April 9, 2006 – A bright vision of a future based on freedom, harmony with each other and nature, and sustainable existence instead of grotesque overconsumption.
By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond
Awakening as the day’s first rays of sunlight brighten my bedroom, I dress hurriedly and run downstairs. Even though it’s a Saturday, I’m eager to get to “work.” Passing through the kitchen on my way to the back door, I notice that my wife, Anna, has already made some coffee. Pouring myself a cup, I take it with me as I head out the back door on my way to my workshop. My workshop is where I work. I’ve been self employed as a furniture maker for a couple of years now, and presently I’m working on a fine dresser for my neighbor, Sam. As I cross the yard on the way to my workshop, I see Anna tending our garden. Our young son William is feeding our small flock of chickens and other animals, intermittently playing with our two beautiful dogs.
We’ve had so many tomatoes this year that we’ve been trading them to the neighbors for their surplus produce. It’s been absolutely marvelous to enjoy such a variety of fresh, organic produce in this abundant year. I still recall the tasteless, wax-like produce we used to buy in the commercial grocery stores years ago, thinking that was normal. I’d never shop in another grocery store for produce after tasting what I and my neighbors can produce.
In addition to tomatoes, our garden produces several dozen other types of fruits, vegetables, beans, and herbs. Besides corn that we acquire from local farmers, we feed our chickens food scraps that we would otherwise throw away. In return our chickens produce the best tasting eggs imaginable, their poop is a surprisingly good fertilizer, and they are effective pest controllers. In all, our plot of land produces about half our food. The other half comes from my talent as a furniture maker. The dresser I’m making for Sam will provide us with meat from his farm for several months.
I used to work in Manhattan as an accountant for a large firm, where I was paid a large salary. My wife and I owned a great condo, a nice car, and had all the trendiest gadgets. We dined in the finest restaurants, went to Broadway shows, and occasionally flew first class to Europe. We really thought we were “fulfilled.” One day, while reading about the “downshifting” trend in Europe, I realized just how unfulfilling our life really was. I also came to appreciate how little control we had over our lives. I was totally dependent on my employer to maintain our precarious existence. Without my high paying job, we’d promptly be forced to give up our nice condo, car, and luxurious living. I discussed these thoughts with my wife, but it took many months for the truth of my words to sink in to both of us. We weren’t “living” in any real sense; we were existing. Worse, we were not in control of our lives, but existed at the whim of the executives controlling my firm. After much talk, we sold our condo and car, moved to rural Kentucky, and bought an old house with some land. It was a major transition for us, especially since we didn’t know a soul there, but the lifestyle quickly grew on us. The most surreal thing about our new life was the absence of stress about finances, job security, noise, crime, etc. I daresay, we had unwittingly found paradise. While we never thought about having children when we lived in Manhattan, somehow, living in the country made childrearing seem like the most natural thing in the world, and it wasn’t long after we moved to that paradise that Anna became pregnant with our first child.
Today we largely support ourselves. We produce much of our own food. My talent is in great demand. I currently have orders for half a dozen pieces of furniture from my neighbors, all in exchange for products of their labor. I no longer have any fear about my job security.
Moreover, we’ve shunned much of the materialism we once regarded as essential to living. We don’t subscribe to cable television; our television is used only for watching movies on DVDs which we share amongst our community. We got rid of our fancy car and bought an old pickup truck, but we rarely even drive that because pretty much everything we need is near enough that we can use our bicycles. We have no technological gadgets, not even a mobile phone. We have a computer and a dialup Internet connection, which we use for e-mail and reading news online. Our life is much simpler than it was, but we are happier. Looking back, it’s surprising how much stress came from having to acquire and maintain all those gadgets we thought were so vital. Besides working, we spend a lot of time talking to each other, visiting with our friendly neighbors, playing cards with them, and reading books that we also share amongst our community. Even our limited dependence on our neighbors has reintroduced us to the concept of tolerance for others’ differences. Anna is now learning to knit sweaters from one of our neighbors, whom in New York we would have considered too odd to associate with. And now my brother, who is worried about his own job security, has decided to move here. We’re looking for a house for him now, and it will be wonderful to have him and his wife living near us.
