Archive for the ‘How To Be Poor’ Category
An entry in How To Be Poor
In the previous entry in this series, The Reductionist Trap, I wrote about a possible diet I could eat that would seem to be sustainable and practical, given my circumstances and the broader world at large. As I noted in that post, I believe such a diet could be resilient, both in the world as it is today and, quite possibly, in the world as I expect it to exist over the coming years—that is, with reduced available energy and resources and lower purchasing power for most involved. In today’s post, I want to speak in greater depth about resiliency, raise the issue of margins, and make an argument for how these concepts can help guide how we structure our lives for a future sporting greater material poverty.
Resiliency is defined as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” and John Michael Greer— in a post about resiliency that I’ve referenced before, in this blog’s longest, but by no means best, entry—defines it as “the opposite of efficiency.” He goes on to write that, “What makes a system resilient is the presence of unused resources, and these are inefficient by definition. A bridge is resilient, for example, if it contains a good deal more steel and concrete than is actually needed to support its normal maximum load; that way, when some outside factor such as a hurricane puts unexpected stresses on the bridge, the previously unnecessary structural strength of all that extra steel and concrete comes into play, and keeps the bridge from falling down.”
If I’m correct in the belief that the future is going to sport a good deal less energy and resources—a good deal less wealth for most all of us, in other words—than resiliency is exactly what we need. That future is going to be rife with misfortune and change, a series of shocks to the industrial system, and an altered landscape—figuratively and literally—on which we’ll have to make our livings. Jobs will be lost, incomes will drop, food will become more expensive and scarce. Blackouts are more common, and that trend will continue as power companies cannibalize their existing infrastructure. I wouldn’t be surprised if rural areas started deelectrifying within the next half century. Road systems will degrade, bridges will collapse or be shut down due to safety concerns, and driving will become less viable in a wide variety of ways. America is in the early stages of decline and faces a rough future in which the general state is one of contraction—thus, the list of these changes could go on and on. Suffice it to say, though, the future is going to be much more rough than the recent past.
To imagine this future in simpler terms, let’s consider a piece of lined notebook paper, 8.5 x 11 inches. But let’s change it a bit from a standard piece of notebook paper. This one has two inch margins on either side, leaving just four and a half inches of writing area in the middle. Not much room in the core, right? In fact, barely more than in the margins. The core of this paper is industrial society as we expect it to function, complete with high technology and massive energy usage, the waste of natural resources, and the assumption of perpetual growth. Draw a line straight down the middle, top of the paper to bottom, straight as an arrow. That might be something like the Wal-Mart ordering system and supply chain—one of the more efficient structures in today’s industrial society, within the confines of how we define efficiency. There’s little waste in the sense that products are ordered just in time, from centralized factories, arriving via centralized transport systems, all maximized as much as possible within a computerized system. There are wastes, granted, but they’re wastes that we by and large ignore within the context of our industrial assumptions and economic organization.
There’s little resiliency to this system. A disruption in the transportation, or in the ability of the factories to function, or in the supply chains that feed the factories, or in the computer system that does the ordering, or in any other number of the system’s numerous points of functioning could lead to empty shelves and lost profit. But so long as everything functions according to plan, the shelves stay full and the profits stay high. On our hypothetical piece of paper, a straight line unimpeded is the supply chain functioning properly, and the line ends in massive profits. But this line can only follow one way to that destination, and it’s straight as an arrow. Put anything in its way—any disruption to the system, in other words—and it stops. It can’t go around. It has no ability to bend, to curve, to find a different way. It only knows the one.
Now, any number of systems reliant on the functioning of the industrial economy can be drawn within the core of this piece of paper. Some must stay straight and will stop if they hit any blockade. Others are more resilient and thus can veer around a bit. They’re capable of twisting and turning and finding new ways. But even these are bound by the margins. Those are lines they simply cannot cross, and so they’re left with four and a half inches of wiggle room, and a couple of wide and wild, two inch stretches on either side that can’t be entered without the system falling to pieces. That’s because these margins don’t function under the rules of industrial society. Fossil fuels are lacking or nonexistent in these margins, there’s no perpetual growth, waste doesn’t exist and energy usage per capita is low. High technology functions poorly or is absent altogether. Sun and air and water flow through these margins, but not reserved masses of millions of years of condensed carbon. Labor is provided by humans and animals rather than machines. Food is provided by soil rather than oil and natural gas. The margins do not function as the core does.
Consider, still further, that the margins are widening a bit each year. Accordingly, the core is shrinking—and, accordingly, the available paths for systems and processes dependent on industrial society is shrinking. Every year the margins grow closer, offering a place to live but under the condition of adapting to new rules, new ways of living, new forms of personal and social organization. Within time, these margins are going to squeeze out the core and leave all those people, communities, economies, businesses, machines, and so on that depend absolutely on a functioning industrial society with no place to live. At that point, they’ll be forced to either survive in the margins or perish.
If we’re to face the future in a coherent and resilient manner, we’re going to have to broaden the ways in which we can function in this world. We’re going to have to learn to live in the margins. That may not mean living entirely in the margins today or tomorrow, but we have to take our first tentative steps into them and begin the long and challenging process of learning the new ways of living that they require. We’re going to have to veer into them at times, familiarize ourselves with the marginal world, and continually increase our comfort there. If we don’t do that, we’re going to be in a heap of trouble as the core continues to shrink and crowds more and more of us out of an industrial economy based on perpetual growth and increased consumption, and into a contracting economy that demands a dramatic scaling back of our lives.
To engage these margins, we’ll need to change our behavior. But to do that, we need first to change our ways of thinking. Many of us have been taught to live in a world of growth, a world of industrialism, a world of massive available resources and energy. Trying to live differently without first changing the way we think is only going to serve to compound an already challenging situation. This is why, in the previous post, I wrote about the need to move away from the sort of reductionist thinking that is employed and common in the industrial world—the core of the paper—and toward a systems thinking that is rooted in the natural functions of ecosystems. The margins, after all, are wild. They’re rooted not in machine control and the brute force application of massive amounts of energy, but in the elegant and complex functioning of ecosystems. To make our way in them, we’re going to have to learn to think as the margins function, thus providing us the tools to tease out the full implications of our actions—to see the rippling effects of the way we live and to understand what underlying systems support or don’t support those ways of living.
As an example, let’s consider a wood stove. One has existed in each of the three places I’ve lived out here on the Oregon coast. It was the source of heat in the yurt I lived in when I first came here in 2011, an option in the old farm house I lived in last year—which also had available the horror that is electric wall heaters—and an option in my current residence, in addition to an electric furnace. Despite the presence of that electric furnace, the wood stove is far and away the primary source of heat in this house. A good question, though, is whether or not it should be.
One way we could consider this question is through a simple, reductionist lens of trying to suss out exactly how much energy is used by the wood stove versus how much by the electric furnace, looking at efficiency ratings of the actual devices, the efficiency rate of conversion of wood and electricity to heat, or perhaps try to determine the cost of a cord of wood in comparison to the cost of an equivalent amount of heat via electricity. Perhaps we might broaden out this reductionist perspective by crunching all these numbers to the best of our ability and then evaluating all of them in conjunction to try to come up with a final determination. We may even bring in yet more variables, such as the cost of the electric furnace versus the wood stove, the amount of energy used in their manufacture, and so on. All of this is good information to consider, but it’s only a small piece of the whole system consideration of how to heat your home, and it takes only the dimmest account of resiliency.
