Archive for the ‘good work’ Tag

Rest, Renewal, and an Honest Hope   28 comments

Regular readers may have noticed it’s been over a week since the last post, which is a longer wait between posts than normal here on this blog. I intended to have something up on Tuesday, then on Thursday, and then again yesterday night, but I kept pushing back the writing. Partly that was due to some of the usual distractions in my life and partly to being on the train for two days and then returning home to work for three straight days. But it’s also been a matter of spending a good chunk of the week mulling over new ideas but not quite teasing them out to a level of coherence ready for a full write up.

One of my goals with this blog of late is to write on more fully formed ideas, rather than write on new ideas that I haven’t had a chance to mull over for a bit. I make this a goal because I write higher quality posts under that ideal. There’s nothing surprising about that, of course, as taking the time to think through the various implications and pitfalls of a new idea can lead to a clarity and coherence that often is lacking in our discourse. I have multiple times had the strike of an insight from which I wanted to immediately write up a rhetoric-heavy essay to only, upon further consideration, realize that the insight is deficient, or incorrect, or simply incomplete—sometimes silly, sometimes promising, but in need of more thought either way.

Granted, I don’t always live up to this ideal, and most every post on this blog—some more than others—could have benefited from an extra couple days of marinating and a true second draft. I still treat this much as, I think, many people treat their blog: I write up a post, do a quick read through and edit, and then publish. I rarely let something sit for a couple days before posting it.

Since I kept thinking of new—or at least somewhat new—ideas this week, I kept getting excited about those ideas, thinking them through while shoveling pig shit into a wheelbarrow (the job during which much of my thinking happened this week) and then realizing they needed to stew in the back of my brain a bit more before I should write a post about them. It didn’t take many repetitions of this process before I found myself a week out from my last new post and still uncertain of what to write next.

In a roundabout way, I’m getting to the point of today’s post. It’s an idea that I’ve been thinking about for a couple years now, and that I’ve talked about with other people multiple times. It’s one, in fact, that I’ve been meaning to write about here. It’s the idea that one of the challenges facing us here in America (and probably in many other industrialized nations, though I don’t feel I know enough to speculate) is that so many of us don’t take the time to think about, on a slow and deep level, our lives and our ideas about those lives.

I think this reality comes out in the shallowness of so much of our discourse, both on the national and personal level. I know that, throughout much of my life, I’ve tended toward shallow and simple interpretations of ideas and failed too often to reflect well on my life and the world around me. I dare say that many other people in this country are in the same boat. We can see it in the dominance of memes, the conventionality of superficial “wisdom,” the ways in which our politicians and leaders speak in cliches and sound bites. We can see it in the aversion to challenges of our assumptions and in the escape into simple and safe topics like sports and celebrity culture. We can see it in the willful blindness to the environmental destruction and social injustices littering our lives and the world’s landscape. We can see it, day in and day out, in the desperate demagoguery of a nation whose ideas of itself are failing at an ever increasing rate.

We can see it also in the bad work we do. In fact, I think the bad work we do tends to perpetuate this lack of serious consideration. I base this assumption in large part on my own experiences in the world before I began to farm. In those days, I worked retail jobs. I found the work mostly devoid of meaning, outside of the occasional moment of helping someone with a particular problem, such as how to hook up a DVD player. Now, in itself, hooking up a DVD player’s not particularly meaningful work. But it did involve helping a fellow human being, and in that it was a moment of simple human connection in an otherwise inhumane job. It was a very shallow representation of community but, shallow or not, it provided a small bit of substance to my work.

Overall, though, the job mostly involved selling unnecessary products to people who didn’t need them. Working in the electronics department of a general retailer, I sold distraction and shallow satisfaction to people who wanted not to think too much about their lives. I can’t see much other reason for constant consumption of movies, music, television, the internet, video games and the purchase of a wide array of electronic gadgets—most intended to provide easier consumption of the aforementioned media. In fact, I experienced all of that myself. In those days, I consumed much the same media, and at a rate commensurate with most of my customers. I filled a good percentage of my non-working time with dulling media, electronic gadgetry, and flickering screens of all kinds.

All that media-based distraction worked on two levels. First of all, it directly seeded the dominant memes, themes and narratives of our very sick and dysfunctional culture into my brain, warping my thought patterns to fit those themes. Second, it kept me from engaging in the sort of deep thought and consideration that allows one to question and get away from those narratives, see the functioning of society with a clear-eyed observance, properly evaluate one’s own life, and understand one’s own behavior. These are all critical activities to engage in if we’re going to have a healthy society and culture, and they’re all behaviors that are dangerously scarce in our current society.

There’s another element to these distractions and to the reality of my job that plays into our disconnect from deep consideration of our lives, though, and that’s the lack of a true break from work and distraction. Most people have jobs that provide little to no break time. Most have a weekend, of course, but those tend to be filled with distractions and whatever necessary household work needs to be done that hasn’t been outsourced to machines or corporations. It is, in other words, not much of a break. Some of the luckier workers out there also have vacation time, but that’s generally only a couple weeks a year, and many people try to cram all kinds of desperate “fun” into that time, again leaving themselves not much of a true break.

The thing about deep thought and consideration is that it’s about impossible to do without a significant amount of time. I’m not talking about a couple hours or a couple days, but probably more along the lines of weeks or, ideally, months. If you’ve been working at a breakneck pace for a good chunk of the year, having a couple days off doesn’t give you a chance to really come down from that pace and reorient yourself to a new one. It especially doesn’t allow that if you’re anticipating your imminent return to work. Having a couple weeks off provides that a bit better, but again not if you spend a good chunk of that time worrying about your return to work, and not if you’re spending much of that time desperately trying to cram in a year’s worth of fun before you go back to the drudgery of your job. What it comes down to, ultimately, is that these time frames don’t work on a human scale. The weekend or two week vacation is not the natural time frame for a human’s annual rest.

The winter, on the other hand, seems to me a much more natural time frame for a significant break, providing true rest and renewal. And that’s something that I’ve come to understand over the last few years as I began to farm. My first two seasons of farming were followed by a winter without work, floating around in Portland, staying with family and friends, doing a bit of traveling on the cheap, reading a ridiculous amount, and engaging in a lot of thought and reflection. It wasn’t the greatest use of my winter in a financial sense, but it was a brilliant use of those winters from the standpoint of my health and humanity. What I found during those long periods of rest and renewal was that I was able to slow my mind and body, slip deep into my thoughts, evaluate the year that had passed, learn lessons that I couldn’t learn during the frenzy of the working year—the growing season—and make good plans for the next year.

It didn’t escape my notice, of course, that this humane pace coincided with natural cycles. This, then, is one of the beauties of farming and of engaging in other forms of work that are tied to the natural cycles of this planet: they help provide for natural cycles of thought, consideration, and personal growth. I think most of us desperately need to spend some time in these cycles, and have a period of rest and renewal much as the earth partakes in during winter. Far too much of our lives are spent rushing from one distraction to the next, or from one obligation to another. It never leaves us time to think and consider. It never leaves us time to learn from our mistakes, learn from our unhappiness, learn from our joy, learn from our successes and failures. We’re always on to the next thing, and the next thing always dominates our thought process.

