Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category
I lived in the White Mountains of Arizona throughout my sixteenth year. My mother owned a coffee shop there, in the small town of Pinetop. Visiting one summer, I fell in love with the area and decided to move there and help her run the coffee shop while attending the local high school.
The town we lived in was only a few miles away from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. One night we drove into that reservation to meet up with a friend of my mother’s who taught there, to watch a ceremonial dance performance by members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. The three of us were white and upon arriving and settling into some bleacher seats in the small open air theater, I found myself face to face with an experience that, so far as I could remember, had never really happened to me before: being a conspicuous minority. Looking around the audience, I saw no one else who was white. The seats were filled with Native Americans.
Of course, no one took particular notice of us, but I still found myself with a very heightened awareness of the color of my skin and it was a new experience. By the time I had become aware of race and ethnicity, I lived in Vancouver, Washington, which is a mighty white town. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which is a mighty white region. I happily lived my life amongst a super majority of white people and never had to take particular notice of the color of my skin since I was surrounded by other people who took no particular notice of the color of my skin.
That moment among an audience of Apaches, watching a ceremonial performance, briefly punctured my bubble of privilege. For perhaps the first time, I couldn’t simply take advantage of the idea that white was the norm. I briefly lost the privilege of my skin color being the standard. This was a moment of importance because, it has to be said, there is an emotional security—not to mention a literal security—in being part of the majority, whatever that majority is, and in losing that security for a short time, I became better aware of it. The privilege of being in the majority is that your ordinariness protects you. You take advantage of the lack of deviance. You don’t have to constantly question how others will react to you, whether or not you will be the victim of violence, if you will be shunned or condemned, ridiculed, looked down upon or distrusted. It’s a lovely way to live your life, but it’s not a loveliness that’s extended to everyone.
Of course, this claim to the majority can manifest in a multitude of ways: the color of your skin, your religious beliefs, gender, behavior, the ability to recognize and perpetuate cultural markers, material belongings, adherence to cultural worldviews, and so on. Likely all of us belong in some ways and don’t in others. But these forms of majority adherence vary, as does their importance and the protection afforded by them. The color of your skin has a greater impact on how you’re treated in this society than whether or not you’re excited about Super Bowl XLVII, for instance. Yet, while every American varies in their claims to majorities and minorities, there’s one protection, or privilege, afforded to every one of them. That’s the privilege of empire.
All of us Americans live in the world’s current empire, and that simple fact brings a host of benefits, no matter who you are. It provides potential access to a per capita share of the world’s energy and resources far and above any other country. The United States uses about a quarter of the world’s energy and a third of the world’s resources, with only a twentieth of the world’s population. But in addition to that access to energy and resources—which is variable across the population as a whole—our status as the world’s empire provides every American a sense of security that we take advantage of daily. As the currently undisputed leader of the world, we have a certain faith that no other nation would dare try to invade us, that no nation would conduct a bombing campaign against us if we behaved in some manner they didn’t appreciate, that we mostly control the process at NATO and the UN, that organizations such as the WTO, World Bank, and IMF will safeguard our economic and political interests, and that we may act militarily with impunity throughout the world without threat of dire consequences. Granted, there are moments when these assumptions are tested—every empire has it’s moments of weakness, after all—but they by and large are truths that we take for granted.
We don’t live in fear of an imminent land invasion of our country. We don’t worry that if we upset another country with our economic actions, they’ll drum up some reason to invade, bomb, or sanction us. We aren’t forced to hand over our country’s energy and resources on another country’s terms. We aren’t under constant threat of regime change or coups funded and driven by another country’s actions. We’re not, ultimately, at the whim of a world power, with a sense that the wrong move could have drastic and destructive consequences. That is an immense privilege, and it’s something that all Americans are blessed with.
I’m 32 years old. I didn’t live through the Cold War or the Cuban Missile Crisis. I realize there have been times when some of these assumptions weren’t so assumed in this country—when we really did live in fear of another world power. But currently, and for the last few decades, this has been a country that has seemed safe from the rest of the world. We haven’t seemed immune, granted, from the occasional dastardly deed, but no one’s been cowering in a corner over an imminent invasion. Even those who might have been drastically worried about terrorist attacks would be more concerned about isolated incidents, not the total invasion and overthrow of our country. We have had the privilege of feeling safer in our land than perhaps any other country on this planet, and that sense of safety is a direct byproduct of the American empire.
I honestly don’t remember the first time I seriously imagined the idea of the United States being militarily invaded and the government overthrown by another country. I suspect I first considered it in my teens. I do have this sense of having been shocked by the idea, though. It was a moment of allowing myself the full impact of a taboo, of an impossibility. And the shock came not from any surprise that I could imagine such a scenario, but from the idea that it could happen to us. That it could happen to me. That my protective bubble could be burst. That I might be subject to the whims of another nation, to the whims of the rest of the world, rather than controlling my own destiny.
Throughout my remembered life, the dominance of America on the world stage has been a given. I’ve taken it for granted that we are safe from military invasion, from bombings, from the vagaries of other world leaders. I’ve taken it for granted that we are the ones in a position of power, and often times I never even thought about that position. It was just the natural state of being and not even something to be considered beyond that.
I imagine many Americans feel the same way, or have during long stretches of their lives. In fact, I think our national response to the 9/11 attacks confirms that. Eleven years on, I’ve lost most of the sense of raw emotion and near-disbelief that the immediate aftermath of that attack engendered in me, but I remember how stunned I was, how stunned we all were. Someone had attacked us. On our soil. Someone had dared to punch back, to bloody our mouth. No, it wasn’t a full-scale invasion, it wasn’t the overthrow of our government, it wasn’t the downfall of the American empire, though perhaps we’ll eventually look back on it as one of the important steps down that path. But it was an affront to our sense of national security, to our sense of invulnerability. We freaked the fuck out as a country. I remember talking to people who demanded we bomb Afghanistan into nothing. I remember the solemn assertions from a variety of national figures—political and otherwise—that we would hunt down and kill the people who had done this. I remember yet more dramatic and crazed claims. I remember the glazed looks of disbelief. I worked at Fred Meyer at the time, in the electronics department, and I was closing the night of September 11th. All the TVs were on and, of course, they all sported coverage of the attack and its aftermath. Throughout the night, there would at any one time be at least a few shoppers standing in front of the TVs, their eyes a bit glazed, just taking in what had occurred. We talked about it a bit. All of it seemed to come down to this sense of disbelief and, underneath that, a profound anger.
I bet a number of people saw Jon Stewart’s monologue on The Daily Show shortly after the 9/11 attacks. I recommend watching it above, even if you’ve already seen it. I still find it a remarkable speech; it overwhelmed me when it first aired. It’s powerful, raw, restrained and hopeful. There’s an anger in it, yes, but it’s quiet—far more quiet than most people’s anger during that time. It’s hard to watch, too, as Stewart is consistently overcome by emotion. It’s eloquent and heartening. But more than all that, it over and over again is an incantation. Stewart assures us during his speech that the American empire still stands, that we’re still the world’s good. “That’s really what this whole situation is about. It’s the difference between closed and open. It’s the difference between free and . . . burdened,” he says, invoking the freedoms of speech we live with here in America and contrasting it with the attackers and their assumed beliefs. Toward the end of the speech, he assures us, “We’ve already won. They can’t–it’s, it’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down.” And he closes on an incantation of imagery, noting that the view from his apartment, once the World Trade Towers, is now the Statue of Liberty. It’s intensely poetic—and it’s a final assurance, as well. America stands. Our safety stands. This too shall pass.
We all needed that at the time, and I think it’s why his speech is so enduring and was so celebrated when it first aired. Plenty of people assured us, but a number of them did it less eloquently, in far more crass terms. Many appealed to claims of power, of the certainty that we would destroy our opponents. But Stewart instead evoked our national myths with an eloquence and certainty. He justified our lost sense of security and promised its return. And at the time, reeling from a sudden sense of vulnerability and the emotional sting of having been proclaimed wrong and evil—even if we denied it vehemently—we needed nothing more than the return of our sense of security and the assurance that we deserved that security.
One of the most rejected ideas in our society is the idea that we’re vulnerable. We reject it as an empire would, certain in our power over the rest of the world. We reject it in the way we live, insisting that we can carry on forever as we do today, that the American way of life is non-negotiable. We reject the idea that we’re vulnerable to the natural systems that sustain us or that we have any need or responsibility to limit the way we impact them. We reject that there are any limits whatsoever for us that can’t be overcome with technology and ingenuity, which is ultimately a rejection of any sense of vulnerability. I can’t help but think that this refusal to accept limitation and vulnerability is rooted in good part in our empire and the sense of security and invulnerability it so often affords us. It’s an unthinking rejection, borne not of coherent thought and consideration but in the inability and unwillingness to imagine a world that we can’t conform to our desires.
And yet, we are vulnerable. We are beholden to limits. We can’t always make the world conform to our desires, despite illusions to the contrary. I believe the American empire is on its way out. I won’t venture to put an exact time line on its final gasps, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it sometime in the next forty years, which will hopefully be within my lifetime. I wonder, though, how we’ll react as a people when it does happen. September 11th provided us with a multitude of inspiring, human moments, but it also provided us with a certain sort of national insanity that continues to echo today. That wasn’t the collapse of the American empire; it was just a flesh wound, a surprisingly bloody lip. What happens when a new nation rises to be the world super power? What happens when our sense of security is gone forever, when the perks of empire dry up and are diverted to the new emperor, when we have to come to terms with a dramatically different and much more impoverished way of living?
I’m not a fan of the American empire, but I can’t deny that I’m a fan of its benefits. I appreciate the access to energy and resources, the sense of security it affords, all the ways it makes my life easier and more comfortable. I would like to think I would give it up tomorrow if offered the opportunity, but I don’t know for sure if that’s true. I do believe, though, that we’ve reached the point at which it makes more sense for us to walk away from our empire rather than try to maintain it. The returns are diminishing and the collapse of our empire is likely to drag us down into a worse future than we might have if we were to turn away from it now and start building a society that can run on more realistic energy and resource flows, at a level of complexity we could better maintain.
