Checkmate

May 2, 2016 § 16 Comments

Streams of sunlight find every break in the tree canopy and beam downward, electrifying the dry leaf litter that covers the ground. Our steps are slow. My daughter is twenty five pounds and the hiking pack I carry her in is probably another five which makes the up and down slopes a significant physical endeavor. Staring always at the ground near my feet, the grays and browns flecked with green and lavender make a Renoir of the forest floor, and somewhere in that morass of color there are morel mushrooms. There must be.

We take a break on a shady hillside and my daughter walks about learning the world with her mother close behind. Bear cone sprouts in abundance from nearby oak roots tricking my eye for a quick moment, making me think I have stumbled onto a mushroom bonanza. Early settlers called it Squaw Root due to the fact that the native women used it medicinally for various menopausal or hemorhagic reasons. I prefer its other name. Bear cone doesn’t care what we call it. Every four years it rises to seed itself before continuing its parasitic relationship with whichever oak tree’s root system it has settled on. Maybe we should call it “Election Cone,” or “Democracy Root.” There are no more bears here to eat it, after all.

Warm days came too fast. The ticks have been worse than I have ever known them. I already have melons and summer squash planted in the garden. The climate will continue to erase established patterns, and we will continue to take mental notes on the small details of our surroundings hoping to figure out just where it is taking us. Not until a few days ago did enough rain come to cool our temperatures back to something close to normal, and the land seems grateful, lush, green.

There is a question I have wrestled with for years, and which I have at times presented in my writings here. That question is essentially this: How do we dismantle a thing on which we are reliant? Industrial civilization will destroy the ability of the planet to harbor life. Whether we look at climate change, topsoil loss, biodiversity loss, mass extinction, oceanic acidification and oxygen depletion, toxification of landbases, etc. we see an accelerating trend by which human industrial civilization is rendering the planet inhospitable to life, all in an attempt to boost the carrying capacity of the planet in regards only to homo sapien life. Some of these crises are so firmly established that there is seemingly no way to now cease them or to reverse the damage done. Others seem to still present a window of opportunity in which to intervene for the protection of viable habitat. Such interventions seem as though they must come in a form that accomplishes the near immediate halting of many if not all industrial processes, but also a dramatic alteration in the standing mythology people have concerning themselves, their societies, and where they as a species are to exist within the greater context of the living world. That is a tall order indeed.

Meanwhile, billions of human beings now rely on industrial systems to provide them with every single thing they require for survival, from basic water and sanitation to food, shelter, and medical care. How does one begin to convince these billions of people to destroy the systems they rely on?  How does one begin to convince these billions of people that it is, in fact, in their best interests to see that the permanence of the long term damage being wrought by these systems is not nearly worth the short term gains achieved by employing them?  If the billions of people were even thusly convinced, could they even do anything about it?  At what level are these billions thoroughly captive to the handfuls of humans who hold political and economic power? After all, knowing is nothing if cannot be followed by some level of doing. Is it fair to say that we are living in checkmate?  Have the powers that be already won the game? Is there any move left that the populace or even some subset could make that doesn’t already have a preset counter-move lying in wait that the powerful can successfully respond with?

At times it feels as if this is the case.

I have heard people question whether or not the rich and the powerful understand that the fate of the Earth includes them and their children as well. How is it that in boardrooms and government buildings the people who have various levels of control over the systems of capital and state do not find satisfaction with their wealth and power, and then having driven us so close to the brink take contentedness with their status and finally declare, “Enough!” Why do they not look at the faces of their grandchildren and finally push the big red button that grinds the assembly line to a halt and opens up that bit of space we need to remake the world in a way that doesn’t base itself on ecocide?

And then I think, perhaps we are not living in checkmate, but a stalemate. We are in a condition in which there is no plausible move for either side. This happens in chess when a player cannot make any move because each available option opens them up to certain loss. Looking on the human subplots that round the globe it often looks like this is our condition. The populace can make no move against the state or capital without opening themselves up to certain destruction by those forces. State and capital cannot unmake their machinations without opening themselves up to certain destruction by either the masses, or more likely, by those other members of the ruling cabals. Too many contingencies have been built into the system. Too many continuity of government plans.

Imagine an M.C. Escher sketch of a Mexican stand off with apocalyptic implications.

It is in this spirit that I suggest we are post ideological fidelity. Or more simply put, we must embrace the contradiction. In the broadest of terms, we must bite the hand that feeds, taking swings and jabs at the mechanics and infrastructure of industrial civilization even as we need it and liberally make use of it. We must ignore all wails and shrieks of “hypocrisy!” as purity has become impossible, and the commandments of logic and reason that were carved into stone during an age of expanding excess are turned on their head. The actions and behaviors that such times demand are not ever going to be palatable to a crowd whose notions of sensibility or righteousness were forged during an expanse of time when an increase in access to material goods was axiomatic.

