control the world, shaping and molding it to our liking, creating a preferred reality rather than working to live well within our actual reality. Time and time again, this approach has proved misguided at best, and often times deadly.
We build nuclear power plants, for instance, thinking that we can set in motion incredibly powerful natural reactions, create massive amounts of insanely deadly wastes that will exist on a time frame essentially outside the bounds of human comprehension, and control and manage this process and these wastes. Time and again, we’ve been proven wrong. The fail safe designs fail, the earth provides unforeseen circumstances, the impossible events become possible. Earthquakes and tsunamis occur, human error and fallibility takes its toll.
We think we can dump massive, incomprehensible amounts of pollution into the biosphere and it will simply absorb it, dispose of it for us, protect us from ourselves. We are proven right to a degree, but wrong to a more important degree. The earth rebels, we are forced to suffer the consequences of our own waste, and our assumptions are proven false. Cancer rates rise, asthma increases, rivers burst into flames.
We proclaim that money will bring forth oil, but it doesn’t. We proclaim that war will bring about peace, but it doesn’t. We proclaim that we can abuse and neglect our soils and still they will feed us. But our soils die, and turn to dust, and they blow away in the wind. The oil we dump on them only lasts so long before it destroys that which we claim is being nourished. Eventually, if we can’t get past our own blindness, we will starve.
We believe that we can run every aspect of the natural world through the scientific, reductionist wringer, break it down into pieces small enough to understand, change each piece, put it back together and then expect it to function based on those reductionist changes. It doesn’t work, because the world doesn’t work so simply. The natural world functions as a whole, and the pieces put together begin to take on mysterious tendencies—the sort of tendencies that don’t always show themselves until the complexity and interactions of the whole takes hold. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, after all, and the whole tends to have a spirit that we can’t find so easily in the parts.
Dismember a human body and you may, through study, gain a great understanding of the individual pieces: this leg, this hand, this finger, this foot, this stomach, and so on. But you won’t understand the person you’ve dismembered. You’ll get no sense of their spirit or personality, of the impossible complexity of their personality and consciousness, of their unique traits and experiences. And, perhaps more importantly, you’ll kill that person by dismantling them, by breaking them down into separate pieces. You can only break down the whole a bit before it dies.
What’s ironic is that this sort of scientific reductionism—upon which so much of our hubris is based—has also provided many accountings of the world’s mystery and magic. I remember, years ago, reading Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos and being enchanted by his recounting of certain scientific experiments involving quantum mechanics. These experiments documented physical activities at the smallest scales of matter that behaved counter-intuitively to how we understand the world. Reading about quantum entanglement and the quantum eraser experiment brought me a sort of giddy joy. Here, in the midst of scientific reductionism, was an assertion of mystery. While, yes, these experiments and their results were based in mathematical and scientific theory, their counter-intuitive and, frankly, bizarre results when compared to our normal, every day experience with the world was a reminder of how much mystery surrounds us.
We are in great need of a recognition of that mystery. We’ve fallen into the habit of daily going out into the world and working to destroy it. We have given up the idea of learning to live well on this earth, given up spending our lives in the never ending effort of doing good work, and instead have turned our lives into the never ending pursuit of arbitrary wealth and luxury. We seek out comfort and gratification without regard for what it means for the rest of the world, our fellow creatures, or even our own health and well-being. We do this with the backing of vast amounts of energy, resources and money—far beyond what our forebears ever had available to them. With this historically unique backing, we have engaged in historically unique destruction. We have damaged the world on a scale previously unknown, previously incomprehensible. And we do it most of the time without even a recognition or realization of the consequences of our actions. We are children—grossly immature, horrifically arrogant, and clueless on both counts.
But, as children mature, so can we. Much of that maturity can be derived from a connection to the broader world and the other creatures who live in it. As we grow older, we tend to better understand others as unique individuals, with their own internal lives and realities. While we may not fully know those internal lives as we do our own, we can still recognize that they exist and that, therefore, this other person is prone to the same emotional realities, the same human failings, the same sort of hopes and desires, the same complexities that we are. In other words, we begin to realize that they are wholes, rather than mechanistic collections of fingers and toes, hands and feet, arms and legs, torso and head. We therefore bear responsibility for treating them as such and dealing with them in a kind and caring manner. We may not always succeed in this responsibility, but our understanding of it and our attempts to fulfill it is the measure of our maturity.
We cannot reserve that sort of maturity only for other human beings, though. We must also provide it to the uncountable other creatures that live with us in this world: animal, plant, fungi, soil—hell, even the stones, the solid ground we walk upon. This is harder, and it’s easier to stray from this ideal, and more understandable when we do. Yet it’s important that we afford all creatures this respect, and take upon us the responsibility of treating them with care and kindness, because otherwise we too easily will find ourselves destroying them for our own easy comfort and casual desires. And in their destruction, so we begin our own.
Also, though, in connecting with these other creatures, we connect to the mystery of the world. We begin to see our own limitations and understand the full breadth of consciousness and individuality these other creatures hold. Animals are no more machines than we are. In the last few days, I’ve worked around, interacted with or seen cows, sheep, baby lambs, calves, dogs, cats, wild turkeys, elk, chickens, ducks, pigs, donkeys, goats and raccoons. You can’t tell me that the cow that kept approaching me and licking my rain pants had no different a personality (or no personality at all) than the one who kept her distance, or the one who would come cautiously close and then back up when I reached out to her, or the cow whom would go running and kicking in a fit of activity, seemingly unprovoked but almost certainly provoked in some manner or another. You can’t tell me that the hundred or so baby lambs running around Meadow Harvest right now aren’t unique and individual creatures, that they don’t experience this new world with joy and confusion and the occasional bit of fear or caution, that they don’t love the cold air and the intermittent sunshine, bounding through the wet grass and drinking milk from their mothers. I’ve watched them. I’ve held them and fed them. They’re every bit a living, conscious creature as I am.