I believe that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to stray so far off course as a culture. We can only engage in the sort of environmental destruction, human-caused misery, and bad work that we engage in if we never give ourselves time to think about it, consider it, recognize these failings and commit to change and improvement for the future. By having diverted ourselves into work that mostly has divorced itself of the natural cycles, we’ve removed ourselves from our own natural cycles of work and reflection and have thus eliminated one of our most critical tools for growth and self-renewal. We can’t work and distract ourselves constantly, without break, indefinitely, without losing much of our capacity for personal growth. And if we lose our capacity for personal growth, we necessarily lose our capacity for societal and cultural growth.

The even greater danger of this reality is that it becomes a self-reinforcing loop. As we stray from natural cycles that promote our own personal growth and health, we grow less healthy and more stunted. This bleeds into the culture and society at large, increasing the likelihood of doing bad and destructive work. The more we engage in bad and destructive work, the more we must escape from that reality and deny its existence, simply to maintain our own sanity. This leads us to further distraction and the repetition of shallow but comforting memes and narratives. Wrapping ourselves in these memes and narratives, we shield ourselves from the important truths we’ve been ignoring, which makes it all the easier to do bad work and distract ourselves. We become ever more removed from the natural world, ever more removed from natural cycles, and ever more removed from our own humanity and the world around us.

The good news, though, is that we can break out of this loop. I did this a few years ago by beginning to farm. Granted, breaking free from that loop was more complicated than that and was a much longer process of allowing myself glimpses of my deeper reality even while trapped in a system of destruction, but I think it really kicked into high gear when I started to do work that was tied to the natural cycles of the earth. Once I made that transition, I actually put myself into another self-reinforcing loop, but one that was of a much more positive bent. By engaging in good work tied to the land, I tied myself to natural cycles. By tying myself to those cycles, I begin to slip back into the natural human cycles of work and rest, of action and reflection. This promoted deeper thought and consideration of my own life and of the society and culture around me, the revelations of which encouraged me to continue down the path of doing good work and tying myself to the natural cycles of the earth. Each season, that work and those cycles helped me to understand the world better, understand myself better, and to do yet better work and tie myself yet more to the earth. As I spent my time of rest reflecting on my own personal issues, my own behaviors and reactions, I begin to better understand them, to grow healthier, and to become more attuned with the world around me and more eager to engage in good work. I therefore reversed the cycle of bad work and turned it instead into a cycle of good work.

This reversal is one of my major sources of hope for the future. Having seen the way that a change in work provided me so many benefits and so much better a life, I have hope that it could do the same for others. And by many, many accounts I’ve read and heard, it can. It does. I think most of us take very well to this reversal because it begins to feed many of our natural thought processes and cycles. It feeds our humanity and ties into needs and desires that exist in us at a genetic level.

Granted, not everyone will take to such a change in work and lifestyle. But I believe many of us will when given the opportunity or simply forced into such a change. If the future plays out in a fashion similar to how I think it will, then many people who currently live lives divorced from the world’s natural cycles will be forced to live lives much more in tune with those cycles. And while that transition will no doubt prove challenging, it may also prove quite rewarding. For those who embrace the change, and who find themselves through that rough transition, they’ll likely settle into a positive feedback loop that will foster personal growth and improved health, as well as improved connections to the natural world and the ability to see our personal, societal, cultural and environmental interactions in a much more holistic manner.

I’ve experienced this change and I’ve met many others who have experienced it, as well. It’s real, and it strikes me as an honest hope for our future. That doesn’t mean I think we’ll all adjust to a very different future without trouble. It doesn’t mean that I think any of this will be easy. And it doesn’t mean that I think the future will be inherently better than the present. But it is a hope—a very real hope—and I’ll take whatever honest hope I can find.

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When Money No Longer Gets Money   32 comments

An entry in the How To Be Poor series

Friday morning, I found myself sitting on the back patio of the town house my mother’s rented here in Sedona, Arizona, basking in a warm February sun with a good book and a hot cup of coffee. This proved quite the pleasure for me this time of year, being used to Oregon weather. Finding myself lucky enough to have access to that pleasure, I was taking full advantage, enjoying the easy comfort of a morning with nothing to do but read and think.

The good book in question was The Winter of Our Discontent, which is perhaps a subtle irony considering how contented I feel this winter. Early in the novel, the bank teller, Joey Morphy, tells the main character, Ethan Hawley, the one sentence that sums up everything he knows about business: “Money gets money.” The passage struck me as quite relevant to my discussion here of voluntary poverty and, I believe, gets at a deeper truth that helps to obstruct our responses to the future.

Money does get money in our society and I think most people understand this, consciously or not. Much of our economy these days is about money making money, using money to make investments which then return more money. This is a form of making money very removed from any actual physical goods or services. Think CDSs, derivatives, and the like.

Of course, this entire system of money getting money is dependent upon a growing economy. Money can’t get money in a steady state economy—it can only change hands or take different forms. The sharp observer will note that this correlates to the first law of thermodynamics. The sharp observer will further note the correlation between money and energy. The sharp observer will still further note that we’ve been mining and burning fossil fuels for the last few centuries, layering the energy from that on top of the sustainable flows of energy this planet has available to it, acting as though all that extra energy is permanent, and are right around now facing the peak and beginning of the decline of that extra energy. Due to the correlation between money (or economic activity) and available energy, that means we’re facing the end of economic growth and the beginning of economic contraction.

While that’s a simplistic summary of a complex reality, I do believe the general outline to be correct and that economic contraction is the near-term future we face. In such a future, money will no longer get money. This is true in a few different ways.

First, without economic growth as a widespread, standard reality, the system of credit and debt service we’ve come to think of as normal will no longer function. Debt won’t be able to be paid back with interest because people’s incomes won’t be growing. Rather, they’ll likely be shrinking. This presents an entirely new reality and is going to necessitate new forms of economic and financial activity.

Second is a deeper reality behind the idea that money gets money, and that’s rooted in the belief that money equals wealth, resources, and security. This is an assumption that most all of us in industrialized nations make. It’s the sense that you can always buy your survival so long as you have enough dollars in the bank. Money equals food, shelter, heat, clothing, water, everything. That’s the assumption, and it’s a fair one to make because it has tended, in recent and industrialized times, to be true.

Under this rubric, we could restate “money gets money” as “money gets security,” or “money gets comfort,” or “money gets your very life.” And this idea—so prevalent in our society—works very well to limit our response to the future. For those who can’t move past this idea and expect it to be permanently true, the goal continues to be to make a certain amount of money—and often, for that to be more money than they’re currently making. This is often done at the expense of building any kind of resiliency and alternate options into their lives. If they’re right about the future continuing on much as the present (or perhaps I should say the past, as the present isn’t a particularly good argument against economic chaos and a dysfunctional financial system) then their response is a sane and logical one. If they’re wrong, though, then their response is at best painful and at worse deadly, limiting their ability to respond to a dramatically different future.

My view, of course, is the one that says we face a future of economic chaos and a dysfunctional financial system. I feel comfortable in that view, based on the simple deductive reasoning that we are running our economic system on stores of energy that we’ll never get back; that we’ve hit the peak of those stores of energy; that those stores of energy will be declining in the future; that all the plans thus far conceived to replicate those stores of energy in a renewable fashion have had fatal flaws, with the most common one being a complete reliance on the stores of energy that are going away; and that economic contraction is, thus, almost certain to follow. How that plays out is not a prediction I’m willing to make. Economies are incredibly complex, and they often function in surprising manners. But in general, I imagine we’ll face a lot of chaos which all relates back to contraction and the end of growth. And that chaos is certain to make the money that we’ve come to think equals our very lives much less reliable and potentially worthless.