But would I give it up? I’m attempting to live a life of voluntary poverty, to reduce my dependence on a system that I believe is destructive and destined to fall apart. I’m attempting to better make my own living, to better engage in my local community, to increase my resiliency by decreasing my needs. But if our empire were to go away tomorrow, it would be a major loss. I’m still not prepared, and I likely won’t ever be. I want to say that I would give it up, that I would turn my back and walk away from a system beneficial to me personally but destructive to so many others, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. The reduction in standard of living worries me, yes, but it might be the loss of security that frightens me the most. John Michael Greer wrote a five-part narrative about one way the American empire might end. It involved military defeat, the United States walking right up to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and the ultimate break up of the Union. It disturbed me, I have to admit, to imagine in such stark terms a complete and utter loss of our security, of our seeming invulnerability on the world stage. What would it be to live in one of the countries at the mercy of our empire? What would it be to have your future so dependent on the whims of an empire and its people?
I can’t imagine.
And that’s the point. That’s the privilege of empire, and it’s a privilege all of us Americans would do well to start reconsidering and deconstructing.
This morning, I read a diary about guns at Daily Kos. For those who are unaware, Daily Kos is a liberal political blog focused on electing Democrats, and while there’s a range of thought on a variety of issues there—as well as some very smart people in the community—you primarily find orthodox liberal and Democratic views. As will likely surprise no one, gun control is very much supported at the site, though there also is a significant and vocal contingency of gun rights advocates there. The arguments over the issue are heated, even there on a site where most all the participants find themselves in much closer political agreement than within the country as a whole. Indeed, for many people there, the issue seems one of life and death—and no doubt it literally is considered that for a number of the participants.
Of course, you can see similar extremes of argument over a number of issues at the site, as you can at most any political blog of any stripe. Political discussion in this country is at a fever pitch of emotion and rhetoric and distinctly lacking, more often than not, in substance and rationality. The particular issue of gun control here isn’t so much important to what I want to say in this post, though, as is the form of political argument that makes these issues into life or death—into extremely charged outbursts of emotion. As I’ve recently written, there was a time when I engaged in similar outbursts and found myself absolutely vexed by the politics of this nation. I read and posted at Daily Kos and a number of other liberal blogs. I closely followed political news and happenings. I champed at the bit for a better world with more progressive policies in place in this nation and a contingent of Democrats holding the Presidency and majorities in Congress. To a large degree, I lived and died based on the whims of the political narratives, on my hopes and fears over various policy decisions and, even more so, on electoral outcomes.
I look back on those times with a certain bemusement. I don’t necessarily regret them—I had to go through all that to get to where I am today—but I don’t look at them fondly, either. I’m happy to be past that point in my life, because my extreme investment in this nation’s politics was rooted in deeper issues and thought patterns that I’ve had to abandon in more recent times to begin to live a life that actually makes me happy, and which I believe to actually be productive and beneficial to the community, as well. I’m thinking in particular of two myths that I believed in wholeheartedly and one resultant thought habit that I engaged in continually within the context of politics (and still engage in too often today.)
The myths are those of progress and apocalypse, and they’ve been written about extensively by John Michael Greer at The Archdruid Report. In the aforelinked post, Greer summarizes these two myths well, stating that “[b]elievers in progress argue that industrial civilization is better than any other in history, and its present difficulties will be solved if we just put enough money into scientific research, or get government out of the way of industry, or whatever else their single story presents as the solution to all problems. Believers in apocalypse argue that industrial civilization is worse than any other in history, and its present difficulties will end in a sudden catastrophe that will destroy it and usher in whatever better world their single story promises them — a better world in which they will inevitably have the privileged place denied them in this one.” Greer goes on to note that both of these myths are ultimately myths of Utopia. With the myth of progress, Utopia is brought about by the continuing progress of humanity while in the myth of apocalypse, Utopia is the ultimate result of the destruction of the currently wicked world, which conveniently kills off all the people the believer in apocalypse dislikes and leaves behind only like minded people who band together to create a utopian society out of the old world’s ashes.
My time within the world of politics was a result of my belief in both these myths. Initially, it was my belief in progress that largely drove my involvement. I saw the world as a beautiful place and our society as potentially a great one. But I also saw trouble: environmental devastation, discrimination and bigotry, a rigged economy and corrupt political system. I believed these problems could be solved via the election of the correct politicians and the application of proper legislative policy, but I believed they could also become worse with the wrong policies and politicians. In that sense, the myth of apocalypse played it’s role, as well. Initially during my time in politics, I had great faith in the future and believed it would be a better time, but I still saw the possibility for a much worse outcome with the wrong people in power. Thus, I agonized over our political scene and became emotionally entangled in the political process.
Over time, I began to transition from a favoring of the myth of progress to the myth of apocalypse. As I read about peak oil, climate change and ecosystem destruction, I saw a dark future ahead if we did not make dramatic changes in the way we lived. I wanted a ful fledged response to these crises, complete with a Manhattan Project-type response rooted in a full transition to renewable energies and a complete move away from fossil fuels. I saw this as imperative and, thus, I agonized over our political scene and became emotionally entangled in the political process.
Due to my belief in these two myths, I fell into a habit of thought that is common in our society: that of binary thinking. In the aforelinked post—again written by John Michael Greer, within a series of posts that eventually turned into his brilliant book on magic and peak oil, The Blood of the Earth—Greer notes that humans “normally think in binaries—that is, polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites. That habit is universal and automatic enough that it’s most likely hardwired into our brains, and there’s good reason why it should be. Most of the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah are most efficiently sorted out into binary pairs: food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and so on.” Continuing on, he raises one of the main problems with binary thinking, which is that it leaves no room for middle ground. Within the context of determining if something is food, that’s not a problem. But it’s very problematic when we’re trying to deal with complex issues or attempting to tease out a variety of possible responses to a problem, all of which may have their own levels of efficacy. We have to break out of our binary thought patterns if we’re to approach these problems well.
However, during my times of obsession with politics, it was these exact binary thought patterns coupled with my belief in the myths of both progress and apocalypse that caused me so much trouble. I believed in liberal and progressive ideals, so I saw Democratic politicians that expressed a belief in the same ideals as good and Republican politicians that disagreed with many of these ideals—or interpreted them differently—as bad. I didn’t make honest assessments of any of these politicians, for the most part, but instead fell into binary thinking patterns that layered emotional charges over those little “- D”s and “- R”s. What were those emotional charges? Well, they were progress and apocalypse. I saw the Democrats as leading toward progress and Utopia and the Republicans as leading toward the apocalypse.
Let’s go back to the gun control issue. In 2010, there were 30,470 firearm-related deaths. A bit under two thirds of those were suicides and the rest homicides. Now imagine that you support new gun control laws. If you fall into binary thinking, you’re going to see new gun control laws as being capable of saving the lives of thousands of people and preventing horrific tragedies like the Newtown shooting. A lack of new gun control laws means another 11,000 or so gun murders this year and perhaps another Newtown-like tragedy. This is literally a life and death issue. Gun control laws equal 11,000 people alive while no gun control laws equal 11,000 people dead.
Now spread this form of thinking across all political issues and suddenly you have the difference between progress and apocalypse. The complexity of these issues gets lost and the reality of the world does, as well. It becomes a battle between two myths, expressed in binary thinking that manifests itself in the taking of political sides. This is why I lived and died on these issues for a number of years during my time with politics. In my mind, this was an epic struggle for a bright future of progress and joy versus a dark and dystopic future of destruction and pain, of human misery. No, I didn’t always imagine it in such stark terms, but every policy decision was a step down one road or another and so they all felt so very monumental.
You can see this in the gun control debate. You have a number of people wanting more laws with the belief that it will greatly reduce gun deaths. But it’s not just about reducing gun deaths—it’s about the continued human progress that so many have come to accept as natural and inevitable. That’s what many people advocating for new gun control laws really are looking for. Then you have those on the other side that believe that new gun control laws will result in the confiscation of all weapons and the rule of a tyrannical government—in some major steps toward apocalypse, in other words. But neither outcome is likely. Progress is not inevitable and our immediate future suggests a distinct lack of it in many areas (though at least the possibility of progress in other areas, such as in deriving real meaning in our lives from human-scale living.) And a few new gun control laws are not a path to a tyrannical dictatorship. No one is proposing confiscating already-existing guns.
But it’s not about the actual outcomes of these policy decisions. It’s about the myths. It’s about Progress and Apocalypse. It’s about Utopia, and how we get there (because of course we’re going to get there, some way or another, right?) That’s what it was about for me when I was down in the muck of the political world and I can’t help but suspect that’s how it is for a number (though not all) of people who visit political blogs of all stripes. The emotionally-charged reactions and arguments that seem to suggest that every policy decision is a struggle to the death confirms as much. After all, at the end of the day, a few new mild gun control laws aren’t going to change the fact that we have a massive number of guns in this country already. It’s not going to change the underlying societal and cultural dynamics that produce our culture’s significant levels of violence. It’s not going to outlaw and confiscate all guns or mark the rise of a new American dictatorship. It’s not going to eliminate gun deaths.
No, any new gun control laws will do what most all of our policies do these days: futz around the edges, with predictably mild results. All of the few policy decisions you’ll see currently coming out of the American political system are completely unwilling to deal with the multitude of very real and big problems we face today. They won’t deal with our economic system’s dependence on the decayed undergirdings of cheap energy and perpetual growth, and the system’s resultant disintegration. They won’t deal with our atrophying culture and collective loss of faith in societal institutions. They won’t deal with the inability of our economic system to provide its citizens with honest work rooted in the necessities of life. They won’t deal with the collapse of the American empire and all the chaos and disruption that will create as we all find ourselves dealing with the resultant, significant decrease in wealth and security. They won’t deal with anything but appearances, with the hope that insubstantial tweaks to the same old system will pacify the public until the next election ramps up—which should be just around the corner.
In other words, the American political system of today is about running in place—and tearing your hair out while doing it. It’s a special kind of torture to place your most compelling hopes and fears upon the vagaries of our President and Congress. I say that from too much personal experience. This is not a system that has any interest in tackling our problems or in being honest with its electorate. It’s a system interested in perpetuating itself, first and foremost, and then putting on a particular sort of theatre for the common folk in the hopes that they won’t get too restless—or that their restlessness will be conveniently channeled into roughly equal, competing narratives that take the entirety of Congress itself out of the cross hairs.
And this is where the power of letting go comes in. Yes, it’s true that I still sometimes get caught up in the theatre. For the most part, though, I’ve tuned out the nonsense coming out of Washington D.C. and have instead focused on something that I can control and through which I can make some meaningful, if small, change: my own life. In letting go of politics and all the binary thinking it helps produce, I’ve allowed myself to get off the treadmill of disempowerment that is our political system and instead focused in on making changes within my own life, of doing honest work, and attempting to craft something of my own future. And I’ve never been happier. It’s challenging at times, of course, and moments of frustration and alienation are common, but I have a significant amount more of honest living in my day to day life than I did in the past.