Interacting with them serves me on two levels. First of all, it helps to remind me that the world is full of creatures that deserve the chance to live well, and that my desires for comfort and gratification don’t supercede their right to the possibility of such a life. That helps ratchet down my arrogance by reminding me that I share this world with billions, trillions of other creatures and that I have a responsibility to all of them, that I can’t willfully damage our world or live my life without concern for what kind of work I’m doing, how I live, and what damage or good I do. Second, it helps connect me to the mystery of this world. Seeing all these other creatures, living, engaging this earth in much the same way I engage it, very much conscious in the way I am conscious, is a reminder of just how magical a place this is. Often times, as well, these creatures engage in unexpected behavior, or take me by surprise in some way or another, much as in the way I wrote about last summer, in what I now am considering the first Encounters post. This, too, is a reminder of the world’s magic. It’s a reminder of my place in this existence, and how small it is, and how it stands as just one amongst billions of places, occupied by billions of creatures.
I suppose, then, that this is a third level of benefit from these sorts of interactions. This is the benefit in being reminded that, while I am unique, I am not Unique. I am not, as a human being, better than the other creatures in this world. I am not more highly evolved. I am not morally superior, or closer to god, or more deserving of good, or endowed with some sort of right to dominate the earth. I am not above reproach. I am one of many, sharing this planet, and at my best I’m engaging its mystery in the same way that all these other creatures engage it. At my best, I’m able to lose myself in the brilliance of this existence, to step for a moment outside the convoluted and exhausting machinations of my turbulent mind and find myself, for one transcendent moment, immersed in this incredible and beautiful, heartening world—and in awe of it.
The Encounters series of posts will be about this awe. It will be a cataloguing of such moments when I found myself connected to another creature in this world, engaged or surprised or in conversation, snapped out of myself and my self-absorption and reminded of the larger world around me. It will be about mystery and magic and beauty, and the intention of this series is to help shed us of our arrogance and hubris, and to remind us of our incredible world and bring us back into it. We are a species on this planet, much as any other species, and in many ways we are a profoundly immature one. We have much to learn from our fellow creatures. I hope to discover some of those lessons in future entries.
Regular readers may have noticed it’s been over a week since the last post, which is a longer wait between posts than normal here on this blog. I intended to have something up on Tuesday, then on Thursday, and then again yesterday night, but I kept pushing back the writing. Partly that was due to some of the usual distractions in my life and partly to being on the train for two days and then returning home to work for three straight days. But it’s also been a matter of spending a good chunk of the week mulling over new ideas but not quite teasing them out to a level of coherence ready for a full write up.
One of my goals with this blog of late is to write on more fully formed ideas, rather than write on new ideas that I haven’t had a chance to mull over for a bit. I make this a goal because I write higher quality posts under that ideal. There’s nothing surprising about that, of course, as taking the time to think through the various implications and pitfalls of a new idea can lead to a clarity and coherence that often is lacking in our discourse. I have multiple times had the strike of an insight from which I wanted to immediately write up a rhetoric-heavy essay to only, upon further consideration, realize that the insight is deficient, or incorrect, or simply incomplete—sometimes silly, sometimes promising, but in need of more thought either way.
Granted, I don’t always live up to this ideal, and most every post on this blog—some more than others—could have benefited from an extra couple days of marinating and a true second draft. I still treat this much as, I think, many people treat their blog: I write up a post, do a quick read through and edit, and then publish. I rarely let something sit for a couple days before posting it.
Since I kept thinking of new—or at least somewhat new—ideas this week, I kept getting excited about those ideas, thinking them through while shoveling pig shit into a wheelbarrow (the job during which much of my thinking happened this week) and then realizing they needed to stew in the back of my brain a bit more before I should write a post about them. It didn’t take many repetitions of this process before I found myself a week out from my last new post and still uncertain of what to write next.
In a roundabout way, I’m getting to the point of today’s post. It’s an idea that I’ve been thinking about for a couple years now, and that I’ve talked about with other people multiple times. It’s one, in fact, that I’ve been meaning to write about here. It’s the idea that one of the challenges facing us here in America (and probably in many other industrialized nations, though I don’t feel I know enough to speculate) is that so many of us don’t take the time to think about, on a slow and deep level, our lives and our ideas about those lives.
I think this reality comes out in the shallowness of so much of our discourse, both on the national and personal level. I know that, throughout much of my life, I’ve tended toward shallow and simple interpretations of ideas and failed too often to reflect well on my life and the world around me. I dare say that many other people in this country are in the same boat. We can see it in the dominance of memes, the conventionality of superficial “wisdom,” the ways in which our politicians and leaders speak in cliches and sound bites. We can see it in the aversion to challenges of our assumptions and in the escape into simple and safe topics like sports and celebrity culture. We can see it in the willful blindness to the environmental destruction and social injustices littering our lives and the world’s landscape. We can see it, day in and day out, in the desperate demagoguery of a nation whose ideas of itself are failing at an ever increasing rate.