But because so many of us are locked into the idea that money gets money and that money gets security, even those of us who believe the future will be erratic and uncertain in economic terms still too often turn to ideas of how to lock in our money. So we look at buying gold, or investing in TreasuryDirect holdings, or buying ammo and freeze dried food, or buying farm land. But none of those things are guaranteed. We don’t know what’s going to happen to the value of gold and if we find ourselves going through a stretch in which economic chaos strips money of its value, gold may be considered largely useless, as well—at least in terms of our day-to-day survival. TreasuryDirect holdings could be seized by the government or the federal government could default. Ammo and freeze dried food only last a short while, and the future we face is not going to be about sticking out a couple bad months or finding your living through domination and violence. Even farm land is vulnerable, as valuable as it is. A floundering government could slip into authoritarian control or raise taxes to the point of being unpayable, and could then take your land. Alternately, your farm land is not particularly valuable if it isn’t surrounded by a coherent and resilient community. Now, granted, if I had money myself, I would happily look for some good land to buy, but I wouldn’t consider that any true guarantee for the future.

Of course, I don’t have any real money, so I don’t speak from complete experience here, but I can understand why those who do have a decent chunk of money saved would like to keep it from disappearing. That feels like security, and you want even more to hold onto it in the face of bad times. But the bad times likely coming are exactly the sort of times during which money may lose much of its function and utility. Again, how that plays out is anyone’s guess. Inflation, deflation, a combination of the two, national default, cratered confidence—it’s all on the table. But likely it will be some chaotic mixture of all these potential outcomes and the end result is that the money economy probably won’t guarantee you much of anything.

In other words, future security isn’t about money—it’s more likely about skill, flexibility, adaptability, the ability and desire to do real work, and community. Future security is not guaranteed under any circumstance. We’re facing a time of instability—the sooner we all get used to and accept that reality, the better we’ll be able to deal with our future realities.

There’s also a dirty little secret here that few want to talk about, but that I think is critical to address. Money shouldn’t get money—at least, not when money has been so divorced from good work, and not when cruelty and bad work so readily makes us money, as is the case today. We’ve created a corrupt and diseased system in which money tends not to go to those who do good work or make the world a better place or simply earn an honest and nondestructive living, but toward those who exploit and dominate, deal in violence, and act ruthlessly. That’s a godawful system to hand our livings over to, and we can readily see the effects of it all around us. The environmental devastation, social injustice, enslavement, murder and desperate miasma that so many wade through every day is partly a byproduct of the money system we have today. Its collapse, therefore, opens up new avenues to make ourselves a better world, even though the transition is likely to be painful.

That doesn’t mean, I want to make clear, that the collapse of our current money system will make for a better world. It simply will help clear some of the decrepit social infrastructure and institutions that help maintain the system of destruction. To make this a better world is going to involve a lot of hard work, contemplation, consideration, awareness and probably a good bit of luck. It, much like our future well being, is in no way guaranteed.

This, however, is the hope in voluntary poverty. If money will no longer guarantee your future, then voluntary poverty is a fine way to begin eliminating your dependence on and belief in money. It opens up new avenues for a better way of life, before the outside happenings of society, politics and the economy impose those new avenues on you, whether you’re ready for them or not. It also allows you to begin to explore better ways to live, and they are abundant. Stripping yourself of the trappings of wealth while you reacquaint yourself with the natural world around you, the enrichment of honest community, the deep satisfaction of good and healthy work well done, the time to think and relax, and the pleasure of clear-eyed observation makes for a particularly good life—and one that, after what can admittedly be a rough transition, proves radically reaffirming in our very disturbed world. Learning new skills and beginning the long process of taking back the responsibility of your own living provides a meaning and purpose that the industrialized, exploitative economy almost never offers.

Learning, in fact, that you are an actual, unique and beautiful, joyful, caring and thoughtful, talented and living and vital human being—someone who enriches this world and can provide so much to so many—and that you are a part of a broader world containing billions upon billions of other creatures that are as unique, as beautiful, as heartening and mystical and compelling as you; learning that all of us have the capacity to be something more than identical pegs to be slotted into identical slots to keep the machinery of wealth-via-destruction functioning—and that, goddamn it, this world that constantly exists and functions and breathes and beats with a pulse more powerful than any of us can comprehend is so filling and engrossing and substantial and nurturing, providing so much happiness and connection; learning that this world—our world—is there, waiting, and will fill us up if only we go outside and confront it honestly and let it in and begin the process of understanding it, and our true relationship with it, and all the ways in which we can break and betray that relationship, and all the ways in which we can stop that betrayal; well, learning all that provides the actual life that we so desperately try to purchase with money every single day.

And so you know what? It’s time that money no longer gets money. Not money as we know it today. It’s time that we transition to something very different, to a life that is built on skill and good work, community and friendship and the constant, honest evaluation of our place within and behavior toward our world. That’s a transition that’s coming, by necessity if nothing else. It may go bad. It hopefully will go right. Either way, there are no guarantees other than that the transition will be harsh and painful at times. But this world as we know it today is harsh and painful and to be afraid of walking away from it is not only an abdication of responsibility, but it’s a cruelty to ourselves. It’s a condemnation. And at this point, I don’t think we can afford any more condemnations.

A society and economy built on the work of uniquely skilled people, on caring community, even on the travails of being human in a challenging but joyful world, is better than one built on ill-gotten money. A society and economy with dramatically less material goods and comfort but with the predominance of good and necessary work, and the honesty of getting by and making do, is better than one brimming with luxuries bought with ill-gotten money. A society and economy built on skills that provide the means of life, physical labor, and the ability to work within the planet’s natural flows of energy and resources is better than one in which ill-gotten pieces of paper determine who lives well, who lives poor, and who dies or is murdered.

Voluntary poverty offers a way for those of us living in the very distorted world of industrialization to begin moving toward that better world. It’s a way for us to learn a new sum of our business knowledge—a sum that doesn’t state that “money gets money,” but states something very different, something much more humane, something much more caring and honest, and something that provides a good life which can’t be casually purchased but instead must be gained through good work and community.

A life, in other words, that must be gained not through money, but through our humanity.

How To Be Poor: An Argument for Voluntary Poverty — Part One   29 comments

This is Part One of the How To Be Poor introduction. Read Part Two and Part Three.

We face an uncertain future. I may sound like a broken recording in saying this again and again, but it’s true. We find ourselves having recently passed peak conventional oil, soon to pass peak liquids fuels, and facing down fast-approaching peaks of natural gas and coal. On top of that, we’re putting incredible strain on the environment, depleting the ancient aquifers that provide so much of our drinking and irrigation water, losing unimaginable quantities of top soil every year, destroying our forests, altering our climate, and helping to create a significant increase in the occurrence of extreme weather events. Considering that much of our national and global infrastructure—the sort of infrastructure that both supports seven billion people on this planet and also provides many of the comforts that we associate with an industrialized way of life—is intrinsically tied to various forms of geography that tend to be effected by major weather events (imagine roads, power lines and sewer lines all running along rivers, for instance) we are facing a present and increasingly-problematic future of degrading and crumbling infrastructure. We also are facing a future with far less available energy, far less available resources and far less money with which to rebuild that infrastructure, further complicating the scenario.