To be blunt, what we need is for someone to shut this motherfucker down and to let the chips fall where they may no matter what that might mean, as long as it opens up some small possibility of a future in which the Earth can heal and the survivors, human and non, can establish themselves anew. This is the dark, adult truth as best as I can surmise it, and it is no less terrifying for me than for anyone else. My world orbits around a two year old girl. But all of my desire to see her grow into a happy and healthy women cannot convince me to look away from the abyss. I clutch her smallness and hold her deeply, knowing that the love that overflows from me for this small person is no different, no greater, no more important than the love that every parent has ever felt for their children. We walk hand in hand through the forest, and I wonder which is worse, industrial civilization collapsing tomorrow, or industrial civilization continuing unabated, thrashing and writhing as it burns up the last of the coal and the oil bringing us an ice free Arctic, drought, dust bowls, burned forests, dead oceans. What is my responsibility to her?

Catalhoyuk is often referred to as the “egalitarian civilization.” A neolithic settlement in what is now Turkey, it was active between 7500 and 5600 BC. The population probably rested around seven thousand people and peaked at perhaps ten thousand. What fascinates most people about Catalhoyuk is that there is no real evidence of a tiered society of classes. The interconnected network of mud brick rooms in which people resided offer no clues to a hierarchy or priestly class. More interestingly, the human remains found buried at Catalhoyuk reveal that women were as well fed as men. Buried remains do see to suggest that perhaps there was some sort of division of labor cut along gender lines, as the men are buried with stone axes and the women buried with spinning whorls.

This small civilization that existed on the boundary of the paleolithic era is the foil of anti-civ suggestion. When anti-civ proponents suggest that city based societies ultimately outstrip their land base with agriculture and inevitably create hierarchies which lead to social stratification, expansion, war, and ecological decimation, there are critics who counter, “But not at Catalhoyuk!”

Catalhoyuk is anthropologically interesting, however it is also not completely understood. Personally, I find this ancient city fascinating because it straddled the line between the inception and outright implementation of the civilized project. Murals uncovered on the walls of Catalhoyuk depict now extinct aurochs. Cattle skulls were mounted on the walls. The population of Catalhoyuk was not completely dependent upon agriculture. They grew wheat and barely and domesticated sheep, but they gathered fruits and nuts from the hills and their meat was primarily attained through hunting.

In a sense, Catalhoyuk is the half step between tribal and civilized living. Thought of in this way, it makes me wonder what such a half step would look like only moving in the opposite direction. If we were somehow able to uncivilize ourselves in a proactive fashion, what would the halfway point between here and there look like? Is such a proposition even remotely feasible? At Catalhoyuk, a thriving and unpoisoned wild still existed on the periphery. Food was still making itself in abundance beyond the city walls. Water wasn’t laden with the heavy metals and carcinogens of industry. The path towards civilization has so many emergency exits, and indeed, peoples around the world chose to walk through them when the efforts required to maintain a massive and dense city life was fully recognized. The Maya, the Hohokam, and the people of Gobekli Tepe are examples of such.

Abandoning civilization offers no easy exits. Indigenous tribes that still exist around the globe are constantly fighting to resist enclosure. Individuals who reside within the wealthy nations are falling ever so gradually under the iron grip of high technology while slowly their bodily integrity is assaulted by increasingly artificial food, man made carcinogens, radiation, and stress. The global poor are not quite so lucky, and suffer a brutal and merciless poverty of overcrowding, lack of sanitation, hunger, and hopelessness.

Optimists continually posit that there is a move we can yet make, something political or revolutionary whereby the ruling class can be ousted, and sane, empathetic and ecologically conscious people can be put in their place. In this, optimists are suggesting that if we can just coordinate and organize all of the human community, perhaps through social media and awareness campaigns, that there is some move left on the field to be played. At best they believe we can break the stalemate. At worst, they fail to realize, we already lost. Either the game is over and our opponents gloat, or we are deadlocked, staring down bewildered by the configuration of pieces while our opponents recognize the peril of our position and make their own plans for when the game board inevitably gets tossed from the table.

And that, my friend, is I believe our conundrum. There is no easy exit, no half way point on the road home to a sustainable and ecologically integrated way of living. There is a grinding and terminal lock which will only be upset by calamity. If this is truly our context, then I forgive now anyone who works to foment that upset. We are left without ethical or even seemingly rationally consistent options. Doing nothing is safe in the individual’s near term, and a death sentence generationally. Doing something means using the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house, and doing so unflinchingly, even if they are slave-made, purchased from Wal-Mart and wrapped in so much plastic. I forgive the gasoline used to sabotage the pipeline. I forgive the miles driven to dismantle the power plant. I forgive the hours spent wearing a suit and tie working for quarterly gains when the income is spent on bolt cutters, angle grinders, sledgehammers, or acetylene torches.

Nothing makes sense. We don’t have the luxury of purity.