Responding to my essay titled The End of Civilization, some people suggested I should write about the solutions I referred to in passing. The foregoing fiction is meant to introduce readers of this essay to what I see as one solution to the many crises facing humanity and our planet. In a nutshell, my solution to what ails us and our planet is this: reject consumerism, globalization, corporatism, and government, and return to localized, productive, community-oriented, sustainable living. The purpose of this essay is not to condemn, criticize, or judge anyone, but to get people to open their minds to the possibility of a different way of living than what they’ve been taught to pursue. Although I frequently refer to the United States, much of what I have to say applies to the whole industrialized world.
The United States economy today largely revolves around consumption. Everywhere one turns in this country they are bombarded with messages telling them to consume, consume, consume. One can even see such advertising today on the risers of steps in subway stations! And we have responded as prodded, consuming to no end. But are we happy? I don’t think so. In fact, it seems that the people I’ve known to consume the most are the least happy. It’s as if their consumerism is a surrogate for happiness.
By contrast, enormous satisfaction comes from producing something, especially if the product embodies one’s own special talent or skill or is inspired by one’s own initiative. This, of course, is the opposite from conditions in the United States today. Listening to people talk about their jobs, it seems that most people in this country hate their jobs. Can you blame them? They are not actually producing anything of value, unless one considers working as a retail sales clerk, serving food in a restaurant, or riding telephones on a cube farm to have great value. In order to produce something of real value, one needs a skill, and possessing such a skill affords one a sense of self worth and job security. I’ll bet plumbers enjoy more job satisfaction than stock brokers.
Although people consume and consume, few, it seems, question whether their consumption is making them happier, or whether it might actually be making them unhappier. For example, you buy a mobile phone and it comes with an allotment of minutes each month and a two-year contract. Now, in order to get the maximum value out of your purchase, you feel pressure to use your full allotment of minutes, but at the same time you fear exceeding that allotment because you’ll get reamed. Later you decide you want to get a different mobile phone service, but too bad, you’re trapped in a two-year contract. Mobile phones are certainly convenient, but think back before we had them. We also didn’t have to worry about receiving phone calls at unappreciated times, getting work-related calls at home, remembering to pay another monthly bill, using up our allotted minutes, or being locked in a contract. Or take that latest trendy gadget you bought. Did it work perfectly, or did you pull your hair out trying to get it to work satisfactorily? And how did you feel when, right after you spent your hard-earned money on that gadget, a better model came out at a lower price? Six months later, was it sitting dormant on a shelf in a closet? Might you have been happier if you simply hadn’t bought it in the first place? Consider that if you had not bought that gadget, you might have experienced less stress and have more money in the bank or less debt on your credit card today.
Obviously, we need to consume some things, such as food, in order to survive. Clothes to wear are nice too. But needless consumption, either because we’re programmed by advertising to consume or because we’re searching in vain for something to make us happy, merely increases our debt and depletes our planet’s vital resources. If instead of indiscriminately consuming everything in sight, we consumed only what we really needed, and then produced ourselves that which we consumed, we’d be a lot happier and wealthier, and our planet would thank us for it.
I’m not suggesting that we should each manufacture everything we use. What I’m saying is that we should look to ourselves first; if we cannot provide what we need, then we should look to our neighbors; then our town; then we should reconsider if we really need the thing; finally, and only as a last resort, look outside our local community. Imports should be the exception, not the norm. Some people might argue that imports result in cheaper products. This is precisely the problem with our way of life. Because everything is too cheap we consume and consume. If things cost more, we’d consume only what we needed, and when we did consume locally produced products, it would benefit our families and neighbors, not faceless corporations in faraway lands.
Twice in the last year I’ve seen in local grocery stores garlic from China for sale! Think about that for a moment. This tiny bag of garlic, which is being sold for about one dollar, traveled more than five thousand miles from China to California. Does that make sense, especially when the town of Gilroy, California, just four hundred miles away, is a major producer of garlic? This is an example of what’s so terribly wrong with globalization. It may well be cheaper in the cold, hard accounting of dollars and cents to farm garlic in China and ship it all the way to California, but what about the precious oil consumed and extra pollution generated by shipping it? What about the jobs lost in the United States? Just because we don’t have a good way to quantify these costs doesn’t mean that their cost is zero, that we can simply ignore them. I think most people would intuitively agree that shipping garlic from China to California makes no sense. This story about garlic is a trivial example, but multiplied by thousands of other products being shipped and sold in fantastic volumes and the problem becomes considerably more serious.
