Archive for the ‘wendell berry’ Tag
I’ve always cared about justice and the proper way to live in the world. My specific beliefs around these ideals have changed and morphed over time, but they always have been a concern for me. I remember, as a child, calling McDonald’s to ask them to stop using styrofoam packaging after watching a 20/20 report with my parents. I remember, upon learning what it meant to be gay, being dumbfounded by why someone would care about, or become angry over, the gender composition of two lovers. As soon as I understood the concept of gay rights, I unabashedly supported them.
At the same time, though, I’ve never cared for conflict. I don’t like arguments. I prefer to get along with people. So while I have many strong beliefs (quite evident throughout this blog) my ability and willingness to rage against the world, and its people, has waxed and waned throughout the years. At my core, I want to get along, even when I disagree.
There have been many times, however, when I felt like I should not get along. I’ve written before about my history with political involvement, and that stretch of my life is one of the key moments when I felt compelled to rage. I immersed myself in a partisan world view that encouraged anger and defiance, that turned concerns about the proper way to live in the world into a blood sport, a war, a desperate struggle with immense consequences. Within that paradigm, I felt the need to challenge my aversion to conflict and instead to embrace conflict as the only effective way to make the world a better place. I came to see hard lines as a necessity and I tried to fit myself into that worldview, hardening and raging, pushing against a world I too often saw as unjust. And as, time and time again, my ideals failed to be implemented, I despaired.
In “A Letter to Wendell Berry,” Wallace Stegner tells Berry that “The lives you write about are not lives that challenge or defy the universe, or despair of it, but lives that accept it and make the best of it and are in sober ways fulfilled.” The line struck me, because it perfectly encapsulates so much of what I enjoy about Berry’s arguments. It’s not that he never rages against the world, or condemns it, but it’s that he accepts it, reminds us that we must ultimately bear it, and that he consistently recognizes and acknowledges his own role in the destruction and improper living. He is thoughtful, first and foremost. He tends not to let rage distort his view. He is considerate—in the archaic sense of engaging in long and constant thought—and iterates unflinching examinations of the world. Granted, they are of his particular view and thus are not truths for all, but they’re always honest and thoughtful, the product of extensive consideration.
I appreciate this approach. At my best and most honest, it’s my approach to the world. I’m not a rager, despite my occasional lapses into it. I have a very hard time hating people or maintaining anger. I want to like people. I want to engage with them, to be considerate, to find common ground. I don’t mean this as some sort of self-flattery; if anything, it often drifts into detrimental territory. But properly harnessed, I think it’s a powerful trait.
In my criticisms of the way we live as a society, I cannot often get away from considering my own role. It feels too dishonest. Yes, I get on my high horse and enjoy—perhaps too often—rousing bits of rhetorical flourish. But I always attempt to bring it back to my own behavior, my own thoughts, my own complicity and engagement. It’s the only way I see to make an honest difference in the world. I can’t help improve a destructive system if I can’t see my own role in it.
But it’s also more selfish than that. I’m not particularly happy raging against the world. When I tried to engage in politics, I consistently found myself worn down by it more often than not. I didn’t like the division. I didn’t like trying to force people’s hands, to push my way into their lives and try to get them to do something they didn’t want to do. I didn’t like making cold calls. I didn’t particularly like get-out-the-vote efforts. The scapegoating corroded me, made me anxious and frustrated, angry and brittle. The dominant politics of this country is not one of building and engaging community, but one of demonization and hatred, of the stoking of division for power, of simplified and binary thought patterns. It’s about identifying and eliminating the enemy, first and foremost, and any engagement of others to make the world better is incidental. A mere byproduct at best.
That’s not a path that sustains me. Nothing about my involvement in politics heartened and sustained me. It was a zero-sum game at best, and far too often a negative. It drained me of energy and constantly felt like a battle. I had to push myself to engage in behavior contradictory to my natural instincts. I did this because I thought it was necessary to make the world better—that this was the way to improve a society I so often found incoherent, painful and cruel. I punished myself with politics, and I told myself it was my duty to do so. It was the cost of being a good citizen.
Inevitably, I burned out on the process. I suspect the same constitution that made my engagement in politics so draining also guaranteed that I could not keep it up. I prefer to enjoy my life, and I’m not driven or self-disciplined enough to consistently and unendingly engage in behavior I don’t enjoy. But even as I drifted away from the sanctioned political realm, and even as I found farming and the fulfillment and sense of purpose that it provided me, I still could not entirely leave behind the sense of duty toward disruption.
For a brief time, Derrick Jensen’s argument that industrial civilization had to be dismantled—and similar arguments from others—captured my attention and imagination. My tendency to see the pain and destruction in the world opened me to the idea that I had a duty to do whatever I could to bring down industrial civilization and help limit its destruction of the world. I became at least somewhat sympathetic to the idea of sabotage and destruction for a greater good. Yet, again, my constitution wouldn’t allow it. I never seriously considered engaging in any destructive acts (let alone violence, which is utterly anathema to me) but I did briefly consider it a compelling and logical argument. I still consider it a fair argument to consider, even if I have serious problems with it.
The argument eventually lost its draw for me, though. I’m not a warrior. I rarely fight. I have little interest in machismo. I don’t like conflict, have little interest in competition, and I don’t like defeating people—even in approved ways. When I played basketball in my teens, I liked to play point guard. Not because I was short, but because I loved to pass. I far preferred passing over shooting. A good assist was poetry to me, and it still is. It’s one of my favorite aspects of basketball. I like cooperation. I like to make others happy. I want to work with people.
Much of current politics isn’t about working with people, but about defeating them. There may be some incidental cooperation in that process, but abstract victory is the primary goal. Ostensibly, it’s in service of making the world a better place, helping people, improving lives. But honestly, that never seems to happen, and still the thirst for victory continues. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people on the right and left justify something that a politician on their side has done even when it conflicts with their supposed core values. The desire to win is stronger than the desire to govern. It trumps ideals. It lays waste to all other priorities.
I couldn’t last in that environment. And so, I farm. I work to scale back my life. This is the reason I find the concept of voluntary poverty so compelling. It’s rooted in changing my own behavior. It’s rooted in dealing primarily with my own life, not others’. It’s not about competition. It’s not about imposition. It’s about changing and improving my own life, first and foremost, and it’s about then helping to change society via modeling and cooperation. The more I learn, the more I’m successful in scaling back, the more able I am to help others who are interested in my lifestyle do the same. The more I change my own life, the better I’m able to advocate through my writing here on this blog, through conversations with people out in the world, through a willingness to show others what I have learned and to tell them about the ways in which I’ve failed.