Since I started farming in 2009, I’ve paid less and less attention to politics, and it’s been incredibly liberating. As I’ve introduce good work into my life, I’ve felt less need to outsource my future to others—politicians, primarily—and to live and die by their corrupt whims. In the last few years, I’ve mostly divested myself of the myths of progress and apocalypse, though they still make their appearances now and again. That, too, has been vastly liberating. I’ve come to better see the course of humanity’s history not as any sort of linear procession but as more cyclical, and even beyond that as more tumultuous. The passing of time is not a great narrative leading to a final ending but instead just a continual unfolding of the messiness and beauty and heartbreaking intensity of life. We are today at a time, with all its particularities, and tomorrow we’ll be at a different time, and further on at yet a different time. It’s not about a destination, it’s just this continual unfolding. And that’s good, because it’s thrilling and heartening and horrific, this life. It’s enchanting and astounding, overwhelming in all the best and worst ways. It’s a ridiculous blessing, being able to be here. And it’s a calling, too, to do good and honest work, to make our lives into something meaningful and lifting, to be human and embrace the insanity of it and to not let ourselves be guided by others or to be led sleepwalking through our existence, always waiting for someone else to make our lives into what we hope or fear they might be. That’s a slavery, a condemnation, and to instead take on our own lives and turn them toward the future we hope for—and to then continually deal with the future we actually get—is a liberation. It’s an empowerment, an honest freedom, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Here in America, we had an election on Tuesday. Some of you may have noticed.
I have to admit, I still love Election Day. No doubt, that enjoyment is derived at least somewhat from the brief stretch of my life when I became veritably obsessed with politics. Bush the Second drove me crazy during his presidency, his policies diametrically opposed to many of my own beliefs and desires. During that time, my already established liberal and Democratic lean became more pronounced and partisan. I worked to elect Democrats, obsessed over political news, threw myself headlong into political blogs, did some political blogging of my own, and lived and died by election results.
It didn’t last that long. I shuddered at the 2002 mid-term results, backed Howard Dean with a vengeance in 2003, watched as he went down in flames in early 2004, got behind Kerry, wished fervently for him to defeat Bush, was crestfallen when he didn’t, rejoiced in the 2006 mid-terms, bounced around a bit in the 2008 Democratic primary, ultimately became sucked in by Obama’s candidacy, rejoiced when he was elected, and then quickly soured on the entire process as he pissed away the enthusiasm and support upon which he was swept into office and instead gave us little more than the third term of George W. Bush.
That’s the very brief and incomplete summary, and it’s one that I believe tracks with a number of people in this country. My relationship with politics is, of course, much more complex than that. I believe in the importance of local elections, I still find great value in the process of voting—as a ritual act if nothing else, as has been talked about in the comments of the most recent post at The Archdruid Report—and I still believe that representative democracy can be a good system of governance, though surely not the handed-down-from-God perfection that America’s leaders often like to cynically portray it as. Yet, I believe that our system—on the federal level, at least—has become hopelessly corrupted, utterly ineffective, and largely a sham in these dying days of the American empire.
Despite all those beliefs, I voted a second time for Barack Obama. Consequently, I enjoyed the hell out of Election Day.
And I can’t help but wonder: Why??
— ∞ —
Well, there are good reasons and petty reasons. In terms of the good reasons, I quite enjoyed watching gay marriage pass in Washington, Maine and Maryland and an anti-equality measure fail in Minnesota. I enjoyed seeing Washington and Colorado legalize marijuana. Here in Oregon, the marijuana legalization measure failed, sadly, though I suspect legalization will pass here in the near future, either by the state legislation or a future measure. There were other state measures that have immediate effects on myself and my state—private casinos, the legality of gillnet fishing, and the estate tax were a few—that all went my way. Local elections, of course, have a significant impact on me in a much more visible way than federal elections often do, and so I followed those with interest. They didn’t all fall as I voted, but none of the results seemed a disaster, either.
In terms of the petty reasons—though there is good in these, too, I think—I loved seeing the defeat of certain odious personalities, like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, Paul Ryan and Allen West. Hell, you can add Mitt Romney to that list; he seemed like a dick to me, to be honest. I enjoyed the election of Elizabeth Warren, who seems smart and empathetic, even if she also is as blinded by the madness of perpetual economic growth as every other federal politician. I found it fascinating to see the further rise of the electoral power of women and minority groups, as has been talked about endlessly by talking heads since the election, and took a petty satisfaction in the slightest of marginalization of white men—a hilarious apocalypse to certain commentators. However, I see a certain pettiness in that fascination because it doesn’t, in my mind, change the overall tragic trajectory of our nation and the industrialized world at large.
The pettiest reason of all for my joy on election night, however, was the way in which it served as base entertainment—as the same sort of competition spectacle as sports. Most of my love of Tuesday came from the simple joy of my team winning. It’s a sad statement, especially considering the fact that I find myself bitterly disappointed in and skeptical of my team. The Democrats are almost as clueless as the Republicans, wedded to the same horrific and destructive ideals of unending economic growth, environmental destruction, and cultural genocide. They worship at the same alter of industrialization, specialization, growth and all its attendant destruction. But they do it with a bit more of a smile on their face and a few throw away platitudes about how we don’t have to have all the attendant destruction, if only we elect Democrats. It’s horrifically cynical, complete bullshit, and arguably a more immoral argument than the Republicans’ argument that the destruction doesn’t actually exist.
And yet, I voted for it on Tuesday. And cheered when that argument won.
Why? Because that argument was my team, and on that bloodthirsty night, I wanted to see my team win.
— ∞ —
I could claim that this was about social progress, the rights of minorities, and the belief that people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of whom they love or what genitalia they were born with, the color of their skin or their religious beliefs (or lack thereof.) That is a seriously motivating factor. I don’t like the way so many GOP politicians seem to hate brown people, the way they demonize gays and lesbians, their too-often dismissive and clueless attitudes toward women, and their apparent hatred of reproductive rights. But to embrace the Democratic party in turn seems to me little more than a betrayal of that agitation against discrimination. The Democrats, after all, are also excellent at creating divisions for political gain (though perhaps not typically as effective as Republicans.) There’s no shortage of apocalyptic rhetoric on the Democratic side, casting Republicans as religious fanatics and demagogues who are opposed to the basic nature of progress. Rural and religious people are too often looked down upon. Cultural knowledge and tradition is dismissed at the behest of scientific specialization. College education is a sign of knowledge; lack of the same is a sign of ignorance. Abstract knowledge is valued over practical knowledge. And how about the incredible discrimination based on place of residence found in the drone murders of countless overseas individuals by the Obama administration?
Granted, these are broad assertions about the general fault lines. You can find Democratic and Republican politicians that buck these tendencies and ideologies. Much more importantly, you can find significantly more self-identified Democrats and Republicans amongst the general populace that don’t fall into these neat categories. In fact, in interacting honestly and openly with people on both political sides—and the many who refuse to affiliate themselves with either side—what you most often find is a population of people who don’t fit these neat categories at all, or whom have complex reasons behind their backing of these categories. You find individuals, informed by their own experiences and influences, rather than the cartoons that these people are cast as by politicians of both stripes.
And that, as much as anything, reveals the key to these divisions: each side’s greatest divisional tactics are in their castings of their political opponents, and their opponents’ voting base, as caricatures. Republicans—not just the politicians, but Republican voters—are ignorant and backward reactionaries, stuck in their outdated religious and cultural worldviews, completely devoid of empathy, violently against any social safety net and eager for those less worthy of them to die. They’re rural rubes and suburban hate-mongers who fetishistically cling to their guns, their religion, their hatreds and their fear and stand in the way of the glorious social and economic progress promised by Democrats. Democrats—not just the politicians, but Democratic voters—are elitist, urban intellectuals who hate religion and any sense of tradition. They despise American values, capitalism, democracy, rural folk, religious folk and entrepreneurs. They want to destroy rural communities and economies. They want to eliminate guns and the cultural traditions that come with them, destroy independence, enlarge government to the point that the entire country is completely dependent upon it, redistribute wealth and ensure that no one may rise or fall via their own hard work or lack thereof. They want a completely homogenized culture, where everyone thinks and acts the same and the government dictates all standards of decency.
Those are your caricatures. And guess what? When your opponents are this evil and outrageous, then politics can only be a war. It’s about stopping the other side, no matter what. It’s not about working toward solutions, it’s about eliminating a threat. And so it goes. So goes the theater, so goes the sport in which all that matters is the final score, in which all that matters is whether or not you vanquished your enemy.
— ∞ —
But in the midst of all this sport and theater is the crumbling of the American empire and the collapse of the industrial paradigm. We are running out of our fuels, tearing apart our ecosystem, straining under insane financial and economic policies, and clawing at each others’ throat with the crazed idea that if we can just kill the other side, we could fix all this.
Eliminating each other isn’t going to solve our problems, though. The only way to do that is to change the way we live. The only way to do it is to thoroughly and honestly evaluate the way we live and choose different, less destructive ways to live. The only way we can even begin to solve our problems—even to just stop making them worse—is to be honest with ourselves about our privilege, about the outsized ways we live, about our hyper-abundance and all the ways it destroys the ecosystems we live within and are dependent upon, as well as our own cultures, societies and sanity.
In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry writes about the need for “kindly use.” In talking of conservation, he notes that we can only preserve a portion of the land in wildness, and that, otherwise, “Most of it we will have to use” (p. 30, from the Third Edition published in 1996.) He notes that only a considered, kindly use of the land “can dissolve the boundaries that divide people from the land and its care, which together are the source of human life.” He speaks of this kindly use largely in the context of agriculture, but also makes it clear that this is a broader concept applicable to the entirety of our culture—and that kindly use of the land and the world is integral to a coherent and healthy culture.
This is a massive question. It is, essentially, the question for our culture. Indeed, it is a variant of the question for every culture: how to live well in the world. Without constantly engaging this question—and finding some successes in that engagement—any culture will ultimately perish. Despite our fervent proclamations to the contrary (perhaps most fervent amongst politicians) we are simply another species living upon this planet and within this ecosystem, and we are beholden to the same limitations and restrictions and necessities of good work and living that any other species is. If we don’t accept those limitations and restrictions and learn how to live and work well within them, we will die out as a culture. It’s as simple as that.