Three feet into the wet clay Earth, my shovel is pulled by a suction of water and weight, and I fight it upwards before dumping the saturated brown mud along the fence line. When the shape of the hole matches the shape of the black pond liner, I wipe my brow. It is May first, and the sun is oppressive in the clearing where we have our garden. Soon our baby ducks will live outside and use this pond for water in between running about and clearing my plants of snails and slugs. Usually I would only just be planting tomatoes, if not holding off yet another week, but alas, they have been in the ground for two weeks now.

Apparently methane is bulging up from beneath the sea floor off of the coast of Siberia. The Greenland ice sheet’s summer melt began early and violently this year. Upwards of ninety-three percent of the Great Barrier reef has suffered a bleaching event. A massive drought is devastating India where water is under guard. Venezuela is experiencing a full blown economic and political collapse as power is rationed in part due to the failure of rains leading to a failure of hydroelectric dams. It is hard to not feel that the headlines of global strife are more frequent, more dire.

Night falls and my daughter and I sit in the darkness of our home, staring out at the blackness, watching as flashes of lightning give us glimpses of the forest. Thunder rolls and she smiles at me. I smile back, and we wait.

A Demon Haunted World

March 31, 2016 § 13 Comments

She picks up a stick. Her two year old hands are pristine, without callouses. Standing straight up she begins to walk forward on the path that leads along a ridge line deep into the forest. On uneven ground her steps still betray a clumsiness, but she overwhelms her lack of experience with exuberance and then turns to see me walking a few steps behind her.

“Dada get a big stick?”

She wants me to use a hiking stick as well. Last year I would carry her in a hiking pack, and I would use a large stick for support as I navigated slopes and downed tree trunks. Now she imitates the habit using the small bit of hickory in her hand, poking the ground with it as she walks, and she expects me to do so as well.

“You want me to find a hiking stick?”
“Uh huh.”
“How about this one?”

Leaning over I pick up a bowed piece of a fallen branch and proceed to snap off the twigs that jut from it in crooked tangles. It is a brittle piece of wood and suffices as more of an accessory than anything, but my daughter is happy that we are now both equipped for our walk. She turns once more down the path. A two year old girl takes confident steps with her hiking stick in one hand, and a plastic pink magic wand in the other. We are going out in search of fairies, and she flat refuses to embark on such an adventure without her wand.

Economic collapse finds itself a popular plot device across a broad spectrum of the internet. Those who anticipate such a collapse monitor the details of international trade, noting the ups and downs of stock and bond markets, currency values, volatility and shipping indices. Economic collapse is one of those concepts that is out the door and around the world generating hype, fear, and sales of pocket knives before anyone who would take the time to explore its value can even settle into an armchair. As with so many other premises and cliches we are bombarded with, most people take for granted that the economy is even a thing.

In 1776 Adam Smith published his magnum opus, “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” in which Smith establishes the now firmly entrenched and wholly mythical notion that barter societies preceded the invention of money, which was an inevitable progression due to its efficiency at facilitating trade. In “Nations,” Smith also establishes the idea that the economy is even a thing that exists and that can be studied. Of course, it will be men like himself that are capable of doing the studying and imparting their wisdom onto the world. It is quite a ruse, if you think about it, inventing a specter and then inventing the business of studying it.

When we speak of “the economy,” what are we even talking about? The Dow Jones Industrial? The S&P 500? Or are we merely speaking of some amalgamation of the habits and behaviors of humans which combine to provide for our daily acquisition of needs? It may seem silly to question because it is such a prevalent notion in this culture, but for the majority of human existence, there was no economy. It was an idea that had to be invented, and now, there are whole academic wings dedicated to the maintenance of the idea, as well as sections in newspapers and channels on television focused solely on its changing winds. Those who lord over such institutions have their charts and maps and a host of methods for describing the economy to everyone else. At times, they speak of their trade as a science, which would lead one to believe that the thing which they observe is predictable, that they could establish some level of capable control over it. At other times, the economy is a wild thing, and it moves and thrashes of its own chaotic will like a storm squall.

So people watch the signs. They generate charts. They consult the experts. Some believe that the economy, despite its tantrums, is an all loving God that will always rise again, and so they tithe. Others believe the economy is a false idol set to feast on the souls of the avaricious or the merely ignorant, and so they prepare.

As someone who long ago came to the conclusion that the civilized method of human organization is one that is always bound to fail, I have many times put forth the suggestion that we need to transition into living arrangements that do not rely on the creation of cities. This is all to say, I have an anti-civilzation philosophy, which to the uninitiated perhaps seems extreme or absurd. Consider quickly, this definition of civilization offered by wikipedia:

A civilization is any complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment by a cultural elite. Civilizations are intimately associated with and often further defined by other socio-politico-economic characteristics, including centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labor, culturally ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon farming as an agricultural practice, and expansionism.

To be against civilization is not to be in favor of some inhumanity towards others, but simply to believe that urban development, infinite growth, ecological destruction, social stratification, agriculture, etc. are ultimately unsustainable pursuits that are dooming our possibility of existing very far into the future. Further, the anthropocentrism inherent in such societies results in the widespread extirpation of the other beings with whom we share this planet.