This is a model that actually works for me. It makes me happy and works in conjunction, in cooperation, with who I am at my core, with my own personal truth. And so it renews me. So I thrive in this behavior. So, even in its challenges, I seem to find joy and happiness. I’m more at peace and I feel like I actually am, in very small ways, helping to improve the world.
I’ve read and listened to and spoken so much rage in my life. Berry’s writing is a refreshing and rare change in the way that it deals in acceptance. In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Berry said that, “to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial,” but that “the situation [we're] in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience.” Somehow, this feels far more possible and rewarding to me than raging against the world. A lot of terrible things are bound to happen and are already happening. I want to help limit those terrible things in whatever way I can. But I can only do that in trying to live well myself, not in fighting tooth and nail against the inevitable aspects of the future. Not in laying the blame for those inevitabilities at the feet of others in favor of myself.
Perhaps this is an escape as much as anything else. Perhaps part of my draw to this attitude is its ability to absolve me of certain hard choices. But it still feels more honest to me, and I know that it’s by far the more sustainable approach for me in particular. Rage doesn’t sustain me, but good work does. Digging in the dirt does. Bearing the future does, in its own strange way. Thus, I more and more these days deal in acceptance and adaptation, and hope that this path will lead me to good living and to poetic—if small—assists. I hope that it will lead me to a helpful patience. I hope that it will open paths of cooperation for me, even as it closes paths of competition and defeat.
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.
Here in America, we had an election on Tuesday. Some of you may have noticed.
I have to admit, I still love Election Day. No doubt, that enjoyment is derived at least somewhat from the brief stretch of my life when I became veritably obsessed with politics. Bush the Second drove me crazy during his presidency, his policies diametrically opposed to many of my own beliefs and desires. During that time, my already established liberal and Democratic lean became more pronounced and partisan. I worked to elect Democrats, obsessed over political news, threw myself headlong into political blogs, did some political blogging of my own, and lived and died by election results.
It didn’t last that long. I shuddered at the 2002 mid-term results, backed Howard Dean with a vengeance in 2003, watched as he went down in flames in early 2004, got behind Kerry, wished fervently for him to defeat Bush, was crestfallen when he didn’t, rejoiced in the 2006 mid-terms, bounced around a bit in the 2008 Democratic primary, ultimately became sucked in by Obama’s candidacy, rejoiced when he was elected, and then quickly soured on the entire process as he pissed away the enthusiasm and support upon which he was swept into office and instead gave us little more than the third term of George W. Bush.
That’s the very brief and incomplete summary, and it’s one that I believe tracks with a number of people in this country. My relationship with politics is, of course, much more complex than that. I believe in the importance of local elections, I still find great value in the process of voting—as a ritual act if nothing else, as has been talked about in the comments of the most recent post at The Archdruid Report—and I still believe that representative democracy can be a good system of governance, though surely not the handed-down-from-God perfection that America’s leaders often like to cynically portray it as. Yet, I believe that our system—on the federal level, at least—has become hopelessly corrupted, utterly ineffective, and largely a sham in these dying days of the American empire.
Despite all those beliefs, I voted a second time for Barack Obama. Consequently, I enjoyed the hell out of Election Day.
And I can’t help but wonder: Why??
— ∞ —
Well, there are good reasons and petty reasons. In terms of the good reasons, I quite enjoyed watching gay marriage pass in Washington, Maine and Maryland and an anti-equality measure fail in Minnesota. I enjoyed seeing Washington and Colorado legalize marijuana. Here in Oregon, the marijuana legalization measure failed, sadly, though I suspect legalization will pass here in the near future, either by the state legislation or a future measure. There were other state measures that have immediate effects on myself and my state—private casinos, the legality of gillnet fishing, and the estate tax were a few—that all went my way. Local elections, of course, have a significant impact on me in a much more visible way than federal elections often do, and so I followed those with interest. They didn’t all fall as I voted, but none of the results seemed a disaster, either.
In terms of the petty reasons—though there is good in these, too, I think—I loved seeing the defeat of certain odious personalities, like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, Paul Ryan and Allen West. Hell, you can add Mitt Romney to that list; he seemed like a dick to me, to be honest. I enjoyed the election of Elizabeth Warren, who seems smart and empathetic, even if she also is as blinded by the madness of perpetual economic growth as every other federal politician. I found it fascinating to see the further rise of the electoral power of women and minority groups, as has been talked about endlessly by talking heads since the election, and took a petty satisfaction in the slightest of marginalization of white men—a hilarious apocalypse to certain commentators. However, I see a certain pettiness in that fascination because it doesn’t, in my mind, change the overall tragic trajectory of our nation and the industrialized world at large.
The pettiest reason of all for my joy on election night, however, was the way in which it served as base entertainment—as the same sort of competition spectacle as sports. Most of my love of Tuesday came from the simple joy of my team winning. It’s a sad statement, especially considering the fact that I find myself bitterly disappointed in and skeptical of my team. The Democrats are almost as clueless as the Republicans, wedded to the same horrific and destructive ideals of unending economic growth, environmental destruction, and cultural genocide. They worship at the same alter of industrialization, specialization, growth and all its attendant destruction. But they do it with a bit more of a smile on their face and a few throw away platitudes about how we don’t have to have all the attendant destruction, if only we elect Democrats. It’s horrifically cynical, complete bullshit, and arguably a more immoral argument than the Republicans’ argument that the destruction doesn’t actually exist.
And yet, I voted for it on Tuesday. And cheered when that argument won.
Why? Because that argument was my team, and on that bloodthirsty night, I wanted to see my team win.
— ∞ —
I could claim that this was about social progress, the rights of minorities, and the belief that people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of whom they love or what genitalia they were born with, the color of their skin or their religious beliefs (or lack thereof.) That is a seriously motivating factor. I don’t like the way so many GOP politicians seem to hate brown people, the way they demonize gays and lesbians, their too-often dismissive and clueless attitudes toward women, and their apparent hatred of reproductive rights. But to embrace the Democratic party in turn seems to me little more than a betrayal of that agitation against discrimination. The Democrats, after all, are also excellent at creating divisions for political gain (though perhaps not typically as effective as Republicans.) There’s no shortage of apocalyptic rhetoric on the Democratic side, casting Republicans as religious fanatics and demagogues who are opposed to the basic nature of progress. Rural and religious people are too often looked down upon. Cultural knowledge and tradition is dismissed at the behest of scientific specialization. College education is a sign of knowledge; lack of the same is a sign of ignorance. Abstract knowledge is valued over practical knowledge. And how about the incredible discrimination based on place of residence found in the drone murders of countless overseas individuals by the Obama administration?
