Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why Shorter Showers Matter

I love to read anything that Derrick Jensen writes. The fact that he is so controversial is all the better. His Orion articles typically generate hundreds of comments ("Forget Shorter Showers" has over 300 comments now) and they end up being as interesting to read as the articles themselves. He gets people riled up and thinking, and I like that.

This past week I read Jensen's book, What We Leave Behind (co-authored with Aric McBay). The main premise running through the book is the same as the one in the essay "Forget Shorter Showers"--that our personal actions are inconsequential. We can take shorter showers and switch to compact fluorescent bulbs but we shouldn't deceive ourselves into thinking we've done anything of consequence for the planet. I wholeheartedly disagree. I believe our personal actions represent the single most effective means we have available for bringing about societal change.

In What We Leave Behind, Jensen points out that even if we (in the US) were to reduce our personal waste to zero, we would each only be eliminating 1660 pounds per year. And meanwhile, our per capita share of industrial waste, nearly 26 tons, would be unchanged. So what would our personal actions have accomplished? Virtually nothing. The system would still be churning out literally tons upon tons of waste.

However, there seems to be a naivete on Jensen's part in believing that the individual is not connected to the industrial system that churns out these monumental piles of waste. It's as if for Jensen, the personal is the personal and the industrial is the industrial and never the twain shall meet. But as I've pointed out previously, we are the Machine. There's no separation between us and the Machine.

If Company A manufactures a part for Company B, and Company B uses that part in a machine that it sells to Company C, and Company C uses that machine to make a product that it sells to us "consumers", then what happens when we stop buying that product? There's no demand for the product, therefore no demand for the machine, therefore no need for the parts. The industrial waste generated from that whole stream of manufacturing is eliminated because of the actions of the "consumers".

Now, instead of talking about this in terms of waste, let's talk about it in terms of money. Why does industry exist in the first place? The fundamental reason is obviously the profit motive. Industry exists in order to profit.

How best can we influence the actions of industry? Yes, we can stage protests and sit-ins and chain ourselves to trees, but wouldn't the more logical approach be attacking the very lifeblood of the industry--its profits? If it can't profit from what it does then it can't exist (I'm consciously choosing to ignore, for this post, the whole war machine as well as the current strategy of our government and the Fed to create money out of thin air). If we as "consumers" change our behaviors and stop consuming we destroy profits and an industry's viability. It filters all the way up.

Now maybe shorter showers and compact fluorescents don't represent the best examples of this. How about we take some of the things from my list "Personal Ways to Disengage from the System": sell your car, don't buy processed foods, build passive solar homes, give up gadgets, use a clothesline, don't use airplanes, stay where you are. If you do any of those things you affect a whole stream of manufacturing practices. Granted, "you" the mere individual aren't going to make much of an impact, but collectively we can have an enormous impact.

I find it so ironic that Jensen believes his fight for the neighborhood patch of rainforest is more significant that the "shorter showers" approach, when he makes it very clear that so far their fight has been in vain. The only thing that has stopped the developer is, you guessed it, the economy. Nothing they have done (he and his neighbors) has stopped the guy. The only thing that has stopped him is that the venture has suddenly turned unprofitable. I'm not implying that activism is pointless--of course we have to stand up to these people. We have to try everything in our power to stop them. But perhaps the shorter showers approach is actually the more effective one. The developer stopped because consumers weren't buying.

Maybe even two or three years ago the shorter showers approach didn't seem like a particularly viable one. But now, with the economy teetering on the brink, it should become apparent just how much power we "consumers" have. The power not to buy. The power not to consume. It doesn't sound like much at first blush, but seriously look around at what's happening as the economy continues down this slippery slope. "Not buying" is starting to reshape the world.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Is the Simple Life "Too Much Work"?

This has been bugging me lately. I can't tell you the number of times I've gotten "Oh, but that sounds like so much work!" when I describe something I do to take back responsibility for my own affairs. And it happens when I'm talking about the simplest of things, like making my own laundry detergent or brewing a batch of chai tea.

Chai involves peeling and chopping some ginger and dumping it in a pot of simmering water along with whole cloves, cardamom seeds, and crushed cinnamon bark. You walk away for 15 minutes, come back and take it off the heat, add the tea, let it steep for five minutes. Add milk, add sugar, gently heat. That's it.