Numerous past cultures have actively engaged this question and thrived as a result of that engagement. They have suffered the consequences and made corrections when their use turned from kindly to destructive. They have made mistakes and had successes, but their continued survival was always dependent on the engagement of that question and the corrections necessary to fall more on the side of kindly than destructive. When they failed to make those adjustments and corrections, they collapsed.
As a culture, we do not engage this question nearly enough in our personal lives and we engage it almost not at all at a national level. Neither of the major parties is asking how we can engage in kindly use. It is not a question they have asked themselves and so it is not a question they will attempt to answer. I could create my distinctions between the two major candidates for President on various social issues and by allowing myself to buy into the caricatured divisions that both candidates so skillfully evoked amongst the population, but the reality is that both of them articulated and fought over an identical vision of America: one of extractive, destructive empire devoted solely to the comfort of its population at the expense of all other creatures—human, animal, and plant—on Earth. Neither of them even began to honestly engage the question of kindly use, and so both of them represent a continuance down the path of destruction. As important as I think many of the social issues that these two candidates use to divide this country are, they are completely and utterly subordinate to the ultimate question of kindly use. They, too, will become irrelevant if our culture collapses under our own destructive tendencies.
— ∞ —
On Tuesday, I voted. I allowed myself to fall into the spectacle and entertainment, the blood sport of national politics in the final days of the crumbling American empire. And, more often than not, my team won.
But when it comes to the trajectory of this country and the industrialized world at large, we all still lost. Because we chose between two people who have not even attempted to engage the question of kindly use, of how to live and work well in this world.
We are now suffering the consequences of our destructive use. We have been for many years. Tuesday was just one more data point amongst many that, despite suffering the consequences, we continue not to make the necessary and painful corrections, not to move away from our destructive use and toward a kindly use. Until we do, our culture will continue to crumble and collapse and our ritual blood sports will leave us nothing but further bloodied, further injured, and closer to death, no matter which side wins.
There’s a bacteria in soil that has been shown to make humans happy by triggering serotonin production in the brain.
But there must be more to it.
— ∞ —
The garden has made me happy. I’ve spent a good number of hours working out there, on the days I’m not working as a farm hand elsewhere. I don’t work fast in my garden, but the leisure of digging in the soil is invigorating. I string out a bed and start raking it, removing clumps of sod, shaking out the dirt and tossing them aside. Occasionally I wear gloves, but mostly I don’t. The soil is good against my skin, caking itself into my hands’ tiny crevices, bits of the earth settling into my Life Line. As my hands turn black, my spirit becomes light, bolstered by the cultivation of life, the nourishment of future food.
Most of the garden to date has come from friends. Tomato starts and a multitude of seed from Ginger—from the farm I worked on last year—and a mixed tray of starts from Linda, who introduced me to farming. Appropriately, I use a mix of techniques from both farms—the 3-tooth cultivator Ginger relied on so heavily and the digging fork so prized by Linda. The Hori-Hori Linda gave me as a going away present is indispensable and always on my hip, ready for so many tasks.
— ∞ —
I can’t deny this took me partly by surprise. I’ve interned at vegetable CSAs for the last three years, yet every summer eventually brought me to the question of if I really would want this as my life. I loved being outside, the changing seasons and rhythm of the work, the soil, the incredible communities built, the care and love so evident day in and day out. I disliked the stress, the pace that could become so insane, the constant financial pressure obvious even to me, who wasn’t paying the bills.
Did I really want that constant sense of being on the verge? Did I want the stress of just barely getting by, day after day? And the work itself, or at least the pace of the work: it didn’t fit me, or the way I experienced the world when allowed to do so at my own natural rate and rhythm. It too often didn’t make me happy when happiness was the point of farming.
But by the time the season ended and winter rolled around, I always found myself ready to farm again, looking forward to the next season. An odd cycle.
— ∞ —
I wondered, too, if I would even be a successful farmer. Could I actually grow these vegetables if I were left to my own devices? I was relatively good at following direction—at being given tasks to carry out and accomplishing them. But I so often set myself on autopilot and allowed the rote process of finishing a task to take precedence over understanding what was actually being accomplished by that task. Even after three seasons of farming, the idea of being in charge of an operation of my own and successfully producing large amounts of food struck me as daunting, almost impossible. I doubted I had a green thumb and didn’t even trust in my ability to fake it, even after many cumulative months of assisting with the work of others with unquestionable green thumbs.
— ∞ —
The “garden” I tried to grow in 2010 didn’t help. I put in too little effort, in a poor gardening plot, and allowed budding philosophical beliefs to cloud an important truth in growing vegetables: that most cultivated vegetables are not nearly so hardy as weeds, and thus need some pampering.
I didn’t pamper them. I damn near abused them. And, worse, I at least partly took this as a condemnation of my abilities, when in reality it was just a lesson that I needed to provide more attention to the work I was doing—that I needed to actually take the steps I had learned needed to be taken.
I didn’t obsess over this garden and its failures, but it’s sad specter at times haunted my already-established self doubts.
— ∞ —
Then came this year’s garden plot. The beautiful soil, dark and rich and deep. The promise it held and its small whispers of the future.
It helped to get a small break from vegetable farming. Transitioning into animals and facing my first summer in three years devoid of the promise of the stress of vegetable farming, and all the doubts and insecurities that stress could inspire, left me better able to focus on the intense joys of growing food. The potential fulfillment offered by that plot came with almost no strings attached. It would be for me, no others dependent on this bit of earth (aside from the innumerable critters living in it, of course.) I could do it right, or at least to the best of my ability. And even if it yielded far less than hoped for, I would let it be learned wisdom rather than condemnation.
This was mine; I could do it as I wanted, at the pace I wanted. I owned this.
— ∞ —
It’s amazing the difference ownership makes. Of course, I don’t actually own the land. But I own what’s going to happen in that plot for the foreseeable future. I own whatever successes come of it, whatever failures, whatever lessons learned and joys experienced. I own the surprises and revelations. And my involvement will be intimate and complete.
It’s incredible how often during my three seasons vegetable farming that I would walk by a bed and not know what was planted in it, often times even when it was already up. Now, I know. Everything went in by my hands. I own it. I planned it. I guided and built it, then handed it off to all the creatures and natural processes that will ultimately do the vast majority of work. But I’m the instigator, and thus I know what’s intended to happen.
I’ve already realized how big a piece this is. I always suspected, when I questioned whether I would really want to have my own farm, that actual ownership would change the equation. The early results suggest just that. Doing this on my own—it changes so much.
— ∞ —
But what am I actually talking about here? What have I done on my own? Much of what’s in the ground and growing are starts from two of the farms I interned for. I’ve direct seeded, as well, and some of that is coming up. Some of it remains to be seen.
Also, though, what I’ve done so far is so small, and the pace so slow and leisurely. How could I not be enjoying it? How could I not be invigorated by it? Sure, it’s easy to enjoy it at such a simple pace, when the pressures of feeding other people and making a living aren’t bearing down on me.
Yet, I can’t help but think my happiness is the most important point so far. I find this joyful. I find this invigorating. Digging in the soil has proved a renewal for me, a source of life. Despite three seasons of prior farming and plenty of happiness in it, I didn’t trust that gardening would make me as happy as it’s proving to make me. I didn’t trust that it was the love I hoped it was.
But it is. And that opens up the future.
— ∞ —
The question now is one of possibility. It’s one of pace and scale. It’s whether or not this love can be a bigger part of my life. It’s what it would take, what work would need to be done.
I’ve been scheming the last week. Thinking about possibilities and wondering what kind of situation I might be able to devise. Thinking of how I could make this more of my life, of who I am and what I do. How can I expand this joy without losing it?
I think small, intimate, reasonable—yet even those thoughts are big. What could I do with a small bit of earth, my hands, perhaps one other helper, a steady pace, and little cash? How could I make it a bigger part of my life yet but not depend on it? Not force it to make my entire living? Not morph it into the disquiet of stress and constant worry?
I don’t have the answers to these question, but I have the tentative thoughts of possibilities. Possibilities that may be gone by next week or next month, granted, but possibilities nonetheless. What’s truly amazing to me is that it seems possible at all. It never felt like something potentially imminent before, in the last three years. It always felt necessarily farther away. Yet now it does seem possible, perhaps in the near future, even with the realization that this potential future could disappear at any time.
There’s something shocking and heartening about that.
— ∞ —
The soil gives life and possibility. It invigorates. It’s magic, what it can do.
What it can inspire.
When I lived in Portland, I paid $10 for a gallon of milk.
This wasn’t store bought milk, of course, but raw milk. It came from a farm south of the city—a piece of land leased by two wonderful women, Karyn and Carissa, who kept a couple milking cows and a small flock of chickens. These two women deeply cared for their animals and treated them—as well as their customers—as part of their family. Initially, their milk came from a Jersey named Opal; later on, Kaycee, a Fleckvieh, joined the family. They both produced amazing milk, but I started with Opal and she always remained my favorite. Often I would find myself faced with a shelf full of half gallon Mason jars, each one labeled with a name—Opal or Kaycee—and the date of milking. Given the choice, I always snagged Opal jars. The richness of the milk was one of the reasons, as the milk’s fat content had been measured at close to six percent in one test. But affection played a role, too.
The first time I met Opal, I fell a bit in love. She was small—for a cow, anyway—and brown, had those long Jersey eyelashes, was calm and clean and on grass, looking the picture-perfect cow. I came near her and put my hand against her hide, spoke to her. Karyn and Carissa raved about how easy she was to milk, about her gentle demeanor. I could sense that gentle spirit when I met her and something about that moment—about putting my hand on her, seeing her eyes, knowing that this was the creature who provided me good food and nourishment—struck a deep chord.
Looking back, I think part of that was a small awakening of the agrarian in me. At that time, I had never farmed and had only started to learn more about food, to better understand what it could and could not be, to better understand the care that could be taken in growing and raising it or the destruction that could be wrought in the same process. It also was a moment of connection unfamiliar to me. Much of my life, I didn’t know where my food came from, though throughout much of my childhood we did have a large garden that I worked in. Still, I ate so much from the store and so much fast food and processed food. I grew up mostly in the suburbs and had never known farming, or ever been much interested in it. For a good portion of my life, food had been little more than a requirement and I had literally said numerous times that if I didn’t have to eat, I happily wouldn’t.
Now, I farm. I’ve worked on three vegetable farms and currently work for two farms that raise pastured animals for meat, one of which has a dairy component, as well. The presence of cows is routine for me these days. I’m much more familiar with the sight of them, their smell and feel, their sound and behavior. But I still love to see a Jersey and almost every time I do, I think of Opal and I think of her milk.