Granted, these are broad assertions about the general fault lines. You can find Democratic and Republican politicians that buck these tendencies and ideologies. Much more importantly, you can find significantly more self-identified Democrats and Republicans amongst the general populace that don’t fall into these neat categories. In fact, in interacting honestly and openly with people on both political sides—and the many who refuse to affiliate themselves with either side—what you most often find is a population of people who don’t fit these neat categories at all, or whom have complex reasons behind their backing of these categories. You find individuals, informed by their own experiences and influences, rather than the cartoons that these people are cast as by politicians of both stripes.
And that, as much as anything, reveals the key to these divisions: each side’s greatest divisional tactics are in their castings of their political opponents, and their opponents’ voting base, as caricatures. Republicans—not just the politicians, but Republican voters—are ignorant and backward reactionaries, stuck in their outdated religious and cultural worldviews, completely devoid of empathy, violently against any social safety net and eager for those less worthy of them to die. They’re rural rubes and suburban hate-mongers who fetishistically cling to their guns, their religion, their hatreds and their fear and stand in the way of the glorious social and economic progress promised by Democrats. Democrats—not just the politicians, but Democratic voters—are elitist, urban intellectuals who hate religion and any sense of tradition. They despise American values, capitalism, democracy, rural folk, religious folk and entrepreneurs. They want to destroy rural communities and economies. They want to eliminate guns and the cultural traditions that come with them, destroy independence, enlarge government to the point that the entire country is completely dependent upon it, redistribute wealth and ensure that no one may rise or fall via their own hard work or lack thereof. They want a completely homogenized culture, where everyone thinks and acts the same and the government dictates all standards of decency.
Those are your caricatures. And guess what? When your opponents are this evil and outrageous, then politics can only be a war. It’s about stopping the other side, no matter what. It’s not about working toward solutions, it’s about eliminating a threat. And so it goes. So goes the theater, so goes the sport in which all that matters is the final score, in which all that matters is whether or not you vanquished your enemy.
— ∞ —
But in the midst of all this sport and theater is the crumbling of the American empire and the collapse of the industrial paradigm. We are running out of our fuels, tearing apart our ecosystem, straining under insane financial and economic policies, and clawing at each others’ throat with the crazed idea that if we can just kill the other side, we could fix all this.
Eliminating each other isn’t going to solve our problems, though. The only way to do that is to change the way we live. The only way to do it is to thoroughly and honestly evaluate the way we live and choose different, less destructive ways to live. The only way we can even begin to solve our problems—even to just stop making them worse—is to be honest with ourselves about our privilege, about the outsized ways we live, about our hyper-abundance and all the ways it destroys the ecosystems we live within and are dependent upon, as well as our own cultures, societies and sanity.
In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry writes about the need for “kindly use.” In talking of conservation, he notes that we can only preserve a portion of the land in wildness, and that, otherwise, “Most of it we will have to use” (p. 30, from the Third Edition published in 1996.) He notes that only a considered, kindly use of the land “can dissolve the boundaries that divide people from the land and its care, which together are the source of human life.” He speaks of this kindly use largely in the context of agriculture, but also makes it clear that this is a broader concept applicable to the entirety of our culture—and that kindly use of the land and the world is integral to a coherent and healthy culture.
This is a massive question. It is, essentially, the question for our culture. Indeed, it is a variant of the question for every culture: how to live well in the world. Without constantly engaging this question—and finding some successes in that engagement—any culture will ultimately perish. Despite our fervent proclamations to the contrary (perhaps most fervent amongst politicians) we are simply another species living upon this planet and within this ecosystem, and we are beholden to the same limitations and restrictions and necessities of good work and living that any other species is. If we don’t accept those limitations and restrictions and learn how to live and work well within them, we will die out as a culture. It’s as simple as that.
Numerous past cultures have actively engaged this question and thrived as a result of that engagement. They have suffered the consequences and made corrections when their use turned from kindly to destructive. They have made mistakes and had successes, but their continued survival was always dependent on the engagement of that question and the corrections necessary to fall more on the side of kindly than destructive. When they failed to make those adjustments and corrections, they collapsed.
As a culture, we do not engage this question nearly enough in our personal lives and we engage it almost not at all at a national level. Neither of the major parties is asking how we can engage in kindly use. It is not a question they have asked themselves and so it is not a question they will attempt to answer. I could create my distinctions between the two major candidates for President on various social issues and by allowing myself to buy into the caricatured divisions that both candidates so skillfully evoked amongst the population, but the reality is that both of them articulated and fought over an identical vision of America: one of extractive, destructive empire devoted solely to the comfort of its population at the expense of all other creatures—human, animal, and plant—on Earth. Neither of them even began to honestly engage the question of kindly use, and so both of them represent a continuance down the path of destruction. As important as I think many of the social issues that these two candidates use to divide this country are, they are completely and utterly subordinate to the ultimate question of kindly use. They, too, will become irrelevant if our culture collapses under our own destructive tendencies.
— ∞ —
On Tuesday, I voted. I allowed myself to fall into the spectacle and entertainment, the blood sport of national politics in the final days of the crumbling American empire. And, more often than not, my team won.
But when it comes to the trajectory of this country and the industrialized world at large, we all still lost. Because we chose between two people who have not even attempted to engage the question of kindly use, of how to live and work well in this world.
We are now suffering the consequences of our destructive use. We have been for many years. Tuesday was just one more data point amongst many that, despite suffering the consequences, we continue not to make the necessary and painful corrections, not to move away from our destructive use and toward a kindly use. Until we do, our culture will continue to crumble and collapse and our ritual blood sports will leave us nothing but further bloodied, further injured, and closer to death, no matter which side wins.
An entry in The Household Economy
A few months back, I read a Sharon Astyk post in which she wrote about a new cookbook of sorts, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese. In the book, Reese engages in a wide variety of food-centered homesteading activities, like making butter and baking bread, making her own prosciutto and camembert. As she tries these different tasks, she documents the process and makes recommendations for which to take the time to do yourself and which to go on purchasing from others, trying to figure out where one’s limited time is best invested.
I haven’t read the book but found the concept fascinating. About the same time I read about the book, I found myself thinking about this series of posts on homesteading, The Household Economy, and how exactly I wanted to approach the writing of it. While I’ve made clear that the intent of the series is to focus on the various ways in which I engage my own household economy in pursuit of my broader goals of voluntary poverty, self-reliance and a modest life built on minimal money and energy, I wondered in what exact way it made sense for me to write about these activities. A series of posts as little more than step-by-step guides didn’t seem logical to me, mainly for the reason that such guides already are abundant on the internet for most of the activities I’ll be engaging in. Indeed, many of my activities will be carried out with the help of online guides, as well as with certain books I own. Simply duplicating that information makes little sense.
