Archive for the ‘peak oil’ Tag

The Household Economy: A Return to Normal   19 comments

An introduction to The Household Economy

As I write this, the smell of fresh, baking bread is wafting from the wood stove here in the farm’s main, communal house. The bread is one step in my attempt to come up with an easy and tasty recipe for sandwich bread. I’m doing this not because I can’t get good bread at the store—there are, as a matter of fact, multiple local bakeries that produce delicious sandwich bread, using good ingredients. No, I’m doing this because I want to take that small bit of dependence and bring it back into the home, to root that dependence not in a complicated and industrialized supply chain, but in my own work and care, my own flour-dusted hands.

Of course, looking at the title of this blog, that might not be a surprise. This originally started as a blog that would be focused primarily on farming and homesteading, and I imagined the possibility of perhaps teaching the occasional homesteading class out here on the Oregon coast, with this site functioning partly as a way for me to advertise such a business. As that idea faded into the background and my life took a different turn, the blog slowly morphed into what it is now: a cataloguing of my thoughts and experiences, certainly featuring farming and homesteading but also dealing quite a bit with peak oil and other energy issues. Yet, all of those subjects are interrelated and I likely wouldn’t be attempting to refine my own bread-making skills if I thought the store would be there forever and I could always afford the five or so bucks for a good loaf of bread. Why, after all, should I bother, given such considerations?

Well, there are many good reasons, including ones that hold up even while the stores remain open and five bucks always resides in my pocket. One is the satisfaction of creating my own living, even if it’s in a very small way. In a society that seems every year to tilt more toward the abstract, engaging in some good, old fashioned physical creation (not just the late night kind) is quite a satisfying experience. Much as in building a wooden gate, I find baking a loaf of bread, cooking up a pot of stew or making some ginger ale to be very elemental, and very good for the soul. There’s a real sense of pride and comfort in being able to make something for myself rather than buying it at the store. Furthermore, the more I create things, the less mystifying the process of creation becomes. As I build these skills, I feel more secure in my ability to figure out other necessary tasks and more willing to take on new projects. Before, when I was beholden to others for most all things rooted in the physical world, I found much of that world mystifying. I didn’t know how things work. Now I better understand.

There is, however, a bigger picture here. As is clear for anyone who’s spent time reading this blog, I think we’re all going to be poorer in the future due to energy and resource constraints, and I further think that beginning the process of preparing for that reality now makes far more sense than putting our heads in the sand and pretending that the powers that be or technology is going to pull our ass out of the fire at the last moment—especially since there’s no good or compelling reason to believe in that as a likely scenario.

One of the ways in which we’re most vulnerable to such a future is rooted in the reality that most of us in industrialized nations have outsourced a very significant percentage of our living. While human history has largely consisted of people making their own living via the combined labors and support of their community, we’ve come to mostly replace that community and its labors with various businesses, corporations, and other entities providing our needs via industrialized production methods. Since those methods are necessarily dependent upon fossil fuels—the exact fuel we already are running short of, and will run yet shorter of as time progresses—we find ourselves very vulnerable to a future of energy and resource shortage. If the grocery stores were to disappear tomorrow, a good number of us would be in serious trouble.

Luckily, the grocery stores don’t appear set to disappear tomorrow. However, anyone who thinks they and the industrial, globalized food system that backs them is fated to live forever is quite mistaken. That system is going to fail, and before it fails it’s going to provide us some serious dysfunction. Of course, it already is providing plenty of that. Look at rising food prices, huge food-borne illness outbreaks tied to industrial supply chains, the massive losses of arable land and topsoil across the world, depleted aquifers, poisoned water supplies, and a host of other destabilizing ills. This system is breaking apart before our very eyes, but many of us refuse to see it, or—upon seeing it—refuse to recognize the full breadth of its implications.

Seeing the precariousness of the industrial food system—and other industrial elements of the economy—with clear eyes would lead us to the conclusion that it’s in our best interest to minimize our dependence on it. This is where the household economy comes in. There are a few ways, working within the household, that we can lessen our dependence on the dominant, industrial economy. One of the main ways is by growing and raising as much of our own food as possible. This can be done via gardening, permaculture, planting fruit and nut trees, raising livestock, foraging for wild foods, hunting, and so on. All these activities begin the process of us making our own living and increase our resilience and self-sufficiency—the increasing of which will come to be quite the boon in an age of scarcity and contraction. Even if we aren’t able to or don’t produce any of our own food, though, we can still lower our dependence on the industrial economy by turning to local farmers and ranchers whenever possible and then utilizing another feature of the household economy: the in-house processing of our foods. The aforementioned bread-baking is one of these. Making jam is another, as is canning produce, lacto-fermenting veggies, making condiments, brewing our own beer and sodas, making kombucha and yogurt and cheese, sour cream and kefir and butter. There are all kinds of activities—many of them not that challenging, after a bit of experience—that we’ve unnecessarily outsourced to corporations.

That bread I mentioned earlier? Well, I’ve now eaten three slices of it, slathered with butter, and accompanying a lamb stew I also made. The stew used a package of lamb riblets from one of the farms I work for and was thus acquired in work-trade—and I helped raise the lamb. I slow cooked it for hours in our wood stove, making broth while simultaneously cooking the meat. To that, I added potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic for a simple and delicious stew. The veggies, aside from the potatoes, came from the farm I live on. (The potatoes would have, except we ran a bit short this winter.) So, all in all, I ate a meal tonight borne largely of the household economy, with minimal inputs from the industrial economy. It was delicious, and nourishing, and satisfying in both its preparation and eating, resilient in its minimal dependence on outside systems, and far more sustainable than a meal eaten at a restaurant would have been, or prepared out of a box, or bought from the store.

Which brings me to another benefit of the household economy. Aside from the unsustainable amount of energy and resources we use in industrialized nations, our outsourcing of our living to corporations gives them an incredible power over our lives, our culture, our society, our economy and our political system.

Let’s say, as a mental exercise, that you find yourself on the street, enjoying a lovely day, taking a walk around the neighborhood. A stranger comes up to you and begins to berate you, spewing profanity, agitated and angry. What would you do? I suspect most of us would take our leave of this person, or tell him to leave us alone—possibly in unfriendly terms—or in some other way extricate ourselves from the situation. Imagine, now, that it isn’t a stranger but your boss. At that point, it becomes quite a bit trickier, doesn’t it? Our boss holds a certain power over our lives, being able to interfere with our means of making a living. You may still tell your boss to knock it off or walk away, but by doing so you risk retribution, perhaps a firing. Even if that’s unfair—even if you could take your case to a court and win—you still face the potential of a disruption of your life. It’s a much more complicated situation.