What if we instead evaluated the two methods in terms of resiliency, in terms of how straight must be the line that leads to heat? If we do that, then we’re talking about a whole host of other considerations. The electric furnace, for instance, deals in a mighty straight line laid down within the core of our hypothetical piece of paper. To create heat, it needs a steady flow of electricity, and that electricity needs to flow at a certain level. As currently designed, our electric furnace would pull that electricity from the centralized energy grid. If the flow of electricity stops, the heat stops. Period. If there’s a blackout, the heat stops. Period. If the bill for that electricity becomes too expensive to pay, the heat eventually stops. Period. If we get far enough into contraction and decline that our rural area completely loses access to centralized, grid electricity, then the heat stops. Again, period. And even if we wanted to attempt to replace the grid-sourced electricity with renewable electricity produced on site, it’s not likely we could do that. An electric furnace needs a heck of a lot of electricity, in heavy bursts. I don’t see any way we could cobble together any combination of solar PVs, small wind turbines, and micro hydro generators—and the necessary battery rack—to make that happen. Not for heat on demand. Especially in the winter out here, which is when we need the heat and when the sun isn’t shining. (There’s an important connection there, we should note.) In other words, our electric furnace needs the centralized industrial economy and the electric grid it provides to produce heat.
Now let’s consider the wood stove. Here we find that the line is not nearly so straight, and even is capable of veering into the margins. Unlike the electric furnace, the wood stove can work with a variety of different types of fuel. First and foremost is wood, of course, but it could produce heat from many different combustible materials. Even if we were to stay with wood, though, the ways that wood can be acquired is far more varied than the electric furnace, which needs to be hooked up to a centralized electric grid to work. Wood can be acquired in ways that are highly dependent on the industrial economy and ways that are far less dependent on it. Depending on where you live, it could even be acquired without help of the industrial economy. Scrap wood can be harvested from the forest floor. A series of sturdy hand tools combined with human (and perhaps animal) labor can take a tree and fell, split, chop, and stack it into a winter’s worth of heating. For us in particular, out here on the Oregon coast, access to consistent and reliable electricity is almost certainly going to go away before access to locally grown wood.
Furthermore, a bit of systems thinking leads us to other advantages of the wood stove. As a concentrated source of heat, it not only can be used for heating the home, but for cooking food—and it can do both those things at the same time, with the same heat. Even those wood stoves not made explicitly for cooking provide a hot surface. If you have a cast iron pan and that surface is big enough to balance it on, you can cook food. Still further beyond that, modifying your wood stove to include some kind of wetback system could provide hot water, to boot, providing you three critical functions for the price of one. In the world of permaculture, this is called “stacking functions” and it’s a way of making the most out of your resources that’s rooted in ecological and systems thinking. The beauty of a wood stove is that—in the simplicity of its design and its lack of high technology, which tends to focus on single tasks—it’s capable of supporting multiple functions. An electric furnace, on the other hand, simply can’t heat your water or cook your food. It’s designed only to heat a house, and it goes about that in a very particular way.
In fact, considering the heating device itself is also a good exercise in systems thinking. Our electric furnace is a single-trick pony, designed to be hooked up to an electric grid, a duct system, and a thermostat. Take any of those pieces away and its functioning is either reduced or eliminated. I know of no way to modify it to do other tasks at the same time as its heating the house (though perhaps that can be done and I just don’t know about it!) As well, the electric furnace is dependent on the continued functioning of the heating coil and the blower, or else it simply won’t function properly. If one of these breaks down, the furnace must be repaired or replaced, and that likely will require parts out of an industrialized supply chain. A wood stove, on the other hand, strikes me as a much more sturdy device. It is, first and foremost, a heavy metal box. It’s not dependent on a number of moving parts, nor is it dependent on a duct system (outside of the chimney) or on a thermostat, outside of the predilections of whichever human is charged with starting a fire. It is a sturdy device, likely to last longer than the electric furnace, and certain repairs may be possible without resort to a long distance supply chain. Its heat can more easily be localized if you want to maximize your fuel by heating less space. Closed doors make for a better barrier than closed air vents, after all. In the starkest of situations, you’re likely to have a bit better a time cozying up to a wood stove than to a HVAC vent. (Not to mention, it makes for a more romantic, or haunting, image.)
In short, the wood stove can take a multitude of different paths to the final goal of heat, and can even provide multiple functions upon achieving that goal. The electric furnace knows one path, and its final goal is limited in scope, as well. As such, the wood stove—for many people—is much more resilient a technology for a deindustrializing future than an electric furnace.
This isn’t to say the wood stove is a perfect solution, even for those of us who live surrounded by forests. For starters, those forests can go away fast. The number of clear cuts out here are already too numerous to count and, as we go through the long and harsh process of deindustrialization, there’s good reason to think that quite a bit of rural land could easily be stripped nearly bare by desperate individuals, desperate communities, and desperate governments. It doesn’t have to happen that way, but it might. So even for those of us living amongst the trees, firewood could eventually become more challenging to gain hold of. Furthermore, a good supply of firewood involves quite a lot of labor—either done by humans, animals, machines running on fossil fuels, or some combination of those. A future in which chain saws and diesel-powered splitters are more scarce—either with less of these actual tools around or less access to the fuel to run them—is going to mean that putting away a winter’s worth of wood heating is going to be a challenging task. Particularly for those who are older, in poorer health, or simply not used to hard physical labor. But they’re not insurmountable, and a good community—and good relations with that community—could go a long way toward getting over that hump.
Similarly, the electric furnace could prove to have more worth in certain situations, such as in an urban environment. While I still wouldn’t want to count on it for the long term, there could easily be a day a few decades down the road when a city dweller still has access to the centralized electric grid but couldn’t easily get firewood, while a rural dweller might be able to come across a good supply of firewood fairly easily but has lost any connection to a centralized electric grid. In this case, the city dweller is obviously better off with the electric furnace than a wood stove and the rural dweller vice versa. This comes back to one of the basic tenants behind systems thinking: that it has to be rooted in the local context, not in theory. Systems thinking is about dealing with the world as it is. As such, my above example about wood stoves is relevant for me, in my rural home, and likely relevant for a good number of Americans—but it isn’t relevant for all. Each person has to engage their own local context—their community, their ecosystem, their personal reality—to come to the most resilient way forward.
A final moment of reflection on this post, though—and particularly that last paragraph—will reveal an important truth. All this talk of wood stoves and electric furnaces is rooted in a basic idea that’s very much a product of industrial and reductionist thinking, which is the idea of bending the world to our will. But one inconvenient reality of the future is that we’re going to have much less control over our world than we’re used to today. We’re going to be making do with what we have far more than we’re used to. The margins are wild, and they’re going to demand more from us than we’re going to be able to demand from them. Learning to live well within and accept that reality is a key part of learning to live in the margins, and I’ll delve into that in the next entry in How To Be Poor.
An entry in How To Be Poor
One of the primary troubles with living well in a time of peak oil and deindustrialization is the tendency in our society to think in reductionist patterns rather than within the context of whole systems. Reductionist patterns of thinking have often—though certainly not always—served well within the context of industrialization and, as such, they’ve become one of the more dominant tendencies of our time. When faced with problems or predicaments, we often devolve into arguing over the details in an attempt to build a perfect response to the problem at hand. Seeing a list of troubled variables, we focus on them one by one (or simply focus on one of them at the expense of all the others) and attempt to mold said variable more to our liking. But in doing this, we too often ignore the effects such moldings will have on the other variables affected within the system and it’s there that we run into trouble.
As a prime example, let’s consider the question of how to eat well in a world with diminishing energy and resources, fraught with economic contraction and ecological destruction. Some years ago, I took a college class in sustainability and, to this day, I remember particularly some of the discussion around what sort of diet we may be able to provide the population in a world seriously lacking in fossil fuels and more focused on sustainability. The problem was defined largely as thus: we will need to feed somewhere between seven and nine billion people without destroying the environment and with reduced energy availability, so how shall we do that? The solution, as it turns out, was a textbook response in reductionist thinking.