These considerations at some point dovetailed with thoughts about Reese’s book and the idea of making the bread but simply buying the butter, assuming you didn’t have time to do both. Since I had surmised butter-making would be one of my regular homesteading activities this year, I wondered if the effort really made sense. The difference in taste between store bought butter and homemade butter did seem somewhat negligible and making butter—while not particularly hard—was a bit of a messy affair, and did require quite a bit of cream (at least to create the supply of butter I tend to use, with it standing in as my cooking fat most of the time.) Perhaps making my own butter didn’t make sense, after all.
Despite these uncertainties, I made my own butter anyway. I wanted to at least try it, if nothing else. The first time I made it was with cream bought at a co-op in Portland, from a small scale Oregon dairy. The process proved extremely simple, though I did make a mess of a number of dishes and it did require a bit more time than I expected. But despite the clean up, I wanted to make butter again.
Time passed before that happened, but I finally made a new batch of butter a few weeks ago. The cream for this butter came from my weekly supply of raw milk, skimmed off the top after sitting in the fridge for a few days. For some reason—perhaps due to some difference created during the pasteurization or perhaps because the skimmed cream was a lower fat content than the store bought cream—the process of making the butter took longer. However, since the agitation was done in a food processor, that proved to be the most minimal of inconveniences. It was more a curious occurrence than a problem.
The final product was quite tasty and I enjoyed eating the butter smeared on bread. I couldn’t say it was an order of magnitude better than store bought butter, though. Better, yes, but not to the same degree as, say, eating fresh baked bread right from the oven in comparison to bread from the store. Furthermore, for my gallon or so of raw milk, I skimmed off a little over a pint of cream and ended up with around a quarter pound of butter. The next week’s process proved more successful, with a better skimming of about a pint and a half and around six ounces of butter, but I still realized that it takes a lot of milk to produce a modest amount of butter.
I considered all these factors as I debated with myself as to whether or not to make butter regularly. The more I thought about it, the more variables I considered, until I finally managed to turn my consideration of butter into something of a philosophy of homesteading to be used for this series of posts. The philosophy is rooted in many of the same themes and considerations that have been and will continue permeating my How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty, as well as the thoughts and ideas behind this blog in general. As such, the major underlying tenets that I’ll be using for this series are that I’ll be taking into account my own personal context, I’ll be looking to educate and demystify with these posts, and I’ll be focusing on patterns and systems. All of those tenets need further explanation, so if you don’t mind, I’ll now break out the bold.
The matter of butter illuminates this tenet well. I’m already receiving a gallon of raw milk each week. Raw milk, for those who may not be familiar with it, is simply milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. My milk comes from a local farm, it has a fat content higher than whole milk in the store, and it’s delicious. It comes in a steel milk pail that I return each week and which has a wide mouth lid on it. That means that each week, I can bring home my milk and leave it alone for a few days in the fridge until a good amount of the cream rises to the top, then I can skim off that cream and use it to make butter.
Already receiving that milk is my context—with that context being that I already have available to me a weekly source of high quality, locally-produced cream and it even comes in a container that makes it easy for me to skim off and separate that cream. Since I have that source available to me, it makes sense that I make use of it to provide myself with butter. If I didn’t have this available to me, then making my own butter at home might involve simply going to the store and buying cream, bringing it home and then using that to make my own butter. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m not really creating the benefit of cutting out the middle man since I’m still buying the cream from the store, I’m probably not creating butter much different than what I could buy at the store, and I’m probably spending more money on it. What I’m doing instead, to a large degree, is simply introducing an extra step into my life for minimal benefit.
Now, that doesn’t mean it might not be a great step to introduce. If I simply really enjoy the process of making the butter, than that’s great. Homesteading is fun outside of moral, ethical or financial concerns, without question. But while that fun is going to be present in this series, I also am intent on rooting it in context, in what makes sense, in the sort of activities that my life already is arranged for. I want to take into account my context and work within that context, rather than creating habits without concern for the rest of my life.
In fact, this strikes me as the root of many of our problems in our society, and it contributes greatly to the unsustainability of our lives. I’ve written about this before and will write about it again, but it’s the fact that we don’t take into account our context and our personal situation when making so many of our decisions that brings us trouble. While personal debt, for instance, can arise out of situations out of our control, a good portion of it arises out of decisions made while ignoring our context, our personal reality. I know that has been the case for me before and there’s no question that our society and economy encourages this type of behavior. Our economy, in fact, is based on debt and expansion, regardless of the availability of resources for that expansion.
If we find ourselves with so much stuff that our living space is overflowing, we too often look for a bigger living space rather than getting rid of some of our stuff. We consistently, in this society and economy, default to bigger and more expensive, to growth and physical abundance, when we could just as easily default to smaller, more limited, constrained, and cheap (in the monetary sense, not the quality sense.) We’ve lost touch with thrift and have dismissed the idea of limits. When we have a problem, we as often as not look for solutions rooted in technology, energy and money rather than in solutions rooted in limitation and behavioral change. We look at the life we want and then do whatever we can to try to gain it, often to our detriment. We rarely look for the best life we are capable of having and then achieve it within the limits of our reality.
I don’t want to engage in every cool sounding homesteading activity just for the sake of doing it. I want it to arise naturally out of basic needs and my life’s circumstances. I want to make my butter not just because it’s fun—which, again, is a legitimate piece of this—but more importantly because it makes sense within the realities of my life. It flows from my circumstance and maximizes my resources. As such, it feeds my current goals rather than working against them. That’s important.
Education and Demystification
One of the critical goals that I think can be achieved through homesteading is the slow build of skills and knowledge used to make one’s own living. Every time we find ourselves purchasing something we need at the store, provided by someone whom we likely don’t know or care about and who doesn’t know or care about us, we make ourselves vulnerable. We reduce the sovereignty we have over ourselves and our livelihood, and we endanger our family and community. We put ourselves at the mercy of others—most often, at the mercy of massive and amoral corporations and too-often-corrupt bureaucracies. Meanwhile, these same corporations and bureaucracies are finding their supporting infrastructure weakened and at risk of collapse. The necessary resources for these massive entities are becoming more limited, more scarce, and in many cases are nearing full scale disappearance. Our state of dependence is an incredible danger, a huge vulnerability for most of us.
I’ve written plenty of times here on this blog about our need to reduce that state of dependence. Dramatically reducing the money, energy and resources we need is a big piece of limiting that dependence. Learning how to make, produce, or trade for many of our necessities is another huge piece and that’s the piece that I’ll be most focused on with this series. To successfully provide ourselves many of our own needs, though, we need a range of skills and education that many of us simply don’t have anymore. In just a few generations, we’ve lost a massive amount of knowledge and ability and now we need to relearn it as a culture as quickly as possible.