Laundry detergent involves melting a bar of laundry soap in water on the stove, adding it to a five-gallon bucket, adding borax, washing soda, and water and stirring. That's it.

For these people, apparently, it's far less "work" to hop in their cars, drive themselves to a coffee shop, find a spot, go in, stand in line and order their drink, forking over their four dollars in the process. Or to get in their car, drive to the store, find a spot, go in, grab a jug of detergent, pay, leave and drive back home. I don't get it.

So I've been thinking about this. When people say "That sounds like so much work" what's really going on? What's really meant by that? Are people so averse to work that even the tiniest effort is seen as "too much"? Have people just become lazy? Or is something else going on?

I suspect it's less about effort and laziness than it is about perceived time pressures and the fact that for most people for most of each day they don't actually own their own time. They spend their days working for "The Man" and only have a few hours left at the end of the day that they can call their own. Who would want to spend that precious time working to make a pot of tea? Why not just hit the drive-through so you can flop on the couch and enjoy your own time?

When you don't work for "The Man" and you take responsibility for your own time then work becomes not work, but living. None of the things I do to be self-reliant ever feels like work to me. Yet all of the things I do for myself have economic value. They save me money that I don't need to go out and earn in the larger economy. The services I provide for myself represent thousands of hours per year that I don't need to spend working for someone else. And when I do those things for myself they just don't feel like work at all.

It's the "chop wood, carry water" thing. When I do the work myself I am present and involved, actively and reciprocally engaged. That's called "living". When I leave it to someone else (or to a machine) the thing, whatever it is, becomes just a commodity and I not only fail to appreciate it but I become diminished as well. Growing my own food or brewing tea involves me in the material world. I get such pleasure when I make chai, combining roots, seeds, buds, bark, leaves and sometimes twigs to make a delicious drink. I appreciate the amazing gifts of nature and the synergy that results from this particular combination of plants and plant parts. I even get emotional sometimes when I'm making chai. Would that ever happen in the Starbucks drive-through? I don't think so.

When people think that the simple life would be too much work, they're thinking from within a dysfunctional paradigm. I doubt that for much of our long history we even had a concept of "work". We simply lived. It's only in our recent history, once we created these things called "jobs", that life became oddly compartmentalized and we created the idea of "work". Work separated from the rest of life. How messed up is that?

If people were relieved of their time pressures and owned their own time again I don't think I'd be hearing "That's too much work" anymore. And if people quit working and began living again, I have a feeling there would actually be far more innovation, inspiration, and creativity being expressed. So much of our human potential seems to get wasted these days, but I believe human culture can flourish again if we can just, once and for all, break out of this mad consumer paradigm.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Personal Ways to Disengage from the System

I believe our personal actions matter more now than at any other point in history. I've become disillusioned with activism that aims a direct assault on the system. Rather I think it's the million and one little things we each can do that will play a significant role in toppling the system.

I sat down and brainstormed a list of little things we could each do. This was a quick exercise and one that stems from my own limited vantage point. I'd love to see what others would add to the list.

Grow your own fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, and seeds.
Grow herbs for medicinal, culinary, and cosmetic purposes.
Raise chickens, rabbits, bees, goats, sheep, etc. for fur, fiber, meat, eggs, dairy and honey.
Cook from scratch.
Don't buy processed foods.
Eat at home.
Buy from local growers what you can't grow yourself.
Join an organic CSA.
Buy grass-fed meats.
Reduce meat consumption.
Shop second-hand stores, flea markets, etc.
Barter, use free-cycle.
Become self-employed.
Don't invest in the market.
Loan within your community to support positive enterprises.
Don't charge interest except to cover inflation, if any.
Build passive-solar homes.
Heat with locally available fuels.
Swap seeds with neighbors, friends, family.
Use humanure.
Use graywater systems.
Collect rainwater. (Illegal where I live!)
Own your own water.
Sell your car.
Build with locally available materials (adobe, strawbales, stone, logs, etc.)
Salvage materials.
Give up gadgets (tv's, microwave ovens, dishwashers, cellphones, etc.)
Do it by hand (garden, kitchen, house, etc.).
Build a root cellar.
Learn to preserve foods.
Share excess produce.
Learn to build, repair and tinker.
Insist on home funerals and burials where legal.
Exercise and eat right.
Ferment foods.
Learn how to safely store drinking water.
Drip irrigate.
Conserve water.
Learn how to find water.
Go off grid.
Use permaculture principles, esp. create no waste.
Live in the smallest shelter that's practical.
Buy bulk grains, beans, spices, salt, etc. if they can't be grown or found locally.
Figure out what you can do without.
Learn how to make cheese, yogurt, soap, wine, herbal distillations, etc.
Raise your own sweeteners (honey, maple syrup, sorghum).
Plant for genetic diversity.
Learn how to build and maintain healthy soils.
Use a clothesline.
Learn how to identify wild edibles and incorporate into your diet, sustainably.
Forgo air conditioning.
Choose a climate suitable for human endeavors, one that doesn't require much artificial heating or cooling.
Learn to hunt, track, trap, and fish.
Learn to co-exist with the local critters (including the human ones).
Don't use airplanes.
Stay where you are.
Build strong communities.
Re-invent community canning kitchens, community grain mills, etc.
Finance nothing--no mortgages, no car loans, no lines of credit.
Don't use banks.
Help your neighbors.