The solution proffered, in vague and general terms, was that the world’s population would have to shift to eating mostly a plant-based diet. Prime farmland would be used for growing staple grains for human consumption, rather than animal consumption, and the eating of animal protein would drop dramatically. It would not be eliminated, though. Certain range lands that would prove inadequate for growing staple crops or fresh vegetables—due to poor soil and a lack of water—could be used as grazing lands for cattle. That would be the main source of meat for the world’s hungry mouths, and it would come more in the form of ground beef than steaks, because the range lands wouldn’t provide for nice, juicy cuts. (Yes, I specifically remember that point being made, which even at the time seemed strange to me.)
You can clearly see the reductionist thinking behind this solution. It boils down to a few variables: the number of mouths to feed, the amount of land available for farming, and how we might maximize that land to provide a certain number of calories per mouth. That was the entirety of the approach to the question of how to feed the world. It took an entire planet, reduced the uncountable number of ecosystems down to one large number accounting for the world’s arable acreage, and started making calorie calculations of staple grains, perhaps of mixed-crop rotations. You can see this sort of reductionist pattern in other approaches to sustainability issues. There’s no shortage of people concerned about fossil fuel energy who will comment on the amount of solar energy that falls on this planet in any given day, the conversion efficiency of the latest solar panel technology, and from there whip up a quick calculation to note how many acres of the world’s land we simple need to cover in solar panels to start generating all our electrical needs from the sun. If you really want to get fancy, you can throw in climate variables, ideal sitings of the aforementioned solar panels, and so on.
This is reductionism run amok and it’s a particularly unhelpful way to grapple with our future. The simple reality is that being a reductionist in the deindustrializing future is not going to pay the same sorts of dividends as it has in the industrialized past. Going forward, we’re going to be losing our access to the sort of energy and resource reserves that have allowed us to consistently approach our problems with reductionist methods, and that reality is going to leave us more at the mercy of whole systems than we have been. Or, more specifically, we’ll continue to be at the mercy of whole systems, as we always have been, but our ability to create problems one variable at a time is going to go away.
That last sentence might be a bit obtuse, so let me better explain. In Wendell Berry’s fantastic essay, “Solving for Pattern,” [pdf] he notes that attempts to solve problems on a variable by variable basis tend to cause “a ramifying series of new problems, the only limiting criterion being, apparently, that the new problems should arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution—as, in agriculture, industrial solutions to the problem of production have invariably caused problems of maintenance, conservation, economics, community health, etc., etc.” (p. 135 in The Gift of Good Land.) For instance, in attempts to create better economies of scale for raising livestock, an industrial solution has been to take cattle off pasture and put them in feed lots. Setting aside the question of whether or not this was a “problem” that needed solving (that set aside answer, by the way, is “no”) this caused a number of new problems. Placed in a confined environment, fed a diet unnaturally heavy on grain, and left too often to mill about in massive amounts of their own manure, the cattle begin to experience poor health. With a reductionist focus on the problem of poor health, divorced from considerations of changing the root cause of it, the reductionist solution was to provide steady doses of antibiotics to the cattle. This creates a host of new problems—increased costs for the farmer, the eventual evolution of antibiotic-resistant microbes, and so on—which are then either ignored or dealt with in the same reductionist manner, which then creates still new problems. And, of course, that’s just one path of problems. There’s a number of other paths meandering off from the decision to confine cattle, from the problem of waste disposal, the need for imported feed, the heavy environmental costs of ignoring the land’s carrying capacity, the overproduction of meat, the declining health value of the resultant meat, the abuse of animals, the centralization of agricultural production, the resulting economic impacts, and yet more. It spirals out everywhere—confined animal feeding operations lead to industrial-scale slaughterhouses that horrifically abuse both animals and humans, an industrial form of grain production arises to feed the CAFOs, which abuses and degrades the land, which in turn abuses and degrades farmers, which in turn abuses and degrades rural communities and economies, which in turn abuses and degrades urban communities and economies. In our blind focus on variables, we tend to degrade and oftentimes destroy the entire system.
Yet, as Berry argues in his essay, there are more elegant ways of solving our problems, and those tend to be rooted in whole systems thinking. He notes that such solutions that take into account the health of a system, rather than focusing exclusively on independent variables, cause “a ramifying series of solutions—as when meat animals are fed on the farm where the feed is raised, and where the feed is raised to be fed to the animals that are on the farm” (p. 137.) In solving for pattern—engaging in whole systems thinking, in other words—one often can discover solutions that nestle within one another, increasing the strength of the entire system and restoring much of its health. If there is a problem of poor health with animals in a CAFO, then perhaps eliminating the CAFO and returning the animals to pasture is a holistic response to the problem rather than in attempting to control the illness without confronting the source of the illness. In returning the animals to pasture, we will necessarily have to reduce the number of animals to the point that the land’s carrying capacity is not exceeded. In scaling back the number of animals being raised for meat, we help to reduce the problem of over-consumption of meat and offer opportunities for more balanced ways of eating. In doing so, we are reducing the impact on the environment and the ecological destruction that so easily arises from CAFOs. Further, we decentralize our agricultural system, providing the opportunity for more people to make a living farming, which then provides for the reemergence of healthy rural economies and communities, which then benefits the health of urban economies and communities.
This is not the end of the story, though, and neither are those final few sentences a resolution to the issue of eating sustainably. Let’s go back to the reductionist solutions proffered to the question of how to feed the world’s population. It seems to make sense that if the world’s population subsisted on a diet lower on the food chain, then less energy will be required to feed the world. And indeed, you can consistently find arguments in support of vegetarianism as an appropriate response to ecological destruction and unsustainable ways of living. We are reminded again and again that eating animals is eating higher on the food chain and that, therefore, every calorie taken in is necessarily the result of a greater number of calories of energy expended than if we had taken in a calorie of plant food.
I obviously don’t dispute the simple fact that one calorie of animal protein is the result of multiple calories of plant protein. It follows that to eat the calorie of plant protein requires less calories taken out of the system as a whole. That’s logical enough, and just because it’s rooted in a certain reductionism doesn’t make it untrue. (Reductionism does have its uses, after all.) However, how one plant or one animal calorie gets to my mouth is dependent on a wide variety of variables, so each calorie is not made the same. The whole system of food arriving in my stomach contains a number of variables beyond simply what segment of the food chain it came from.
In this sense, the question of diet has to be considered in a whole systems context, rather than a reductionist context. I already argued this point to a degree in an earlier post in this series, There are No Vegetarians in a Famine, but if we’re going to grapple honestly with the question of what’s the most sustainable and coherent way to eat, it’s going to involve a lot of consideration of personal context, local landscape, and the local ecology. How does killing and eating a local wild animals compare to eating locally raised beef that lived on pasture? How do those options compare to beef from the industrial agriculture system? And how does all that compare to eating organic staple grains from a monoculture operation in California or Canada or the Midwest? What about conventional staple grains? Or how about an array of locally grown, organic vegetables? An intensive organic vegetable operation, a permaculture homestead, a mixed-crop and animal rotational system? The question of which of these foods or methods of production are most sustainable are rooted in locality and each individual person, as is the question of the health and satisfaction of a particular diet.
The trouble with using reductionist thinking to come up with a solution of staple grains and range land beef is that it presupposes a number of other variables that may or may not be viable in a deindustrializing future. The number of calories of energy it takes to produce a calorie of beef is usually calculated based on industrial agriculture rooted in the feed lot system. How does that compare to small, local farms utilizing a rotational grazing system and not feeding their cattle grain? The number of calories necessary to produce a calorie of soy or corn or oat or wheat is dependent on the way those plants were grown, what seed was used, what pesticides and fertilizers were or were not used, where it was grown, where it’s being consumed, and perhaps even on whether or not a person feels more satiated on an equivalent number of calories of grain versus meat or any other type of food (assuming the person in question has options, which is not an assumption that can be blithely made in a deindustrializing future.) Most of these examinations of the most sustainable ways to eat are rooted in assumptions of industrial agriculture, as well as in assumptions that we can just pick and choose our diet without concern for our local realities. All of those are also assumptions that cannot be blithely made in a deindustrializing future. We don’t know if the future will allow us centralized forms of agriculture that can create a somewhat consistent diet for the world at large. I would argue that it won’t. A sustainable diet in the future may boil down to what’s produced locally, and that will vary widely if local production is rooted in natural systems, on-site recycling of nutrients and no or little more energy than is provided by the sun that falls on the land. In such a system, you’re a lot more likely to find systems of food production that utilize a mix of locally-appropriate annual and perennial crops along with various types of livestock. That’s one of our better approximations of a natural ecosystem, and the natural ecosystem is the model that we’re going to have to use if excess energy becomes scarce.