That lack of energy, resources and money further means we can’t continue the dizzying economic growth that we have come to expect and depend upon for our way of life, and are thus facing necessary economic contraction. Such contraction will further lead to a dysfunctional and collapsing financial system. This is due to the fact that our financial system is based on debt and perpetual growth. Take away the perpetual growth and the debt can’t be serviced. Take away the availability of credit and the ability to pay back existing debt, and you have a financial system that ceases to function. Projects grind to a halt, jobs become scarce, unemployment rises, profits fall, tax receipts drop, governments take on more debt to keep the game going, social safety nets sag until they’re damn near touching the ground, austerity measures take root, and soon the entire complicated apparatus is teetering and citizens are falling by the wayside left and right.

Sound familiar?

In other words, we’re facing a world of problems. More specifically, as John Michael Greer has argued, we are facing a predicament. Problems are in search of solutions, just waiting to be solved. Predicaments, on the other hand, are inconvenient realities we must learn to deal with. We’re dealing with the predicament of too little energy, resources and money to continue down the path we are on and therefore we are in need of new ways to live. This is a predicament, not a problem, because there’s simply no way that we are going to be able to find renewable sources of energy that can replace fossil fuels and allow us to continue our energy-intensive lifestyles. This, in other words, is our new reality. It is imperative we figure out effective ways to respond to it.

Some might claim that a cabin in the woods, far away from other people and stocked with freeze-dried food, plenty of water, perhaps some seed packets, and boxes of ammunition is an effective way to respond to an uncertain future. That’s the wrong approach, however, for multiple reasons. First of all, we don’t likely face an apocalypse so much as we face contraction, tumult and lowered standards of living. Our predicament is not likely to lead to a sudden and complete collapse, as that’s not how societies have tended to collapse in the past. Instead, it will be long and drawn out, a stair step process of shocks to the system followed by stabilization, a stretch of relative calm but lowered standards of living, and then another shock to the system. This will happen over and over again until, eventually, we will find a few hundred years down the road—long after everyone reading this is dead—the final ruins not only of the American empire, but of the commonality of fossil-fueled, industrialized societies. Considering this scenario, the proper response is not the aforementioned cabin because we are not facing such a dire situation. We are facing, instead, the prospect of an increasingly poor and fragile society, rent by economic shocks, disintegrating infrastructure, food and energy shortages, the collapse of supply chains, the necessity for far more physical labor, much more local economies, and a general struggle to get by. The closest parallel in recent history, in other words, is probably the Great Depression. Society as we know it is not going to go away over night, but rather keep chugging along, in a highly dysfunctional state, as most all of us become much poorer and find day-to-day life more of  a struggle.

Communities will survive, though, and some will surely flourish. This is another reason why the cabin in the woods is not an effective response to our current and future decline. Community, not the individual, is the basic human unit of survival. Individual humans very rarely survive in complete isolation. We are social animals and we make our living at a community level, to some degree or another. We depend on others for many of our needs, even among the more self-sufficient of us. The ability to provide yourself everything you need to live a decent life, all on your own—or between, say, yourself and a partner and possibly a couple kids—is a pipe dream. It doesn’t exist. We need other people—people who care for us, with whom we share an interdependence, who understand the ways in which our fates are tied. We needs friends and family and acquaintances and even begrudging allies. We need a community, whatever form it takes.

In a world lacking in energy, resources and money, however, the scope and composition of that community is going to be significantly different than it is today. Whereas today most of us depend on massive, globalized, industrialized supply chains to provide us most of our living, in the future we are going to have to relearn how to provide most of that on a very local level. Whereas today, we can always buy our survival so long as we have enough cash, the future promises a reality in which cash is much less valuable than skills and knowledge. Whereas today, we don’t have to resign ourselves to the messy workings of a community to guarantee our survival, so long as we have enough of the aforementioned money, the future promises to require quite a bit more communality from all of us, and to require that we deal with all the messiness and annoyance that can entail (as well as the joy, companionship and conviviality.) Whereas today, we can buy all the comfort we want so long as we have enough cash, the future promises a great deal less comfort for everyone, including those with abundant cash, and is going to reward those who both figure out how to create comfortable lives without money and those who redefine what comfort means in a way that requires less energy and resources.

The future, in otherwise, is looking cash-poor. It will likely provide less comfort and far less material goods, but it will provide some comfort, perhaps even a significant amount, so long as we are capable of reevaluating what comfort means and have some idea of how to create it while working with local resources, within our local community, and without much money. That can be a challenge, and living well while being poor is something of an art and a skill. It is entirely possible, though, and it’s an art and a skill that we would do well to begin learning now.

Most of us are either out of practice with these skills or never learned them in the first place. This is a result of the insanely rich and overabundant society that we live in and the loss of culture that it has demanded and entailed. Peering into our uncertain future, though, it seems clear we’re out of time. We must learn these skills now. There’s simply no more time to delay if we want to increase our chances of living a good life in the future, relatively rich with comfort and stability even if extremely poor in cash.

This, then, is the core of my argument for voluntary poverty. If we are going to live in a world that necessitates we be poorer, then it makes perfect sense to learn how to live well in poverty now. However, there’s another important dimension to my advocacy—one that goes beyond the practical nature of my core argument. We also have a responsibility to scale back our lives. We live in a time of incredible, abundant energy and resources. We have a standard of living that is otherwise unknown throughout the history of humanity. As John Michael Greer noted in his latest writing over at The Archdruid Report, “A modern American climbing into the driver’s seat of a large SUV has more sheer physical energy under his direct control than your average Southern plantation owner had before the Civil War.” That is an incredible reality, and it’s a sobering one.

The majority of Americans have access to a level of resources that is insane and unsustainable. This access is also murderous and destructive. We are tearing apart our planet in service of this outsized lifestyle. We are destroying many of our fellow creatures, engaging in a level of genocide that is unfathomable. At the same time, we’re enslaving other human beings, destroying communities, polluting drinking water and food supplies and devastating the livelihoods of billions of people in pursuit of this abundance—in our sense that it is fair and right for us to have this impossibly large share. We—all of us reading this, even if to varying degrees—are destroying our world and so many of those, human and otherwise, who live in it in a maddening pursuit of wealth and comfort and distraction far beyond what we need, far beyond what is fair, far beyond what is reasonable, and far beyond what will soon be realistic. If we’re to confront and recognize these facts—and rest assured that they are indeed facts—then we have the moral responsibility to begin the process of scaling back our lives, of impoverishing ourselves so that we may ultimately live better, so that others may live better, and so we may become reacquainted with an honest understanding of what it is to be human in this world.

And again, this is not just a moral imperative, but a perfectly logical reaction to our times. When I say we must impoverish ourselves, I don’t mean we must make ourselves miserable. One of the problems we have is that we equate poverty with misery. While that certainly can be the case, it’s just as possible to exist comfortably in poverty and to live well with little money. It’s a challenge, yes, and it takes much work. It’s a long process. It’s a struggle. But that’s what this life is, after all. We’re not here just to party. We’re here to learn to live well. I don’t know what other point there is if it’s not that. Why else could we possibly be here if not to learn to live and work well? What else makes sense?