Suggesting that we abandon, once and for all, the project of civilization is often met with a buffet of criticisms. That civilization gave us the sciences, and the sciences – usually now expressed simply as Science! – gave us a candle in an otherwise dark, demon haunted world, is usually proffered as reason enough for humanity to continue on a civilized trajectory. Critics of anti-civ ideas would have us believe that as primitive people we lived in constant fear of disembodied spirits that stalked and haunted us, manifesting as sickness and death that we could not otherwise explain. Science! they claim, was a great demon slayer that has brought illumination in the form of germ theory and biology, and thanks to optics of all kinds, both micro and telescope, we can see that the universe both minute and macro is not subject to god or djinn, not spirit or elemental but merely to the wind of a grand mechanical clock of subatomic particles and fundamental forces.

What light! It bathes us in such cleansing luminance! Fear not as you walk through the world sons of Ptolemy and daughters of Hypatia!

Now check your stocks. There are movements in the markets. How is your 401K?

More is happening in the space around you than you can possibly imagine. Your body is equipped with various sensory abilities that allow you to gather information about the world around you, and this information is used to generate a picture of existence that you as a biological entity can use to go forth and attain your survival. This picture exists in your mind only, and it is further shaped and formed by your particular biological makeup, as well as the cultural programming that you have been inculcated with since birth.

The world you see is not the world I see, let alone, is not the world an owl, or a butterfly, or a snap pea sees. Human societies have a habit of claiming that through their sciences that have been able to package and interpret reality as it is. The fun sets in when we notice that each of these societies that has claimed such a handle on reality have all, in fact, had different descriptions of reality.

Again, more is happening around us than we could know. We are filtering. We are constructing from the pieces we capture. We are naming and simplifying and manufacturing volumes of symbols. In a sense, we must do so so as not to be crippled by the overwhelming weight of all that we experience. But ultimately, more is not included in our picture of the world than is included. The cutting room floor actually contains more reality than the final film playing out in our heads.

It is this understanding that stays my hand when others might wave theirs in dismissal of the disembodied phenomena that live outside of the lens we in the modern industrial world currently use to view our surroundings. Those who fear the crumbling of the city walls for what hordes of demons might come rushing in like a torrent to corrupt our understandings so finely crafted over centuries of weighing and measuring might do well to look around and see which demons already stalk the streets and halls. We have traded one set of lesser gods for another. You many not make offerings to the spirits of rain after holding the dry dirt in your fingers, but your faith in tomorrow’s full stomach might have you watching for a little green triangle to come drifting across a stock ticker. Where a few centuries ago a geomancer may have cast a chart that relied on the anima mundi – or soul of the Earth – for its answers, today’s economists are numerologists drawing meaning from the staggered lines that connect disparate values of commodities and currencies, hoping to tease from it all some prediction about future well being.

Am I attempting to claim that germs do not exist? Of course not. Am I attempting to claim that science has produced nothing of value? Of course not. I am simply suggesting that civilized life has not rid the world of demons, but merely shifted the demons we concern ourselves with. Priests have not gone out of fashion, to be sure, they just wear a different costume and spin incantations of a new variety. This class of priests extends far beyond the realm of economics, and the demons they promise to exorcise can be found anywhere uncertainty and fear have taken root. The simple fact is that life is a dangerous pursuit, and we all enter into it with a debt. We owe our lives and will all be held to account sooner or later. If we do not create cultures capable of accepting this most basic truth, we will invariably create cultures that attempt to mitigate our fear of death with palliatives. The palliative du jour in our particular civilization is technological domination of the ecological systems of the Earth, and it is this behavior that is responsible for the variety of cataclysms now unfolding globally. Sea ice melt, top soil loss, forest die offs, oceanic dead zones, mass extinction of species, climatic disruption; all have now long passed the formative stage and are well underway.

But so afraid of the dark beyond the city gates, the civilized world clings to their neon gods. They pray to markets and justice, progress and innovation. The Maya may have found it prudent to sacrifice some humans, perhaps by throwing them into a cenote or by letting the blood of a Pok-ta-tok victor to replenish the vigor of the tree of life. We modern civilized are far more sophisticated, and instead sacrifice the salamander, the Ash tree, the island chain, the clean flowing river, the indigenous tribe, or the global poor.

If we refuse to defecate in the river because we consider the water sacred and believe it contains within it a spirit of its own, does it matter? The water runs clean. If we continue to clear cut jungles so as to mine for rare Earth metals using diesel fuel and laborers fed mono-crops all because we believe that technology will somehow repair the wounds we have inflicted on the living planet, can we really claim that our demon free world is now safer?

She kicks up leaves as she walks.

“Shh!” I crouch low, squatting on my hams and I tap my ear with a forefinger. “Listen.” My daughter emulates my posture and I cannot help but smile. She looks out into the mass of trees before us. I whisper when I ask her if she sees any fairies, and she whispers her replies.