By relying on corporations and other businesses to provide us our living, we make them our boss. We become beholden to and dependent upon them and that limits our ability to push back against them when they behave in an improper manner. There’s quite a lot of concern that corporations have gained too much power in recent times and use that power with impunity, polluting the earth, exploiting land, people, and communities, extracting wealth, corrupting our economic and political systems and running roughshod over much of the population. These are legitimate concerns, to say the least. But if we want to reign in these corporations and work to strip them of some of their power, we’re going to be seriously hampered in our ability to act if we’re also dependent upon those same corporations to provide us the means of our living.

There are reasons, for instance, that oil companies have vast political power. One of those reasons is that we need oil, desperately, to power the society we’ve become used to. If we didn’t need that oil to power our society—if we had the option to opt out of its use—than their power would be greatly reduced. If they had for sale a simple product rather than a necessity, their power wouldn’t be so great. We would have more ability to push back against them.

This is relevant on a somewhat more abstract level, as well. Right now, our lives are dependent on fossil fuels and all the destruction and inequity their use has come to entail. Most of us in industrialized nations would be at a complete loss without fossil fuels, our way of life pulled out from under us, extremely vulnerable and subject to significant impoverishment at best, death at worst. Due to that reality, we’re going to ultimately support the use of fossil fuels no matter what. We may talk a good game against them, agitating for change and reduced use, but our dependence on them necessitates that we continue to use them and to subject ourselves to the systems created around them. I do exactly that as I write this on a computer and ready the posting of it on the internet. Every time we make use of the industrial infrastructure, we support all it entails. If we don’t want to support that, we’re going to have to make much less use of that industrial infrastructure.

This is the crux of the argument for individual change, in my mind. We can’t get away from these systems at a societal level until we get away from them at an individual level. We can’t alter our economic and political systems until we alter the individual actions that support them. Yes, those individual actions are influenced by those systems, but it’s through individual change that we’re going to create any will to alter those systems. Without that element, we’ll be left dependent and beholden, with little to no power to change what we see wrong with those systems. And if we stay beholden to these systems, politicians will continue to support and uphold them, knowing that any imposition on those systems will be passed down to the public and that the public, whatever they might claim, will for the most part punish the politicians in turn.

There’s another, deeper layer to this argument, though, and that’s rooted in the predicament we face that I’ve written about before. If there was a broad, large scale system capable of supporting our current way of living in a sustainable manner, then it might make sense to attempt a switch over to that system rather than focusing on individual behavior. However, even if that could be done, we would need for a different system to be available to transition to without having to change individual action. We would need, in other words, the system that so many people in our society like to advocate: our current lives, largely unchanged but powered by renewable energy.

If this were possible, then it might make sense to advocate for it. It might not make sense, either, as it would not address the core issues of industrialism that lead to exploitation and destruction. It wouldn’t address resource issues or all the other natural cycles of renewal that we’re going to have to learn to live within, such as the renewal cycles for top soil and fresh water. It wouldn’t address ecosystem stability and biodiversity. But all those concerns aside, the problem here is that such a switch isn’t possible. There’s no way to power our way of life without fossil fuels. There’s no way to build the sort of centralized, industrialized renewable energy system that’s so often advocated without an industrial base powered by fossil fuels. The solar PV panels and wind turbines are made with fossil fuels, made from fossil fuels, and dependent on a vast industrial infrastructure powered by fossil fuels. We’re already facing the beginnings of constriction. We’re not going to be able to divert massive amounts of fossil fuels to these alternative uses, and even if we were able to do that on such a scale, it wouldn’t be supportable in the long term. Eventually, the fossil fuels run out and then so do the alternative energy technologies built on top of them.

Furthermore, even if such a system were possible, that still wouldn’t address the fact that we use our energy to power an industrial economy that is tearing apart the earth and its ecosystems. If we were to find some magic bullet solution to the energy problem, we would still be faced with the necessity of drastically scaling back our lives so as to avoid the sort of crash that always happens when a population overshoots its carrying capacity—or, more realistically, to limit the damage of that crash. We are already far past carrying capacity, even if we were magically able to switch over to an economy powered entirely by wind and solar tomorrow. We still would be consuming the earth and industrialized nations would still find their populations facing a necessary scaling back to a life more akin to non-industrialized nations.

Therefore, we find ourselves back to the necessity for individual change. Our scaling back begins in the household. It was not so long ago that a good deal of America’s economic activity happened in the household economy. To this day, many non-industrialized nations have thriving household and subsistence economies—it’s how they survive. Thus, it likely won’t be that long before we’re back to a similar reality. As we all become poorer, resources become tighter, and money becomes harder to come by (or less able to purchase goods and services) we’re going to find ourselves having to make use of our own labor and good work to keep up a decent standard of living whenever possible. Rather than spend five dollars on a nice loaf of bread, we’ll more likely bake it at home for a fraction of that cost. Rather than buy expensive organic jam, we’ll make it from the fruit or berries supplied by a nearby farmer, or picked out of our own back yard. Rather than purchase a variety of dairy-based products, we may just find a local source of fresh milk and make our own butter, yogurt, sour cream, and so on. Rather than eat out, we’ll make our own meals. Rather than buy a tiny, three dollar package of basil, we’ll snip it off our own basil plant.

We’ll recycle, and reuse, and wear things out. We’ll darn our socks and patch our clothes, mend our shoes, and learn the fine art of attrition as we simplify our lives, whether we want to or not. We’ll make blankets out of leftover scraps of cloth. We’ll cook our food in hayboxes or on rocket stoves. We’ll brew our own beer, make our own hard cider. And we’ll learn to rely on the other members of our community to help us make our living rather than on faceless, dominant corporations and on the continued functioning of assembly lines populated by robots.

This is the reality that I think will be asserting itself. It’s a reality, as well, that offers us the hope for a better future than the one we might otherwise have. If we begin to grow the household economy, we’ll begin to provide more of our own living, gain a greater control over our own lives, insulate ourselves against economic shocks, free ourselves from dependence on entities that would as soon harm us as help us, begin the process of building relationships, strengthen our community, and provide more space to work for a better society. It may not all turn out well—it probably won’t. But we’ll give ourselves a much better chance than if we just wait for someone else to fix our problems, then wonder what the hell we’re going to do when the industrial infrastructure that keeps us alive begins to crumble beneath us. We also will gain a satisfaction from our own labors, will likely find ourselves much healthier, and will refocus our attention from useless and unhealthy distraction toward good work done in support of ourselves, our family and friends, our community.