Assisting that need will be another tenet of this series. I want my posts not just to be how-to guides, but to attempt to break down the underlying ideas and theories that make these homesteading activities beneficial and even revolutionary. For instance, to understand why making butter makes sense for me, I need to know what butter is and where it comes from. Sure, I can decide that I want to make butter, look up a how-to guide on the internet, then go buy some cream and do the deed. But there’s still a dependency in that. If I instead have a more complete knowledge that tells me that butter is a mix of butterfat, milk proteins and water; that it’s created by agitating cream so as to join together the molecules of butterfat by breaking down their surrounding membranes; that the cream comes from milk; that cream will rise to the top of non-homogenized milk if left alone for a certain length of time; and that the cream can then be skimmed off the top of the milk with a ladle; well, if I know all these things and others, then I have the sort of knowledge that allows me to parse my own context and recognize that with my weekly supply of raw and non-homogenized milk, I also potentially have a weekly supply of cream, which I can then use to make butter.
Now, this may be known knowledge for a good number of people, but some out there don’t know it. But even if someone knows about butter, perhaps they don’t know anything about an enzyme cleaner, or why it is very effective at getting rid of certain stains and smells, or why it has many benefits over chemical cleaners, or how you make it at home, or the connection between why it gets rid of, say, the lingering smell of cat urine and why you can make it at home with some brown sugar and fruit trimmings. (Yes, I’ll be writing about this in a future post.) If you have all that knowledge, though, then you can begin to see and derive the sorts of patterns that effective homesteading make use of.
Patterns and Systems
Which brings me to the third tenet of these posts, which will be the exploration of patterns and systems. Let’s engage in one final consideration of my butter-making to better understand this.
If I want to reduce my energy consumption, save money, maximize my resources and better build my own self-sufficiency, I should absolutely make butter utilizing the gallon of milk I already get every week. The milk already exists. A good amount of cream already exists in that milk. I can bring the milk home, wait a couple days, skim the cream, and then make butter. In doing so, I’ve eliminated the need to buy at least some of my butter, if perhaps not all. That’s less butter that needs to be made by machines, brought to me by way of industrial farming. I’m eliminating one of my life’s inputs and I’m not creating a new one at all—I’m actually just more effectively utilizing another one. I’m reducing the fat content of my milk, granted, but I’m already operating at a calorie surplus. I can transfer that fat to the form of butter, cut out the imported butter, and not need extra calories to make that up. I’ve just saved money and energy by making my own butter from an already existing resource and reduced my consumption. In so doing, I’ve taken another step toward my goals of voluntary poverty, have created greater self-reliance, and am helping build a stronger community and local economy. That right there is the pattern of my behavior. But there’s a systemic piece to this, too, that I want to elaborate on.
If I’m anticipating a future in which large corporations and industrialism become less tenable and more expensive, and if I’m therefore looking to adjust my life so that it better fits into a local way of living—rooted in trade and barter, covenantal relationships and the sort of products and tools that can be made on a small scale, in a world of constrained energy and resources—well, then, my making butter fits that far better than my buying it. In such a world, there will almost certainly be a local dairy able to provide me a pail of raw milk each week. In such a world, there’s an excellent chance I could even barter or trade for that milk if I should need to, especially with the farming and ranching skills I’ve been developing. In such a world, I can just as easily skim the cream from my milk and I can even agitate it to make the butter without electricity if I should need to, transitioning from my food processor to a hand cranked mixer or just shaking the cream in a jar. Making butter at home currently uses some electricity, just by way of how I make it. But it doesn’t have to. There’s flexibility there and the adjustment could be made relatively easy if it needed to.
That sort of flexibility and resiliency doesn’t exist for the store bought butter. The butter in the store comes out of industrial systems, dependent on industrial-grade energy and resource feeds. They’re dependent on all the supporting infrastructure that comes with our industrial economy—all the infrastructure that would be very vulnerable in an energy- and resource-constrained world. That butter at the store is going to be much harder to barter or trade for, as well, if I should find myself short on money at some point. Nothing about that shelf of butter in the store makes much sense in a future beset by constraints on industrialism and it would be much harder to convert said shelf of butter to a low-energy way of life than it would be for me to switch from an electric food processor to a hand mixer or jar while making my butter. The systems I see us having to deal with in the future are going to be much different than the ones we deal with today. Making my butter at home fits that future system far, far better than buying my butter at the store.
Wendell Berry wrote an excellent essay some decades ago titled “Solving For Pattern” (PDF). In it, Berry writes, “A good solution acts within the larger pattern the way a healthy organ acts within the body.” Making my own butter seems like just such a good solution. It acts within the larger pattern, reducing my energy and resource usage while making use of already-existing resources and behavior, and further enhancing my life’s resiliency by increasing the flexibility with which I may react to the future. This small homesteading activity fits within the broader patterns—both existing and desired—of my life. It’s the exact sort of homesteading activity that I’ll be writing about in this series.
My hope is that by following the above principles, I’ll create a series that will prove a bit more holistic and informative than simply producing a number of how-to guides. While I still intend to include step-by-step instructions for these various homesteading activities, they’ll come after I provide the context of what I’m doing and how it fits into my goals. In this way, I hope this series will, more than anything, reinforce the idea of homesteading and a patterned approach to it that will prove beneficial in the sort of constrained future I think we face—or at least will prove beneficial for those looking to live their lives a bit more modestly, whether or not they think such modesty will turn into a necessity.
As should by now seem befitting, the first project I’ll be writing about is homemade raw butter. That will be the next post, arriving soon.
An entry in The Household Economy
— ∞ —
“A system of specialization requires the abdication to specialists of various competences and responsibilities that were once personal and universal. Thus, the average—one is tempted to say ideal—American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturalists and ‘agribusinessmen,’ the problem of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators, the problems of conservation to conservationists, and so on. This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself. He earns money, typically as a specialist, working an eight-hour day at a job for the quality or consequences of which somebody else—or, perhaps more typically, nobody else—will be responsible. And not surprisingly, since he can do so little else for himself, he is even unable to entertain himself, for there exists an enormous industry of exorbitantly expensive specialists whose purpose is to entertain him.”