This brings me to a question I’ve been considering of late, which is how I might eat locally and sustainably, with the least amount of money. It’s a question rooted in my attempts at voluntary poverty, my concern for the health of our world, and my desire for a graceful and sustainable future. The best solution I can come up with is not one that’s overly concerned about the food chain, but one that’s overly concerned with my particular context. It seems to me that the best way I could eat would be a diet that focused primarily on locally-grown, organic vegetables, berries and fruit, both from my own garden and from local, small-scale farms; pasture-raised meat from the two small farms I currently work as a farm hand for; my local source of raw milk, which I can also make butter, yogurt, and cheese from; chicken and duck eggs from local sources; some organic staple grains from the local grocery, including wheat from which I can bake my own bread; and some trade at the farmers market for other items, such as honey, fruit, cheese, and perhaps some baked goods. My diet already is partially made up of these particulars, but I have yet to embrace it completely.
The benefits of this diet are multiple. For starters, it’s enjoyable and healthy. It’s a diet I would and do take pleasure in. It strikes me as sustainable in the sense that it is focused mostly on food grown and raised within a radius of 15 miles of where I live, and it’s food raised well, food the production of which I know intimately. It’s whole food, and thus it eliminates much of the cost in energy, resources and money of processing, and greatly reduces packaging. It’s also resilient in that most of it is not as reliant on long supply chains as the food in the grocery store is (though there is still reliance—all the local farms I know of use at least some inputs, though nothing like what industrial agriculture uses.) It strengthens the community by supporting local farms and farmers and it even strengthens my own work, as two of those local farms employ me. Relatedly, I can reduce my need for cash by gaining a good amount of that food via work-trade or other forms of trade. Furthermore, this diet solidifies relationships, care, and good work. It is inherently of my context, completely unique to me. I think that’s important.
I’m not saying this is the perfect diet. And there may be a diet available to me that overall uses less energy and is a bit kinder to the environment, in certain ways. But this strikes me as a uniquely good diet for me, rooted in the consideration of the entire system in which I live and from which I gain my sustenance. Furthermore, this strikes me as a particularly resilient diet in the face of an uncertain future, and that’s of the utmost importance. Perhaps just as importantly, this is a diet that works with and largely accepts my local limitations, rather than resorting to the blunt attempts at control that so often underlie reductionist thinking.
In fact, the resilience of this diet, the idea of resiliency in general, the folly of strained attempts at control in a deindustrializing future, and the necessities for engagement with community are all important considerations of both reductionism and whole systems thinking—as well as voluntary poverty and any response to a post-peak oil world—and those are the topics about which I’ll be writing in the next entry in How To Be Poor.
An entry in How To Be Poor
As has likely been noticed by regular readers, the How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty has not seen a new entry in over two months. In the last post in the series, Ending Our Exuberance, I wrote of my intention to address some of the ways in which I would have to manage a new living situation so as not to fall into the traps of an overly abundant lifestyle, instead staying focused on my attempts to scale back my life and live within modest means. I planned to write about ways to craft the context of my living so as to assist me in my goals, making that the subject of the next few posts in the series.
A few occurrences have conspired to keep me from that goal, however. First of all, I find I need more time to figure out something of a coherent philosophy and set of behaviors for how to live well on the grid. I’ve been spending some time thinking on this, but I’m not yet ready to write any particularly helpful posts in that regard. Furthermore, as I noted in my last post, I recently slipped into some bad habits and a resulting mental funk that has distracted me from this blog and some of the behavioral goals the blog is about. That accounted for much of my quiet over the last few weeks. However, it also has provided me the opportunity to think about the subject of distractions and habits and how they relate to my attempt to live a simpler life. And so, being an opportunist, I want to recalibrate the current thrust of this series to address the topic of distraction.
This isn’t a complete reversal from the previous topic of context, as distraction is a part of the context of my current living situation. Of course, distraction has been available at every place I’ve lived—the difference lies in what kinds of distraction are available and prevalent. Ultimately, the reality of distraction comes down not to the specific place I’m living, but my own behavior and mentality. The simple truth is that I tend toward distraction, in ways that can border on, and even slip into, addiction. I’ve known this about myself for awhile now. For instance, I spent a good chunk of my childhood addicted to television, consuming it for hours on end and losing much my life to the flickering images of easy emotional comfort. I grew overweight and depressed watching TV, which tended to reinforce my addiction. It wasn’t until I started to play basketball that I began to watch less (but still plenty of) TV and dropped quite a bit of weight, playing myself into a healthier state.
Coincidentally, basketball is my current distraction. Not playing it, though, but watching it on TV—which is available in the place I’m living. The NBA playoffs are in full swing and I’ve been watching them for a month now. Anyone who happens to be familiar with the NBA knows that, up until the championship series, there is generally one or more games on every single night. And while I certainly haven’t watched every game, I’ve watched enough that I’ve given a majority of nights over to this particular distraction.
While I don’t consider watching basketball a sin of the highest degree, it is most certainly a distraction from the multitude of goals I have for myself this year, particularly with the gardening season in full swing. I work two jobs (though even between the two, they don’t make for a full 40 hour work week) and am trying to get a large garden going. I’m also writing this blog and aiming to get a full compliment of homesteading activities in place. Add into all that my propensity for reading, a desire for semi-regular socializing, the urge to revive my fiction writing, household chores, cooking, and the fact that I’m the sort of person who enjoys and benefits from a decent amount of rest or recreational time to think and reflect, and I’m looking at a mighty busy schedule—provided I follow through at least somewhat on all these goals. Such a schedule requires not just a general lack of significant distraction, but also an avoidance of negative, patterned behavior.
Except that significant distraction and negative, patterned behavior is exactly what I’ve provided myself throughout much of the last month.
Watching basketball most nights not only took away from the various aforementioned activities, but worked to slip me into a pattern of negative behavior that saw me actively avoiding much of that work. I still did my regular jobs, of course, and kept up with my obligations to others, but the work that depended on my own personal motivation began to fall by the wayside. Aside from watching basketball, I spent more time clicking around aimlessly on the internet. I started to fall into a trap that I know too well, in which I shirk certain duties for a bit too long, causing me to then double down and avoid them out of guilt for having not already taken care of them. It’s a bad pattern of behavior to get into and I fell head on into it.
Now, before I roundly flog myself, I will note that I did accomplish some things. I worked up a couple beds in the hoop house and planted tomatoes. I started to go up to the farm I lived at last year for some socializing with newly arrived WWOOFers. My work hours picked up a bit. But there still were many days with multiple free hours during which I could have done more work on the garden or experimented with some homesteading, written posts for this blog, responded more readily to comments, did some reading, or revived my long-dormant fiction writing ways. There was no shortage of productive work I could have been doing; just a shortage of motivation to do it.