This series of posts, then, will focus mainly on my trials and tribulations with getting my own household economy going. It’s already up and running to a degree, but it could stand to be enlarged, to encompass more of my living. And it’s going to find some changes this year with my shifting circumstances. I’ll be writing, therefore, about my adventures in gardening, my various homesteading activities, possibly some building projects using reclaimed and recycled materials, and whatever other paths my particular household economy takes. This will be something of a companion to my How To Be Poor series of posts, in that it will focus more on the actual activities with which I reduce my costs of living and usage of energy and resources, while How To Be Poor focuses more on the theory and philosophy of voluntary poverty—though I reserve the right to occasionally veer into the theoretical, as I may very well do in the next entry.

Throughout most of history, we’ve made much of our living at home and in our community. Over the last few centuries, we’ve slowly outsourced that living. In the last few decades, we’ve mostly abandoned it to the province of corporations and governments. It’s time to bring back the household economy, both as a necessity and as a moral good. It’s time to reacquaint ourselves with our own living. It’s time to get off this misguided path and return to normal.

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There are No Vegetarians in a Famine   12 comments

An entry in the How To Be Poor series

To better understand the distorted viewpoint of our culture that I wrote about in the last post, I want to talk about food and diet. As I tend to reference my own experiences in these posts, I want to write initially about my own changing diet over the years.

I have spent a good portion of my life attempting to eat in a moral and ethical manner. This has boiled down, as often as not, to a focus on eating certain foods and not eating yet other foods. For sixteen years of my life, this approach underpinned my vegetarianism. I ate dairy and eggs during that time, but didn’t eat meat of any kind. I came to that diet while living in Arizona as a teenager and it was greatly influenced by the New Age community I found myself interacting with there. I became vegetarian largely for moral reasons and partly for health reasons (ironically, considering how poorly I ate as a vegetarian.) I even believed at times that eating meat would lower my body’s vibration level. Looking back, I feel a bit ridiculous about that.

As parenthetically noted, I didn’t eat well during my vegetarian days. Having never learned to cook much and rarely having anyone to cook for me, my diet tended toward prepared, processed and packaged foods. Boxed pasta mixes and frozen pizzas were staples and spaghetti made with jarred sauce constituted my primary culinary adventures. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I would think a diet of processed foods was a more ethical and healthy way of eating simply because it didn’t involve meat. That seems the very definition of blind reductionism, but it was a blindness I suffered.

Upon reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I began to warm to the idea of resuming my meat eating ways, but with a focus on eating sustainable and well raised meat. I eventually made that change and, not long after, discovered Nourishing Traditions and the Weston A. Price school of dietary thought. I read Nina Planck’s Real Food. I found a source of raw milk and started consuming it with abandon. I experimented with fermenting veggies and soaking grains, though I never integrated those foods into my diet on a regular basis. Finally, a few years ago, I read The Vegetarian Myth and reached the peak of my infatuation with a diet focused on the eating of healthy animal fats and proteins. I found myself convinced by Lierre Keith’s book, which argued that the healthiest, most ethical and most sustainable dietary choice was eating a good amount of animal fat and protein from animals raised well, as well as a certain amount of fresh fruits and veggies and minimal grain.

In conjunction with my focus on well raised animal products, I also had started to farm. This lifestyle greatly improved my diet, significantly boosting my cooking skills and knowledge and providing me plenty of abundant, fresh vegetables with which to work. I became more familiar with making simple, sustaining meals—the sorts of meals I should have been eating during my vegetarian days. In tandem with the increased physical labor of farming, I felt healthier, dropped some unnecessary weight, and began to see the joys of a local and seasonal diet. Not that I ate such a diet exclusively, but I moved much closer. And that has continued up until this day. I probably ate better and more local and seasonal this last year than any other, with much help from the fantastic people I lived with and our communal meals.

With all these different changes in diet over the years, a common thread starting with my vegetarianism (and, really, before then—I remember calling McDonald’s as a child and asking them to stop using styrofoam for their packaging after watching a 20/20 report with my parents) was the idea that what I ate played a large role in my moral and ethical well being. I couldn’t help but feel that my diet was important—that I influenced the world, its health and happiness, through what I ate. Of course, that’s true. Our collective diet plays a massive role in how we live in this world. Yet, I couldn’t stop looking at this effect through the prism of what I ate rather than how I ate.

This perhaps shows itself most clearly through my vegetarianism. I boiled my moral decision down to meat and failed to look at any of the other implications of my diet. Later, when I became convinced by The Vegetarian Myth that eating animal protein and fruits and veggies was the way to go, I looked at it with something more of a holistic viewpoint—questioning what kind of an agriculture could truly be practiced sustainably and realizing the destructive aspects of monoculture grain production, even if done organically—but I still boiled it down to a set diet with rigid guidelines, creating an ideal and only then trying to figure out how I might meet that ideal locally.

Our society, furthermore, is filled with these ideals. There are thousands of books laying out rigid dietary guidelines that promise you the world: a healthy body, a better environment, long life, good sex, happiness, joy, moral satisfaction, so on and so forth. What these diets typically have in common is that they have all kinds of guidelines that they attempt to apply to everyone, with little to no regard for local circumstances, the climate you live in, your particular body, your childhood diet, your likes and dislikes, the kind of work you do, or what kind of agriculture exists locally. The assumption is that you can eat whatever you choose. And this is an assumption that can only exist in the context of massive luxury. It’s, in other words, one of the very distorted viewpoints of our society borne out of a globalized, industrial economy floating on the warm waters of cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy.

Most of human history has not seen such luxury and personal diets formed accordingly. Most people have been constricted by their local agriculture or local wild foods, with minimal or no trade providing non-local foods. Most people, furthermore, have been limited by their own means of acquisition. Plenty of people have been subsistence farmers, eating largely food they have produced themselves and whatever they can acquire in trade using that same self-grown food. Others have eaten on a strict budget, unable to purchase a wide variety of luxury foods even if those foods have been available. It’s a unique circumstance in the history of humanity that we find ourselves in today, in which a significant portion of the populations of industrialized nations have access to food from across the world, throughout the year, and have enough money to buy most any of that food and thus craft whatever particular diet they should want.