— ∞ —
As I already noted, Opal’s milk had a high fat content, at nearly twice the fat of whole milk bought at the store. Her milk was sometimes so rich and creamy and sweet from the good grass she ate, it felt and tasted almost like drinking ice cream. It may seem silly to wax poetic over milk—it’s just milk, after all, such a standard food. Except that’s the point. There was nothing standard about Opal’s milk in comparison to what you would buy at the store. The store milk couldn’t compare. It couldn’t begin to. The sweetness of Opal’s milk, the freshness, the lack of that subtle burnt flavor often imparted by pasteurization (which one generally needs to drink raw milk to begin to detect in pasteurized milk) the creaminess of it, the health and vitality—it was all there.
It had flavor, and that flavor changed over the course of the year. The changing grass—Opal’s fluctuating diet—effected the taste of the milk. It evolved, as well, as it sat in the fridge. Each day it grew a bit different in its taste as it would slowly work its way to the point of souring, which is a natural process in raw milk rather than the putrification that happens with pasteurized milk. Sour raw milk isn’t rotten; it’s changed. It’s going through the same sort of process that creates yogurt, though the result isn’t the same. But it still can be used once it sours and remains a healthy and living food.
As I became more familiar with raw milk, I began to understand how it offered a different experience than store bought milk. Raw milk was a real, non-standardized food that functioned within the same sort of systems and patterns that other living food does. It changed depending on its circumstances—the flavor and fat content altered by Opal’s diet and it’s taste and composition changing as the milk aged and the bacterial ecosystem within it grew and evolved (with that bacteria generally being of the beneficial kind, along the same lines as the critical microfauna found in the human digestive system.) Leave the milk alone for a few hours and the cream begins to rise to the top. Shake it and you’re back to having it dispersed within the milk.
This milk hadn’t been homogenized or standardized. It hadn’t had the flavor burnt out of it or its unique bacteria profile killed via pasteurization. It didn’t have an exact expiration date. In many ways, it didn’t have any expiration date, as its evolving stages lent itself to changing uses. It wasn’t a conglomeration of hundreds or thousands of different cows’ milk and it wasn’t untraceable or virtually untraceable by dint of it being the end result of a vast, complicated and confusing industrial dairy system. It was Opal’s milk. It came from a cow I had met and spoken to and touched, it had been milked by the hands of two women whom I knew and am friends with, it was the result of eaten grass from a pasture I had stood in. I knew exactly where it came from and how it had come to me.
— ∞ —
Getting Opal’s milk took a community. In fact, learning about Opal’s milk took a community.
I first learned of the availability of Opal’s milk via a homesteading group I participated in. Started by my friend Eric and his girlfriend, the group met once a month and covered a predetermined topic, taught by a few members from the group who already had knowledge of that activity or had been tasked with researching it and then presenting information to the group. I loved the group and learned quite a bit from it. As it happened, some of the members were interested in getting raw milk and Eric, via his work on an urban farm, had learned of Karyn and Carissa and the milk they had available.
Getting Opal’s milk was far different from going to the store. According to Oregon state law, you can only sell raw cow milk on the farm. There also is a restriction of only having two producing cows on the premises and advertising raw milk is illegal, so the only way for people to find out about it is via customer word of mouth. Due to these restrictions and because the farm was about a 35 mile drive from us, we needed to get together a group of people who could take turns driving to the farm each week to make the arrangement viable. We eventually cobbled together enough people so that, with each of us taking a turn, nobody would have to make the drive down to the farm more often than every eight or ten weeks.
All of this required communication and organization. We had an email list and a schedule worked out a couple months in advance. Everyone would sign up for a week and knew that on their day they would have to load up their car with coolers and ice packs, drive down to the farm, pick up the milk, bring it back, and store it in a central location in Portland where everyone would come to get their milk for the week. For the most part, everyone performed well. Every once in awhile some snafu would take place and there would be some frantic rearranging or a notice would go out that the milk was running late. In other words, our little community functioned as you would expect a community to function: mostly well, but with the occasional hiccup. Everyone took these hiccups in stride.
We had a shared goal, after all. In our small way, we were a community working for our own common good.
— ∞ —
Picking up the milk was not a chore. It was a visit and, in its own way, a small celebration.
On the appointed day, I would make the drive down to the farm and visit with Carissa. Sometimes I visited with Karyn, too, but she was often at her job as a dairy tester, so more often than not it was Carissa’s company I kept. The beautiful thing about Karyn and Carissa is that they seemed to love the visits and always treated them as one of the high points of their week. On arrival, I was almost always offered tea, with fresh raw cream of course available for it. It was not uncommon for there to be a snack, as well—cookies or brownies or something else delicious. Most important, though, was the conversation. I would arrive, come in, sit down and we would start to chat about the farm, the cows, whatever was happening in our lives. I spoke of my interest in farming, we talked about food issues, we sometimes talked a bit of politics or other news. We shared our observations on society. We chatted about gardening, about chickens, about the weather. The conversations were easy and a joy and they usually ended upon the realization that I had to get the coolers loaded up and the milk back before the official start of pickup time. They always seemed to end out of necessity rather than desire.
Sometimes we would go and visit the animals, saying a hello to Opal and Kaycee, walking in the pasture. I regularly saw the source of my food and always Opal looked happy and content, usually munching away on grass, often paired with Kaycee.
On one of my visits my friend Peter came along, as he was looking for a source of raw milk. He grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania and spoke with Carissa at great length and with much enthusiasm about dairy farming, chatting about different breeds and the differences between the larger farm he grew up on and the very small operation Karyn and Carissa ran. We went out and visited Opal and Kaycee and Jazmine, a young calf. Jazmine came up to Peter and he put out a few fingers for her to suck and attempt to nurse on. She bucked against him so hard that he soon found his hand bleeding. Yet, as far as I could tell, he loved every moment of it, his enthusiasm boundless, the visit bringing back a multitude of memories from his childhood.
— ∞ —
The land Karyn and Carissa farmed was not their own, instead being leased. As time went on, they became less certain about their ability to stay on the land long term. That led to a period of transition in which they started to look for good homes for Kaycee, Opal and Jazmine. They didn’t take them to the auction or sell them off to a high bidder. They researched and looked around and put out the word, visited farms and farmers, and patiently looked for the perfect fit. Giving up these members of their families wasn’t going to be easy and they certainly weren’t going to make it worse by sending them to less-than-perfect new homes.
Throughout this process, all of us who were getting milk or had gotten milk in the past from this family were sent email updates and given all the latest news. We were told what was happening and why it was happening, and given a window into the process of finding new homes from the cows who had so steadfastly fed us over the months and years.
As Karyn and Carissa found new homes for Kaycee, Opal and Jazmine, they told us where they would be going and gave us updates on the transition. The new owners sent out emails as well, offering updates and providing those of us who wanted to stay with the cows we knew the opportunity to sign up to buy their milk from them. I didn’t sign up—not, of course, because I didn’t still want Opal’s milk, but because I was moving to the Oregon coast to begin work on my third farm. And yet, despite the fact that I didn’t sign up to receive milk, I still receive the occasional email update about Opal. When Opal calved a year ago, I received an announcement and a picture of her beautiful daughter. It brightened my day.
— ∞ —
I’ve seen someone, a skeptic of raw milk, wonder why on earth someone would pay $10 for a gallon of milk. Well, all of the above memories exist because of $10 a gallon milk.
Every time I received Opal’s milk, I knew where it came from. I knew who it came from. I knew Opal lived a good life. I knew what I was paying for: care and affection, love, good work, good food, community, friendship, authenticity and an overriding ethic that touched everyone involved. I paid to know that the milk I drank was the healthiest and tastiest milk I would ever drink. I paid $10 a gallon to know that I was supporting a farm that made the world better, that I was supporting farmers who bettered their community, that I was supporting an entirely different model rooted in a love and respect that the industrial model of farming can’t even comprehend, much less engage. I paid $10 a gallon to live and eat well. I paid $10 a gallon for connection and for a weekly joy that arrived steadfast and unerringly. I have drunk store bought milk uncountable times in my life and never did I know the cow it came from, the people who produced it, or how it came to me. Correspondingly, I never felt a real joy drinking that milk. But almost every single time I drank some of Opal’s milk, I felt an honest-to-god joy, a satisfaction I cherished.
Of course I would pay $10 a gallon for that. It’s not even a question. And I’ve never made much money. But I always found the money to pay extra for milk that was worth it—for a community that was worth it.
I wrote in my post on making butter about patterns and systems and it’s those exact patterns and systems that have led me numerous times in my life to happily pay more for Opal’s milk, for milk that’s rooted in my local community and provided to me via love and affection and the sort of good work that’s become rare in our industrial economy. Of course that’s worth the money. If anything’s worth buying—if anything’s worth supporting—it’s that.
Now I have a source of raw milk that’s less expensive. I have over a gallon of milk in my refrigerator right this moment. And I have very limited income. But if someone were to walk up to me right now with a gallon of Opal’s milk, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay $10 for it. I wouldn’t hesitate to part with $10 for the chance to taste her milk again, to relive some of those memories she’s given to me, to remember the community that we all built around her milk and the amazing women who provided us with it.
If I can’t use what little money I have to help support and build these sorts of communities, what the hell good is it? This is why we’re here, folks. Someone asks why I would pay $10 for a gallon of milk? Community and affection is my answer. If we can’t be bothered to support those—even when it costs more, or it’s less convenient, a greater challenge—than we’re in dire straights, indeed. We have to think about and see the patterns. A gallon of milk is not a gallon of milk. A carrot is not a carrot. A human being is not a human being and a community not a community. They’re all dependent on context. They can be happy or miserable, healthy or diseased, abundant or denuded.
As Wendell Berry recently said, and E.M. Forster said before him, it all turns on affection. We can’t have a good world if we don’t love.
We can’t do this if we don’t care.
Opal’s baby girl, born about a year ago.
Other posts you may be interested in:
An entry in The Household Economy
— ∞ —
“A system of specialization requires the abdication to specialists of various competences and responsibilities that were once personal and universal. Thus, the average—one is tempted to say ideal—American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturalists and ‘agribusinessmen,’ the problem of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators, the problems of conservation to conservationists, and so on. This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself. He earns money, typically as a specialist, working an eight-hour day at a job for the quality or consequences of which somebody else—or, perhaps more typically, nobody else—will be responsible. And not surprisingly, since he can do so little else for himself, he is even unable to entertain himself, for there exists an enormous industry of exorbitantly expensive specialists whose purpose is to entertain him.”