This is an interesting phenomenon to think about. I don’t think I’m particularly alone here in America in falling into this trap. While I know plenty of people who are much better at getting to work than I am, I also have seen countless others who lose an incredible number of hours to television or the internet, video games, movies or other distracting media. At the risk of sounding like a broken record—but keeping within the theme of this blog—I can’t help but see the tie to an overabundant lifestyle. Much as it’s bizarre to speak of voluntary poverty as a challenge, it’s a bit bizarre to speak of doing the work that needs to be done as a challenge. This isn’t because work can’t be hard—it certainly can be, though it can also be invigorating and joyous—but because we live in an overly abundant society in which distractions are available and pervasive. Furthermore, we live in a society in which we are cultured to partake in these distractions at every possible point, and at the expense of a more meaningful and satisfying life. This is bizarre not just because of its ability to disconnect us from good work and good living, but also because it’s rooted in an abundant wealth that provides the possibility of our turning away from the necessary work of making our living, instead outsourcing it to the industrial economy.
That’s odd. Every other animal goes about making itself a basic living and acting out fairly natural behaviors. Humans, on the other hands—in recent centuries—have gained access to amazing amounts of temporary wealth and resources and used that odd happenstance to specialize to an unprecedented degree and plunge a significant percentage of the population into a life that centers, as much as anything, around manufactured distraction. The circus is forever in town and we’re handed a loaf of bread and a ticket to the main event each day after our allotted work schedule. Our agency plummets, our unease rises, and society crows about how all its ducks are in a row, even as the ducks teeter and topple. Every night the circus tent looks a bit more ragged and the loaf of bread is smaller, but we continue to watch the ever-more-chaotic show.
How odd, then, that as I write this blog about skipping the circus, breaking away from the allotted work schedule and at least occasionally baking your own bread, I found myself suddenly spending more and more nights at the circus, unhappy and disappointed in myself, yet still somehow enthralled by the spectacle. It’s nothing new for me; I’ve spent much my life vacillating between activities that are a distraction from larger goals and the necessary work of achieving those goals.
It’s been a long road for me, getting away from the spectacle and distraction, and I’m only partway down it. I take occasional detours. I get discouraged by the long haul and at times explore a side path, even if I know I need to stay focused on the long term goal. Not to mention—and I’m going to be talking about this more down the line—I live in this house alone and it’s hard not having a partner to help keep me on track. I’m most effective in keeping my obligations to others. When I have only to keep an obligation to myself, I’m far more likely to fail. I think that reality grows out of feedback patterns as much as anything else. I don’t tend toward having a dominant will. It shows up at times, granted—I can get on a tear under the right conditions—but I’m far more likely to go with the flow, to move within the current. That makes this path much harder, as the cultural and societal current is very much going in the opposite direction from where I want to go.
That’s why it’s important for me to craft a different sort of life, featuring different pillars of support and encouragement than our standard society offers. I need others around me who understand and at least somewhat support what I’m doing. I need the natural feedback that the land and the seasons offer. I need those glorious moments of accomplishment that confirm the beauty and necessity of what I’m doing. I need sunny and warm days, or enthralling storms, or the quiet doings of the many other creatures around me, always somewhere within my view, ready to remind me of what’s real and honest and important. I need nights of good socialization, with drinks and campfires and home cooked pizzas and the ease of a night on the farm, the soft glory of a warm summer evening, laughter and shared experience and a place where this life is normal, not bizarre and contradictory.
I also may need, on occasion, the promise and opportunity of a 90 by 40 foot patch of tilled earth staring me in the face. As I wrote in the last post, it was the sudden and unexpected sight of that soil on a warm and sunny day a couple weeks ago that brought me back to a good place. The farmer within me responded with a surprising ferocity and I grew giddy at the thought of what I might be able to do with that gardening space. Since then, I’ve planted potatoes, lettuce, chard, kale, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, parsley—and I keep adding more tomato plants in the hoop house and will soon be getting in peppers, summer and winter squash, a couple globe artichokes, basil, direct-seeded carrots and beets and, well, so much more. I’m a bit slow going on the garden, but every time I get out there and work on it, it brings me a joy and confirmation and sense of purpose that just resonates throughout me. It’s so, so good. It’s so much better than an evening spent watching basketball.
However, I’m still doing that on occasion. Should I? I don’t know—it’s debatable. But I’m watching the Western Conference Finals, which is playing every other night. On Tuesday, I watched it after a long day of building fence and hauling wood, followed up by a few garden maintenance activities. It felt earned at that point and I watched without guilt. Yet, at the same time, my intention to write this post after the game ended gave way to the fatigue brought on by the long day of work. If I had skipped the game, I likely would have finished this post and had it up Tuesday evening. So there are trade offs.
Yet the distractions aren’t going to go away anytime soon. Much of it may yet go away in my lifetime, but I’m not going to get the easy out of all these societal distractions suddenly no longer being available. I’m going to have to either make them more unavailable to me or become better at avoiding them, at choosing the good and necessary work. Or I’m going to have to fail in my goals. These really are my options and I think they’re the options for many people attempting a path similar to mine.
Voluntary poverty, voluntary simplicity, a simpler way of living, a life lived with less resources—whatever you want to call it, it necessarily involves a lot of work, much of which is not sanctioned by our society. It’s the sort of good work that the media-based distractions so prevalent in our society are designed to lead us away from. A life with more agency, more community, and more good work is a life that leads one to spend less, to be less dependent on the industrial economy, and to tend toward a greater degree of self-determination and, I dare say, a greater degree of skepticism toward the so-called leaders in our society. There’s a reason that all this distraction exists: it serves the existing power structures well. That’s not to say it’s a vast conspiracy, as I don’t believe it is. It’s just that there’s money to be made, a system to be maintained, and power to be held onto and the various distractions available to us in America and in many other industrialized nations serve those goals. They arise naturally out of the system.
As such, any attempt to live one’s life in a scaled back and more self-sufficient manner is going to necessarily involve divesting oneself of many of those distractions. They reinforce behavioral and thought patterns that are antithetical to voluntary poverty and consistently reinforce the values of a society that is actively hostile to such a life. I speak from way too much experience on this topic. In the coming weeks, I’m going to use that experience to explore some of the ways in which our society offers up distraction, how we can go about avoiding those distractions, and how we can turn the natural desires and needs that those distractions target away from the destructive fulfillment that society at large offers and toward a more human-centered set of behaviors. I’ll be exploring different forms of media, what they’ve become in our industrial society, and in what ways they might serve as a healthy part of a community. Then I’ll be turning this all back to an exploration of the necessity of human community in a world of restricted wealth and resources.
That’s the goal, anyway. We’ll see how many detours and side paths I discover on my way there.
An entry in the How To Be Poor series
In my previous entry in the How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty, I argued that many people’s dietary choices reveal the sort of luxury we have available to us today in industrialized nations. By choosing what we eat from a wide variety of foods, without regard to the limitations and constraints inherent to our local landscape and personal circumstances, we often provide ourselves a diet possible only in an industrialized world swimming in cheap energy and resources. Our context is utterly unlike that of most all others throughout human history.
In making that argument, I suggested that how we eat may be as or more important than what we eat. It’s a mark of luxury that the specific foods we eat can be mulled and considered and decided upon, rather than being dictated to us by a strict set of circumstances. If, instead, those circumstances dictated our food, what we eat would not so much be the question and we might instead focus on how we eat, with that determination providing us the method of building meaning into our diets. Creating a set of moral and ethical codes around the how of eating rather than the what of eating makes more sense in a world facing serious energy and resource constraints.
Still, we don’t yet face that world, though it certainly seems in the process of asserting itself. For those of us attempting to eat well, we face instead the question of what to eat, which is an important question. I wrote in that last entry that “I’m not saying these questions are irrelevant or unimportant, but they are often borne of luxury.” I think that line could come across as flippant, disavowing the importance and implications of what we eat, and that’s not at all how I want to treat the subject. No, I think what we eat is very important. As a simple matter of very specific circumstances dating back millions of years, we find ourselves in a period of human history in which those of us living in industrialized nations can choose to eat almost anything we want, regardless of the time of year or where that food is capable of being grown, raised, processed or produced. That reality places a significant burden on us to attempt to eat well. Since we don’t find ourselves restricted by our local context, I believe we’re left with the responsibility to do our best to eat in a way that is nondestructive. We should eat foods that serve well our bodies, the land, animals, farmers, our environment, other humans and the soil. Our eating should not worsen the state of the world. Ideally, it should nourish it.
