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.
— ∞ —
And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.
God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.” So God made a farmer.
“I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to wait lunch until his wife’s done feeding visiting ladies and tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon—and mean it.” So God made a farmer.
— ∞ —
In 1978, Paul Harvey delivered a speech at the Future Farmers of America Convention entitled, “So God Made a Farmer.” It’s a beautiful speech, filled with stirring imagery and capturing a romantic view of the hard working American farmer. Harvey delivers it impeccably, in his distinctive voice and often falling into a poetic torrent of description. I like the speech; even in its romanticization, it speaks to the agrarian I am at heart, and speaks to a number of truths about farmers of all stripes—not just in this country, but across the world.
Yet, Harvey gave that speech one year after Wendell Berry published The Unsettling of America, a collection of essays bemoaning the destruction of rural and farming communities throughout America. Already, the process of centralization, corporatization, destructive industrialism, and overproduction was ripping through America’s farmlands, picking off farms and farmers, literally killing many of those who worked the land. From 1940 to 1970, the farm population in America dropped from an estimated 30.8 million people to 9.7 million. At the same time, the general population of the country increased by 70 million. Farmers made up 18% of the working population in 1940. By 1970, that was down to 4.6%. Two years after Harvey’s speech, in 1980, there were just 3.7 million farmers, and they made up only 3.4% of the work force. The day Harvey gave his speech, most of the American farm community had already been destroyed.
In 2013, just this last Sunday, Chrysler unveiled a television advertisement featuring portions of Harvey’s speech. Chrysler overlaid his eloquent words with gorgeous portraits of farmers and ranchers. For two minutes during America’s annual celebration of consumption and vacuity—now one of its greatest cultural touchstones—Chrysler’s ad stirred the hearts and minds of a nation of people, seducing them with a romanticized picture of American farming and evoking this country’s rich agricultural heritage. At the end of those two minutes, no doubt, the vast majority of those who had felt so stirred by the words and images set forth before them went back to their Doritos and Pepsi, Budweiser and industrially-produced meat, their various repackagings of oil-soaked corn and soy, and they watched the next commercial pimping an unnecessary industrial product rooted in the destruction of the very same land that so many past Americans loved and worked. In other words, they went back to the sort of lives that have destroyed and debased American farmers—not to mention farmers across the world, creatures across the world, the very land and ecosystems that all of us here on Earth consider home.
— ∞ —
God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, who can make harness out of haywire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. And who, planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, then, pain’n from ‘tractor back,’ put in another seventy-two hours.” So God made a farmer.
God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop in mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor’s place. So God made a farmer.
— ∞ —
Chrysler’s commercial—the first, last, and only purpose of which is to sell trucks and boost their brand, let’s keep in mind—doesn’t present an accurate view of the American food system. The current system is one rooted largely in industrial processes, massive corporate agriculture outfits, degradation of the land, overproduction, commoditization, exploitation of migrant laborers, and the enslavement of farmers via perpetual debt cycles. Farm workers in this country are not primarily white, as the commercial might lead you to believe. They’re primarily brown; a majority of agricultural workers in this country are Hispanic, most of them foreign-born. The majority of children raised on farms don’t “want to do what Dad does.” They leave the farm. They move to urban areas, get “good” jobs, join the industrial economy and never look back.
The hard truth is that most of this country has little interest in getting out there and putting their hands in the dirt and doing the hard work of growing and raising food. We think we’re beyond that. We think we’re too “advanced.” We think that’s something best left to less civilized people. Within the context of the myth of progress—one of the ruling ideas of our time—an agrarian society and economy is seen as less civilized and inherently worse than an industrial society and economy. It’s something best left for the less developed countries. First we stopped dirtying our hands with the growing of food, then we stopped dirtying our hands with the making of actual things, and now—surprise!—we have a dysfunctional economy that no longer even provides the opportunity to keep our hands clean in the magical “information economy” that was supposed to elevate us above all the messy, nasty physical realities of our past lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t have taken such a dim view of the dirt on our hands.
Chrysler and Harvey suggest to us that God makes farmers. I would submit that that’s the wrong message for our time. Harvey’s speech actually reveals the message we most need to hear: that work makes farmers.
— ∞ —
God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadow lark. It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church.