We can see it also in the bad work we do. In fact, I think the bad work we do tends to perpetuate this lack of serious consideration. I base this assumption in large part on my own experiences in the world before I began to farm. In those days, I worked retail jobs. I found the work mostly devoid of meaning, outside of the occasional moment of helping someone with a particular problem, such as how to hook up a DVD player. Now, in itself, hooking up a DVD player’s not particularly meaningful work. But it did involve helping a fellow human being, and in that it was a moment of simple human connection in an otherwise inhumane job. It was a very shallow representation of community but, shallow or not, it provided a small bit of substance to my work.
Overall, though, the job mostly involved selling unnecessary products to people who didn’t need them. Working in the electronics department of a general retailer, I sold distraction and shallow satisfaction to people who wanted not to think too much about their lives. I can’t see much other reason for constant consumption of movies, music, television, the internet, video games and the purchase of a wide array of electronic gadgets—most intended to provide easier consumption of the aforementioned media. In fact, I experienced all of that myself. In those days, I consumed much the same media, and at a rate commensurate with most of my customers. I filled a good percentage of my non-working time with dulling media, electronic gadgetry, and flickering screens of all kinds.
All that media-based distraction worked on two levels. First of all, it directly seeded the dominant memes, themes and narratives of our very sick and dysfunctional culture into my brain, warping my thought patterns to fit those themes. Second, it kept me from engaging in the sort of deep thought and consideration that allows one to question and get away from those narratives, see the functioning of society with a clear-eyed observance, properly evaluate one’s own life, and understand one’s own behavior. These are all critical activities to engage in if we’re going to have a healthy society and culture, and they’re all behaviors that are dangerously scarce in our current society.
There’s another element to these distractions and to the reality of my job that plays into our disconnect from deep consideration of our lives, though, and that’s the lack of a true break from work and distraction. Most people have jobs that provide little to no break time. Most have a weekend, of course, but those tend to be filled with distractions and whatever necessary household work needs to be done that hasn’t been outsourced to machines or corporations. It is, in other words, not much of a break. Some of the luckier workers out there also have vacation time, but that’s generally only a couple weeks a year, and many people try to cram all kinds of desperate “fun” into that time, again leaving themselves not much of a true break.
The thing about deep thought and consideration is that it’s about impossible to do without a significant amount of time. I’m not talking about a couple hours or a couple days, but probably more along the lines of weeks or, ideally, months. If you’ve been working at a breakneck pace for a good chunk of the year, having a couple days off doesn’t give you a chance to really come down from that pace and reorient yourself to a new one. It especially doesn’t allow that if you’re anticipating your imminent return to work. Having a couple weeks off provides that a bit better, but again not if you spend a good chunk of that time worrying about your return to work, and not if you’re spending much of that time desperately trying to cram in a year’s worth of fun before you go back to the drudgery of your job. What it comes down to, ultimately, is that these time frames don’t work on a human scale. The weekend or two week vacation is not the natural time frame for a human’s annual rest.
The winter, on the other hand, seems to me a much more natural time frame for a significant break, providing true rest and renewal. And that’s something that I’ve come to understand over the last few years as I began to farm. My first two seasons of farming were followed by a winter without work, floating around in Portland, staying with family and friends, doing a bit of traveling on the cheap, reading a ridiculous amount, and engaging in a lot of thought and reflection. It wasn’t the greatest use of my winter in a financial sense, but it was a brilliant use of those winters from the standpoint of my health and humanity. What I found during those long periods of rest and renewal was that I was able to slow my mind and body, slip deep into my thoughts, evaluate the year that had passed, learn lessons that I couldn’t learn during the frenzy of the working year—the growing season—and make good plans for the next year.
It didn’t escape my notice, of course, that this humane pace coincided with natural cycles. This, then, is one of the beauties of farming and of engaging in other forms of work that are tied to the natural cycles of this planet: they help provide for natural cycles of thought, consideration, and personal growth. I think most of us desperately need to spend some time in these cycles, and have a period of rest and renewal much as the earth partakes in during winter. Far too much of our lives are spent rushing from one distraction to the next, or from one obligation to another. It never leaves us time to think and consider. It never leaves us time to learn from our mistakes, learn from our unhappiness, learn from our joy, learn from our successes and failures. We’re always on to the next thing, and the next thing always dominates our thought process.
I believe that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to stray so far off course as a culture. We can only engage in the sort of environmental destruction, human-caused misery, and bad work that we engage in if we never give ourselves time to think about it, consider it, recognize these failings and commit to change and improvement for the future. By having diverted ourselves into work that mostly has divorced itself of the natural cycles, we’ve removed ourselves from our own natural cycles of work and reflection and have thus eliminated one of our most critical tools for growth and self-renewal. We can’t work and distract ourselves constantly, without break, indefinitely, without losing much of our capacity for personal growth. And if we lose our capacity for personal growth, we necessarily lose our capacity for societal and cultural growth.
The even greater danger of this reality is that it becomes a self-reinforcing loop. As we stray from natural cycles that promote our own personal growth and health, we grow less healthy and more stunted. This bleeds into the culture and society at large, increasing the likelihood of doing bad and destructive work. The more we engage in bad and destructive work, the more we must escape from that reality and deny its existence, simply to maintain our own sanity. This leads us to further distraction and the repetition of shallow but comforting memes and narratives. Wrapping ourselves in these memes and narratives, we shield ourselves from the important truths we’ve been ignoring, which makes it all the easier to do bad work and distract ourselves. We become ever more removed from the natural world, ever more removed from natural cycles, and ever more removed from our own humanity and the world around us.