— ∞ —
I suppose specialization is a feature, and not a bug, of the modern, industrial economy. To run such a complex and industrial infrastructure as we have come to rely upon, we need millions of people carrying out very specific and specialized tasks. This infrastructure is made up of uncountable widgets and devices and roles that all have their own particularity and that, thus, require their own particular machines or trained humans to be run and maintained. Broad classifications of generalized and necessary economic activity have been broken apart and splintered into much more specific niches, and then have been absorbed as a fraction into a far more sprawling beast we might refer to as the discretionary economy. In today’s industrial economy, the necessities of life—food, water, shelter, a clean and functioning environment, community—are now almost an afterthought to the vast and consuming industry of non-necessity: distraction, destruction, profit-driven specialization, a massaging of and attentiveness to human ego both impressive and horrifying. We have discovered an infinite number of economic niches driven not by the particularities of place and community—which would be the basis of niches in a functioning and sane economy—but on the basis of catering to the human ego by creating an infinite number of variations on conformity so that we might convince everyone that, no matter how much they immerse and then lose themselves in the base homogeneity of our culture, they truly are a unique human being, as proven by their particular combination of iPhone apps, or which of the many Nabisco snacks they prefer, or which Anheuser-Busch-owned beer they drink.
Of course, as we’ve created this insanely complex yet oddly generic economy and industrial base, we’ve come to worship at the alter of specialization. We know that we need years upon years of education and training so that we may be successful in today’s high tech, globalized economy. We know that to seize the bright future that is rightfully ours, we must *insert cliche here* so that *tribal term here* may compete in today’s *overtly positive economic buzzword here*. And we know this because we’re told it again and again, each time with slightly varying terms, and always emerging from the mouth of a respected “leader” or, even better, a certified expert.
For in today’s world of hyper-specialization, we have a never ending supply of experts always streaming across our television screens and popping up on the internet, ready and willing to tell us something that we desperately need to know but that we don’t know because we lack the training and intelligence and bottom-of-the-screen label that this particular expert does. In a world, after all, in which specialization reigns supreme, it only makes sense that we have an expert for every conceivable situation—and that we rarely have more than one expert for any particular situation. By embracing the idea of specialization, defining the industrial economy as the greatest economy that has ever existed or will ever exist, and celebrating every new fragmentation of our lives as a matter of great progress, we’ve created the necessity for this multitude of experts. By proclaiming that the height of human ability is to be trained in one very specific task and to be the sole person capable of performing that task—or to be the very best at that task, even if other people fumble through their own inadequate attempts at said task—then we condemn ourselves to, at best, being extremely good at one or two things and very bad at everything else. Or, if not very bad, then at least inadequate—unable to stake our claim to that task with the sort of legitimacy that a real expert would.
— ∞ —
“The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals—or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at the cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts.”
— ∞ —
Such a world of experts is the wet dream of the industrial cornucopian. We are told constantly that the mark of a great economy is efficiency. We must grow our citrus only where citrus grows best, our apples only where they grow best, mine our metals only where they are easiest to mine, derive all our energy from centralized power plants producing the most possible energy with the least amount of human labor, build our machines where the taxes are the lowest and the energy is cheapest and most abundant and the labor is low-cost and compliant, make our butter and cheese in vast factories where machines do the work and every bit of wasted energy can be cut out, then ship that cheese and butter all around the world. We must take every meaningful human activity, load it into a spread sheet, determine how to transfer the activity to machines, cut out as many humans as possible, destroy as much of its meaning as possible, commoditize it, cheapen it, degrade it, divvy it up, and declare success. We must find wholes and reduce them to pieces, mechanize them, specialize them, burrow down into their specific depths and obsess over the details and forget always any inherent or overarching meaning, forget anything that the pieces might make together. We must never see the forest; only the trees, and then only the value in cutting them down. We must eliminate God or any semblance of God at every turn, for God only confuses the issue. We must destroy any sense of the sacred. It clouds our vision. Lastly, we must declare science and economy our new God, make them sacred, and then proclaim our vision finally clear. With this clear vision, we will specialize everything, reduce all we can see, proclaim our knowledge and wisdom infinite, and worship experts—all for the unequivocal good of humanity.
But where is this good? A life in the hands of experts is supposed to be the perfect life. That’s why we have all these experts in the first place—so we can avoid mistakes and engage our lives only in the most effective of ways. And yet, we seem in many ways a miserable and perpetually unsatisfied people. Things never are perfect but we yearn to make them so. It’s a paradox—our cult of the expert should provide us constantly expert advice, which should provide us the means to live our lives perfectly. But there’s nothing paradoxical about this at all. It makes perfect sense that in a society that worships experts and the idea that all tasks should be carried out to perfection that we find ourselves constantly unsatisfied, always searching for the perfection we can’t seem to grasp. And that’s because, rather than attain any kind of perfection, we’ve simply altered the expectations of our society, creating desires that are unfulfillable.
Seeing perfection as a possibility, we yearn for it and sense that if we can attain it, we will be perfectly happy. In our efforts to attain it, we pay attention to the experts who are supposed to know how to attain perfection—who are supposedly practitioners of it. Yet there are two problems with this approach. First and foremost is that perfection tends to be an unattainable ideal. Or, more specifically, it’s an unattainable ideal for humans. It’s a much more attainable ideal for machines, and therein lies one of our problems. Since we have allowed our thinking to be distorted by our industrial economic base, we tend now to think in mechanistic terms rather than in the animalistic terms that are natural to us as human beings—as animals. Our ideas of perfection are rooted in mechanical notions. They’re based on reductionism, strictly-defined variables and controlled circumstances. By homogenizing and standardizing the scenario in which we attain perfection, we should be able to homogenize and standardize the perfection. We define the scenario, define the desired outcome, and then use those defined realities to create the steps we need to take from scenario to desired outcome. This often works in the realm of machines. If we have a human-made screw that needs to be screwed into a human-made panel, we can create a human-made machine that will work within strict parameters to screw that screw into that panel. Every element of the scenario is controlled by us, the outcome is defined by us, and thus we are able to create the fulfillment of that outcome.
But that’s not how human lives work, now is it? If we want to raise our children well, there’s not an expert in the world who can define the full breadth of the scenario of raising children, define a final goal (what does it mean to “raise our children well?”) and then provide us the steps to get there. It can’t be done because the scenario cannot be defined and controlled by humans, nor can the outcome be so controlled, at least not completely. There are far too many variables, far too many elements, far too many other creatures involved, far too much unpredictability and lack of control. Human lives do not unfold within the same paradigm as our mechanistic creations do, and so attempting to attain perfection as defined in mechanistic terms is doomed to failure.
There is, however, an even bigger problem with our attempts to attain perfection and thus be happy, which is that perfection doesn’t make us happy. I suspect some people might argue that point, and I imagine there are even a few exceptions out there to this rule. But I firmly believe that perfection would lead to human misery—utter boredom. Even if there was some way to define and then achieve perfection in the realm of human life, why would we want to do so? How could that produce happiness? The happiness we feel as humans stems out of the inherent messiness of life. We need our successes and failures, our joy and pain, our horrors and contentments. Without these contrasts and these back-and-forths, we can’t appreciate any of this life. It’s a terribly old idea, but you can’t appreciate light without dark. We can’t be happy if we don’t know sadness and misery. We can’t enjoy our successes if we’ve never known failure.
Imagine the happiest moments of your life and tell me whether or not you understand them without contrasting them against other moments of your life. I’m not saying you always think of dichotomies when you think of happiness, but I do think it’s lurking there in the back of your mind if it’s not in the forefront. When I think about the joy of waking up in the morning next to someone I love, then maybe having some coffee and a leisurely breakfast, I understand the joy of that in contrast of waking up alone on a cold morning, knowing I have to go to work. Now, that first scenario may not be perfect and that second one may not be horrible. Perhaps I like my work, even if I really don’t want to get out of bed and prefer the idea of sleeping in. Perhaps the breakfast with my significant other isn’t that satisfying or we get into a small argument, or there’s a clash of desires. But whatever form of perfection I might see in the first scenario, I need the second scenario to appreciate the first. This is simply the juxtaposition of comforts I’ve written about before. We need a wide breadth of experiences to better understand those experiences. We need to be able to compare and contrast, to work different sensations off each other so that we may better learn those sensations.
We’ve attempted to eliminate the messiness from human lives, but in so doing we only are making ourselves less happy. Our joy comes from that messiness, even if our misery does as well. It’s the point of being human. What could we possibly have to do here if we were here only to live a perfect life? Why even bother?
— ∞ —
“The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstance and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people’s. He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties.
It is rarely considered that this average citizen is anxious because he ought to be—because he still has some gumption that he has not yet given up in deference to the experts. He ought to be anxious, because he is helpless. That he is dependent upon so many specialists, the beneficiary of so much expert help, can only mean that he is a captive, a potential victim.”
– Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, (p. 19-21)
— ∞ —
The industrial, globalized economy is the attempt at perfection. It’s the height of our mechanistic dreams, our specializations, our worship of experts, our attempts at control. It’s us not figuring out how to live well within the messy realities of life, but our attempts to control and purify that life, to make it work well no matter what. It’s our attempt not to find our happiness and satisfaction from within, but to impose perfection upon ourselves from outside—to control our outer environment so that we don’t have to concern ourselves with our inner environment. As such, it is an outer economy. We go to work. We leave the home. We tap outside forces to guide and maintain that economy and then we insert ourselves into it, into our very controlled and defined niche.
The household economy is much more messy, at least in terms of how we think of messiness. The household economy necessitates that we deal with ourselves, that we work within the uncontrolled variables of life. We don’t go to work in the household economy. We live there. We don’t leave the home to engage in the household economy. We stay in the home. We don’t give control of the household economy to outside forces. We control it ourselves. We don’t standardize the household economy. We make it our own and each household economy exists only in one specific home.