The simple reality is that living poor is a much better way to live well in this world than is living rich. The lifestyle that many of us here in America and in other industrialized nations have come to view as common—that many of us have come to see as an entitlement, so long as we do the right things—is not living well in the world. It’s living destructively. It’s outsourcing our lives and destroying other people’s lives in the process. It’s taking without giving—receiving and returning it with a slap in the face. It is a cruelty, and we have to walk away from it.

The good news is that to walk away from it doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. It can instead be incredibly rewarding and provide a return to a way of life meaningful and fulfilling, engaged and joyful. In Part Two of this introduction, I’ll talk about the potential rewards that await in a life of poverty and attempt to break down the middle class myth.

A Matter of Responsibility   12 comments

I love snow. It’s something we don’t get very often here in the Northwest. When we do get it, it tends to be of the hit-the-ground-and-melt variety. An inch or two is significant for us—this isn’t the Midwest we’re talking about here. So it’s a special day when we get any sort of decent accumulation.

The last two days have seen some very decent accumulation, at least here on the farm. On Sunday, I awoke to two inches of snow blanketing the farm, bringing abundant joy upon its initial reveal. A bit more fell during the day, alternating between showers of snow and graupel, creating a picture-perfect view as I sat in the main house drinking coffee, reading, and attempting to write a blog post. Yesterday, I awoke to yet more snow, with a full five inches then covering the land. The trees drooped under the weight of all this snow, their branches low and burdened. The few hooped, plastic row covers had collapsed, crush beneath the deceptively heavy, fluffy whiteness. Everywhere, the snow lay mounded and heap, the farm’s various edges and angles softened, blunted, smoothed out. As I walked from my yurt to the main house, I glanced over at Onion Peak, beautiful and glorious, its craggy rise mottled white and gray—snow and stone—and a strip of snowy evergreens midway up the peak glowing golden in a brief reveal of morning sunlight. I stood a moment, and stared, and marveled at this beauty and the good fortune of my presence in it.

In the house, I made coffee and checked the radar. A band of snow was moving toward us. Not long after that it began to fall, light at first but growing heavier. Determined to take a walk in the snow, I put on a few layers, made a fresh cup of coffee, slipped on my boots and headed out into the storm.

It took me only a moment to realize where I should go. The farm is situated on a north-facing hillside and the land extends up onto a tall, forested ridge that stretches back from Brian’s house, running above the small creek that provides our water. An overgrown path leads up and along this ridge, eventually arriving at a high vantage point with the creek below on the south side and the farm’s main house and growing fields on the north side. This is where I went. Brian had shown me the path a few weeks before and I already had hiked up to this spot once for a short bit of meditation. Being up there while the snow fell heavy around me sounded transcendent.

I climbed the path slowly, keeping my coffee cup steady so as not to spill its contents, my head down and hood up to protect from falling clumps of snow. I pushed through the reaching branches of shrubs and scotch broom, brushed past sword ferns bowed with snow—spread wide and pushed low to the ground—and knocked the snow from low-hanging tree branches as I pushed through their barrier. The depth of the snow on the ground varied from a light dusting beneath thick sections of the forest canopy to multiple inches where the canopy cleared, or where the trees were deciduous and bare rather than needled evergreens. Where the snow clung thin and light, dark green moss more often than not showed through, its color yet more vibrant in the otherwise muted landscape.

The creek, unseen, flowed to my right, providing sound in what would otherwise have been a land silenced by the snow. The trees around me towered far into the sky. Many there are old growth, a mixture of fir, hemlock, cedar and other species. They are a marvel, not least of which because there is so little old growth left around here. Most of it has long since been cut, transported, milled and shipped. Now even the lower-quality trees are being cut and pulped or shipped to Asia as cheap building material. These here, though, stood tall and steady and powerful, providing a windbreak for the farm that protects us during brutal coastal storms and presiding over the land with a majesty that can’t be overstated.

Being on that ridge, amongst those towering old-growth trees and with the snow all around me—an inch or two on the ground and an inconceivable amount in the air—I couldn’t help but feel a deep joy at the beauty of that place. I stood on the ridge and looked out toward the creek, still sight unseen below me but clearly heard. Across the way was another hill and more forest—state land as-yet uncut. Large snowflakes whirled through the air and those trees served as a backdrop nearly whited out due to the abundance of flakes. The scene was so picturesque—a variety of trees everywhere, rising so high into the air, the sound of the creek below and the snow devouring it all, the branches of the evergreens mounded down, all of it so intensely pretty—and my place in it so small and so overcome with awe that I felt close to tears, heartened and humbled. In that moment the words came to me: There is a grace in this life.

I breathed deep. Turning, I walked to the other side of the ridge, stepping carefully on the cluttered forest floor. The heavy snow began to transition to something smaller and more icy, though just as abundant. These icier flakes hit my rain coat with quiet tinks, their small sound merging with the creek’s. I stood at the opposite edge of the ridge and looked out toward the farm, into the white air, the far tree line, the simple muteness of it all and—

There is a grace in this life.

The words repeated in my head, again and again as I stood on that ridge, drifting back and forth and looking out at the snow, at the distant trees, up at the near trees, the way they stretched forever above me, and down at the forest floor, at the jumbled mess of twigs and pine needles, fallen branches and moldering leaves and mossy coverings, downed logs and mounds of duff, all of it coated lightly in snow. Across the way, on the hillside above the creek, a winter-bare ash kept losing chunks of snow off its branches, the powdery ice drifting toward the ground in a disintegrating descent. I watched this happen over and over and—

There is a grace in this life.

In that grace, in that moment, I understood something more about work. Yes, it’s habit. But it’s also responsibility. My life is immensely blessed. To be able to stand on that ridge yesterday, in the transcendence of a snow storm, in one of the most beautiful places on this planet, is a matter of grace and blessing and good fortune that is nearly incomprehensible. And, really, I have done little to deserve or earn it. I have worked far less hard than most throughout the world. I have at times been selfish and ignorant and uncaring and oblivious to the harm that I and my lifestyle does. I don’t mean this as a condemnation of myself as I do think I’m a good person, but it is a reality. It is a simple truth I think it important to acknowledge. I live a life of grace and it has not been fully earned. It’s been earned only partly—and a very small part, at that.

To not do the best work I can do at this point would be an abdication of responsibility. I find myself here, the recipient of some incredible amount of good luck, immersed in a life that, while at times challenging, is good. It’s blessed. It’s more than I ever should have hoped for, and yet it somehow is my life. At the very least, I have to show appreciation for what I have through the doing of work as good as I am capable of doing it. To not, at this point, do the work that I believe is necessary and good and will prove a benefit to myself and my community would be not just an abdication of my responsibility to this world that provides me so much, but immoral. How could I experience such joy and beauty and not feel an absolute responsibility to protect, perpetuate and bring as many people as possible into equivalent joy and beauty? How could I take my day in the snow and not feel a debt to the world—a debt that only can be repaid through good, restorative work?

I spent a day in the snow, amongst the trees, immersed in joy, and it indebted me. This too, then, is my work. I must pay back this debt, and so many others that have yet to be paid. Paying it back will take habit, yes, to engage in the necessary work, but it will also take the sense of responsibility I felt so clearly up on that ridge. This is my work for a purpose, and that purpose yesterday lived up in the trees, lingered on the ridge, and fell in the snow. It graced me, and I will repay it.