Imagine, on the other hand, that you exchanged some tomatoes you grew in your yard for garlic that your next door neighbor grew in his yard. How much more efficient and sustainable is this hypothetical scenario, compared to the absurd real-life scenario described above?
One of the greatest tragedies of modern America is the decimation of its small town “Main Streets” through globalized competition. It used to be that a small business owner would set up a business in their local community, the employees of this business would be family members or neighbors, the profits would be reinvested in the local community. The prices might have been higher than those of globalized businesses, but a higher level of service would have been provided as well. Such businesses fostered community stability and created a decent standard of living for generation after generation. Many of the people who once owned their own small businesses in such small towns now work for the very globalized corporations that helped put them out of business. In our consumerist frenzy to find the lowest prices we have unwittingly put ourselves out of business, so to speak.
We could return to the days where we shopped in local stores, owned by our neighbors, and which sold locally manufactured goods. We can afford to pay higher prices to local merchants by shopping more judiciously, by recognizing that there is intangible value in dealing with someone we know, and by appreciating the benefits afforded to our communities by such local businesses: community stability, increased standard of living, educating our young about responsibility. It’s our choice.
For the last century our technological innovations have helped increasingly isolate us from one another. Automobiles have afforded each person a private protective cocoon, shielding them from having to learn to interact civilly with others, as one must do on public transit. Video and music players have permitted people to enjoy movies and music at home instead of having to be respectful of and courteous to others at the theater. Telephones and e-mail have made it possible for people to avoid face-to-face communication, or confrontation, as the case may be. I have to confess that I’m guilty of excessive reliance on some these modern technologies myself. I use e-mail extensively, and for years I have preferred to watch movies at home. In my defense, however, e-mail is more efficient for transmitting and receiving detailed information, such as work specifications, and my preference for watching movies at home is due to the exorbitant cost of movie tickets compared to the low price of DVDs, not to mention the barrage of advertisements I’m forced to suffer in the movie theater. I would, however, happily give up these technologies in exchange for being a member of a real community.
These technologies have insidiously undermined our sense of community, without which there can be no tolerance, empathy, sharing, or charity. Indeed, for the last century what we have seen in our society is a gradual erosion of these traits of civil society. Instead of making “community” our personal responsibility, we’ve “outsourced” it to the government, relying on government to establish and enforce our moral boundaries, negotiate and mediate our relationships, and provide support to those members of society who need help. But can government really do as good a job at these things as a genuine community comprised of compassionate and engaged people?
Communities come in may forms. Some are geographical – that’s what most people think of when they think of the word “community” – and some are abstract, such as the “gay community” (I’m still trying to figure out what this is, by the way, as well as what is this “gay agenda” I keep hearing about). But the essential characteristic of a community is that it’s a group of people who voluntarily choose to associate with one another and work together, whether as a town, a neighborhood, a multi-generational family, or a hippie commune. Human beings are social creatures. We should want to associate with each other, and we are more productive and strong when we work together. That so many of us, myself included, elect to isolate ourselves is a symptom of the toxic and unhealthy social environment that we live in today. I blame this toxicity on our lazily substituting government, corporations, and consumerism for actual community, which takes hard work and a willingness to compromise to maintain.
Should we choose to return to a genuine community-oriented way of life, I think we’d all be a lot happier. In order for this to work, however, we also need to be willing to be more tolerant of each other, especially those of us who are the most different; it’s easy to tolerate those who are like you. Not only does diversity make life, particularly our social life, more interesting, but an outgrowth of tolerance is peace and harmony, something we desperately need today.
Governments and corporations seek only to dominate, control, and exploit people. Governments do it for power, while corporations do it for profit. Either because of forethought or spontaneous discovery, governments and corporations have for a century-and-a-half been wed in a symbiotic relationship that serves the principal goals of each, at the expense of people and the environment. It could be said that governments and corporations are the antithesis of life.