— ∞ —
I suppose specialization is a feature, and not a bug, of the modern, industrial economy. To run such a complex and industrial infrastructure as we have come to rely upon, we need millions of people carrying out very specific and specialized tasks. This infrastructure is made up of uncountable widgets and devices and roles that all have their own particularity and that, thus, require their own particular machines or trained humans to be run and maintained. Broad classifications of generalized and necessary economic activity have been broken apart and splintered into much more specific niches, and then have been absorbed as a fraction into a far more sprawling beast we might refer to as the discretionary economy. In today’s industrial economy, the necessities of life—food, water, shelter, a clean and functioning environment, community—are now almost an afterthought to the vast and consuming industry of non-necessity: distraction, destruction, profit-driven specialization, a massaging of and attentiveness to human ego both impressive and horrifying. We have discovered an infinite number of economic niches driven not by the particularities of place and community—which would be the basis of niches in a functioning and sane economy—but on the basis of catering to the human ego by creating an infinite number of variations on conformity so that we might convince everyone that, no matter how much they immerse and then lose themselves in the base homogeneity of our culture, they truly are a unique human being, as proven by their particular combination of iPhone apps, or which of the many Nabisco snacks they prefer, or which Anheuser-Busch-owned beer they drink.
Of course, as we’ve created this insanely complex yet oddly generic economy and industrial base, we’ve come to worship at the alter of specialization. We know that we need years upon years of education and training so that we may be successful in today’s high tech, globalized economy. We know that to seize the bright future that is rightfully ours, we must *insert cliche here* so that *tribal term here* may compete in today’s *overtly positive economic buzzword here*. And we know this because we’re told it again and again, each time with slightly varying terms, and always emerging from the mouth of a respected “leader” or, even better, a certified expert.
For in today’s world of hyper-specialization, we have a never ending supply of experts always streaming across our television screens and popping up on the internet, ready and willing to tell us something that we desperately need to know but that we don’t know because we lack the training and intelligence and bottom-of-the-screen label that this particular expert does. In a world, after all, in which specialization reigns supreme, it only makes sense that we have an expert for every conceivable situation—and that we rarely have more than one expert for any particular situation. By embracing the idea of specialization, defining the industrial economy as the greatest economy that has ever existed or will ever exist, and celebrating every new fragmentation of our lives as a matter of great progress, we’ve created the necessity for this multitude of experts. By proclaiming that the height of human ability is to be trained in one very specific task and to be the sole person capable of performing that task—or to be the very best at that task, even if other people fumble through their own inadequate attempts at said task—then we condemn ourselves to, at best, being extremely good at one or two things and very bad at everything else. Or, if not very bad, then at least inadequate—unable to stake our claim to that task with the sort of legitimacy that a real expert would.
— ∞ —
“The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals—or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at the cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts.”
— ∞ —
Such a world of experts is the wet dream of the industrial cornucopian. We are told constantly that the mark of a great economy is efficiency. We must grow our citrus only where citrus grows best, our apples only where they grow best, mine our metals only where they are easiest to mine, derive all our energy from centralized power plants producing the most possible energy with the least amount of human labor, build our machines where the taxes are the lowest and the energy is cheapest and most abundant and the labor is low-cost and compliant, make our butter and cheese in vast factories where machines do the work and every bit of wasted energy can be cut out, then ship that cheese and butter all around the world. We must take every meaningful human activity, load it into a spread sheet, determine how to transfer the activity to machines, cut out as many humans as possible, destroy as much of its meaning as possible, commoditize it, cheapen it, degrade it, divvy it up, and declare success. We must find wholes and reduce them to pieces, mechanize them, specialize them, burrow down into their specific depths and obsess over the details and forget always any inherent or overarching meaning, forget anything that the pieces might make together. We must never see the forest; only the trees, and then only the value in cutting them down. We must eliminate God or any semblance of God at every turn, for God only confuses the issue. We must destroy any sense of the sacred. It clouds our vision. Lastly, we must declare science and economy our new God, make them sacred, and then proclaim our vision finally clear. With this clear vision, we will specialize everything, reduce all we can see, proclaim our knowledge and wisdom infinite, and worship experts—all for the unequivocal good of humanity.
But where is this good? A life in the hands of experts is supposed to be the perfect life. That’s why we have all these experts in the first place—so we can avoid mistakes and engage our lives only in the most effective of ways. And yet, we seem in many ways a miserable and perpetually unsatisfied people. Things never are perfect but we yearn to make them so. It’s a paradox—our cult of the expert should provide us constantly expert advice, which should provide us the means to live our lives perfectly. But there’s nothing paradoxical about this at all. It makes perfect sense that in a society that worships experts and the idea that all tasks should be carried out to perfection that we find ourselves constantly unsatisfied, always searching for the perfection we can’t seem to grasp. And that’s because, rather than attain any kind of perfection, we’ve simply altered the expectations of our society, creating desires that are unfulfillable.
Seeing perfection as a possibility, we yearn for it and sense that if we can attain it, we will be perfectly happy. In our efforts to attain it, we pay attention to the experts who are supposed to know how to attain perfection—who are supposedly practitioners of it. Yet there are two problems with this approach. First and foremost is that perfection tends to be an unattainable ideal. Or, more specifically, it’s an unattainable ideal for humans. It’s a much more attainable ideal for machines, and therein lies one of our problems. Since we have allowed our thinking to be distorted by our industrial economic base, we tend now to think in mechanistic terms rather than in the animalistic terms that are natural to us as human beings—as animals. Our ideas of perfection are rooted in mechanical notions. They’re based on reductionism, strictly-defined variables and controlled circumstances. By homogenizing and standardizing the scenario in which we attain perfection, we should be able to homogenize and standardize the perfection. We define the scenario, define the desired outcome, and then use those defined realities to create the steps we need to take from scenario to desired outcome. This often works in the realm of machines. If we have a human-made screw that needs to be screwed into a human-made panel, we can create a human-made machine that will work within strict parameters to screw that screw into that panel. Every element of the scenario is controlled by us, the outcome is defined by us, and thus we are able to create the fulfillment of that outcome.
But that’s not how human lives work, now is it? If we want to raise our children well, there’s not an expert in the world who can define the full breadth of the scenario of raising children, define a final goal (what does it mean to “raise our children well?”) and then provide us the steps to get there. It can’t be done because the scenario cannot be defined and controlled by humans, nor can the outcome be so controlled, at least not completely. There are far too many variables, far too many elements, far too many other creatures involved, far too much unpredictability and lack of control. Human lives do not unfold within the same paradigm as our mechanistic creations do, and so attempting to attain perfection as defined in mechanistic terms is doomed to failure.
There is, however, an even bigger problem with our attempts to attain perfection and thus be happy, which is that perfection doesn’t make us happy. I suspect some people might argue that point, and I imagine there are even a few exceptions out there to this rule. But I firmly believe that perfection would lead to human misery—utter boredom. Even if there was some way to define and then achieve perfection in the realm of human life, why would we want to do so? How could that produce happiness? The happiness we feel as humans stems out of the inherent messiness of life. We need our successes and failures, our joy and pain, our horrors and contentments. Without these contrasts and these back-and-forths, we can’t appreciate any of this life. It’s a terribly old idea, but you can’t appreciate light without dark. We can’t be happy if we don’t know sadness and misery. We can’t enjoy our successes if we’ve never known failure.