Posted January 17, 2012 by Joel Caris in Hiking, Place, Work

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A Matter of Habit   15 comments

I am very good at avoiding work.

I think many of us are. I don’t say that to absolve myself, because this is one of my key challenges and I don’t intend to avoid the responsibility of it. Further, I know people who are very good at diving into work and busting their ass. I currently live with just such a person and she impresses the hell out of me. Yet, many of us—even those who do insane amounts of work—are also quite good at avoiding work. For me, it’s very tempting to fire up the laptop and get on the internet rather than study something challenging. It’s easy to settle into a good book when I should be accomplishing some other task, working my body in some way.

It’s also easy for me to not write. I’ve loved to write since the third grade, when my fantastic teacher, Mrs. Edwards, implemented a mandatory half hour of daily writing after completing a workshop on building students’ writing skills. We could write whatever we wanted and, during those sessions, I quickly fell in love with the art of storytelling, beginning a long story about the luckiest kid in the world. It wasn’t a brilliant story, but it helped me figure out the art of narrative and started me on the path of a life of sporadic writing.

Up to that point, I had imagined being a veterinarian when I grew up. Over the next couple years, that dream morphed into becoming a published writer. As I became enamored with the young adult horror genre (and obsessed with Christopher Pike) I started to write similar stories. I wrote a short novel in sixth grade titled Revenge and soon after that began my next project, Nightmares. I convinced myself I would become a bestselling author, and suspected it would happen before I was done with high school. It was an ambitious plan and became derailed by only one small oversight: I largely stopped writing.

Granted, even if I had continued to write, I imagine I wouldn’t have become a bestselling young adult horror writer by the age of, say, seventeen. However, I didn’t even give myself the chance. I never finished Nightmares and after that, I would often think of ideas for new stories and novels but rarely actually write them, and generally only when a deadline for school prompted my necessary completion of the story. What I discovered during that period of my life was that, as much as I loved to write, it was work. Sometimes it flowed effortlessly, but even more often it would be a struggle to get going. Often, the words came out wrong or I didn’t know where to take a story next. Sometimes I would write something that seemed brilliant; more often I would write something mundane and disjointed. It became easier to watch TV or read a book than write—and so that was what I did.

Of course, the more I failed to write, the harder it became. The longer I waited, the more the urgency of whatever idea I had come up with faded and the more challenging it became to string together effective sentences. As work, writing requires practice, and I had stopped practicing. That made it harder, creating a negative feedback loop that reduced the frequency of my writing to the point that, eventually, I started to mirthlessly refer to myself as a writer who didn’t write. Ever that was a lie, of course. I wasn’t a writer at all.

This process has played itself out in my life multiple times, though the details vary. As I said at the beginning, I’m good at avoiding work. It’s a terrible skill to have, especially in a world full of tempting distractions. I’ve come to believe that the many distractions our society and culture provides—the internet, television, movies, reality shows, celebrity culture, sports, gambling, so much more (and understand, I’m not saying all of these things are devoid of usefulness, though some of them arguably are)—serve at least partly the function of distracting us from the murderous outcomes of the way we live our lives. Our levels of affluence and consumption are devastating the world we live in, enslaving other humans and non-human creatures, ripping apart ecosystems, destroying traditional cultures and risking the future of all living beings (except probably rats and cockroaches.) To go on with this way of life, which is simultaneously stripped of much of its meaning and fulfillment, is to be necessarily distracted from its realities and consequences. In turn, we then are distracted from good work and shielded from the idea of what good work even is. This means that we often fail to do such work and instead spend our time engulfed in meaningless distraction.

For the last few days, I’ve felt this intensely. I’ve been trying to write a new blog post since Friday, to an obvious lack of success. I have instead spent a good chunk of the last few days poking around on the internet—wasting, for many intents and purposes, my very life. I’ve not been doing what I idealistically want to do. I’ve wasted hours absorbing largely useless information and distraction when I could have been writing, studying or doing. I’m good at this wasting of time. I wish I wasn’t.

The future we face is one in which we are going to have to ruthlessly cut out such distractions so that we get done the work that desperately needs doing. Hell, it’s the present we face, as well. Enumerating and breaking down that work is part of this blog’s point. But so is going over the process of getting there, which is a process I’m very much in. I think there are many people out there who, like me, are good at avoiding work. Hopefully, they are less good at it, but I imagine the skill is there, for it’s one of the more common skills in our current society. Yet it’s one that we need to abandon and we need to do it as fast as possible. There is too much good work that needs doing—that desperately needs doing. I can’t emphasize this enough. We would be very smart to avoid the consequences of not getting that work done, no matter how much the dominant culture provides us with easily-accessible distractions (and more importantly, no matter how easy it is for us to allow ourselves those distractions.)

The blog post I’ve been attempting to write for the last two days is, theoretically, about working with animals. I have some thoughts on that, based both in recent and years past experiences. I think they’re good thoughts to share. But I’ve failed in writing that post and, in fact, never even started it. Last night, long after the sunlight had faded, as I grew too tired to even fool myself into thinking I might yet write the long-delayed post, I felt a certain disgust at what I had done. I had spent hours on the internet, reading some good things but basically avoiding the work I needed to do. I had lost another day and I very much felt the reality that it was gone forever—that I was poorer now for having lost that time. I had impoverished myself, and not in the smart and effective way that I will be advocating on this blog over the course of this year. I had impoverished myself spiritually and mentally, and I had impoverished myself in habit. I had, over the previous day, avoided the work I knew I needed to do and, in so doing, had made it harder to get back to that necessary work.

For work, ultimately, is about habit. Good work can be a real joy to do. It can also be a great challenge. But it’s very satisfying and I never regret doing it. My avoidance of good work is not about avoiding pain, misery or drudgery so much as it is a weakness of habit. I fall easily into distraction and its instant pleasures. However, I gain far more from good work than I do from those instant pleasures. The tendency toward the easy escape, I think, is as much in the habit as anything else. It all in that initial moment of deciding what I’m going to do next. It’s very easy, in that moment, to start engaging in distraction. It’s much harder to start engaging in good work. But once good work has been engaged, it’s far more satisfying.

A focus of mine this year, then, is to work on building the habit of engaging in good work rather than distraction. These habits, after all, or going to have to be my own doing. If I want to have an excellent garden this year, which is most surely the plan, then I’m going to have to get myself started on the work of gardening. If I want to regularize a series of homesteading activities, which is also the plan, then I have to do that via my own motivation. The same for regularly writing this blog, doing non-blog writing, studying, meditating and building my salvage skills. All of these are goals I’ve set for myself this year, and all of these will happen only if I motivate myself to do it. They aren’t paid work, I don’t have a boss, and there’s no one who’s going to scold or fire me if I don’t follow through (aside from, I might hope, the readers of this blog.) It’s up to me to build my own habits of work, upon which I’ll better be able to build the life I want.

This post right here, then, is one of the small successes of that habit, though it’s a qualified one. I eventually set aside the post I planned to write on working with animals and instead started the introductory post to my How To Be Poor series. I worked on that for much of today, alternating between it and occasionally the internet—a small failure, each time, of habit. But then I realized at a certain point that that post wasn’t coming together, either, so I decided it made sense to start again on something new, something that felt like maybe it would come together. And that is this post, which is today’s small success.