Similarly, the household economy is a complete affront to the cult of the expert. We should not be making our own butter; a machine should be making it, and it should be strictly controlled. We should not be making our own cheese; a machine should be making it, or a master cheese artisan should be crafting the finest cheese. Our households are not efficient. In fact, the household economy is necessarily inefficient, at least in the insane way in which we define efficiency in the industrial economy. Rather than trusting our livelihoods to machines, the household economy is about bringing our livelihoods back into our homes and into our own hands. It’s about replacing machine labor with human labor and embracing all the messiness, variability and lack of control that entails. It’s about embracing that lack of industrial perfection in the pursuit of human perfection—in that animalistic mix of trial and error, of frustration and success, in the inherent joy of creating things with our hands, of making our own life and living with the contradictory results of that process. It’s about working with the outside world rather than controlling it, and instead finding our joy in the inner familiarity and satisfaction gained slowly through good work and a life well lived.
The household economy rejects perfection in favor of experience.
That’s not to say, however, that the household economy is devoid of craft, care or expertise. Indeed, I would say the household economy features care as a matter of course, very commonly features greater craft than the industrial economy, and will often, as a matter of course, feature expertise. It takes all of these elements as part of a broader experience, though, and is not afraid to mix and match. The household economy, again, is messy. In that messiness, it’s beautiful and it’s sacred and it’s fulfilling in a way that the industrial economy almost never is. The household economy, after all, is run by humans. The industrial economy is run by machines.
As I write and advocate for the household economy in this series of posts, one of the core values is going to be a rejection of the cult of the expert. This is necessary for the household economy. If we constantly seek the sort of mechanistic perfection advocated by this cult, then the household economy can never be successful. It functions only under different ideals, different pursuits, different goals. It functions only in the real world of human care and experience, not in the mechanistic world of industry. And so one of the foundations of this series is that we all get dirty without worry of perfection, that we all be willing to make mistakes, and that we all find joy in the experience as much as in the outcome—and that we find joy in the experience regardless of the outcome.
The projects won’t always be successful when defined strictly under the terms of the desired final outcome. But they’ll always be successful when taking into account experience, the pleasure of the work, and the sense of ownership that comes from an act of making one’s own living. And while I’ve dared to throw some religious terms in this post, I’ll say once more that they also will be successful in the sense of engaging in something sacred, however you define that term. Peter Berg, in an interview in Listening to the Land quoted a woman from Mexico City who said that “the kitchen is the place where you worship the earth.” I dare say much more good can be done in the kitchen than in a factory—and that God, in whatever form, can much more easily be found in the kitchen, as well.
In the household economy, we become generalists. We may occasional stumble upon something that makes us, in that particular instance, want to become a specialist, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If we find we love making cheese, we may want to delve deeper into that craft and work to become a craftsman cheese maker. But in general, the household economy is about working as a generalist and finding our love of the work and its outcomes not necessarily in the perfection of the final product, but in the perfection of the work, in the meaning of creation, and the satisfaction of each bit of self-reliance and personal care.
In that sense, each of us has the potential to be an honest expert—someone whose expertise is rooted not in ingraining pervasive dissatisfaction but in caring for ourselves and making our own small satisfactions and moments of true perfection, seen only in the inherent and sprawling messiness of our humanity. Someone whose expertise is rooted in work, not in theory. Someone whose expertise recognizes the folly of perfection and strives instead for joy, good work, and care.
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.
This is Part Two of the How To Be Poor introduction. Read Part One and Part Three.
In this introduction and in the coming series of How To Be Poor posts, you’ll find that I’m arguing for voluntary poverty, as opposed to voluntary simplicity. This is deliberate. I don’t advocate for voluntary simplicity, at least not in the way it’s commonly thought about, because it often deals in a very American middle class form of simplicity. That sort of simplicity isn’t necessarily about being poor or even using less energy and resources, but is much more rooted in a particular and popular myth I feel needs to be better addressed in our society.
To get there, I want to talk about the last couple days. I arrived in Portland Friday evening, after a day of taking care of chickens, hauling wood and mucking out pig stalls, and my life has been anything but simple in the previous 24 hours. As is my tendency, I made some scattered and last minute plans with a variety of friends, trying to place different people in different time slots on a moment’s notice, texting and calling and changing plans, then changing them back, then coming up with something entirely different. It’s a ridiculous way to live, and I’m tired for it, and I want to take a nap except I feel I need to write a blog post and, in a few hours, I’m supposed to meet two friends at the bar.
Throughout all of this, I’ve been spending money and utilizing complicated machinery at every turn: texting and calling a variety of people with my old and out of date cell phone that still is an intensely complicated and energy-heavy device; conducting that texting and calling over a massive, industrialized infrastructure; driving my car around town, often meeting people at the last minute, burning gasoline and taking advantage of a system of roadways that’s insanely subsidy-dependent, devouring incredible amounts of resources and energy; sitting in over-heated commercial buildings and drinking craft-brewed beer and micro-roasted coffee, all the product of energy-intensive processing systems and often using ingredients shipped from long distances; eating prepared, industrial food products that require, again, massive amounts of energy and resources, as well as the enslavement and abuse of animals and the degradation of human workers throughout the supply chain. I’ve been in town less than 24 hours, and I’ve already done all this, engaging these systems for my own comfort and pleasure and convenience.
I and many of the people here in Portland understand the horror and unsustainability of these systems. They understand at an intellectual level that it’s a dead-end route, bringing misery and devastation with it wherever it establishes a presence. They’ve read the literature and heard the lectures and marched in the protests. They’ve chanted about the 99% and agitated against social injustice and bemoaned the easy destruction of our environment. And when I write “they,” I include myself in that designation, both as someone who is here in the city now and as someone who has lived here in years past and happily partaken in all these same devastating systems.
Understanding the shortcomings and terrors of these systems, many of the people here advocate for and desire different systems. They don’t want to be a participant in these horrors and want, instead, alternatives to the dominant paradigm. Due to this collective yearning, Portland has come to be a city particularly adapt at telling a certain kind of story—a story that we hear often, from a variety of well-meaning people and a variety of politicians who may or may not be well-meaning, but are almost certainly self-serving. I think of this as the myth of the sustainable middle class, and I’m well versed in the story.
Originally I wrote out a long list of the components that make up this story, but I actually found a much more concise summary in the lede of an article over at AlterNet. The story, therefore, goes something like this: “Fossil fuels are going to disappear, whether we like it or not. Petroleum, natural gas, and coal are becoming scarcer, harder to extract and a greater danger to the global climate. If we proceed with business-as-usual, energy companies will take advantage of increasing scarcity to dominate the world economy by vacuuming up more money from the 99%. They will be able to ally with military and financial institutions to construct an energy-military-financial complex that could eventually reduce most of the rest of us to a form of debt peonage. On the other hand, if we could possibly elect a government that does what governments do best – build infrastructure – we can avoid a world of global warming and economic collapse by building enough wind farms, solar panels, and geothermal systems to power our economy and ignite a sustainable, broad-based period of economic growth. Of course, this will require a sea-change in the direction of the political system, along the lines of the Occupy movement, but there is too much at stake to throw up our hands in despair.”
This is a fine, compelling, and horribly destructive story. It’s a story that provides ease of mind to every one of us who has a weakness for all the comforts that the dominant system provides us while simultaneously tearing apart our planet and normalizing cruelty toward billions of humans and non-human creatures alike. This story—this myth—is dangerous because, while it provides the illusion of personal responsibility by telling us that we need a massive effort “along the lines of the Occupy movement” to elect a government that will provide us this utopian future, it ultimately absolves us of all responsibility for our current reality by assuring us that “we can avoid a world of global warming and economic collapse by building enough wind farms, solar panels, and geothermal systems to power our economy and ignite a sustainable, broad-based period of economic growth.” In other words, if we find ourselves facing an impoverished future of environmental devastation, catastrophic climate change, and dramatically reduced standards of living, and failing public health, it’s not because we dove full bore into the easy lives of massive overconsumption and resource depletion, but because we failed to elect the correct elites and thus were the victim of being denied our birthright—our outsized, yet still somehow sustainable existence of crass consumption, easy luxury and unending comfort.
This is the sort of storytelling that keeps us from honestly addressing our very pressing problems. As long as we continue to think that we’re above this planet and its physical processes—that human ingenuity, a phrase I’m quite sick of, somehow places us outside of and unbeholden to the laws of physics—we’re going to look for and assume easy answers, and we’re going to suffer as a result. The sooner we realize that we are of this planet, a part of it, a species upon it like every other species upon it, and that we must work within the same natural and physical realities as these other species do, the sooner we can begin to live well and improve the outlook of our future. If we’re going to live sustainably, then that means living within the planet’s natural flows of energy and using the planet’s resources at a sustainable rate—and using a small enough percentage that the planet is still able to support the billions of other plants and animals that help make up the healthy and functioning ecosystems upon which we depend. That means using orders of magnitude less energy and resources than we do now, which means a wholesale change in the way the populations of industrialized nations live.
This doesn’t mean building a huge infrastructure of solar panels and wind farms and geothermal systems and then using all that energy to pay the craftswoman down the street $20 an hour to make knick-knacks out of biodegradable, corn-based plastic and FSC-certified wood. That’s the absurd fantasy world of the sustainable middle class. A real sustainable world would mean that the populations of industrialized nations live much more like the populations of what we charmingly refer to as “third world” nations. It means living very basically, living poor, radically downsizing our lives and our resource and energy usage, and figuring out how to do that well. It can be done well and it can still provide a relatively comfortable and enjoyable life. The sooner we realize that and dedicate ourselves to the process of learning that, the better off we’ll all be.
If, instead, we continue to tell ourselves stories about a magical, sustainable future in which we all have electric cars and the ability to travel vast distances in small amounts of time and for little money, we all have well-paying jobs in which we don’t actually create things of use, all the energy is there for the taking so long as we elect the proper government that’s willing to build the proper infrastructure, or that so long as our coffee is microroasted and our beer is microbrewed, our grocery stores are locally owned and stocked with industrially-produced but organic food, and that the new wing of the local co-op was made out of cob and recycled wine bottles, then we can continue to indulge in outsized luxury and comfort and everything will be fine—well, then, we’re going to dive as full bore into our future disaster as we have into careless energy and resource depletion. As fantastic as I think a building made out of cob and recycled wine bottles is, it’s not going to allow us to otherwise live our lives unchanged. That’s a bedtime story that’s putting us to sleep at the exact time we most need to be wide awake.
This is the difference, in my mind, between voluntary poverty and voluntary simplicity. Voluntary simplicity seems very much to me a movement co-opted by the myth of the sustainable middle class. Poverty was not seen as particularly attractive, so instead it became simplicity. You can still buy your way to happiness, it’s just a slightly different happiness than what the mainstream prescribes. Voluntary poverty, on the other hand, is brutally honest. There’s no getting around the word poverty—it means less money, less energy, less resources. It means doing without and making do. It means you can’t buy your way out of your predicament, and that instead you have to learn how to live in a fundamentally different way. It means less comfort and luxury, and learning how to live well with that.