The good news, though, is that we can break out of this loop. I did this a few years ago by beginning to farm. Granted, breaking free from that loop was more complicated than that and was a much longer process of allowing myself glimpses of my deeper reality even while trapped in a system of destruction, but I think it really kicked into high gear when I started to do work that was tied to the natural cycles of the earth. Once I made that transition, I actually put myself into another self-reinforcing loop, but one that was of a much more positive bent. By engaging in good work tied to the land, I tied myself to natural cycles. By tying myself to those cycles, I begin to slip back into the natural human cycles of work and rest, of action and reflection. This promoted deeper thought and consideration of my own life and of the society and culture around me, the revelations of which encouraged me to continue down the path of doing good work and tying myself to the natural cycles of the earth. Each season, that work and those cycles helped me to understand the world better, understand myself better, and to do yet better work and tie myself yet more to the earth. As I spent my time of rest reflecting on my own personal issues, my own behaviors and reactions, I begin to better understand them, to grow healthier, and to become more attuned with the world around me and more eager to engage in good work. I therefore reversed the cycle of bad work and turned it instead into a cycle of good work.
This reversal is one of my major sources of hope for the future. Having seen the way that a change in work provided me so many benefits and so much better a life, I have hope that it could do the same for others. And by many, many accounts I’ve read and heard, it can. It does. I think most of us take very well to this reversal because it begins to feed many of our natural thought processes and cycles. It feeds our humanity and ties into needs and desires that exist in us at a genetic level.
Granted, not everyone will take to such a change in work and lifestyle. But I believe many of us will when given the opportunity or simply forced into such a change. If the future plays out in a fashion similar to how I think it will, then many people who currently live lives divorced from the world’s natural cycles will be forced to live lives much more in tune with those cycles. And while that transition will no doubt prove challenging, it may also prove quite rewarding. For those who embrace the change, and who find themselves through that rough transition, they’ll likely settle into a positive feedback loop that will foster personal growth and improved health, as well as improved connections to the natural world and the ability to see our personal, societal, cultural and environmental interactions in a much more holistic manner.
I’ve experienced this change and I’ve met many others who have experienced it, as well. It’s real, and it strikes me as an honest hope for our future. That doesn’t mean I think we’ll all adjust to a very different future without trouble. It doesn’t mean that I think any of this will be easy. And it doesn’t mean that I think the future will be inherently better than the present. But it is a hope—a very real hope—and I’ll take whatever honest hope I can find.
An entry in the How To Be Poor series
Friday morning, I found myself sitting on the back patio of the town house my mother’s rented here in Sedona, Arizona, basking in a warm February sun with a good book and a hot cup of coffee. This proved quite the pleasure for me this time of year, being used to Oregon weather. Finding myself lucky enough to have access to that pleasure, I was taking full advantage, enjoying the easy comfort of a morning with nothing to do but read and think.
The good book in question was The Winter of Our Discontent, which is perhaps a subtle irony considering how contented I feel this winter. Early in the novel, the bank teller, Joey Morphy, tells the main character, Ethan Hawley, the one sentence that sums up everything he knows about business: “Money gets money.” The passage struck me as quite relevant to my discussion here of voluntary poverty and, I believe, gets at a deeper truth that helps to obstruct our responses to the future.
Money does get money in our society and I think most people understand this, consciously or not. Much of our economy these days is about money making money, using money to make investments which then return more money. This is a form of making money very removed from any actual physical goods or services. Think CDSs, derivatives, and the like.
Of course, this entire system of money getting money is dependent upon a growing economy. Money can’t get money in a steady state economy—it can only change hands or take different forms. The sharp observer will note that this correlates to the first law of thermodynamics. The sharp observer will further note the correlation between money and energy. The sharp observer will still further note that we’ve been mining and burning fossil fuels for the last few centuries, layering the energy from that on top of the sustainable flows of energy this planet has available to it, acting as though all that extra energy is permanent, and are right around now facing the peak and beginning of the decline of that extra energy. Due to the correlation between money (or economic activity) and available energy, that means we’re facing the end of economic growth and the beginning of economic contraction.
While that’s a simplistic summary of a complex reality, I do believe the general outline to be correct and that economic contraction is the near-term future we face. In such a future, money will no longer get money. This is true in a few different ways.
First, without economic growth as a widespread, standard reality, the system of credit and debt service we’ve come to think of as normal will no longer function. Debt won’t be able to be paid back with interest because people’s incomes won’t be growing. Rather, they’ll likely be shrinking. This presents an entirely new reality and is going to necessitate new forms of economic and financial activity.
Second is a deeper reality behind the idea that money gets money, and that’s rooted in the belief that money equals wealth, resources, and security. This is an assumption that most all of us in industrialized nations make. It’s the sense that you can always buy your survival so long as you have enough dollars in the bank. Money equals food, shelter, heat, clothing, water, everything. That’s the assumption, and it’s a fair one to make because it has tended, in recent and industrialized times, to be true.