The last two days I largely wasted. Today was a partial success. Tomorrow will be better. This is the task at hand: a slow building of the habit of good work. It’s just as important as understanding the work that needs to be done. Later tonight or tomorrow I’ll return to the post I began today but did not finish and I’ll finish it. Beyond that, I’ll perhaps write some more, and I’ll continue to read Steve Solomon’s Gardening When it Counts and planning my garden. There will be more good work, as well, and minimal instant pleasures. That’s the goal, and the more I tend to that goal, the more I’ll habituate myself to good work and the easier it will be to accomplish the tasks at hand. For there are many tasks at hand and each one avoided is another bit of impoverishment I can no longer afford.

Posted January 15, 2012 by Joel Caris in Work

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The Antidote to Fear   14 comments

“The only antidote to fear I know is good work. I learned in pregnancy, facing labor (all of my labors were very, very, very long), to simply screw up my nerve, accept that the only way out is through, and to go forward into the pain. We’re in the same situation now—the way out of this current crisis is through it, to go forward from where we are, with what we have and who we are.”

– Sharon Astyk
Depletion and Abundance

Yesterday I woke up feeling sad. I felt it as I made breakfast, preparing for a day of work with Lance and Tammi. Thoughts of the future preoccupied me and I couldn’t help but feel a small depression at the trying times I suspect we face. I am a firm believer that there is much good work to be done in response to this future and that much of that work will prove rewarding, enjoyable and renewing for us. I’m a firm believer that the way we live now is not ideal and that many of the ways in which we will be forced to change will be for our good. Yet, there’s no denying that if my vision of the future is correct, even in just a general sense, then we will have to deal with some harsh realities. Most of us here in America and other industrialized nations would do well to be poorer, yes, but we very possibly face an extreme poverty that will prove at times painful. That doesn’t mean a good life is impossible, but an easy one looks less and less likely.

I see it already in the struggles that some of my friends are having with the economy. I see it in the fear of friends and acquaintances that their living may fall out from underneath them, leading to a frightening and uncertain future. I fear even for my family and friends who are secure now, because I believe none of us are particularly secure long term. Dwelling on these melancholic realities, a part of me wanted to crawl back into bed, to close my eyes and disavow everything I’ve been thinking of late.

Instead, I went to work.

In the morning, I moved and cared for the chickens, then pitchforked some cow patties. By the afternoon, I found myself repairing and restringing parts of a barbed wire fence. This fence runs along a sporadically busy country road and encloses a field within the Miami River valley. It’s a particularly beautiful valley—abundantly green, blue skies overhead that day, forested hills rising on either side, veined not just with the river but multiple meandering creeks. I felt lucky to be there, to have good and simple work in a beautiful setting, to be able to work at a natural pace. My earlier melancholy couldn’t hold in such a satisfying moment.

Tammi joined me a bit later and we finished that stretch of fence together. Afterward, we drove back to Nehalem—Lance, Tammi, and their daughter Abigail in their truck, I in my own car—to a barn where they keep some more animals. We were there for two baby goats, born sometime within the last two days. After a quick bit of herding, we had the mother and her kids separated and ready to be transported back to the main farm. We loaded the mother in the back of the truck and Abigail and I each held one of the baby goats for a few minutes, marveling at how light they were, how cute and plaintive. They seemed weak, possibly not yet fed, and we worried the mother had rejected them. But even in that sobering situation, I couldn’t help but be buoyed by the tiny, adorable creatures and their small warmth. This was one more of the many, many perks of being a farmer.

From there, Lance, Tammi and Abigail headed back to the farm with the goats and I drove back to my farm, the work day done. At home, I used the bathroom and washed my hands, glorying in the warm water on my cold flesh. It was a small but significant pleasure, and it’s the sort of pleasure that I think will play a much large role in our lives in the future. I drank two beers, ate dinner (lamb burgers), poked around on the internet, talked a bit with Brian, read the last few pages of Depletion and Abundance, including the quote at the beginning of this post. I felt sad again, and I’ve little doubt that the beer played its role in that.

For all my declarative statements, I don’t know what will happen in the future. I suspect poverty. I suspect a hard go of it. But we have a hard go of it now. We’re tearing apart the world, doing our level best to murder our ecosystems, losing much of our humanity in technology, fracturing our communities, our families, our covenantal relationships, distracting ourselves constantly, enslaving ourselves to an economy of degradation. We don’t do good work for the most part. Many of us struggle to find meaning. We feel at a loss, adrift, often alienated, cut off from living a life that feels full and real.

Hot water on your hands becomes a pleasure when you’ve been outside for much of a winter day, becoming cold at times while you do important work, leading a more immediate life. When you’re inside all day in a climate controlled environment, cut off from the actual, outside world, perhaps distracting yourself with television and the internet and a variety of electronic gadgets, or maybe just doing work that doesn’t do much to enrich your community—well, then hot water tends to be standard, expected, nothing wonderful or revelatory. I like hot water being revelatory. Yes, it means less comfort, but then you actually recognize when you’re comfortable. And the times when you’re not are much more likely to involve good work and meaning.

So, yes, I become depressed sometimes when I think about a future I don’t expect to be pretty. But then I have moments when I’m working outside, repairing a broken fence. Or holding a baby goat, not more than two days old. Or simply running hot water over my cold hands and sighing with relief. These are all things that are as likely as not to occur during a life of poverty and they all give me joy. Sometimes, that joy exists only because of this different life. And I think about all the things that have depressed me in my previous life—the lack of meaning, the constant distraction, the multitude of electronic gadgets, the destruction of ecosystems—and I hope and suspect that will be much less a part of our future as they are now less a part of my present.

I fear the pain and challenge I think the future presents for all of us, but I celebrate all the joyous moments and sense of meaning it promises to bring, as well. Yesterday morning, I could have let the fear grab hold of me, crawled back into my warm bed, closed my eyes, pretended it all away, shirked my responsibilities, ignored the good work waiting for me and impoverished my future—and it would have been the easiest thing to do at that early morning moment, when I wanted no part of my visions of the future. But I went to work instead, and there I found joy and happiness and meaning. By going forward, I found a small bit of the antidote to my fear. Every day doing good work will bring more of it. To turn away from that and try to return to the false comforts of our current way of life would have been an abdication of responsibility and a personal condemnation to a life less meaningful, less happy, filled with delusion and sorrow rather than the sometimes hard joys of good work.

This, then, is why I go forward into voluntary poverty. Because I think it’s important work, because I think it’s my responsibility, because I can’t bear the standard world around me, because I don’t believe it will bring me happiness and joy. If I find myself living in a world in which I rarely notice and appreciate the hot water on my hands, I’m living in the wrong world. This world, this poorer one, is the right one. It’s the only one that can bring me happiness and meaning and satisfaction. It’s the only one I can bear. So I go forward, into poverty, into good work, gathering my antidote piece by piece, a lifetime of work.