“Yes.”
“How many?”
“Two fairies.”
“What color are they?”
“Blue.”

The afternoon sunlight is gold as it falls all around us. We stay there a while and I tell her that we must not disturb the fairies. We tell them that we are not there to do them any harm. We are nice people, we assure them. We hope that they are safe in the forest and we wish them well in their endeavors. After all, the forest can also be home to goblins, which is why I am glad my daughter had the foresight to bring her wand.

Tribute to the City

March 24, 2016 § 11 Comments

The vernal equinox has come and passed and with it the official start of spring is here in the northern hemisphere. Across the countryside Jane Magnolia trees have awoken. Their hundreds of fingers each cupping rose colored blooms like candles, as if they were so many tiny lavender hands offering up communion to the sun. Daffodils peer out of the hillside clearings like periscopes or perhaps yellow gramophones all playing a song of rebirth to call back the songbirds and honeybees. The energy sequestered in the root-balls and mycelium mats as the land went to sleep the last few months has begun surging upward, and it is hard to not feel it flowing through me as I walk my land taking stock of which fruit trees and berry bushes are producing buds. A good friend of mine, and mentor, once told me that I am doing well if I can establish two fruit trees per year. Looking at my spread of apple trees, it looks like I am on track to have done well in that regard. My partner does all of the work to care for our bee hive, and after donning her protective veil for a spring inspection, she reported to me that the hive is in great condition. I have heard it said that bees surviving the winter is what converts one from a bee-haver into a bee-keeper.

Our garden calls for much attention, and each week I spread a truck load of wood chips on the walking paths, which were first covered with flattened cardboard. Hopefully this effort will buy me a few years of relatively weed free walkways. Mint is returning with a vigor, and the strawberry leaves are vibrantly green. Kale, spinach, beets, and parsnips have been seeded, and I am keeping a keen eye for the first asparagus shoots. This year I have to grow significantly more food than I have in the past, as my partner is returning to work full time and I will be staying home during the week days with our daughter. In the short term we will have less money, but I will have more time to attend to tasks around the homestead. Walking through the garden brings me such a deep sense of calm as I talk to the plants and lose myself in my many tasks. Starting seeds is a great way to practice slowing oneself down, especially small seeds that tend to stick together like those of tomatoes and carrots.

I find myself happy as the sun tans my shoulders and a red tailed hawk cries from its nest somewhere high up in the trees behind me.

February was the warmest month in recorded history. The record it broke for such crowning glory had been set in December. February temperatures saw the Earth cross the two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial average barrier that has been established as a hard danger zone by climate scientists. It was an anomaly, for now, but one that is likely to rear itself again and again. The most dramatic warming has been in the Arctic, which bodes ill for jet stream patterns as well as summer sea ice coverage. Time will tell if we see our first ice free Arctic this summer. Somehow the magnitude of the crisis of climate change still seems to evade most general discourse despite the pomp and show of the electoral season now in bloom in the US. There are lots of grand promises being hurled at the public about bringing manufacturing jobs back stateside. If that is not the dictionary definition of cognitive dissonance then I do not know what is. Industrialism long ago set us on a crash course with calamity, and now that the calamity has begun to rain down upon the world in the form of mega droughts, fires, famines, and super-storms, those angling for positions of power are promising more industrialism.

Of course, it is not even a job in a factory per se that most Americans dwelling in the rust belt actually want, it is a secure living situation. They want their basic needs met in a way that does not leave them uncertain and wrecked by stress month after month. It is a culture of production organized and operated through the machinations of capitalism that requires that people work a job in order to have these needs met in such a satisfactory way. When politicians say “Jobs!” it has become a Pavlovian response for the middle, and formerly middle, classes to come salivating like starving dogs to desperately pull a lever in their favor. They forget that first the food, and the land, and the ability to provide for oneself had to be taken away before they could be forced to work jobs for these things. A great deprivation preceded the creation of job economies whereby everyone was made to punch a clock and become the automaton of some civilized production scheme in order to have enough to eat and a place to sleep at night. This deprivation now long forgotten, people have no memory of themselves as anything but workers, and so they beg for work.

Neo-liberal capitalism may be the dominant platform by which this scheme is globally enacted, but it is merely the software that operates on the hardware of the civilized model of human organization. It is key to recall that ecological decimation was the order of the day long before the advent of capitalism. Forests had been clear cut from the Levant, through Greece and across Europe and the UK as civilization marched across the ancient world, slashing and burning its path to conquest and dominion over greater and greater expanses of the Earth. This pattern was repeated globally where ever civilizations formed. The Maya deforested the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula long before Europeans brought their particular version of civilization to the continent and eventually ran head first into the consequences of such short sighted actions. The Aztecs, who may have created one of the more arguably “sustainable” cities in Tenochtitlan, did so on the backbone of war, expansion, tribute, slavery, and human sacrifice. Sure, they recycled their human excrement for crop fertilizer in their Chinampas, but they also relied on the growth of the territory that they dominated through blood shed. Food, firewood, and other material goods flowed into the city from outlying tribute towns where common people had to work to not only provide for themselves, but to pay a quarterly tribute to the city center of the empire.