And yet, that’s not how we tend to eat. Most of us eat in ways that worsen the world; that exploit farmers and animals; that destroy land bases, soil and waterways; that are built upon suffering and cruelty; that impoverish other human beings; that degrade our bodies; and that serve to further sever our connection to the world around us. We often eat fast, dirty, and thoughtless. We fail in our moral responsibility—often we fail to engage that responsibility at all.
There’s nothing surprising about that. There was a very perceptive quote from Bruce Friedrich that I first read in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. In arguing for vegetarianism, Friedrich asks, “What does it say that the leaders of the ‘ethical meat’ charge, like my friends Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan and even the Niman Ranch farmers, regularly pull money out of their pockets and send it off to the factory farms? To me, it says that the ‘ethical carnivore’ is a failed idea; even the most prominent advocates don’t do it full-time. I have met countless people who were moved by Eric’s and Michael’s arguments, but none of them now eat exclusively Niman-type meat. They are either vegetarians or they continue to eat at least some factory-farmed animals.” While I’m not impressed by some of the things Friedrich says before that quote, I find this particular observation to be spot on. As I’ve noted, I started eating meat again after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma with the idea that I would eat good meat. While I follow through on that ideal a good percentage of the time, I still find myself getting the occasional hamburger at a bar that comes out of the Sysco supply chain or buying bacon from New Seasons—which is much better than Smithfield, but far from a small, local, humane ideal. The reason I fail at times is a combination of availability, convenience, and lack of will power. If I’m at a bar and I’m drinking, I’m hungry, and it’s on the menu, I’m going to order that hamburger, even if it’s not grass fed and from a local rancher. I fully understand the implications, but I give myself a pass and dig in. It’s an available moral failing and I take it.
Most people do much the same thing, either part of the time or all of the time. We don’t tend to eat with our brains but with our heart and stomach. We give in to desires—this is one of the reasons there’s a number of massive and profitable industries built around food and diet. Food is something we think about, obsess over, attach moral implications to, satisfy emotional urges with, and which provides us the very sustenance of our lives. It’s a relationship rooted in messiness and complication and the industrial world we’ve built around us has only served to complicate that already complex relationship by vastly opening the choices before us—and vastly increasing the moral implications of what we do decide to eat. The food we normally would eat has become far more corrupted via poor farming practices and the food we normally wouldn’t have available to us now is available and serves to tempt us in ways it never could before. These realities have imbued the question of what we eat with moral implications that it never had before, and as such has shifted our concerns more firmly toward the question of what rather than how.
This isn’t a good thing. While I love having the easy access to sugar and animal products, coffee, chocolate, fruits that would never grow here, ginger and coconut milk, and so many other foods that I wouldn’t eat if not for our industrialized world, I can’t endorse this availability. It’s distorted our ways of eating and skewed them toward destructive ends. It makes every meal fraught with moral and ethical considerations, often turning those meals into exhausting acts full of self-doubt and worry. Recent neurological research, as outlined in a New York Times article, suggests that as we make decisions, we deplete our will power. We become less able to make good decisions until we’ve restored that ability to our brain, which is tied to glucose levels. In other words, our decisions around food are particularly likely to be based in irrational thinking as we often crave sugar as a way to restore our decision-making abilities. But even aside from food, the need to make constant decisions saps our will power over time and degrades our ability to keep ourselves firmly within self-established limits.
In other words, deciding how to eat well is not a simple matter of rational thought, education, or strong morals. All of those things have their effect, but they’re part of a much more broad and complicated act of decision-making that is tied as well into brain chemistry, sugar levels, genetic predispositions and emotional signals. So while it’s important to acknowledge the moral importance of eating well in a world awash with bad food, expecting moral implications to lead to good eating amongst the world’s population is a fool’s game. There may be the rare person out there who is capable of eating at all times within a strict moral code, but the vast majority of us are not going to manage such an impressive feat. We’re going to make decisions that are not going to be good for the world—sometimes purposefully and sometimes not.
I recently read William Catton’s Overshoot and the final paragraph of chapter ten has been haunting me. Catton writes, “Using the ecological paradigm to think about human history, we can see instead that the end of exuberance was the summary result of all our separate and innocent decisions to have a baby, to trade a horse for a tractor, to avoid illness by getting vaccinated, to move from a farm to a city, to live in a heated home, to buy a family automobile and not depend on public transit, to specialize, exchange, and thereby prosper.” Our behavior, in other words, has been perfectly natural. If we see humans as simply another species on this planet, as I do, then we can see how we would make these poor decisions. We can understand why we would eat foods available to us even if those foods increased misery throughout the world. We can see how we would crank the heat even if we knew we could put on a sweater instead, and even if we knew that heat comes from fossil fuels that pollute the world and that are quickly being drawn down. We can recognize that we are animals, not perfect moral beings, and that we will as often as not choose the route of comfort and convenience and satisfaction, even when we intellectually understand the long-term downfalls of those choices.
So while, yes, I think we have a moral responsibility to eat well—much as I believe we have a moral responsibility to live and work well—I don’t think we can undertake such lives via morals alone. Our morality is only so strong and is only one piece of a tangled web of emotion and physicality, genetics and desire, social and cultural norms, and so many more variables. Attempting to engage all of those variables and always still make the right choice is an exercise doomed to failure, and one that will exhaust and break us in the process.
What we need instead is a life of limitation. We need less choices, fewer options, more constraints. A life lived more local and constricted by context would help to absolve us of many of the decisions and options that globalization and industrialism has foisted upon us. Such a life would necessarily be of a smaller scale, rooted in the local land and intimate knowledge, rather than resources that can come from anywhere in the world and through the debased, standardized knowledge of industrial systems. Such a life would limit our impact on the world not by forcing us to choose each time to limit our impact, but by limiting our ability to make such impacts.
This, again, gets at the absurdity of the challenge of voluntary poverty, as I wrote about in Our Distorted View. It shouldn’t be hard to live poor, but it is when you have money and so many options to live otherwise. If we’re constantly facing that temptation and constantly having to make the decision to live a modest life in the face of the ability to do otherwise, we’re quickly going to exhaust ourselves and make poor decisions. So to live a life of voluntary poverty, we need to build limitations and constraints into our lives.
Living here in an off-the-grid homestead has provided all kinds of lessons in that reality. We heat the buildings via wood stoves, which require more work than the simple flipping of a switch or turn of a dial. That leads to less heat, as the effort to produce that heat discourages unnecessary usage. Our hot water also comes from a wood stove, as well as solar hot water panels. That teaches us to pay attention to the weather and to limit our showers. There simply isn’t always hot water without some work, so none of us showers every day—which is unnecessary anyway. We have electricity via solar PV panels and a microhydro generator, but not an abundance of electricity. Generally we can run what we need to, but we’re not powering big screen TVs or using electric heaters or blow driers and we can’t run, say, the electric tea kettle and the hot plate at the same time. We further can only run devices that use small amounts of electricity (such as CFL bulbs) on a continual basis and run high-power devices in short burst. That’s fine—I quickly grew used to these limitations and they hardly impede my life. But it’s a different reality from being hooked up to the electric grid and having essentially unlimited power at your disposal.
These limitations are ingrained into life here and they quickly slip into the background, barely worth thinking about. As a part of life, they do an excellent job of limiting energy and resource usage while providing, at worst, a bit of inconvenience—and often not even that. I live a good life here, possibly better than I have anywhere else, and likely with less energy usage than I’ve used anywhere else.