Imagine the happiest moments of your life and tell me whether or not you understand them without contrasting them against other moments of your life. I’m not saying you always think of dichotomies when you think of happiness, but I do think it’s lurking there in the back of your mind if it’s not in the forefront. When I think about the joy of waking up in the morning next to someone I love, then maybe having some coffee and a leisurely breakfast, I understand the joy of that in contrast of waking up alone on a cold morning, knowing I have to go to work. Now, that first scenario may not be perfect and that second one may not be horrible. Perhaps I like my work, even if I really don’t want to get out of bed and prefer the idea of sleeping in. Perhaps the breakfast with my significant other isn’t that satisfying or we get into a small argument, or there’s a clash of desires. But whatever form of perfection I might see in the first scenario, I need the second scenario to appreciate the first. This is simply the juxtaposition of comforts I’ve written about before. We need a wide breadth of experiences to better understand those experiences. We need to be able to compare and contrast, to work different sensations off each other so that we may better learn those sensations.
We’ve attempted to eliminate the messiness from human lives, but in so doing we only are making ourselves less happy. Our joy comes from that messiness, even if our misery does as well. It’s the point of being human. What could we possibly have to do here if we were here only to live a perfect life? Why even bother?
— ∞ —
“The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstance and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people’s. He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties.
It is rarely considered that this average citizen is anxious because he ought to be—because he still has some gumption that he has not yet given up in deference to the experts. He ought to be anxious, because he is helpless. That he is dependent upon so many specialists, the beneficiary of so much expert help, can only mean that he is a captive, a potential victim.”
– Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, (p. 19-21)
— ∞ —
The industrial, globalized economy is the attempt at perfection. It’s the height of our mechanistic dreams, our specializations, our worship of experts, our attempts at control. It’s us not figuring out how to live well within the messy realities of life, but our attempts to control and purify that life, to make it work well no matter what. It’s our attempt not to find our happiness and satisfaction from within, but to impose perfection upon ourselves from outside—to control our outer environment so that we don’t have to concern ourselves with our inner environment. As such, it is an outer economy. We go to work. We leave the home. We tap outside forces to guide and maintain that economy and then we insert ourselves into it, into our very controlled and defined niche.
The household economy is much more messy, at least in terms of how we think of messiness. The household economy necessitates that we deal with ourselves, that we work within the uncontrolled variables of life. We don’t go to work in the household economy. We live there. We don’t leave the home to engage in the household economy. We stay in the home. We don’t give control of the household economy to outside forces. We control it ourselves. We don’t standardize the household economy. We make it our own and each household economy exists only in one specific home.
Similarly, the household economy is a complete affront to the cult of the expert. We should not be making our own butter; a machine should be making it, and it should be strictly controlled. We should not be making our own cheese; a machine should be making it, or a master cheese artisan should be crafting the finest cheese. Our households are not efficient. In fact, the household economy is necessarily inefficient, at least in the insane way in which we define efficiency in the industrial economy. Rather than trusting our livelihoods to machines, the household economy is about bringing our livelihoods back into our homes and into our own hands. It’s about replacing machine labor with human labor and embracing all the messiness, variability and lack of control that entails. It’s about embracing that lack of industrial perfection in the pursuit of human perfection—in that animalistic mix of trial and error, of frustration and success, in the inherent joy of creating things with our hands, of making our own life and living with the contradictory results of that process. It’s about working with the outside world rather than controlling it, and instead finding our joy in the inner familiarity and satisfaction gained slowly through good work and a life well lived.
The household economy rejects perfection in favor of experience.
That’s not to say, however, that the household economy is devoid of craft, care or expertise. Indeed, I would say the household economy features care as a matter of course, very commonly features greater craft than the industrial economy, and will often, as a matter of course, feature expertise. It takes all of these elements as part of a broader experience, though, and is not afraid to mix and match. The household economy, again, is messy. In that messiness, it’s beautiful and it’s sacred and it’s fulfilling in a way that the industrial economy almost never is. The household economy, after all, is run by humans. The industrial economy is run by machines.
As I write and advocate for the household economy in this series of posts, one of the core values is going to be a rejection of the cult of the expert. This is necessary for the household economy. If we constantly seek the sort of mechanistic perfection advocated by this cult, then the household economy can never be successful. It functions only under different ideals, different pursuits, different goals. It functions only in the real world of human care and experience, not in the mechanistic world of industry. And so one of the foundations of this series is that we all get dirty without worry of perfection, that we all be willing to make mistakes, and that we all find joy in the experience as much as in the outcome—and that we find joy in the experience regardless of the outcome.
The projects won’t always be successful when defined strictly under the terms of the desired final outcome. But they’ll always be successful when taking into account experience, the pleasure of the work, and the sense of ownership that comes from an act of making one’s own living. And while I’ve dared to throw some religious terms in this post, I’ll say once more that they also will be successful in the sense of engaging in something sacred, however you define that term. Peter Berg, in an interview in Listening to the Land quoted a woman from Mexico City who said that “the kitchen is the place where you worship the earth.” I dare say much more good can be done in the kitchen than in a factory—and that God, in whatever form, can much more easily be found in the kitchen, as well.
In the household economy, we become generalists. We may occasional stumble upon something that makes us, in that particular instance, want to become a specialist, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If we find we love making cheese, we may want to delve deeper into that craft and work to become a craftsman cheese maker. But in general, the household economy is about working as a generalist and finding our love of the work and its outcomes not necessarily in the perfection of the final product, but in the perfection of the work, in the meaning of creation, and the satisfaction of each bit of self-reliance and personal care.
In that sense, each of us has the potential to be an honest expert—someone whose expertise is rooted not in ingraining pervasive dissatisfaction but in caring for ourselves and making our own small satisfactions and moments of true perfection, seen only in the inherent and sprawling messiness of our humanity. Someone whose expertise is rooted in work, not in theory. Someone whose expertise recognizes the folly of perfection and strives instead for joy, good work, and care.
A Need For Response
For those following this blog, it’s likely become clear that I don’t expect our society, economy and general way of life—either here in America or elsewhere in the industrialized world—to last far into the future. Despite previous stages of this belief of mine, I don’t currently think that the end of our way of life will manifest itself in some extreme, apocalyptic moment. Rather, I have come to believe in the likelihood of a stairstep collapse, thanks to the writings of a certain Grand Archdruid. I think the underpinnings of what we consider modern society will come apart—as they, indeed, already have started to come apart—and this entire sorry game will unravel. I don’t expect that unraveling to happen entirely in my lifetime, but I expect to live through enough of its beginning to see and be forced to deal with quite the fallout. I have no illusions of a zombie apocalypse, but I neither have illusions of a relatively easy transition or the saving grace of new technology or a grand shift in consciousness that solves all our problems. We’ve made a mess of the world and we’re going to have to deal with the consequences.