Today the governments of several of the world’s most industrialized countries are running amok, terrorizing their citizens, trampling their rights, seemingly desperate in their pursuit of power. As our own tolerance for each other has diminished, government has happily assumed the role of brutal enforcer in our “zero tolerance” society.
Similarly, corporations are engaged in a free-for-all exploitation of the planet and its people, aided and abetted by governments, for the profit of a few corporate executives and wealthy shareholders, and most seriously, without any regard to the future of our world. The problem with corporations today is that they no longer seem to have any restraint. The attitude seems to be not just that “greed is good,” but that if they aren’t as rapacious as they can possibly be, then one of their competitors will be. It’s almost as if corporations are in a war with one another to see which can be the more exploitative.
What can we do about this state of affairs? I really don’t know. Governments and corporations hold all the cards today. For now, though, we still own our own minds. The first step in restoring the preeminence of life over government and corporations is to recognize how much they control us. As I alluded in the preface above, when we buy into the “American Dream,” we actually become subservient to the government and corporations. We don’t need a fancy house, a fancy car, or a mobile phone with a built-in camera and Internet access to be happy. Sometimes, less is actually more.
Once we recognize that we’re being programmed to behave in ways that benefit governments and corporations, to the detriment of our very selves, and honestly address the question of what would truly make us happy, maybe then we can start taking steps in the right direction. Timothy Leary once said, “turn on, tune in, drop out.” This maxim is amazingly relevant today, and is the first step toward a healthier tomorrow.
Even if you are not willing to “drop out,” or live “off the grid,” simply examining how much governments and corporations control your daily existence will be instructive. For example, how much time do you spend in any given day complying with government rules or dealing with corporations? Just yesterday I spent about three hours preparing my income taxes, on top of the ten hours I had previously invested in that task. I also had to obtain a loan from a corporation to pay my income taxes to the government (Alas, I poorly managed my finances last year). And, in the past week I’ve had to pay bills to six different corporations. In light of all that utterly unproductive effort, I ought to be asking myself if what I’m getting in return is worth the effort.
It would be nice if we could “opt-out” of supporting the government through paying taxes. Unfortunately, the government is probably not going to go along with that idea. But we can look for legal ways to reduce our taxes. For example, by living a simpler lifestyle and augmenting our income by growing our own food, we can take a job that pays less and thereby pay less tax, while increasing our independence and sense of self-efficacy. Bartering with your neighbors is a good way to avoid taxes too, as there are no practical means for the government to tax bartering. Sharing things with your neighbors, besides fostering a sense of community, reduces spending and hence, sales taxes.
“Participation” in the political process through voting is a facade. Not only are some elections in the United States blatantly rigged today, but it really doesn’t matter who you elect to office anyway. Once in office, a politician is beholden to those who pay his or her campaign bills, which are primarily corporations and their lobbyists, and they are always working behind the scenes, pushing their agendas, not just on election day. Thus, regardless of what platform a candidate runs on, once in office, their platform quietly shifts to that which best serves their corporate sponsors. It’s a waste of time to vote. People who vote are consoling themselves with a false sense of participation, when in fact, their votes are irrelevant. If you want to participate in the political process, then give money to organizations that will lobby continuously on your behalf. Recognizing this reality of American politics, I stopped voting a decade-and-a-half ago and have since given money to organizations, such as Greenpeace, the NRDC, the NRA and the ACLU, to lobby on my behalf. Not playing the government’s election game is wonderfully liberating. Perhaps if enough people stopped “participating” in the political system, the mere lack of participants would send the loudest message of all.
I used to ridicule home schooling as quackery or paranoid anti-government posturing. Today I’m an ardent fan of home schooling. Besides the now obvious failure of public schools to actually educate students – the United States is nearly last among industrialized countries – it’s clear to me now that public schools are increasingly used as a vehicle for inculcating in young minds conformity, as well as devotion and obedience to the state. If I were to have children, I would absolutely school them at home. In fact, collective home schooling of several neighborhood children would be a great example of a community working together. As an interesting aside, governments seem to be waking up to the threat posed by free-thinking graduates of home schools, and are now starting to impose oppressive regulations on home schoolers, apparently with the hope of driving them out of “business.”