That, to me, is the goal of voluntary poverty. Finding that way to live that uses less energy and resources while still providing a good life. It’s not the easiest goal in the world, but it certainly is a possibility. Yet, it has to involve the creation of limits and constraints—a context of living that naturally leads to a downsized life. As I prepare to move to a new situation, I’m going to find myself back on the grid, with more living space and constant hot water and changed circumstances that are likely to lead to me using more energy and resources. Leaving behind this off-the-grid homestead, I’m going to have to craft the context of my life to introduce some of the constraints that my current home featured by default. If I don’t do that, I’ll live larger than I want to live, too often making the easy decisions when they present themselves to me. I’ll be able to heat at the flick of a switch, to shower any time I want, to cook by turning a nob rather than stoking a wood stove. How will I deal with those conveniences? How will I stop myself from slipping too easily back into something more akin to a middle class American lifestyle?
These are some of the questions I’ll be writing about as this series continues. It will be a challenge, but I expect it to be a good one. I hope, as well, that my attempts to live in a home more closely approximating the standard American set up will help me to provide more useful information to my readers. Most of us don’t live on off-the-grid homesteads and so the constraints we need are ones we will have to put into place ourselves, as often as not. That creation of our context is going to be a main focus of this series. To lay the groundwork, I’ll be writing soon about the home I’m moving into and the decisions and tradeoffs that led me to this living situation. Those decisions were rooted in constraint, as well, and will help to illuminate some of the frames of mind we’re going to have to dispose of if we’re to live well in a poorer future.
An entry in the How To Be Poor series
To better understand the distorted viewpoint of our culture that I wrote about in the last post, I want to talk about food and diet. As I tend to reference my own experiences in these posts, I want to write initially about my own changing diet over the years.
I have spent a good portion of my life attempting to eat in a moral and ethical manner. This has boiled down, as often as not, to a focus on eating certain foods and not eating yet other foods. For sixteen years of my life, this approach underpinned my vegetarianism. I ate dairy and eggs during that time, but didn’t eat meat of any kind. I came to that diet while living in Arizona as a teenager and it was greatly influenced by the New Age community I found myself interacting with there. I became vegetarian largely for moral reasons and partly for health reasons (ironically, considering how poorly I ate as a vegetarian.) I even believed at times that eating meat would lower my body’s vibration level. Looking back, I feel a bit ridiculous about that.
As parenthetically noted, I didn’t eat well during my vegetarian days. Having never learned to cook much and rarely having anyone to cook for me, my diet tended toward prepared, processed and packaged foods. Boxed pasta mixes and frozen pizzas were staples and spaghetti made with jarred sauce constituted my primary culinary adventures. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I would think a diet of processed foods was a more ethical and healthy way of eating simply because it didn’t involve meat. That seems the very definition of blind reductionism, but it was a blindness I suffered.
Upon reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I began to warm to the idea of resuming my meat eating ways, but with a focus on eating sustainable and well raised meat. I eventually made that change and, not long after, discovered Nourishing Traditions and the Weston A. Price school of dietary thought. I read Nina Planck’s Real Food. I found a source of raw milk and started consuming it with abandon. I experimented with fermenting veggies and soaking grains, though I never integrated those foods into my diet on a regular basis. Finally, a few years ago, I read The Vegetarian Myth and reached the peak of my infatuation with a diet focused on the eating of healthy animal fats and proteins. I found myself convinced by Lierre Keith’s book, which argued that the healthiest, most ethical and most sustainable dietary choice was eating a good amount of animal fat and protein from animals raised well, as well as a certain amount of fresh fruits and veggies and minimal grain.
In conjunction with my focus on well raised animal products, I also had started to farm. This lifestyle greatly improved my diet, significantly boosting my cooking skills and knowledge and providing me plenty of abundant, fresh vegetables with which to work. I became more familiar with making simple, sustaining meals—the sorts of meals I should have been eating during my vegetarian days. In tandem with the increased physical labor of farming, I felt healthier, dropped some unnecessary weight, and began to see the joys of a local and seasonal diet. Not that I ate such a diet exclusively, but I moved much closer. And that has continued up until this day. I probably ate better and more local and seasonal this last year than any other, with much help from the fantastic people I lived with and our communal meals.
With all these different changes in diet over the years, a common thread starting with my vegetarianism (and, really, before then—I remember calling McDonald’s as a child and asking them to stop using styrofoam for their packaging after watching a 20/20 report with my parents) was the idea that what I ate played a large role in my moral and ethical well being. I couldn’t help but feel that my diet was important—that I influenced the world, its health and happiness, through what I ate. Of course, that’s true. Our collective diet plays a massive role in how we live in this world. Yet, I couldn’t stop looking at this effect through the prism of what I ate rather than how I ate.
This perhaps shows itself most clearly through my vegetarianism. I boiled my moral decision down to meat and failed to look at any of the other implications of my diet. Later, when I became convinced by The Vegetarian Myth that eating animal protein and fruits and veggies was the way to go, I looked at it with something more of a holistic viewpoint—questioning what kind of an agriculture could truly be practiced sustainably and realizing the destructive aspects of monoculture grain production, even if done organically—but I still boiled it down to a set diet with rigid guidelines, creating an ideal and only then trying to figure out how I might meet that ideal locally.
Our society, furthermore, is filled with these ideals. There are thousands of books laying out rigid dietary guidelines that promise you the world: a healthy body, a better environment, long life, good sex, happiness, joy, moral satisfaction, so on and so forth. What these diets typically have in common is that they have all kinds of guidelines that they attempt to apply to everyone, with little to no regard for local circumstances, the climate you live in, your particular body, your childhood diet, your likes and dislikes, the kind of work you do, or what kind of agriculture exists locally. The assumption is that you can eat whatever you choose. And this is an assumption that can only exist in the context of massive luxury. It’s, in other words, one of the very distorted viewpoints of our society borne out of a globalized, industrial economy floating on the warm waters of cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy.
Most of human history has not seen such luxury and personal diets formed accordingly. Most people have been constricted by their local agriculture or local wild foods, with minimal or no trade providing non-local foods. Most people, furthermore, have been limited by their own means of acquisition. Plenty of people have been subsistence farmers, eating largely food they have produced themselves and whatever they can acquire in trade using that same self-grown food. Others have eaten on a strict budget, unable to purchase a wide variety of luxury foods even if those foods have been available. It’s a unique circumstance in the history of humanity that we find ourselves in today, in which a significant portion of the populations of industrialized nations have access to food from across the world, throughout the year, and have enough money to buy most any of that food and thus craft whatever particular diet they should want.
This is where we need to make a sharp distinction between necessity and luxury. Necessity is having something to eat—having enough to eat. Luxury is being able to eat whatever diet you decide you prefer, whether that be for matter of taste, health or ethical concern. In a world in which luxury is taken for granted, the morality of eating easily can be transformed from how you eat—by the care you take in eating the foods that are available to you—to what you eat, with little regard for your local circumstances. If you’re living by necessity and therefore feeding yourself within a very limited range of available foods, then moral concerns about your diet have to skew more toward the “how” side of things. What are the traditions of eating? How do you relate those traditions to your larger moral framework? How do you go about acquiring your food? How much do you eat? What kind of thanks do you give for it? What care do you take in the eating of it, the growing and raising of it if you have any control over that? If you’re living in luxury, then it’s much easier to skew your moral concerns toward the “what” side of things. Am I eating grass fed meat? Am I not eating meat? Am I eating grains that are destroying the prairies? Am I eating organic produce? Is my food locally produced? I’m not saying these questions are irrelevant or unimportant, but they are often borne of luxury.