This is where we need to make a sharp distinction between necessity and luxury. Necessity is having something to eat—having enough to eat. Luxury is being able to eat whatever diet you decide you prefer, whether that be for matter of taste, health or ethical concern. In a world in which luxury is taken for granted, the morality of eating easily can be transformed from how you eat—by the care you take in eating the foods that are available to you—to what you eat, with little regard for your local circumstances. If you’re living by necessity and therefore feeding yourself within a very limited range of available foods, then moral concerns about your diet have to skew more toward the “how” side of things. What are the traditions of eating? How do you relate those traditions to your larger moral framework? How do you go about acquiring your food? How much do you eat? What kind of thanks do you give for it? What care do you take in the eating of it, the growing and raising of it if you have any control over that? If you’re living in luxury, then it’s much easier to skew your moral concerns toward the “what” side of things. Am I eating grass fed meat? Am I not eating meat? Am I eating grains that are destroying the prairies? Am I eating organic produce? Is my food locally produced? I’m not saying these questions are irrelevant or unimportant, but they are often borne of luxury.

If you find yourself in a famine, chances are you’re going to eat whatever food becomes available to you. If you’re starving, it’s unlikely that moral convictions about not eating meat are going to keep you from eating some goat meat stew if someone should offer it to you. Furthermore, if you’re someone who can’t seem to comprehend the idea of eating grains and vegetables as the core of your diet, then you better change your opinion real quick if you find yourself in the midst of a famine because you’re a lot more likely to get your hands on a meal in that dietary realm than you are a juicy hamburger. Do you think that grain production is inherently destructive of natural ecosystems and that a diet of grass fed meats, eggs from pastured poultry, raw dairy and a smattering of fruits and vegetables grown in rotation on farms incorporating animals is the most sustainable diet? Well, you might not find any such diet available to you a few decades from now, when constricted fossil fuel supplies and an overcrowded planet have greatly increased hunger rates and—in the rough and rocky crash following our current overshoot—grain staples are far easier to come by than pastured meat. The above diet may be one of the more sustainable ones available to human beings—and I don’t know if that’s true or not—but that’s going to support perhaps a tenth or less of our current population. If a few decades from now our governments and local economies are struggling to feed seven or eight billion people on a planet no longer sporting the sort of fossil fuel supply that can support such a population, you’re far more likely to gain access to a ration of grains or potatoes than a nice grass fed steak.

What this comes down to is the necessary imposition of limits and constraints. Much of the challenge facing us in terms of a transition to a more sustainable—and thus, much more poor—way of living is the fact that we have access to this luxury. It’s no surprise, then, that we take advantage of it. That’s pretty standard behavior for any species. If we can eat most anything we desire, it’s not a shock that we’ll eat foods that otherwise wouldn’t be available to us and it’s not a surprise that in determining the moral ideals of our diet, we’ll tend more toward what we eat than how we eat it. That’s the foreseeable outcome of having access to this level of luxury and functioning within the context of the distorted viewpoint that luxury affords us. We make our choices by working from the context of having everything available to us and then trying to come up with an unconstrained perfection. If we were working outside of this odd level of luxury, we would instead be looking at what our limited resources were and then trying to make the best of what was available to us.

We can’t live outsized, overabundant lives if we don’t have an abundance of wealth available to us. In the future, we’re unlikely to have the sort of abundance available that we do today. This, as I’ve said many times, is one very good reason to attempt to start living on less, so that we adjust to this way of life and figure out some of the better ways to do it—how to make the best of what’s available to us—before we find ourselves thrust into that poorer way of life. But if we’re going to figure that out, we’re going to have to change our context. We’re going to have to try to see more clearly, to remove some of the distortion, and to reintroduce limits and constraints into our lives. We’re going to have to craft a different context for ourselves—one rooted more in poverty than wealth, in constrained resources rather than abundance. This idea, of crafting a new context, is going to be at the root of several of the forthcoming posts in this series. I’ll write more about it in the next entry.

Our Distorted View   14 comments

An entry in the How To Be Poor series

The idea that voluntary poverty is a challenge is one of the more ridiculous realities of our present situation. Yet it’s a reality, just the same. I was thinking of that this morning while reading a criticism of my How To Be Poor series of blog posts by John Ennis over at his blog, Degringolade. John’s right in noting that being poor is easy—you just run out of money, without recourse. But that’s not the sort of poverty I’m writing about here. I’m writing on the voluntary sort, not the desperation of forced poverty.

I don’t have any helpful advice for that sort of poverty. I haven’t experienced it, for one, and it seems there would be a limited number of responses to such circumstances—and that they would generally be dependent on your particular situation. What I can write about, and what I am attempting to write about with this series, is the idea of powering down our lifestyles, for those who are in position to take such a methodical and purposeful approach. I am writing, in other words, to people who are familiar with or living within something of a middle class American lifestyle. Considering my readers necessarily have access to the internet, I assume that most of them have some familiarity with that lifestyle, whether or not they are actively living it.

The problem with the American culture is that it provides a very distorted view of reality. What luxury is, what poverty is, and what a decent standard of living is all have been twisted by the extreme abundance and material wealth that the standard American has come to consider normal. Further, that idea of normality is on a nasty collision course with what I consider to be the likely normality of the future—which is, as John notes in his criticism, probably going to be one of forced poverty for a good many of us.

Again, I don’t have an answer for that forced poverty. If it comes to pass, there isn’t much of an answer, just local adaptation and millions of individuals struggling to get by. That will prove different for everyone and it’s impossible to predict the course of those multitudes of paths. If we are facing that future of forced poverty, though, then one course of action available to us is voluntarily beginning the process of powering down our overabundant lives so that, when forced poverty begins to assert itself, we face less of a fall.

In my opinion, dealing with that fall while having already begun the process of reorienting yourself to a life with less stimulation and distraction, reacquainting yourself with physical work, learning to accept limitations and figuring out what joys will be available to you regardless of your income will be quite a bit easier than dealing with it while still living a standard middle class American lifestyle and considering, say, the loss of your iPod as an epochal event. That doesn’t mean that dealing with forced poverty will be easy, or that it’s going to be comfortable and joyous—it just means that a reorientation of standards cushions the blow.