Under this rubric, we could restate “money gets money” as “money gets security,” or “money gets comfort,” or “money gets your very life.” And this idea—so prevalent in our society—works very well to limit our response to the future. For those who can’t move past this idea and expect it to be permanently true, the goal continues to be to make a certain amount of money—and often, for that to be more money than they’re currently making. This is often done at the expense of building any kind of resiliency and alternate options into their lives. If they’re right about the future continuing on much as the present (or perhaps I should say the past, as the present isn’t a particularly good argument against economic chaos and a dysfunctional financial system) then their response is a sane and logical one. If they’re wrong, though, then their response is at best painful and at worse deadly, limiting their ability to respond to a dramatically different future.
My view, of course, is the one that says we face a future of economic chaos and a dysfunctional financial system. I feel comfortable in that view, based on the simple deductive reasoning that we are running our economic system on stores of energy that we’ll never get back; that we’ve hit the peak of those stores of energy; that those stores of energy will be declining in the future; that all the plans thus far conceived to replicate those stores of energy in a renewable fashion have had fatal flaws, with the most common one being a complete reliance on the stores of energy that are going away; and that economic contraction is, thus, almost certain to follow. How that plays out is not a prediction I’m willing to make. Economies are incredibly complex, and they often function in surprising manners. But in general, I imagine we’ll face a lot of chaos which all relates back to contraction and the end of growth. And that chaos is certain to make the money that we’ve come to think equals our very lives much less reliable and potentially worthless.
But because so many of us are locked into the idea that money gets money and that money gets security, even those of us who believe the future will be erratic and uncertain in economic terms still too often turn to ideas of how to lock in our money. So we look at buying gold, or investing in TreasuryDirect holdings, or buying ammo and freeze dried food, or buying farm land. But none of those things are guaranteed. We don’t know what’s going to happen to the value of gold and if we find ourselves going through a stretch in which economic chaos strips money of its value, gold may be considered largely useless, as well—at least in terms of our day-to-day survival. TreasuryDirect holdings could be seized by the government or the federal government could default. Ammo and freeze dried food only last a short while, and the future we face is not going to be about sticking out a couple bad months or finding your living through domination and violence. Even farm land is vulnerable, as valuable as it is. A floundering government could slip into authoritarian control or raise taxes to the point of being unpayable, and could then take your land. Alternately, your farm land is not particularly valuable if it isn’t surrounded by a coherent and resilient community. Now, granted, if I had money myself, I would happily look for some good land to buy, but I wouldn’t consider that any true guarantee for the future.
Of course, I don’t have any real money, so I don’t speak from complete experience here, but I can understand why those who do have a decent chunk of money saved would like to keep it from disappearing. That feels like security, and you want even more to hold onto it in the face of bad times. But the bad times likely coming are exactly the sort of times during which money may lose much of its function and utility. Again, how that plays out is anyone’s guess. Inflation, deflation, a combination of the two, national default, cratered confidence—it’s all on the table. But likely it will be some chaotic mixture of all these potential outcomes and the end result is that the money economy probably won’t guarantee you much of anything.
In other words, future security isn’t about money—it’s more likely about skill, flexibility, adaptability, the ability and desire to do real work, and community. Future security is not guaranteed under any circumstance. We’re facing a time of instability—the sooner we all get used to and accept that reality, the better we’ll be able to deal with our future realities.
There’s also a dirty little secret here that few want to talk about, but that I think is critical to address. Money shouldn’t get money—at least, not when money has been so divorced from good work, and not when cruelty and bad work so readily makes us money, as is the case today. We’ve created a corrupt and diseased system in which money tends not to go to those who do good work or make the world a better place or simply earn an honest and nondestructive living, but toward those who exploit and dominate, deal in violence, and act ruthlessly. That’s a godawful system to hand our livings over to, and we can readily see the effects of it all around us. The environmental devastation, social injustice, enslavement, murder and desperate miasma that so many wade through every day is partly a byproduct of the money system we have today. Its collapse, therefore, opens up new avenues to make ourselves a better world, even though the transition is likely to be painful.
That doesn’t mean, I want to make clear, that the collapse of our current money system will make for a better world. It simply will help clear some of the decrepit social infrastructure and institutions that help maintain the system of destruction. To make this a better world is going to involve a lot of hard work, contemplation, consideration, awareness and probably a good bit of luck. It, much like our future well being, is in no way guaranteed.
This, however, is the hope in voluntary poverty. If money will no longer guarantee your future, then voluntary poverty is a fine way to begin eliminating your dependence on and belief in money. It opens up new avenues for a better way of life, before the outside happenings of society, politics and the economy impose those new avenues on you, whether you’re ready for them or not. It also allows you to begin to explore better ways to live, and they are abundant. Stripping yourself of the trappings of wealth while you reacquaint yourself with the natural world around you, the enrichment of honest community, the deep satisfaction of good and healthy work well done, the time to think and relax, and the pleasure of clear-eyed observation makes for a particularly good life—and one that, after what can admittedly be a rough transition, proves radically reaffirming in our very disturbed world. Learning new skills and beginning the long process of taking back the responsibility of your own living provides a meaning and purpose that the industrialized, exploitative economy almost never offers.