If you find yourself in a famine, chances are you’re going to eat whatever food becomes available to you. If you’re starving, it’s unlikely that moral convictions about not eating meat are going to keep you from eating some goat meat stew if someone should offer it to you. Furthermore, if you’re someone who can’t seem to comprehend the idea of eating grains and vegetables as the core of your diet, then you better change your opinion real quick if you find yourself in the midst of a famine because you’re a lot more likely to get your hands on a meal in that dietary realm than you are a juicy hamburger. Do you think that grain production is inherently destructive of natural ecosystems and that a diet of grass fed meats, eggs from pastured poultry, raw dairy and a smattering of fruits and vegetables grown in rotation on farms incorporating animals is the most sustainable diet? Well, you might not find any such diet available to you a few decades from now, when constricted fossil fuel supplies and an overcrowded planet have greatly increased hunger rates and—in the rough and rocky crash following our current overshoot—grain staples are far easier to come by than pastured meat. The above diet may be one of the more sustainable ones available to human beings—and I don’t know if that’s true or not—but that’s going to support perhaps a tenth or less of our current population. If a few decades from now our governments and local economies are struggling to feed seven or eight billion people on a planet no longer sporting the sort of fossil fuel supply that can support such a population, you’re far more likely to gain access to a ration of grains or potatoes than a nice grass fed steak.
What this comes down to is the necessary imposition of limits and constraints. Much of the challenge facing us in terms of a transition to a more sustainable—and thus, much more poor—way of living is the fact that we have access to this luxury. It’s no surprise, then, that we take advantage of it. That’s pretty standard behavior for any species. If we can eat most anything we desire, it’s not a shock that we’ll eat foods that otherwise wouldn’t be available to us and it’s not a surprise that in determining the moral ideals of our diet, we’ll tend more toward what we eat than how we eat it. That’s the foreseeable outcome of having access to this level of luxury and functioning within the context of the distorted viewpoint that luxury affords us. We make our choices by working from the context of having everything available to us and then trying to come up with an unconstrained perfection. If we were working outside of this odd level of luxury, we would instead be looking at what our limited resources were and then trying to make the best of what was available to us.
We can’t live outsized, overabundant lives if we don’t have an abundance of wealth available to us. In the future, we’re unlikely to have the sort of abundance available that we do today. This, as I’ve said many times, is one very good reason to attempt to start living on less, so that we adjust to this way of life and figure out some of the better ways to do it—how to make the best of what’s available to us—before we find ourselves thrust into that poorer way of life. But if we’re going to figure that out, we’re going to have to change our context. We’re going to have to try to see more clearly, to remove some of the distortion, and to reintroduce limits and constraints into our lives. We’re going to have to craft a different context for ourselves—one rooted more in poverty than wealth, in constrained resources rather than abundance. This idea, of crafting a new context, is going to be at the root of several of the forthcoming posts in this series. I’ll write more about it in the next entry.
An entry in the How To Be Poor series
The idea that voluntary poverty is a challenge is one of the more ridiculous realities of our present situation. Yet it’s a reality, just the same. I was thinking of that this morning while reading a criticism of my How To Be Poor series of blog posts by John Ennis over at his blog, Degringolade. John’s right in noting that being poor is easy—you just run out of money, without recourse. But that’s not the sort of poverty I’m writing about here. I’m writing on the voluntary sort, not the desperation of forced poverty.
I don’t have any helpful advice for that sort of poverty. I haven’t experienced it, for one, and it seems there would be a limited number of responses to such circumstances—and that they would generally be dependent on your particular situation. What I can write about, and what I am attempting to write about with this series, is the idea of powering down our lifestyles, for those who are in position to take such a methodical and purposeful approach. I am writing, in other words, to people who are familiar with or living within something of a middle class American lifestyle. Considering my readers necessarily have access to the internet, I assume that most of them have some familiarity with that lifestyle, whether or not they are actively living it.
The problem with the American culture is that it provides a very distorted view of reality. What luxury is, what poverty is, and what a decent standard of living is all have been twisted by the extreme abundance and material wealth that the standard American has come to consider normal. Further, that idea of normality is on a nasty collision course with what I consider to be the likely normality of the future—which is, as John notes in his criticism, probably going to be one of forced poverty for a good many of us.
Again, I don’t have an answer for that forced poverty. If it comes to pass, there isn’t much of an answer, just local adaptation and millions of individuals struggling to get by. That will prove different for everyone and it’s impossible to predict the course of those multitudes of paths. If we are facing that future of forced poverty, though, then one course of action available to us is voluntarily beginning the process of powering down our overabundant lives so that, when forced poverty begins to assert itself, we face less of a fall.
In my opinion, dealing with that fall while having already begun the process of reorienting yourself to a life with less stimulation and distraction, reacquainting yourself with physical work, learning to accept limitations and figuring out what joys will be available to you regardless of your income will be quite a bit easier than dealing with it while still living a standard middle class American lifestyle and considering, say, the loss of your iPod as an epochal event. That doesn’t mean that dealing with forced poverty will be easy, or that it’s going to be comfortable and joyous—it just means that a reorientation of standards cushions the blow.
What I’m therefore writing about, as much as anything, is that reorientation of standards. I wrote in the third part of the introduction to this series that I thought that reorientation was “the more important aspect” of living in poverty. I already look back at that sentence a bit sheepishly, as I think it too cavalierly plays down the hard realities of poverty, especially in comparison to the American standard of living. But my point was that the mental challenges are a huge obstacle to living less abundantly, and that those are ever present in our culture. Since we have such a distorted view of wealth, luxury, and comfort, we have a hard time seeing the comfort that can be available to us even with little money. We also can distort the realities that we should be wary of. The daily drudgery of repetitive, brutal physical work can break you down indeed. But there’s a realm of daily physical labor that’s not so crushing, and that can even be rewarding. Physical labor, in general, is viewed as something to be avoided by a large percentage of our population. That view point is insane, it’s unhelpful, and it’s false. There’s much joy to be found in physical labor and reintroducing it into our lives can both bring about that joy and help to prepare us for a much less abundant future.
When people talk about a decent standard of living in America—and, I imagine, in many other industrialized nations—they are standardizing a very luxurious way of living. And in that standardization, they tend to distort the idea of what’s necessary for a good life. While I have no personal familiarity with hunter-gatherer ways of life, I imagine there have been quite a few hunter-gatherer societies in the past that lived quite lovely lives, and with a lack of material wealth that most of us in industrialized nations would find ghastly. But that was the life they knew, and I’m sure they found their joys in it and dealt with their miseries, as well. Most civilizations throughout human history have had much less material wealth than we do today and they have often managed those realities just fine. They’ve had their joys, their miseries, their many days of passing time, their exuberances and upheavals and desperations. It can be done, and there’s no sense in us not giving it a try if we acknowledge that our future likely includes much less material wealth than we are used to today.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that any one of us could be plopped down into one of those past civilizations and be perfectly happy with it. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t find ourselves terribly miserable. But that, again, is as much about a disconnect between expectations and reality as it is about necessity. Trying to close the gap between our current expectations and our likely future realities is what I would consider a useful and necessary task. It’s the task this series on voluntary poverty is about.
Now, all this flies out the window if we’re looking at a poverty in which the necessities of life are hard to come by. We may very well be facing that poverty. But even in that case, I’d rather be closer to that future reality if forced to deal with it then falling into it head on with no experience of anything other than middle class luxury. I’d like to go into it having some of the skills necessary to make my own living and possibly craft my own survival than go into it having never gained myself food outside of a grocery store. I might still be screwed, but at least I’ll have a bit more agency in it.
So if our culture’s distorted view about what is a decent standard of living is one of the road blocks to downsizing our lives and learning to live with much less, then what’s our response to that road block? Well, it would seem to me that we must first start better seeing what is and is not necessary for a good quality of life. Of course, that view point is relative to a certain degree, so for the next post I’m going be talking about food to try to understand some of the ways in which we mix up luxury and necessity.