What I’m therefore writing about, as much as anything, is that reorientation of standards. I wrote in the third part of the introduction to this series that I thought that reorientation was “the more important aspect” of living in poverty. I already look back at that sentence a bit sheepishly, as I think it too cavalierly plays down the hard realities of poverty, especially in comparison to the American standard of living. But my point was that the mental challenges are a huge obstacle to living less abundantly, and that those are ever present in our culture. Since we have such a distorted view of wealth, luxury, and comfort, we have a hard time seeing the comfort that can be available to us even with little money. We also can distort the realities that we should be wary of. The daily drudgery of repetitive, brutal physical work can break you down indeed. But there’s a realm of daily physical labor that’s not so crushing, and that can even be rewarding. Physical labor, in general, is viewed as something to be avoided by a large percentage of our population. That view point is insane, it’s unhelpful, and it’s false. There’s much joy to be found in physical labor and reintroducing it into our lives can both bring about that joy and help to prepare us for a much less abundant future.

When people talk about a decent standard of living in America—and, I imagine, in many other industrialized nations—they are standardizing a very luxurious way of living. And in that standardization, they tend to distort the idea of what’s necessary for a good life. While I have no personal familiarity with hunter-gatherer ways of life, I imagine there have been quite a few hunter-gatherer societies in the past that lived quite lovely lives, and with a lack of material wealth that most of us in industrialized nations would find ghastly. But that was the life they knew, and I’m sure they found their joys in it and dealt with their miseries, as well. Most civilizations throughout human history have had much less material wealth than we do today and they have often managed those realities just fine. They’ve had their joys, their miseries, their many days of passing time, their exuberances and upheavals and desperations. It can be done, and there’s no sense in us not giving it a try if we acknowledge that our future likely includes much less material wealth than we are used to today.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that any one of us could be plopped down into one of those past civilizations and be perfectly happy with it. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t find ourselves terribly miserable. But that, again, is as much about a disconnect between expectations and reality as it is about necessity. Trying to close the gap between our current expectations and our likely future realities is what I would consider a useful and necessary task. It’s the task this series on voluntary poverty is about.

Now, all this flies out the window if we’re looking at a poverty in which the necessities of life are hard to come by. We may very well be facing that poverty. But even in that case, I’d rather be closer to that future reality if forced to deal with it then falling into it head on with no experience of anything other than middle class luxury. I’d like to go into it having some of the skills necessary to make my own living and possibly craft my own survival than go into it having never gained myself food outside of a grocery store. I might still be screwed, but at least I’ll have a bit more agency in it.

So if our culture’s distorted view about what is a decent standard of living is one of the road blocks to downsizing our lives and learning to live with much less, then what’s our response to that road block? Well, it would seem to me that we must first start better seeing what is and is not necessary for a good quality of life. Of course, that view point is relative to a certain degree, so for the next post I’m going be talking about food to try to understand some of the ways in which we mix up luxury and necessity.

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 Three   17 comments

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

On The Road

I have not been living poor the last few days. In fact, I’ve been living . . . well, if not quite rich by American standards, then at least upper middle class. It hasn’t been with my money, though, which is the only reason I’ve been able to do it. My mother rented a place in Sedona, Arizona for the month and asked me if I would help her drive down from Portland. Having missed the Arizona desert in the last few years and having a flexibility in my life and work that allows for such a prolonged trip, I took her up on the offer, with the one alteration being that I would return on the train rather than by air. With plans thus set, we departed on Sunday and, over the next three days, drove the 1,400 miles here to red rock country, where I’m now staying until next Sunday.

As I noted, this has not been a life of poverty the last few days. Not only have we driven 1,400 miles, with all the attendant gasoline costs that entails, but we’ve also eaten out several times, to the point that I very fast became sick of the bread-and-meat meals of roadside diners. I also grew tired from the driving—I ended up doing all of it, which was fine by me, but one grows a bit weary after eight or nine hours straight of being on the highway. By the time we would stumble into our motel room in the evening, I wanted little more than to pass out on one of the room’s uncomfortable beds, allowing my body a recharge from an exhaustion that only the most brutal day of farming could recreate.

On the third day of driving, just after some meat and bread at a cafe in Needles, I decided to depart Interstate 40 in favor of a stretch of Route 66 that travels about 45 miles between Topock Bay, through the blatant tourist trap of Oatman (complete with a significant herd of tame burros milling about in the road) through the Black Mountains and over the beauty of Sitgreaves Pass, and then back to I-40 near Kingman. Now, I suspect most people reading this have at least heard of Route 66, whether or not you’re particularly familiar with it. Suffice it to say, Route 66 holds a certain significance in the American consciousness. It stretched from Los Angeles to Chicago and was the first highway to be fully paved in America. It assisted the migration of farmers devastated during the Dust Bowl, provided business to towns during the Great Depression, and abetted economic migration during World War II. Route 66, however, truly reached its zenith as the romantic epitome of happy motoring during the 1950s, as it became the route to Los Angeles for vacationing families. The increased traffic saw the rise of the sort of roadside attractions now considered gloriously kitschy and a throwback to the height of Americana, helped to spawn the fast food industry, and further cemented the car as the center of American life.

While I had to do a bit of research to come up with that fairly straightforward summary of Route 66, I didn’t need Wikipedia to feel the allure of Route 66 while driving East through Southern California and into Arizona. Every time I saw one of those brown signs noting access to Historic Route 66 at the next exit, I wanted to veer off onto that potholed, two-lane road, drop the windows, put my arm out into the wind and rocket toward my destination. Despite knowing that the road would be rough, the towns would be dead and devastated, and that the route no longer held the distinctly American romanticism of car culture, I couldn’t help but be called by the cultural heritage of the road—by that American obsessiveness over the car, that ideal of paved freedom. I wanted off that easy Interstate and onto something gritty and real and wide open—Route 66, promising a freedom and glory found nowhere else.

How did I get sucked into this ideal? I don’t know, to be honest. But I’m sure it came out of a combination of growing up immersed in American popular culture and spending significant amounts of time in automobiles. While I never watched the show, I certainly am familiar with the song. I saw Cars, as mediocre a film as it was, and my heart did soar at the site of those anthropomorphized automobiles zooming through the Arizona desert. I lived for a year in Arizona when I was sixteen, and during that time I took multiple road trips through that same desert with my mother, in her beat up but faithful white pickup. Every time we crested a small rise and saw the road unfurling for miles before us, the desert stretching out impossibly far on each side, I couldn’t help but feel an intoxicating joy and freedom. All those cultural impressions and personal experiences with road trips no doubt brewed themselves into an emotional stew in which the ideal of Route 66—particularly its Arizona stretches—served brilliantly as the main ingredient.