Learning, in fact, that you are an actual, unique and beautiful, joyful, caring and thoughtful, talented and living and vital human being—someone who enriches this world and can provide so much to so many—and that you are a part of a broader world containing billions upon billions of other creatures that are as unique, as beautiful, as heartening and mystical and compelling as you; learning that all of us have the capacity to be something more than identical pegs to be slotted into identical slots to keep the machinery of wealth-via-destruction functioning—and that, goddamn it, this world that constantly exists and functions and breathes and beats with a pulse more powerful than any of us can comprehend is so filling and engrossing and substantial and nurturing, providing so much happiness and connection; learning that this world—our world—is there, waiting, and will fill us up if only we go outside and confront it honestly and let it in and begin the process of understanding it, and our true relationship with it, and all the ways in which we can break and betray that relationship, and all the ways in which we can stop that betrayal; well, learning all that provides the actual life that we so desperately try to purchase with money every single day.
And so you know what? It’s time that money no longer gets money. Not money as we know it today. It’s time that we transition to something very different, to a life that is built on skill and good work, community and friendship and the constant, honest evaluation of our place within and behavior toward our world. That’s a transition that’s coming, by necessity if nothing else. It may go bad. It hopefully will go right. Either way, there are no guarantees other than that the transition will be harsh and painful at times. But this world as we know it today is harsh and painful and to be afraid of walking away from it is not only an abdication of responsibility, but it’s a cruelty to ourselves. It’s a condemnation. And at this point, I don’t think we can afford any more condemnations.
A society and economy built on the work of uniquely skilled people, on caring community, even on the travails of being human in a challenging but joyful world, is better than one built on ill-gotten money. A society and economy with dramatically less material goods and comfort but with the predominance of good and necessary work, and the honesty of getting by and making do, is better than one brimming with luxuries bought with ill-gotten money. A society and economy built on skills that provide the means of life, physical labor, and the ability to work within the planet’s natural flows of energy and resources is better than one in which ill-gotten pieces of paper determine who lives well, who lives poor, and who dies or is murdered.
Voluntary poverty offers a way for those of us living in the very distorted world of industrialization to begin moving toward that better world. It’s a way for us to learn a new sum of our business knowledge—a sum that doesn’t state that “money gets money,” but states something very different, something much more humane, something much more caring and honest, and something that provides a good life which can’t be casually purchased but instead must be gained through good work and community.
A life, in other words, that must be gained not through money, but through our humanity.
This is Part Three of the How To Be Poor introduction. Read Part One and Part Two.
On The Road
I have not been living poor the last few days. In fact, I’ve been living . . . well, if not quite rich by American standards, then at least upper middle class. It hasn’t been with my money, though, which is the only reason I’ve been able to do it. My mother rented a place in Sedona, Arizona for the month and asked me if I would help her drive down from Portland. Having missed the Arizona desert in the last few years and having a flexibility in my life and work that allows for such a prolonged trip, I took her up on the offer, with the one alteration being that I would return on the train rather than by air. With plans thus set, we departed on Sunday and, over the next three days, drove the 1,400 miles here to red rock country, where I’m now staying until next Sunday.
As I noted, this has not been a life of poverty the last few days. Not only have we driven 1,400 miles, with all the attendant gasoline costs that entails, but we’ve also eaten out several times, to the point that I very fast became sick of the bread-and-meat meals of roadside diners. I also grew tired from the driving—I ended up doing all of it, which was fine by me, but one grows a bit weary after eight or nine hours straight of being on the highway. By the time we would stumble into our motel room in the evening, I wanted little more than to pass out on one of the room’s uncomfortable beds, allowing my body a recharge from an exhaustion that only the most brutal day of farming could recreate.
On the third day of driving, just after some meat and bread at a cafe in Needles, I decided to depart Interstate 40 in favor of a stretch of Route 66 that travels about 45 miles between Topock Bay, through the blatant tourist trap of Oatman (complete with a significant herd of tame burros milling about in the road) through the Black Mountains and over the beauty of Sitgreaves Pass, and then back to I-40 near Kingman. Now, I suspect most people reading this have at least heard of Route 66, whether or not you’re particularly familiar with it. Suffice it to say, Route 66 holds a certain significance in the American consciousness. It stretched from Los Angeles to Chicago and was the first highway to be fully paved in America. It assisted the migration of farmers devastated during the Dust Bowl, provided business to towns during the Great Depression, and abetted economic migration during World War II. Route 66, however, truly reached its zenith as the romantic epitome of happy motoring during the 1950s, as it became the route to Los Angeles for vacationing families. The increased traffic saw the rise of the sort of roadside attractions now considered gloriously kitschy and a throwback to the height of Americana, helped to spawn the fast food industry, and further cemented the car as the center of American life.
While I had to do a bit of research to come up with that fairly straightforward summary of Route 66, I didn’t need Wikipedia to feel the allure of Route 66 while driving East through Southern California and into Arizona. Every time I saw one of those brown signs noting access to Historic Route 66 at the next exit, I wanted to veer off onto that potholed, two-lane road, drop the windows, put my arm out into the wind and rocket toward my destination. Despite knowing that the road would be rough, the towns would be dead and devastated, and that the route no longer held the distinctly American romanticism of car culture, I couldn’t help but be called by the cultural heritage of the road—by that American obsessiveness over the car, that ideal of paved freedom. I wanted off that easy Interstate and onto something gritty and real and wide open—Route 66, promising a freedom and glory found nowhere else.