Such is the way with cities. Goods and raw materials flow in and waste flows out. Cities harvest the natural wealth of outlying areas, and this model is now global, with powerful nations harvesting the material wealth of poor nations. No matter how desperately people may want to believe in the idea of the “sustainable city,” it is a contradiction of terms. Austin, Texas proclaims itself “America’s most sustainable city,” yet every day truckloads of food make deliveries while truck loads of garbage and waste are removed. The city depends on dammed lakes off the lower Colorado river for water which will one day fail to support the city’s growing population, and which in the present deprive down stream communities. According to 2010 data, households in Austin spent the most money on gasoline relative to other American cities. And Austin continues to grow, to cover more of the land in concrete preventing the recharging of the Edward’s Aquifer and demanding more energy for cooling as the city can have over one-hundred days in a year that breach one-hundred degrees fahrenheit.

A recent study calculated how much food the city of Seattle could produce based on how much solar radiation falls on its potentially farmable locations, including parks, rooftops, and yards. Even selecting crops that grow well in Seattle’s climate conditions the study’s authors determined that the city could provide only one percent of its food needs. If the streets and sidewalks were ripped up, the number could rise to two or three percent, but the city would lose functionality. After all, even if day to day travel was carried out on foot or on bicycle, deliveries with diesel powered semi-trucks would still be necessary for everything the city’s inhabitants required, from clothes, to air conditioners, to building materials, and of course, the other ninety-eight percent of the food they could not produce for themselves.

Sustainable living and cities are not compatible. This is not a matter of ideology. This is a matter of hard material reality, and suggestions that somehow 3D printing or vertical farms or a population fed a steady diet of algae shakes will be just the miracle we need to upend hard material constraints are at best, petulant whimpers of those who have become accustomed the vast wealth of selection that living in a first-world city provides, or at worst, Kubler-Ross stage three bargaining, hoping that somehow, by some stretch of compromise we can sustain the unsustainable.

But we can’t. Not without expansion. Not without tribute. Not without an exploitative power dynamic and flows of violence that may or may not be visible from the comfortable confines.

Hot coffee is a miracle, or damn near one. Every morning millions of Americans have a cup or two of hot coffee, the beans of which were grown in Columbia, or Ethiopia, or Hawaii. Maybe those Americans have tea grown in India or a banana grown in Peru. They pull on shoes made in Vietnam and perhaps ride their bicycle made with bauxite mined in Australia on a road paved with bitumen from Alberta. Perhaps these Americans stop off at a local food co-op or farmer’s market where they purchase some locally grown kale. They take pictures of the fresh eggs at the market with their iPhone which has a slew of globally sourced components buried within it, and they post this photo online with the help of a network of satellites and tag it with some cute caption about sustainability.

When the average American city dweller thinks about urban living, they likely think of the comedy clubs, the used book stores, the fusion restaurants, or the bars. They fail to think about the global hegemony of the United States military and how a worldwide network of bases has laid the foundation for dollar dominance. Most of the American or European or Australian or Canadian city dwellers who stammer on about generating green, sustainable cities are not picturing the mega-cities of the world like Dakha or Rio de Janeiro. Millions of children living in the squalor of slums and favelas, tin roofed shacks and human waste littering the streets and waterways are not what the white first worlders are picturing in their minds when they declare the supremacy of urban existence. Even the relatively lucky people in Hong Kong or Manila live in crammed, small apartments set inside concrete towers that resemble prisons more than anything else.

The wealth extracted from around the planet by western powers over the course of centuries, a process which went into overdrive in the twentieth century, has absolutely skewed the perceptions of those average citizens who reside within these conquistador nations. Like Tenochtitlan, the US and its neo-liberal capitalist crony nations exact tribute from the global poor. We may not adorn ourselves in exotic feathers and obsidian jewelry, but our sneakers and our jeans and our lattes and our cellphones will never be sustainably sourced and manufactured within the footprint of our home city limits. It is just not possible. We can have civilization, or we can have a livable planet, but we cannot have both.

Phosphorous leaches from agricultural and manufacturing sources into water ways. Eventually it alters the chemistry of these waterways creating the conditions that support toxic algae blooms. Power plants are often built along waterways. Coal fired plants have been using rivers such as the Ohio as a waste dump for decades. Radioactive tritium has been leaching into the groundwater from the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York, and the leak is getting worse. The Turkey Point nuclear power facility is leaking waste into Biscayne Bay just outside of Miami.

Often when I discuss the destruction wrought by civilized existence, the first critique hurled in my direction is that, “We cannot go back.” On this point, I agree. We cannot go back because civilization has greatly destroyed the ability of so many natural systems to harbor life. Industrial civilization will decay and fracture in the coming decades and centuries. I do not know how this process will play out or how long it will take to complete, but I feel that I could safely suggest that several generations from now the people who are making new ways of living will curse the stupidity and greed of those who poisoned the water. They will wonder what demons possessed our hearts with such a dark poison that we could so callously wipe out the other living beings who we rely on for survival.