So during our stop for lunch in Needles, looking over the road map and seeing that stretch of Route 66 winding its way through the Black Mountains, I couldn’t help but divert into what seemed a promising adventure. We zipped a few miles down I-40 and then exited off onto Route 66. Off the Interstate and therefore no longer doing 80mph, I cranked down the window to enjoy the warm air and began the slowed drive, going about 45, waiting for the romanticism to wash over me.

What happened instead in those first few minutes was a significant adjustment period. After doing nearly twice that speed, 45mph seemed plodding to me, and I had to resist the urge to rev up the engine and shoot down the road at a considerably higher speed. Before long, another car came up behind me wanting to go faster and this proved annoying, having to deal with the vagaries of another human being’s desires, rather than having multiple lanes and light enough traffic to rarely be impeded or pressured by another—to have all the easy whims of my exact desired usage of my machine satisfied. Eventually, the motorist passed me on a straightaway, and I relaxed a bit.

The road was bumpy, of course, as opposed to the smooth ride of the Interstate. It twisted and turned and wound around, rarely taking the fastest route and often traveling with the land. There were multiple points at which washes simply went over the road, meaning the road would be flooded during rainstorms. Yellow signs helpfully suggested that drivers not enter into the wash when it was flooded. The road felt in many ways a part of the landscape. Rather than being raised and separated and cutting harsh through the land as the Interstate did, it meandered with the counters of the hills and the sides of the road seemed to fade and disappear into the desert sand and rock. The protection was minimal—the road expected a certain level of competence and attention.

The Focus

While there’s a certain thick irony in relating the transition to poverty as a response to peak oil with the transition from an Interstate to an old section of Route 66, I intend to do just that. As I drove along Route 66, I couldn’t help but see the parallels. The Interstate provided the height of modern transportation convenience. It traveled more often than not in a straight line, was paved smooth, was elevated and separated from the land and, indeed, dominated the land. It provided for a very high speed of travel and, as such, I traveled the road with the windows up, with a full enclosure and separation from the landscape and climate around me. The multiple lanes and relatively sparse traffic allowed me a high degree of separation from other drivers, allowing me to mostly keep the exact speed I wanted and not to be impeded or pressured by drivers going too slow or fast for my taste. The highway was dotted with convenient rest areas and continual access to restaurants, fuel stations and other businesses. The Interstate coddled its passengers, providing for everything at all points, and demanding the least amount of attention and foresight as possible.

The old Route 66, on the other hand, worked with the land. It meandered and presented constant sharp turns and curves, blind corners, washes that could flood the road, often a lack of guardrails, and few sections that were straight and smooth. It was bumpy and rutted and provided a basic form of transport, at least in today’s terms. Compared to the Interstate, it was not particularly fast or efficient. At best, I would creep up to 50 or 55, rather than 80, and getting from point A to point B was a windy affair. At times, I had to come to a complete stop to allow for a bored burro to stare at my car indifferently (and that, I must admit, was one of the best moments of the detour.) Imagine coming to a full stop on the Interstate. It’s essentially unthinkable.

Route 66 assumed a certain amount of skill and attention, and failed to coddle the driver at every turn. The availability of fuel and food and services along that stretch of the old route was minimal and the only rest area was in Oatman. There was, however, the occasional shoulder to pull off of and plenty of desert ground upon which to pee, should one need to do such a thing.

This all took some getting used to after traveling somewhere around 1,000 miles along the coddled reality of the Interstate. Dropping from 80mph to 45mph proved annoying and frustrating at first, as I had to adjust to a speed that, while fast, seemed interminably slow at first glance. The first few miles of the transition, I couldn’t help but feel like it was taking too long to get where I was going. But as the beauty of the landscape washed over me and my speed transitioned from an impediment to a luxury, I began to appreciate the moment. My speedometer dropped from 45 to 40, and then down to 35. Eventually I was driving at 30mph, and I didn’t give a damn if I ever returned to the Interstate. The landscape called to me, the fresh air felt glorious, and eventually I just decided to pull over to the side of the road and actually take a few minutes to revel in the beauty around me and not to worry about getting to where I was going. I was already somewhere beautiful—why did I need to get farther down the road?

Moving from the Interstate to 66 took a few moments of transition and required some reorientation of my thinking, but once I did that, I fell in love with my new reality. I gloried in the beauty and joy of it, in the easy relaxation that came with not desperately trying to accomplish something so much as appreciating the present reality. And that’s a definite parallel to the transition to a life of poverty. You can’t go into it expecting the same sort of happiness and comfort and satisfaction that a middle class lifestyle offers. You can’t, in other words, get on Route 66 and expect to go 80, and to have to keep your window rolled up, and desire a smooth ride. You’ll be disappointed. But if you roll down the window and take in the fresh air, slow down and enjoy the views of the landscape, and marvel at the way the road blends into the landscape rather than dominating it, you’re going to find new sorts of joys, and you might find they’re better than the old ones.

Writing about that sort of transition—that altering of one’s mind frame—is going to be the main focus of the How To Be Poor series. The reason for this is twofold. First of all, I think that’s the more interesting aspect of living in poverty, and I think it’s the more important aspect of it. While the actual practices and realities of poverty are a huge piece of such a life, so too is the mental and emotional frame of mind if you’re coming from a position of not living in poverty. In many ways, that’s what provides much of the challenge—learning to let go of that previous way of life and figuring out how to derive your joy and happiness and comfort in entirely new ways. Second of all, I’ll be writing about the theory of poverty because I have minimal experience with the hard realities of living in poverty. I’m still figuring all that out and so I don’t want to start throwing out untested ideas and applications and claiming them to be an effective framework for living in poverty. That strikes me as an unhelpful approach, and an arrogant one.

That doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that there won’t be practical information in future posts. But my current plan is to put most of that in The Household Economy posts (that introduction coming soon.) I’ll be writing about my gardening and homesteading activities in that category, as well as any salvaging or working with salvaged materials. I hope and expect that information and those stories will prove helpful, but they will be the stories of someone still very much figuring out how to live poor, and how to do it effectively. Their value, therefore, will be in shared trial and error more than in experienced instruction.

My Particular Poverty

In conclusion to this introduction to the How To Be Poor series, I want to be very clear about where I’m coming from in regards to my own experience of voluntary poverty. I do this for multiple reasons. First of all, I’m new to this as a conscious project, though I have been scaling back my life for a few years now. I want it to be clear that I’m writing not as someone who is experienced and practiced with living in poverty, but as someone who is struggling with that transition. I suspect that will be helpful for many of you, as I suspect that many of you aren’t particularly poor. For those of you who are already poor, I hope that what I write will prove helpful, anyway, and that I won’t embarrass myself in the process.