The list could go on and on. Anything you do to take back responsibility for your own well-being and the well-being of your community is a step in the right direction. Small steps such as these may seem insignificant, but if you poke around the internet a bit, you'll see just how many people are waking up to the importance of these sorts of changes. Soon enough all of these little changes are going to add up and have an enormous impact. Just watch.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Can We Create a New Mythology?

Over the holiday break my son was re-watching the Lord of the Rings movies. I popped in at one point when he was watching the commentaries, and the director was mentioning that for Tolkien the ring symbolized the Machine. I don't think it accurately does however. In the Lord of the Rings you have the classic myth of the hero's quest, and the ultimate battle of good over evil. Even though the ring has the power to corrupt those who possess it, you still have a very clean dividing line between good and evil.

In the real world however, there is no clean dividing line between good and evil. There isn't an Us vs. the Machine. We are the Machine. The myth of the hero's quest doesn't apply to us any more. How can we go up against the Machine and seek to destroy it when we are totally enmeshed with it? To destroy it is to destroy ourselves. That's why I think so much of the activism of today has been futile. Real activism, in the form of the hero's quest, would lead to destruction of ourselves along with destruction of the Machine.

The Machine was cleverly built out of our own bodies and souls. Pick a part of the Machine you don't like and try to bring it down. What are the consequences? Suffering for you and me and all of our neighbors and friends and family members. That's because we are totally enmeshed in the Machine. Not happy with Wall Street? Bring down Wall Street and you may not have a job, or food may not be on the shelves at the store, or your dollars may be worthless to buy anything. Don't like oil and our dependence on carbon? Cut off our supplies of carbon fuels and transportation grinds to a halt, farming stops, people start chopping down every tree in sight to heat their homes, trade ceases and we all suffer. How about bringing down the pharmaceutical companies and the health care industry? Don't you know that sickness is big business? It's a truly sad state of affairs when the business of sickness is one of the healthiest parts of the economy. Knock out big pharma and all the companies that profit from sickness and the whole economy gets thrown off kilter, perhaps catastrophically. A hero's quest to bring down the Machine brings it down on our heads. It's not a myth that applies to us anymore. It can't be employed successfully.

But is there a new myth to replace it? The sad truth is we've been without a defining myth for quite some time. There is no deeper layer guiding our actions anymore. We have become automatons, mere cogs in the machine. We are deceived by the illusion of individual autonomy, thinking the million little decisions we make each day make us free. Those decisions are almost all in service to the Machine. We are decision-making cogs, decision-making consumers. But we're not free, and most decidedly not separate from the Machine.

A new myth would require true freedom. We have to become human again, thinking and acting with autonomy. A new myth would also bring back true connection. We've lost our ability to connect with anything beyond our immediate concerns. We need to connect with nature, with the larger rhythms of time, with the cycles of creation, with the cosmos, with other living beings.

A first step in evolving a new mythology has to be disengaging from the Machine. We can't bring it down. We can't toss it into Mount Doom. But we can begin to free ourselves. If we detach from the machine we can reclaim our autonomy, bit by bit. And eventually we won't be muddle-headed robots any more, but deeply aware free beings, full of dreams and visions, inspiration, artistry, love, creativity, hope, sincerity. As authentic beings we will be able to evolve a new myth. We can't do that enslaved as we are.