As for rejecting corporate influence from your life, it’s easy: simply don’t give them your money. Before spending money, ask yourself if you really need the thing or service you’re contemplating buying. When you do spend your money, spend it at local businesses as much as possible. In cases where you are forced to give your money to corporations – such as by laws requiring you to buy automobile insurance – then find a way to minimize the amount of money you give them. Buy a cheap car for which you can skip the comprehensive and collision coverage.
Throughout time and place, indigenous people have usually developed the wisdom to live in harmony with their world. Most likely this wisdom ensued from their observation over a long period of time that communities that failed to live within their means perished. Our world today is much bigger than the confining worlds that indigenous people lived in long ago. Thanks to globalization, today it’s possible to create the illusion of limitless bounty. If we live beyond our means in America, we can simply import more resources from elsewhere on the globe, and never mind the impact outside our borders. Out of sight, out of mind. We live here in blissful ignorance.
Few people are aware when they buy a neat technological gadget, that toxins from the factory in China that manufactured that gadget pollute the river that the local people get their drinking water from. Rural people in China are suffering more and more to fuel our consumptive way of life. Yet because we don’t see these costs, we don’t realize that our way of life is not sustainable. One of the benefits of a localized economy, versus a globalized economy, is that it’s far easier for people to do a cost-benefit analysis of their systems of production.
Of course, in so many ways our exploitation of our environment is unsustainable. We are obviously overly dependent on fossil fuels, which are rapidly being depleted and which produce a lot of pollution. We can reduce our consumption of fossil fuels by traveling and transporting less, which implies more localized living, working, and production. Consuming fewer manufactured goods also reduces consumption of fossil fuels. Our oceans are dying from pollution, but mainly from overfishing. Fishing methods, such as rapaciously destructive bottom trawling and the use of indiscriminately lethal drift nets are killing the oceans. While such efficient fishing methods may make a corporate accountant’s heart jump with joy, how long will it be before the oceans are devoid of life? People have to eat, but they need to do so in a way that can be sustained. We burn down Amazon rain forests to make way for cattle ranches so that fast food restaurants can manufacture cheap, toxic burgers. What if we obtained beef from a local farmer instead and ground it ourselves to make burgers? Would that not be cheaper overall, more healthful, and more sustainable? Would that not benefit our local community? Would that not have a less adverse impact on our planet?
If we grew produce in backyard gardens instead of importing it from abroad, it would obviously be far more efficient energy-wise because we would not have to ship that produce all over the world, nor even make trips in the car to buy it. What’s more, grown without pesticides, such produce would be more healthful. It would be tastier and probably more nutritious, as well. By recycling organic waste in a compost pile and combining it with waste from small animals, such as chickens, we can create a perpetually sustainable ecosystem in our own backyards. Replicating this model over the entire planet would substantially improve our harmony with our world, and go a long way toward making our existence sustainable.
I hope the foregoing essay has slightly stimulated the imagination of some readers. Obviously, my point of view is biased by my negative view of government and corporations. I didn’t always harbor such negative biases, but over time I have seen the light.
Do I practice what I preach? Well, I’m working on it. Being a product of the very world I inveigh against, it’s hard for me to simply change overnight, but I am working on it. I am self employed as a craftsman of sorts: I make a comfortable living at home as a computer programmer writing software for a local company that manufactures air pollution monitoring equipment. I do own a house in rural Kentucky and I plan to set up a backyard garden and try to become as self sufficient as possible. I’m always looking for ways to minimize my impact on the environment. I do minimize my association with government and corporations to the extent possible. I do try to shop at local businesses instead of stores belonging to globalized corporations. I do have a mobile phone, but it has no camera or Internet access, it’s a prepaid phone which I bought for emergencies, I hardly ever use it, and I would not miss it if I got rid of it. And I do shun consumerism, except for my fondness for DVDs, but as I said, I could live without even those.
What about people in far off places, such as Africa? What can be done to help them survive? I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers. Perhaps if we just quit meddling in the affairs of such people and magnanimously assisted them when they asked for assistance, they could figure out their own solutions.