How did I get sucked into this ideal? I don’t know, to be honest. But I’m sure it came out of a combination of growing up immersed in American popular culture and spending significant amounts of time in automobiles. While I never watched the show, I certainly am familiar with the song. I saw Cars, as mediocre a film as it was, and my heart did soar at the site of those anthropomorphized automobiles zooming through the Arizona desert. I lived for a year in Arizona when I was sixteen, and during that time I took multiple road trips through that same desert with my mother, in her beat up but faithful white pickup. Every time we crested a small rise and saw the road unfurling for miles before us, the desert stretching out impossibly far on each side, I couldn’t help but feel an intoxicating joy and freedom. All those cultural impressions and personal experiences with road trips no doubt brewed themselves into an emotional stew in which the ideal of Route 66—particularly its Arizona stretches—served brilliantly as the main ingredient.
So during our stop for lunch in Needles, looking over the road map and seeing that stretch of Route 66 winding its way through the Black Mountains, I couldn’t help but divert into what seemed a promising adventure. We zipped a few miles down I-40 and then exited off onto Route 66. Off the Interstate and therefore no longer doing 80mph, I cranked down the window to enjoy the warm air and began the slowed drive, going about 45, waiting for the romanticism to wash over me.
What happened instead in those first few minutes was a significant adjustment period. After doing nearly twice that speed, 45mph seemed plodding to me, and I had to resist the urge to rev up the engine and shoot down the road at a considerably higher speed. Before long, another car came up behind me wanting to go faster and this proved annoying, having to deal with the vagaries of another human being’s desires, rather than having multiple lanes and light enough traffic to rarely be impeded or pressured by another—to have all the easy whims of my exact desired usage of my machine satisfied. Eventually, the motorist passed me on a straightaway, and I relaxed a bit.
The road was bumpy, of course, as opposed to the smooth ride of the Interstate. It twisted and turned and wound around, rarely taking the fastest route and often traveling with the land. There were multiple points at which washes simply went over the road, meaning the road would be flooded during rainstorms. Yellow signs helpfully suggested that drivers not enter into the wash when it was flooded. The road felt in many ways a part of the landscape. Rather than being raised and separated and cutting harsh through the land as the Interstate did, it meandered with the counters of the hills and the sides of the road seemed to fade and disappear into the desert sand and rock. The protection was minimal—the road expected a certain level of competence and attention.
While there’s a certain thick irony in relating the transition to poverty as a response to peak oil with the transition from an Interstate to an old section of Route 66, I intend to do just that. As I drove along Route 66, I couldn’t help but see the parallels. The Interstate provided the height of modern transportation convenience. It traveled more often than not in a straight line, was paved smooth, was elevated and separated from the land and, indeed, dominated the land. It provided for a very high speed of travel and, as such, I traveled the road with the windows up, with a full enclosure and separation from the landscape and climate around me. The multiple lanes and relatively sparse traffic allowed me a high degree of separation from other drivers, allowing me to mostly keep the exact speed I wanted and not to be impeded or pressured by drivers going too slow or fast for my taste. The highway was dotted with convenient rest areas and continual access to restaurants, fuel stations and other businesses. The Interstate coddled its passengers, providing for everything at all points, and demanding the least amount of attention and foresight as possible.
The old Route 66, on the other hand, worked with the land. It meandered and presented constant sharp turns and curves, blind corners, washes that could flood the road, often a lack of guardrails, and few sections that were straight and smooth. It was bumpy and rutted and provided a basic form of transport, at least in today’s terms. Compared to the Interstate, it was not particularly fast or efficient. At best, I would creep up to 50 or 55, rather than 80, and getting from point A to point B was a windy affair. At times, I had to come to a complete stop to allow for a bored burro to stare at my car indifferently (and that, I must admit, was one of the best moments of the detour.) Imagine coming to a full stop on the Interstate. It’s essentially unthinkable.
Route 66 assumed a certain amount of skill and attention, and failed to coddle the driver at every turn. The availability of fuel and food and services along that stretch of the old route was minimal and the only rest area was in Oatman. There was, however, the occasional shoulder to pull off of and plenty of desert ground upon which to pee, should one need to do such a thing.
This all took some getting used to after traveling somewhere around 1,000 miles along the coddled reality of the Interstate. Dropping from 80mph to 45mph proved annoying and frustrating at first, as I had to adjust to a speed that, while fast, seemed interminably slow at first glance. The first few miles of the transition, I couldn’t help but feel like it was taking too long to get where I was going. But as the beauty of the landscape washed over me and my speed transitioned from an impediment to a luxury, I began to appreciate the moment. My speedometer dropped from 45 to 40, and then down to 35. Eventually I was driving at 30mph, and I didn’t give a damn if I ever returned to the Interstate. The landscape called to me, the fresh air felt glorious, and eventually I just decided to pull over to the side of the road and actually take a few minutes to revel in the beauty around me and not to worry about getting to where I was going. I was already somewhere beautiful—why did I need to get farther down the road?
Moving from the Interstate to 66 took a few moments of transition and required some reorientation of my thinking, but once I did that, I fell in love with my new reality. I gloried in the beauty and joy of it, in the easy relaxation that came with not desperately trying to accomplish something so much as appreciating the present reality. And that’s a definite parallel to the transition to a life of poverty. You can’t go into it expecting the same sort of happiness and comfort and satisfaction that a middle class lifestyle offers. You can’t, in other words, get on Route 66 and expect to go 80, and to have to keep your window rolled up, and desire a smooth ride. You’ll be disappointed. But if you roll down the window and take in the fresh air, slow down and enjoy the views of the landscape, and marvel at the way the road blends into the landscape rather than dominating it, you’re going to find new sorts of joys, and you might find they’re better than the old ones.