That brings me to another reason to be explicit about my poverty—which is that I’m not particularly poor. Granted, I do make an income that is officially below the line of poverty, but I still maintain access to too many comforts to consider myself truly poor. I am not living in poverty the way millions of people in this country live in poverty, or the way in which billions throughout the world do. I don’t lack for food or water, for housing and shelter, for good work, or even for entertainment. All of this is available to me and I partake in all of it. I own a car and I can buy gas for it. I have credit cards, and tens of thousands of dollars in available credit (though I don’t intend to use that.) I have family and friends who would take me in should I ever find myself in a much worse financial system. I have a level of security and comfort that simply belies the idea that I am truly living in poverty.

And that’s why I’m writing about voluntary poverty. That is most certainly what I’m participating in here, not in any sort of forced poverty. As such, I want to further enumerate my reality a bit, just to be as explicit as possible.

Here are the raw numbers. I made about $800 in January, which seems rich to me. In the context of the world, of course, that is rich. I have about $6,000 in credit card debt and over $10,000 in student debt. I plan to pay off the credit card debt over the next 12-18 months, if all goes well. I have no idea when and if I’ll ever pay off the student debt. I have over $3,000 in the bank. I own my car out right, but I worry it’s in need of some repair. I pay $325 in rent. Soon, I’ll be doing work-trade for my rent. I’ll write more about that in a future post.

Aside from the numbers, I live well. My current residence is a 12 foot diameter yurt, and I love it. Eventually it will be a couple rooms in a studio house on a different farm. I have a good amount of kitchen gear, more books than I can read, plenty of clothes, some good shoes, a laptop, a cell phone, good beer to drink, great food to eat, and more. I have a level of luxury and comfort available to me that is quite impressive, even though I have a small income. I also live alone, and don’t have to support or help support anyone else.

When I write about my voluntary poverty, to again be clear, I am writing about it in the sense of someone who has mostly lived a middle class, comfortable existence and who is now attempting to scale back to something resembling a comfortable and happy poverty. That strikes me as a very complicated goal, but it’s the one before me. But I am not struggling to put food on my plate, or keep a roof over my head, to escape the elements or find work. I have two jobs. I have comfort and security. Yes, that could go away at some point, but for the time being I feel good about my future. My goal is to ratchet back a bit more all the time, to learn to live with as little as possible, to turn comfort into discomfort and learn how to make that discomfort comfortable. This is voluntary, and I am lucky.

And so this series will be about changing my frame of mind, shedding the trappings of wealth, figuring out the most simple and basic comforts, and lessening my dependence on money and machines and the traditional economy. This will be about discovering my humanity, opting out of the industrial society as much as I can, and preparing for a much more harsh and trying future. It will also be about finding the joy in all of this, and acknowledging the challenges and hardships, and hopefully this series won’t slip into something insulting to people who are experiencing true, involuntary poverty. That’s one of my greatest concerns here, that I don’t act blithe in the face of all those who experience a poverty that I’ve never come close to experiencing.

This is going to be, then, about me attempting to learn well how to be poor, to share the attitudes and ideas that strike me as particularly helpful, and hopefully to get some good advice and feedback from readers. As such, I encourage comments and have been heartened and grateful for the comments already received. I think there’s a lot of value in the work of learning to be poor. I hope, ultimately, that this series reflects that, helps bring a few of you along the path with me, and facilitates others sharing their knowledge with me and other readers here.

More to come soon.

How To Be Poor: An Argument for Voluntary Poverty — Part Two   19 comments

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

In this introduction and in the coming series of How To Be Poor posts, you’ll find that I’m arguing for voluntary poverty, as opposed to voluntary simplicity. This is deliberate. I don’t advocate for voluntary simplicity, at least not in the way it’s commonly thought about, because it often deals in a very American middle class form of simplicity. That sort of simplicity isn’t necessarily about being poor or even using less energy and resources, but is much more rooted in a particular and popular myth I feel needs to be better addressed in our society.

To get there, I want to talk about the last couple days. I arrived in Portland Friday evening, after a day of taking care of chickens, hauling wood and mucking out pig stalls, and my life has been anything but simple in the previous 24 hours. As is my tendency, I made some scattered and last minute plans with a variety of friends, trying to place different people in different time slots on a moment’s notice, texting and calling and changing plans, then changing them back, then coming up with something entirely different. It’s a ridiculous way to live, and I’m tired for it, and I want to take a nap except I feel I need to write a blog post and, in a few hours, I’m supposed to meet two friends at the bar.

Throughout all of this, I’ve been spending money and utilizing complicated machinery at every turn: texting and calling a variety of people with my old and out of date cell phone that still is an intensely complicated and energy-heavy device; conducting that texting and calling over a massive, industrialized infrastructure; driving my car around town, often meeting people at the last minute, burning gasoline and taking advantage of a system of roadways that’s insanely subsidy-dependent, devouring incredible amounts of resources and energy; sitting in over-heated commercial buildings and drinking craft-brewed beer and micro-roasted coffee, all the product of energy-intensive processing systems and often using ingredients shipped from long distances; eating prepared, industrial food products that require, again, massive amounts of energy and resources, as well as the enslavement and abuse of animals and the degradation of human workers throughout the supply chain. I’ve been in town less than 24 hours, and I’ve already done all this, engaging these systems for my own comfort and pleasure and convenience.

I and many of the people here in Portland understand the horror and unsustainability of these systems. They understand at an intellectual level that it’s a dead-end route, bringing misery and devastation with it wherever it establishes a presence. They’ve read the literature and heard the lectures and marched in the protests. They’ve chanted about the 99% and agitated against social injustice and bemoaned the easy destruction of our environment. And when I write “they,” I include myself in that designation, both as someone who is here in the city now and as someone who has lived here in years past and happily partaken in all these same devastating systems.

Understanding the shortcomings and terrors of these systems, many of the people here advocate for and desire different systems. They don’t want to be a participant in these horrors and want, instead, alternatives to the dominant paradigm. Due to this collective yearning, Portland has come to be a city particularly adapt at telling a certain kind of story—a story that we hear often, from a variety of well-meaning people and a variety of politicians who may or may not be well-meaning, but are almost certainly self-serving. I think of this as the myth of the sustainable middle class, and I’m well versed in the story.