Similarly, the mess we’ve made is a mess that most everyone in the industrialized nations have had a part in. That’s not to say there aren’t certain bad actors who have turned in virtuoso performances, but even they have almost certainly been functioning to some degree within the context of this insane society and culture we’ve all helped to create. I have been no stranger to bitter complaints about Obama’s failed promises—and much less a stranger to bitter and venomous rants about Bush the younger’s detestable administration—but Obama’s is a presidency in context as much as all the others. As a society, we have not shown a particular interest in being told the truth and even those of us who have opted out of our culture’s dominant narratives of myth have too often opted into alternate narratives of apocalypse that serve just as easily to protect us from the hard work a new way of life requires. That politicians are less than eager to tell us the truths that we are so quick to avoid ourselves is no surprise. It’s not particularly relevant whether they do it because they don’t know those truths or because they are actively ignoring them due to a recognition that speaking them would not be beneficial to them on a political or economic level. Either way, our broader society holds a certain level of culpability.
Within this mind frame, I wrote a recent post that served as something of a criticism of the Occupy movement. It was my attempt to advocate for a longer view within the movement: a recognition that our problems are not just about social and economic inequality—which is a serious issue, no question—but also a distorted view about what is a reasonable standard of living. I specifically called the American middle class way of life bullshit. I stand by those words. We have a worldview that is built on top of a fantasy of independence from hard ecological and environmental realities. That worldview is falling out from under us and we need to respond to that changing landscape immediately and with an intention based in community, care and cooperation. Unfortunately, that’s not a task that will be easy, and there are many forces, both external and internal, which will serve to push us toward more destructive responses.
The Risk of Demagoguery
One of those responses that I worry could happen is the Occupy movement turning more and more toward a movement of revenge. I’m not saying this is what will happen, but I do consider it a legitimate and reasonable concern. As the world economy continues to spiral out of control, austerity measures assert themselves ever more harshly and the ability to get by financially for a majority of the population becomes more challenging, our collective level of stress will rise. And the sort of harsh and stressful environment I think we’re facing in the near term will be a fantastic place for demagoguery to flourish.
Understand, I think many in the financial industry should be doing perp walks and the lack of that reality is a massive failure of justice and the rule of law. Similarly, the way Obama swept the war crimes of the Bush administration under the rug was despicable. But all of these injustices happened, again, within a societal context. And that context is something that all of us have played a role in. Hell, if you’re reading this blog, I can pretty much guarantee you that you had a role in this reality, because the internet and the vast infrastructure put in place to maintain it and provide access points to end users (i.e. me, you, and somewhere around two billion other people) is an infrastructure built on vast ecological destruction. It is an infrastructure built on economic and social inequality. It is, as well, an infrastructure that helps to perpetuate the sort of war crimes that the Bush administration engaged in. While the Iraq war might not have literally been conceived in a cartoonish, movie villain style plot geared toward oil capture (though it certainly may have) our country’s never-ending need for fossil fuels brought that war into existence. The outsized existence that we have become accustomed to powered the mechanizations that led, tragically, to that war. It’s easy to put it all on the head of W and Dick Cheney, but that’s the sort of short view that leads to demagoguery—of which I have engaged in, believe me—and the convenience of never having to examine oneself in the mirror.
The Need for Good Work
It also leads to the convenience of not having to throw oneself into the challenge of doing good work. The myth of progress leads inevitably toward desires for utopian schemes. We imagine new ways to structure our economy or our government or our cultural institutions to lead to a gloried future, a cornucopian golden land in which we have everything we’ve ever needed or wanted. We proclaim the ability to smooth out the inherent vagaries and fallibility of human behavior, if only we create the proper context for their existence. The problem here is that we seem too quick to place our hopes into the utopian basket of revolutionary change (or forced utopia that always seems to be waiting on the other side of apocalypse, once all the people we don’t like have died) and too hesitant to engage in the long, hard work of actually creating new cultural and economic contexts that can indeed inspire better behavior and constrain damaging impulses.
Let me provide an example. I have been meaning to write this blog post all day. However, I didn’t start it until late afternoon. For multiple hours before that, I poked around on the internet engaging in largely useless but satisfyingly distracting behavior. This is a common theme of mine: the lack of self-discipline and the propensity toward distraction. Overcoming it can only happen through restraining my own behavior, dedicating myself to what I consider worthwhile pursuits, and ignoring the need for overstimulation. This is all hard—oddly hard—and it as often as not devolves into me wasting hours of time looking at shiny things on the internet because, you know, it’s easy. Writing, on the other hand, is intensely satisfying when it comes out well but also, often, extremely hard. It’s so much easier to read about the NBA or look at my blog stats or read someone else’s hard work. This, of course, extrapolates out to TV, shopping, bitching about whatever we happen to not like at the moment, speaking rapturously about whatever we happen to like at the moment, eating, drinking, and a thousand other ingrained societal behaviors that serve to distract us and keep us from the hard work of making our life and community better.
Another example. I have participated in the Occupy movement and thoroughly enjoyed my time marching and shouting, protesting and bonding. I met great people, I felt empowered, I believe without question that I did good things. I also thrived off the emotional power of laying the blame for our very messed up world at the feet of other people. I felt the bonds of shared outrage and anger. I felt the easy pull of demagoguery. This is a fine line, of course—where does a legitimate demand for justice end and the blaming of problems on everyone else but yourself began?—and I have not figured out the exact placement of that line. I probably will never figure it out exactly. But there is a line and I think all of us need to both be very aware of it and be constantly vigilant in wondering whether or not we are crossing it. This is especially true in our culture, where distraction and shallow soothings are constantly championed at the expense of the long, hard work of figuring out how to live and work well in this world.
And that is the idea I keep coming back to. This is an idea championed by Wendell Berry, and there’s no question that I have been greatly inspired and influenced by my readings of him. We have to begin—or for those who have already begun, continue—the hard work of figuring out how to live and work well in this world. That’s an incredible challenge. I would argue it’s the central challenge of being human, of being alive in this world. What else could be the point? For what other reason could we be here? It’s not to see who can die with the most toys. It’s not to see how high a percentage of our life we can spend being distracted by shiny, technological toys. It’s not to discover how quickly we can convert the living creatures of this world into cheaply-made commodities. And it’s not to find the one person who’s screwing everything up for the rest of us. It’s the very personal work of living well in this world. That is a challenge. That is a huge, never-ending challenge—a lifetime of work, the question that only has incomplete, always changing answers.
Read the rest of this entry »