— ∞ —
The recurrent theme in Harvey’s speech is the hard work involved in farming. While Harvey’s math may occasionally be questionable (how does one complete a 40 hour work week in 36 hours, for instance?) the basic message is correct. Farming is hard work, and it involves quite a bit of busting of one’s own ass. Unfortunately, we live in a society that has so been cushioned by the ghost work force of fossil fuel slaves, that we’ve forgotten the hard work that’s necessary for living well in this world. It’s only been in the last few centuries, with the discovery of massive stores of fossil fuel energy, that we’ve been able to live the myth that we can survive without having to engage in hard, physical, yet rewarding labor, without having to know and intimately understand the land upon which we live, without having to have a distinct and instinctual understanding of our local ecosystems and what keeps them functioning. It’s only through the brute force of massive amounts of applied energy that we’ve been able to escape lives rooted in the earth and our fellow multitudes of creatures. And this has made us soft. The vast majority of us no longer understand the hard work that it normally takes to live in this world. We will know again, as we continue the long and ragged process of running out of fossil fuels over the next couple centuries, but for now we are a population divorced from the hard realities of surviving on this planet.
This is my frustration with Chrysler’s ad. It feeds American myths that died when everyone decided it was too much work to live the lives they exalt. It feeds our national complacence by telling us that this reality still exists—even when it largely doesn’t—and provides us a comfort that requires no work, requires no change in our lives, requires no alteration of our behaviors or decisions. By weaving these quiet and comforting tales, by obsessively romanticizing lives that most people no longer bother to live, it insulates us from the hard and necessary work of actually living those lives.
And so I argue instead that we be honest about the American food system and pay attention to the real message of Harvey’s speech. Don’t romanticize the American food system—change it by getting involved in it. Plant a garden, grow some herbs, ditch the pre-processed and pre-packaged crap and buy whole foods, learn to cook, get a CSA, go to the farmer’s market, barter with your neighbors, bake your own bread, make your own yogurt and butter, buy as much of your food as you can from local farmers who do things right. Build your own household economy and then build your local economy. Feed yourself, feed your family, feed your neighbors and help them feed you. Join your local grange. Teach your children what real food is and how to grow it. Learn to live small and within your means, with room to spare.
The food system we have now exists because of our decisions, because of the power we grant to corporations and individuals who have happily corrupted farming for their own gain, destroying farmers, rural communities, and rural economies in the process. Change your actions and decisions. Strip their power. Build a new food system. The government isn’t going to do it, the corporate agricultural outfits aren’t going to do it, even the farmers and farm workers aren’t going to do it if we don’t, through our actions, grant them the power and flexibility to change the way things are done.
It’s up to us, to each of us changing the ways we live. It ain’t gonna get done any other way.
— ∞ —
“Somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life ‘doing what dad does.’” So God made a farmer.
— Paul Harvey, 1978
— ∞ —
We’re going to have to question honestly the lives we lead today, and answer honestly about the changes we need to make. A good many of us are going to have to decide to stay put, to not leave for the city, so to speak, to not dive into the temporary luxuries of an industrial economy divorced from good and honest work, to do what dad does, what mom does, what—mostly, today—the migrant workers do. We’re going to have to return to the land, to our connection with it, and to the hard and good work of living right upon it. The fossil fuel slaves and ghost acreage aren’t going to last forever. The longer we ignore that fact, the worse off we’ll all be.
You got a farmer in you, like the ad says? Honor it. Don’t buy a fucking truck—that doesn’t make you a farmer. Work the land. Grow food. Engage the household economy. Learn to live with less, build your community, turn you back on global and corporate systems that destroy the land, destroy local communities, and make us all dependent on a rickety system with an ever-approaching expiration date. Come home and begin the long and hard work of staying in place, of strengthening the land on which you live, rather than tearing it apart for temporary luxuries.
Work makes a farmer. Inspired by farmers? Well, then, get to work.
One of the farms I work for is currently dealing with an explosion of newborn lamb madness. It started a few weeks ago and is now entering epidemic status. There have been around 80 new lambs born and more are on their way, though we must be getting close to finished. Milling amongst the ruminant chaos, the level of cute and adorable becomes almost overwhelming. The lambs run and jump about, frolicking upon their straw, apparently enjoying their new found lives. They’re indoors for now, both to help keep them from becoming coyote snacks and to keep an eye on their health. However, they eventually will make their way out into the pasture and even more glorious days will follow.
I’m hoping to get a new post written late tonight or perhaps tomorrow. But tonight is a Grange meeting, tomorrow I have friends visiting, and the next few days are packed with plans, so I don’t know for sure if I’ll finish a post. In the meantime, enjoy these pictures of the lamb insanity.
Some of the coloring on the lambs is just ridiculously fantastic. This guy’s an example.
I love watching the lamb tails go mad as they nurse.
Most of the lambs are still quite skittish, but this spotted one didn’t mind getting up close to the camera.
I love this spotted lamb, here nursing with great abandon.
These siblings are just painfully cute and didn’t seem to mind being photographed. Perhaps just too sleepy to object.
And finally, this is Icey, the llama. She’s apparently posing for her picture. She helps watch over the little ones.
See more Photos posts.
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.
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.