Originally I wrote out a long list of the components that make up this story, but I actually found a much more concise summary in the lede of an article over at AlterNet. The story, therefore, goes something like this: “Fossil fuels are going to disappear, whether we like it or not. Petroleum, natural gas, and coal are becoming scarcer, harder to extract and a greater danger to the global climate. If we proceed with business-as-usual, energy companies will take advantage of increasing scarcity to dominate the world economy by vacuuming up more money from the 99%. They will be able to ally with military and financial institutions to construct an energy-military-financial complex that could eventually reduce most of the rest of us to a form of debt peonage. On the other hand, if we could possibly elect a government that does what governments do best – build infrastructure – we can avoid a world of global warming and economic collapse by building enough wind farms, solar panels, and geothermal systems to power our economy and ignite a sustainable, broad-based period of economic growth. Of course, this will require a sea-change in the direction of the political system, along the lines of the Occupy movement, but there is too much at stake to throw up our hands in despair.”

This is a fine, compelling, and horribly destructive story. It’s a story that provides ease of mind to every one of us who has a weakness for all the comforts that the dominant system provides us while simultaneously tearing apart our planet and normalizing cruelty toward billions of humans and non-human creatures alike. This story—this myth—is dangerous because, while it provides the illusion of personal responsibility by telling us that we need a massive effort “along the lines of the Occupy movement” to elect a government that will provide us this utopian future, it ultimately absolves us of all responsibility for our current reality by assuring us that “we can avoid a world of global warming and economic collapse by building enough wind farms, solar panels, and geothermal systems to power our economy and ignite a sustainable, broad-based period of economic growth.” In other words, if we find ourselves facing an impoverished future of environmental devastation, catastrophic climate change, and dramatically reduced standards of living, and failing public health, it’s not because we dove full bore into the easy lives of massive overconsumption and resource depletion, but because we failed to elect the correct elites and thus were the victim of being denied our birthright—our outsized, yet still somehow sustainable existence of crass consumption, easy luxury and unending comfort.

This is the sort of storytelling that keeps us from honestly addressing our very pressing problems. As long as we continue to think that we’re above this planet and its physical processes—that human ingenuity, a phrase I’m quite sick of, somehow places us outside of and unbeholden to the laws of physics—we’re going to look for and assume easy answers, and we’re going to suffer as a result. The sooner we realize that we are of this planet, a part of it, a species upon it like every other species upon it, and that we must work within the same natural and physical realities as these other species do, the sooner we can begin to live well and improve the outlook of our future. If we’re going to live sustainably, then that means living within the planet’s natural flows of energy and using the planet’s resources at a sustainable rate—and using a small enough percentage that the planet is still able to support the billions of other plants and animals that help make up the healthy and functioning ecosystems upon which we depend. That means using orders of magnitude less energy and resources than we do now, which means a wholesale change in the way the populations of industrialized nations live.

This doesn’t mean building a huge infrastructure of solar panels and wind farms and geothermal systems and then using all that energy to pay the craftswoman down the street $20 an hour to make knick-knacks out of biodegradable, corn-based plastic and FSC-certified wood. That’s the absurd fantasy world of the sustainable middle class. A real sustainable world would mean that the populations of industrialized nations live much more like the populations of what we charmingly refer to as “third world” nations. It means living very basically, living poor, radically downsizing our lives and our resource and energy usage, and figuring out how to do that well. It can be done well and it can still provide a relatively comfortable and enjoyable life. The sooner we realize that and dedicate ourselves to the process of learning that, the better off we’ll all be.

If, instead, we continue to tell ourselves stories about a magical, sustainable future in which we all have electric cars and the ability to travel vast distances in small amounts of time and for little money, we all have well-paying jobs in which we don’t actually create things of use, all the energy is there for the taking so long as we elect the proper government that’s willing to build the proper infrastructure, or that so long as our coffee is microroasted and our beer is microbrewed, our grocery stores are locally owned and stocked with industrially-produced but organic food, and that the new wing of the local co-op was made out of cob and recycled wine bottles, then we can continue to indulge in outsized luxury and comfort and everything will be fine—well, then, we’re going to dive as full bore into our future disaster as we have into careless energy and resource depletion. As fantastic as I think a building made out of cob and recycled wine bottles is, it’s not going to allow us to otherwise live our lives unchanged. That’s a bedtime story that’s putting us to sleep at the exact time we most need to be wide awake.

This is the difference, in my mind, between voluntary poverty and voluntary simplicity. Voluntary simplicity seems very much to me a movement co-opted by the myth of the sustainable middle class. Poverty was not seen as particularly attractive, so instead it became simplicity. You can still buy your way to happiness, it’s just a slightly different happiness than what the mainstream prescribes. Voluntary poverty, on the other hand, is brutally honest. There’s no getting around the word poverty—it means less money, less energy, less resources. It means doing without and making do. It means you can’t buy your way out of your predicament, and that instead you have to learn how to live in a fundamentally different way. It means less comfort and luxury, and learning how to live well with that.

Voluntary simplicity, in other words, is the electric car. Voluntary poverty is walking to where you need to go. Walking is honesty. The electric car is storytelling. That’s the difference, and it’s a critical one.

When I wrote my post about Portland a couple months ago, that storytelling is what I was referring to. A big part of the reason I find it so frustrating is because I’ve believed that story. I’ve acted out that story, lived my life according to it. I’ve spent much of my life beholden to it, indulging in it, and I look back on that with a certain amount of chagrin. As frustrating as that can be for me, though, it also needs to be a source of education—an awareness which I use to push myself further into voluntary poverty, into what seems a more appropriate way of living. Every time I return to this city—this city that I really do, in many ways, love—I find myself slipping back into that story and the easy comforts it provides. I do this with a mix of awareness and abandon, sometimes with the personal understanding that I am allowing myself this comfort and that, while not benign or ideal, it is a reality I’m acquiescing to at that moment. However, that can’t be the end of the story. That in itself is a luxury and indulgence, and it can very easily become the same indulgence with which we entertain the myth of the sustainable middle class. At that point it becomes dangerous, self-defeating and a threat to a life well lived.

This as well, then, is the context of my current work. And that is going to be much the context of this series of posts on voluntary poverty. I’m at the beginning of a very specific and personal journey. I think there are lessons I’ve already learned that will be helpful to others, and I suspect I’ll learn many more lessons that will be of further help. In part three of this introduction, I’ll talk more about my personal situation, my plans for the future, how I think that relates to my readers, and my specific plans for this series going forward.

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.

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