Some Thoughts on Making a Living   28 comments

Something that, over the last few years, I’ve seen as odd in our society is how common it is to interchange the idea of a job and the idea of making a living. Life in our industrial, capitalist economy has more and more removed us from the idea of making a living–or having a particular skill or trade–and instead moved us toward the idea of getting a job. We need money to pay rent or a mortgage and to buy food at the supermarket and to pay for our heating and electricity, to buy clothes and toiletries and of course to distract ourselves with the internet and television, Netflix and books (or the Kindle, perhaps) and music and DVDs (or Blu-Rays now, I suppose) and video games and a million other bits of stimulation. We need money simply to continue to exist on this planet, even if we pare back our lives considerably and remove most of the distractions. And the way most people get money is to get a job. However, jobs are ever more being removed from any particular, personal skill and more turning into slots to be filled by willing and able workers, until that slot is no longer necessary for the functioning of the corporation that holds it or until that worker is no longer willing or able.

I’ve played this game. I worked in the electronics department at Fred Meyer, a general retailer here in the Northwest, doing a variety of jobs over the course of six years. I made an hourly wage and received benefits and this job allowed me to continue to legally live on this planet, in this society, and gave me the means to distract myself from the various ways in which my life failed to satisfy me. The job was a slot and I filled it. It didn’t particularly make me happy and it certainly didn’t provide me with fulfilling work. It was a means to an end–it was a job to be worked, not a living to be made.

I think of making a living as something different. In my mind, there’s more meaning to it. These days, I don’t want a job. I want to make a living. And there is a certain literality in that term. In making a living, I want to be making something and I want to be making my life. This is why, in the last few years, I’ve turned to farming. With farming, I’m helping to make food while simultaneously crafting a new sort of existence for myself. I am making meaning within my life and creating happiness and joy and a connection to the land upon and community within which I live. In as much as this is the case, I then gain satisfaction from my work.

 

The fact that it’s not, in general, assumed that one should and will gain satisfaction from one’s work is not only some kind of special insanity, but it speaks very deeply, I believe, to the ennui that is so widespread in our society. We have transitioned to an economic and social structure that proclaims most jobs to be the province of nothing more than interchangeable drones. One is not expected to do good work–one is expected to do her job. That is all.

I want to do good work. I want to derive meaning and satisfaction from the work I do. Helping to grow healthy food for people in my community provides this meaning and satisfaction. Working for people whom are not just employers, but are neighbors and living mates and friends and damn near family–this provides me meaning and satisfaction and even joy. This also places my work in the context of something real. I’m helping to sustain my local community, not just selling shit to people who live in the same geographic area but with whom I have no connection. I’m feeding friends and neighbors, not enriching absent, unknown corporate executives and shareholders. I’m improving and connecting to the land I live on, not raping and pillaging it in a race to see how quickly it can be turned into money for people who already have too much of it.

Earlier this year, when I was working on the farm I currently live on for nothing more than room and board, a family member of mine would joke that I didn’t have a job because I didn’t get paid. And she was right–I didn’t have a job. I had good work instead.

Thank God for it.

 

I think the process of applying for a job speaks to how inhumane many jobs are. You first find an open position that seems as though it might not be entirely soul-destroying, then put together a resume and write a cover letter for that job–which is, essentially, an act of advertising oneself, often in a whorish manner. Then you wait too long for a response that may or may not come and hope for an interview, which–should it even occur–will often lurch its way through awkward questions and suffer from anxiety and terrifying optimism, quiet desperation and need, and will almost certainly bear no resemblance to normal human interaction. After this interview and perhaps multiple follow up interviews, you finally are told whether or not you got the job. Or not told. Sometimes, you simply don’t hear back, are forced to call and inquire as to your status, and then are told almost in an offhand manner–oh, did I forget to tell you?–that no, someone else was hired.

This is a horrid way to find work. Granted, I realize there are plenty of people out there who experience the above process in a more positive manner and there also are those who feed off the challenge of it. Even so, what is particularly human or humane about this process? There is rarely any sense of honesty or care to it, and it most often serves as a winnowing–a battle, a competition.

In contrast, I currently work for a neighboring farm and I found that work by simply asking if they needed help one evening while I was visiting to watch a basketball game. The two interns who had been living on the farm were both on the verge of leaving. As we talked about their impending exit, I casually mentioned to the farm’s owners–my neighbors–that I’d be happy to do some work for them if they needed it. They said that could work out great and everything fell into place from there. I started by mowing the fields, began to sell at the farmer’s market, and have branched out into other necessary tasks on the farm from there. The process was natural, it was human, and it literally began from a conversation, not a cover letter. I never had to sell myself to them. I simply had to offer to work, then show up, do it, and prove my worth. Everything else sorted itself out.

I’m not saying this is the only legitimate way to find work, but it is a particularly human way to find work. And I think it stands out in stark contrast to the way of finding work with a corporation or large organization that involves resumes and cover letters and nonsensical, anxiety-inducing interviews.

 

Many people see jobs as a ticket to security. And they’re not necessarily wrong in that assessment, though I think most of us now realize how tenuous such security is. Jobs provide a steady paycheck which can in turn provide a steady roof over your head, food on your table, and the resources to cover all those other odds and ends of living within our complex society. Jobs also can provide retirement plans and health benefits, though many jobs these days, of course, provide neither of these amenities. And if you have a career, well . . . that’s like a super job, certain to have those aforementioned amenities and perhaps more, along with a theoretical path to more money and more amenities and–again, theoretically–greater security. Perhaps a career even provides you with work that you really do find meaningful, but that’s in no way guaranteed. It may just be what you fell into, because it was a particularly nice looking slot that you were able to snag.

It’s been interesting to me, these last few years, to see the reactions of some people to my choice of work. Some think that it is a particularly shortsighted way to conduct my life–that I should be looking for a steady paycheck with a business, building a retirement fund, paying into social security, getting my damn teeth cleaned. And while I do indeed have a particular desire to be able to go get my teeth cleaned without it breaking my bank account, I have little desire to slot myself back into the system that will provide me with a retirement account and dental benefits.

In fact, I have little faith that a traditional job would provide me the sort of security that others think it would. I see us moving toward a future in which we will have dramatically less access to wealth and energy. In such a future, most of today’s retirement schemes will have ceased to exist but the sort of retirement scheme that has existed throughout most of human history–a base of knowledge and skills through which to prove and provide your worth–will be particularly relevant. So rather than build a 401k, I am learning how to grow food and raise animals, how to work the land, how to live with little money and energy, how to enjoy physical labor, how to be okay with extra blankets and less heat, how to entertain myself without benefit of TV or video games (cats work wonderfully in this regard, as do various kinds of poultry, as does observing and interacting with the land) and how to set up and piece together alternative energy systems. I am also learning to figure it out as I go, and I think that’s a skill that will be overwhelmingly useful in the near future.

It’s entirely possible I’m wrong about the future, though I feel relatively secure in my outlook. But even if I am, I still would choose the life I’m living now. What I’ve found with farming is that I’m building skills, I’m integrating into my community, I’m getting by, and I’m enjoying my life. I’m not making tons of money, I’m not in a perfectly secure financial situation, but I’m lucky enough to feel stable and not at any risk of being homeless or hungry. I’m making a living, in other words–very literally. And you know what? I really, really like it. It’s real, and humane, and satisfying, and it provides the deep connection and authenticity that I missed when I just had a job–and the absence of which was slowly killing me.

 

In making a living, I have a life. In working a job, I had no future. I don’t know everything this path will bring me, but I know that it will at least continue to bring me joy and new skills. I’ll trust that to secure my future more than I will a retirement account of any size.

Posted December 10, 2011 by Joel Caris in Essays, Farm Life, Work

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