Writing about that sort of transition—that altering of one’s mind frame—is going to be the main focus of the How To Be Poor series. The reason for this is twofold. First of all, I think that’s the more interesting aspect of living in poverty, and I think it’s the more important aspect of it. While the actual practices and realities of poverty are a huge piece of such a life, so too is the mental and emotional frame of mind if you’re coming from a position of not living in poverty. In many ways, that’s what provides much of the challenge—learning to let go of that previous way of life and figuring out how to derive your joy and happiness and comfort in entirely new ways. Second of all, I’ll be writing about the theory of poverty because I have minimal experience with the hard realities of living in poverty. I’m still figuring all that out and so I don’t want to start throwing out untested ideas and applications and claiming them to be an effective framework for living in poverty. That strikes me as an unhelpful approach, and an arrogant one.
That doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that there won’t be practical information in future posts. But my current plan is to put most of that in The Household Economy posts (that introduction coming soon.) I’ll be writing about my gardening and homesteading activities in that category, as well as any salvaging or working with salvaged materials. I hope and expect that information and those stories will prove helpful, but they will be the stories of someone still very much figuring out how to live poor, and how to do it effectively. Their value, therefore, will be in shared trial and error more than in experienced instruction.
My Particular Poverty
In conclusion to this introduction to the How To Be Poor series, I want to be very clear about where I’m coming from in regards to my own experience of voluntary poverty. I do this for multiple reasons. First of all, I’m new to this as a conscious project, though I have been scaling back my life for a few years now. I want it to be clear that I’m writing not as someone who is experienced and practiced with living in poverty, but as someone who is struggling with that transition. I suspect that will be helpful for many of you, as I suspect that many of you aren’t particularly poor. For those of you who are already poor, I hope that what I write will prove helpful, anyway, and that I won’t embarrass myself in the process.
That brings me to another reason to be explicit about my poverty—which is that I’m not particularly poor. Granted, I do make an income that is officially below the line of poverty, but I still maintain access to too many comforts to consider myself truly poor. I am not living in poverty the way millions of people in this country live in poverty, or the way in which billions throughout the world do. I don’t lack for food or water, for housing and shelter, for good work, or even for entertainment. All of this is available to me and I partake in all of it. I own a car and I can buy gas for it. I have credit cards, and tens of thousands of dollars in available credit (though I don’t intend to use that.) I have family and friends who would take me in should I ever find myself in a much worse financial system. I have a level of security and comfort that simply belies the idea that I am truly living in poverty.
And that’s why I’m writing about voluntary poverty. That is most certainly what I’m participating in here, not in any sort of forced poverty. As such, I want to further enumerate my reality a bit, just to be as explicit as possible.
Here are the raw numbers. I made about $800 in January, which seems rich to me. In the context of the world, of course, that is rich. I have about $6,000 in credit card debt and over $10,000 in student debt. I plan to pay off the credit card debt over the next 12-18 months, if all goes well. I have no idea when and if I’ll ever pay off the student debt. I have over $3,000 in the bank. I own my car out right, but I worry it’s in need of some repair. I pay $325 in rent. Soon, I’ll be doing work-trade for my rent. I’ll write more about that in a future post.
Aside from the numbers, I live well. My current residence is a 12 foot diameter yurt, and I love it. Eventually it will be a couple rooms in a studio house on a different farm. I have a good amount of kitchen gear, more books than I can read, plenty of clothes, some good shoes, a laptop, a cell phone, good beer to drink, great food to eat, and more. I have a level of luxury and comfort available to me that is quite impressive, even though I have a small income. I also live alone, and don’t have to support or help support anyone else.
When I write about my voluntary poverty, to again be clear, I am writing about it in the sense of someone who has mostly lived a middle class, comfortable existence and who is now attempting to scale back to something resembling a comfortable and happy poverty. That strikes me as a very complicated goal, but it’s the one before me. But I am not struggling to put food on my plate, or keep a roof over my head, to escape the elements or find work. I have two jobs. I have comfort and security. Yes, that could go away at some point, but for the time being I feel good about my future. My goal is to ratchet back a bit more all the time, to learn to live with as little as possible, to turn comfort into discomfort and learn how to make that discomfort comfortable. This is voluntary, and I am lucky.
And so this series will be about changing my frame of mind, shedding the trappings of wealth, figuring out the most simple and basic comforts, and lessening my dependence on money and machines and the traditional economy. This will be about discovering my humanity, opting out of the industrial society as much as I can, and preparing for a much more harsh and trying future. It will also be about finding the joy in all of this, and acknowledging the challenges and hardships, and hopefully this series won’t slip into something insulting to people who are experiencing true, involuntary poverty. That’s one of my greatest concerns here, that I don’t act blithe in the face of all those who experience a poverty that I’ve never come close to experiencing.
This is going to be, then, about me attempting to learn well how to be poor, to share the attitudes and ideas that strike me as particularly helpful, and hopefully to get some good advice and feedback from readers. As such, I encourage comments and have been heartened and grateful for the comments already received. I think there’s a lot of value in the work of learning to be poor. I hope, ultimately, that this series reflects that, helps bring a few of you along the path with me, and facilitates others sharing their knowledge with me and other readers here.
More to come soon.