In the dry wastes a young girl will dig for tubers amongst a backdrop of drought ravaged trees and the charcoal remains of those that burned in the previous season. Seeking a nourishing root she finds the bric a brac of our brain dead culture; a plastic fork, a beer can, rubber testicles that once swung from a pick-up truck’s trailer hitch. Yee haw.

Her family boils caught rainwater unaware that it contains heavy metals which will be responsible for some of their eventual deaths. They will laugh, as people do, and they will tell cautionary tales about a long ago world in which people set the sky on fire.

Whatever gods there may be forgive us. We were drunk on oil and pictures of ourselves. We really wanted good jobs.

The Art of Yielding

March 10, 2016 § 7 Comments

The ache in my left arm seems to travel up a nerve towards my shoulder. I wince as I stretch the arm up and then rotate it in an arc. Every Friday night I attend a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, and last week during open rolling – which, to the uninitiated, is essentially grappling with a partner – I was thrown to the mat by a zealous fellow student, and crashing onto my left arm I immediately felt the shock of pain that now lingers there in my bicep. At the time I was bit angry, as the amount of strength my opponent applied was a bit excessive for such a drill, but thinking about it now perhaps that is foolish of me. It is a fight exercise after all. Myself, I am always slow to apply great strength in any drill, as I am fairly frightened of hurting someone. I often find that during a roll where I am dominant and pressing down with intense force that I periodically ask my opponent if they are OK. If they weren’t, they of course, could easily tap out, but still, it concerns me that I might needlessly hurt someone.

Jiu Jitsu, if we return to the Japanese root words (Ju Jutsu) is the art of yielding. As combatants roll they are applying strength and force, but they are also reading the direction of the force being applied against themselves and then attempting to use their opponents energy against them. My trainer once relayed a statement that he heard from a master practitioner, which was essentially that all of Jiu Jitsu is knowing which square inch of the opponent on which to apply all of one’s body weight, and knowing when to do it. This trainer is by day, a police officer. Funny, myself an anarchist, a vehement supporter of efforts to abolish prisons and police, respectfully and humbly listening to this man and trying to always devour with my eyes all of his movements and motions so that I can absorb them in the fibers of my own legs and hips. I laugh at his jokes, as he is genuinely funny, and in the next moment, I imagine him using the very techniques he is demonstrating to subdue me in the streets. I wonder how these skills he imparts on me have been applied against people who now sit in a prison. When we roll, he out classes and out strengths me, but each time I am able to resist his efforts to sweep me, I smile. That smile is then quickly followed by him quickly overtaking me.

Life is complicated and so entirely writ with nuance and irony. There is a beauty to such contradictions, and I am grateful to be reminded of the great complexity of our context, and I am grateful too for the reminder that a world so replete with complexity and contradiction is a world in which easy answers need not apply. Often we simplify what we experience to make our day to day existence easier or more efficient. In doing so, we almost certainly shuck away the truth of things until we create an existence with a lot more mutual exclusivity than is actually present. We make binaries out of gradients. This is often necessary. It is also often the first step towards justifying violence as it is the root of manifesting the “other.”

Thirteen people were arrested in Anaheim this past week as a Ku Klux Klan rally was quickly cut short by anti fascist activists who confronted and then fought with the Klan members. The Klan members pulled knives, and even used the point on the tip of a flag pole to fight back, and they ultimately stabbed three people. Back in 2012 several young people crashed a meeting of white supremacists in Tinley Park, Illinois attacking the attendees. Five of them were eventually arrested and served prison sentences. Anti-racist actions such as these often have mild mannered Americans suggesting that we must refrain from violence and respect free speech. They follow with the claim that the only weapon to be used against Klan members and neo-nazis is either counter speech, or out right ignoring them.

The logic of such suggestions goes like this:

Free speech will conquer bad ideas and hate. Those with hateful ideologies will be shown as the fools they are by the reasoned counter arguments of those who oppose them, and these counter arguments will affect society at large in a positive way, resulting in a society in which those who proliferate hate speech are mocked and shunned. Thus, no violence is necessary to counter them. Further, the application of violence to counter speech opens us to the “slippery slope” whereby violence is brought against more and more people for even slight deviations in thought or opinion. Also, violence begets violence, so we should always and forever avoid it.

The entirety of this issue needs unpacking because it is quite convoluted. “Free Speech,” as it is referred to in the United States is a reference to a constitutional protection offered by the first amendment which prohibits the government from interfering with the speech of individuals and groups. It is not an obligation of an individual to hear out any other. Of course, it should be said that like most constitutional protections, “free speech” goes right out the window once it is not convenient for the state or their capitalist counterparts. Endless videos of protesters being gleefully beaten by the police can attest to this fact.