Voluntary simplicity, in other words, is the electric car. Voluntary poverty is walking to where you need to go. Walking is honesty. The electric car is storytelling. That’s the difference, and it’s a critical one.
When I wrote my post about Portland a couple months ago, that storytelling is what I was referring to. A big part of the reason I find it so frustrating is because I’ve believed that story. I’ve acted out that story, lived my life according to it. I’ve spent much of my life beholden to it, indulging in it, and I look back on that with a certain amount of chagrin. As frustrating as that can be for me, though, it also needs to be a source of education—an awareness which I use to push myself further into voluntary poverty, into what seems a more appropriate way of living. Every time I return to this city—this city that I really do, in many ways, love—I find myself slipping back into that story and the easy comforts it provides. I do this with a mix of awareness and abandon, sometimes with the personal understanding that I am allowing myself this comfort and that, while not benign or ideal, it is a reality I’m acquiescing to at that moment. However, that can’t be the end of the story. That in itself is a luxury and indulgence, and it can very easily become the same indulgence with which we entertain the myth of the sustainable middle class. At that point it becomes dangerous, self-defeating and a threat to a life well lived.
This as well, then, is the context of my current work. And that is going to be much the context of this series of posts on voluntary poverty. I’m at the beginning of a very specific and personal journey. I think there are lessons I’ve already learned that will be helpful to others, and I suspect I’ll learn many more lessons that will be of further help. In part three of this introduction, I’ll talk more about my personal situation, my plans for the future, how I think that relates to my readers, and my specific plans for this series going forward.
This is Part One of the How To Be Poor introduction. Read Part Two and Part Three.
We face an uncertain future. I may sound like a broken recording in saying this again and again, but it’s true. We find ourselves having recently passed peak conventional oil, soon to pass peak liquids fuels, and facing down fast-approaching peaks of natural gas and coal. On top of that, we’re putting incredible strain on the environment, depleting the ancient aquifers that provide so much of our drinking and irrigation water, losing unimaginable quantities of top soil every year, destroying our forests, altering our climate, and helping to create a significant increase in the occurrence of extreme weather events. Considering that much of our national and global infrastructure—the sort of infrastructure that both supports seven billion people on this planet and also provides many of the comforts that we associate with an industrialized way of life—is intrinsically tied to various forms of geography that tend to be effected by major weather events (imagine roads, power lines and sewer lines all running along rivers, for instance) we are facing a present and increasingly-problematic future of degrading and crumbling infrastructure. We also are facing a future with far less available energy, far less available resources and far less money with which to rebuild that infrastructure, further complicating the scenario.
That lack of energy, resources and money further means we can’t continue the dizzying economic growth that we have come to expect and depend upon for our way of life, and are thus facing necessary economic contraction. Such contraction will further lead to a dysfunctional and collapsing financial system. This is due to the fact that our financial system is based on debt and perpetual growth. Take away the perpetual growth and the debt can’t be serviced. Take away the availability of credit and the ability to pay back existing debt, and you have a financial system that ceases to function. Projects grind to a halt, jobs become scarce, unemployment rises, profits fall, tax receipts drop, governments take on more debt to keep the game going, social safety nets sag until they’re damn near touching the ground, austerity measures take root, and soon the entire complicated apparatus is teetering and citizens are falling by the wayside left and right.
In other words, we’re facing a world of problems. More specifically, as John Michael Greer has argued, we are facing a predicament. Problems are in search of solutions, just waiting to be solved. Predicaments, on the other hand, are inconvenient realities we must learn to deal with. We’re dealing with the predicament of too little energy, resources and money to continue down the path we are on and therefore we are in need of new ways to live. This is a predicament, not a problem, because there’s simply no way that we are going to be able to find renewable sources of energy that can replace fossil fuels and allow us to continue our energy-intensive lifestyles. This, in other words, is our new reality. It is imperative we figure out effective ways to respond to it.
Some might claim that a cabin in the woods, far away from other people and stocked with freeze-dried food, plenty of water, perhaps some seed packets, and boxes of ammunition is an effective way to respond to an uncertain future. That’s the wrong approach, however, for multiple reasons. First of all, we don’t likely face an apocalypse so much as we face contraction, tumult and lowered standards of living. Our predicament is not likely to lead to a sudden and complete collapse, as that’s not how societies have tended to collapse in the past. Instead, it will be long and drawn out, a stair step process of shocks to the system followed by stabilization, a stretch of relative calm but lowered standards of living, and then another shock to the system. This will happen over and over again until, eventually, we will find a few hundred years down the road—long after everyone reading this is dead—the final ruins not only of the American empire, but of the commonality of fossil-fueled, industrialized societies. Considering this scenario, the proper response is not the aforementioned cabin because we are not facing such a dire situation. We are facing, instead, the prospect of an increasingly poor and fragile society, rent by economic shocks, disintegrating infrastructure, food and energy shortages, the collapse of supply chains, the necessity for far more physical labor, much more local economies, and a general struggle to get by. The closest parallel in recent history, in other words, is probably the Great Depression. Society as we know it is not going to go away over night, but rather keep chugging along, in a highly dysfunctional state, as most all of us become much poorer and find day-to-day life more of a struggle.
Communities will survive, though, and some will surely flourish. This is another reason why the cabin in the woods is not an effective response to our current and future decline. Community, not the individual, is the basic human unit of survival. Individual humans very rarely survive in complete isolation. We are social animals and we make our living at a community level, to some degree or another. We depend on others for many of our needs, even among the more self-sufficient of us. The ability to provide yourself everything you need to live a decent life, all on your own—or between, say, yourself and a partner and possibly a couple kids—is a pipe dream. It doesn’t exist. We need other people—people who care for us, with whom we share an interdependence, who understand the ways in which our fates are tied. We needs friends and family and acquaintances and even begrudging allies. We need a community, whatever form it takes.
In a world lacking in energy, resources and money, however, the scope and composition of that community is going to be significantly different than it is today. Whereas today most of us depend on massive, globalized, industrialized supply chains to provide us most of our living, in the future we are going to have to relearn how to provide most of that on a very local level. Whereas today, we can always buy our survival so long as we have enough cash, the future promises a reality in which cash is much less valuable than skills and knowledge. Whereas today, we don’t have to resign ourselves to the messy workings of a community to guarantee our survival, so long as we have enough of the aforementioned money, the future promises to require quite a bit more communality from all of us, and to require that we deal with all the messiness and annoyance that can entail (as well as the joy, companionship and conviviality.) Whereas today, we can buy all the comfort we want so long as we have enough cash, the future promises a great deal less comfort for everyone, including those with abundant cash, and is going to reward those who both figure out how to create comfortable lives without money and those who redefine what comfort means in a way that requires less energy and resources.
The future, in otherwise, is looking cash-poor. It will likely provide less comfort and far less material goods, but it will provide some comfort, perhaps even a significant amount, so long as we are capable of reevaluating what comfort means and have some idea of how to create it while working with local resources, within our local community, and without much money. That can be a challenge, and living well while being poor is something of an art and a skill. It is entirely possible, though, and it’s an art and a skill that we would do well to begin learning now.
Most of us are either out of practice with these skills or never learned them in the first place. This is a result of the insanely rich and overabundant society that we live in and the loss of culture that it has demanded and entailed. Peering into our uncertain future, though, it seems clear we’re out of time. We must learn these skills now. There’s simply no more time to delay if we want to increase our chances of living a good life in the future, relatively rich with comfort and stability even if extremely poor in cash.
This, then, is the core of my argument for voluntary poverty. If we are going to live in a world that necessitates we be poorer, then it makes perfect sense to learn how to live well in poverty now. However, there’s another important dimension to my advocacy—one that goes beyond the practical nature of my core argument. We also have a responsibility to scale back our lives. We live in a time of incredible, abundant energy and resources. We have a standard of living that is otherwise unknown throughout the history of humanity. As John Michael Greer noted in his latest writing over at The Archdruid Report, “A modern American climbing into the driver’s seat of a large SUV has more sheer physical energy under his direct control than your average Southern plantation owner had before the Civil War.” That is an incredible reality, and it’s a sobering one.
The majority of Americans have access to a level of resources that is insane and unsustainable. This access is also murderous and destructive. We are tearing apart our planet in service of this outsized lifestyle. We are destroying many of our fellow creatures, engaging in a level of genocide that is unfathomable. At the same time, we’re enslaving other human beings, destroying communities, polluting drinking water and food supplies and devastating the livelihoods of billions of people in pursuit of this abundance—in our sense that it is fair and right for us to have this impossibly large share. We—all of us reading this, even if to varying degrees—are destroying our world and so many of those, human and otherwise, who live in it in a maddening pursuit of wealth and comfort and distraction far beyond what we need, far beyond what is fair, far beyond what is reasonable, and far beyond what will soon be realistic. If we’re to confront and recognize these facts—and rest assured that they are indeed facts—then we have the moral responsibility to begin the process of scaling back our lives, of impoverishing ourselves so that we may ultimately live better, so that others may live better, and so we may become reacquainted with an honest understanding of what it is to be human in this world.
And again, this is not just a moral imperative, but a perfectly logical reaction to our times. When I say we must impoverish ourselves, I don’t mean we must make ourselves miserable. One of the problems we have is that we equate poverty with misery. While that certainly can be the case, it’s just as possible to exist comfortably in poverty and to live well with little money. It’s a challenge, yes, and it takes much work. It’s a long process. It’s a struggle. But that’s what this life is, after all. We’re not here just to party. We’re here to learn to live well. I don’t know what other point there is if it’s not that. Why else could we possibly be here if not to learn to live and work well? What else makes sense?
The simple reality is that living poor is a much better way to live well in this world than is living rich. The lifestyle that many of us here in America and in other industrialized nations have come to view as common—that many of us have come to see as an entitlement, so long as we do the right things—is not living well in the world. It’s living destructively. It’s outsourcing our lives and destroying other people’s lives in the process. It’s taking without giving—receiving and returning it with a slap in the face. It is a cruelty, and we have to walk away from it.
The good news is that to walk away from it doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. It can instead be incredibly rewarding and provide a return to a way of life meaningful and fulfilling, engaged and joyful. In Part Two of this introduction, I’ll talk about the potential rewards that await in a life of poverty and attempt to break down the middle class myth.