Obviously, unthinking and mindless violence is not the tool we should immediately reach for every time someone says something we disagree with. Someone at a bar stating that, “climate change is a hoax,” is not justification for me to haul off and break his nose. As a long time bartender, I have found that usually mockery and humor are the best weapons against the drunken loud mouth who wants to use my bar top as his soap box. This is a skill I have finely tuned over many years of dealing with drunks, almost always men, who after a few beers want to loudly espouse their right wing talking points. I may well be a black belt in rhetorical judo.

However, what if this person says, “I am going to fucking kill you!” Am I justified then in kicking him in the jaw and crushing his face into the floor? Surely I would need to read the tone and intention in his voice, but the point remains that a direct threat of aggression permits a response that can meet and dislocate the threat. And that is where the waters begin to muddy. The Klan has an extremely violent history. Their rhetoric is rhetoric of violence towards entire swathes of the population. How tolerant should the general public be of a group that has incited horrendous and gruesome violence spanning generations?

More imporantly, how patient should the would be victims of racist violence be with liberal society’s calm and reasoned counter arguments? If a cross is burned in your front yard, or a black man dragged behind a pickup truck in your town, should you sit back and wait for well articulated, non-violent responses to convince white supremacists of the inappropriateness of their behavior? The sheer fact is, that sometimes, counter violence is the exact response necessary. Indigenous peoples were completely justified in fighting back against the encroaching settler presence as it occurred in the Americas. It is still the appropriate response in those last places where indigenous peoples live in their traditional homelands which are threatened by attempts at civilized exploitation, be it for the construction of an oil pipeline, a hydroelectric dam, a nuclear waste dump, or the construction of a university telescope.

Those who are the victims of the violence meted out by the dominant culture need not wait for those behind the levers of power to spawn a conscience. They need not wait for a critical mass of pacifists to turn the gears of democracy and generate a legal response for their protection.

I am reminded of Albert Camus’ Letters to a German Friend, in which he laments the absence of an immediate and forceful response on the part of the French to Nazi aggression. Camus suggests that the French consciousness is one which responds to the absurdity of the human condition by seeking beauty and love, whereas the Nazi response was one of nihilism and the pursuit of conquest. Such dispositions gave the Nazi an advantage over the French who first pontificated on the righteousness of counter violence. The Nazi did not care for such ethical questions, and according to Camus, in the end it took the French coming to terms with the righteousness of their position, indeed, it took the confidence of spirit and the sword together to be victorious over the Nazi:

“…[W]e shall be victorious thanks to that very defeat, to that long, slow progress during which we found our justification, to that suffering which, in all its injustice, taught us a lesson. It taught us that, contrary to what we sometimes used to think, the spirit is of no avail against the sword, but that the spirit together with the sword will always win out over the sword alone.

Any suggestion that the tool of violence is appropriate does require that those who would take it up think long and hard about the implications of their actions. Our world of seven billion people and growing is a world of seven billion minds all generating individual interpretations of reality. To be sure, the majority of those minds are convinced of the righteousness of their actions and ideologies. The abortion clinic bomber is convinced that his is a justifiable counter-violence. The ISIS executioner is convinced that his is a justifiable counter-violence. The anarchist arsonist and US military drone pilot are likely also convinced that theirs is a justifiable counter violence. How in such a cacophony of noise, confusion, and rash behavior can one escape what is a seemingly impossible knot of human delusion, anger, and misunderstanding? How in good conscience can a person with deep concerns for autonomy, cooperation, and compassion suggest adding to the violence and misery of the world?

When would it have been OK to start attacking Nazis during the rise of the third reich? When Hitler was giving speeches in small halls to small audiences, would it have been reasonable counter violence for anti-fascists to have attacked him and his cadres? There would have been a point in time where this small man loudly screaming his nonsense to a room of twenty people was absolutely laughable. Rational minds would say, “Just ignore him! He is a fool, and he and his ideology will amount to nothing.” Years later there would have been a time when organizing to violently confront Nazis would have meant a death sentence, when the party already controlled the state apparatus and resistance would have been near impossible. At what point in between was the exact right moment to strike, according to a pacifist or liberal dogma?

This is the trouble with nuance. Easy answers are usually wrong answers. To strike opens us up to greater realms of ethical complexity and realms of possible negative fallout. To wait cedes crucial time and ground to those who have absolutely no concerns for such ethics. At what time, and what place, do we place one hundred percent of our strength? When do we yield and allow the momentum of our opponents to be their own undoing?

Sometimes yielding is fighting. And sometimes you give up your back and get caught in a vicious rear naked choke. Master tacticians can be brutal in their yielding. But even master tacticians can be knifed in the dark. As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

At the end of it all, we must choose which is the preferable mistake, and in making such mistakes we put our souls on the line, killing an integral part of ourselves because we hope that in doing so a greater beauty is allowed to survive. Then we pray that our children can forgive us.

I, for one, will not err in favor of compassion for a Nazi.

Choirs of frogs still sing along the rim of the pond as dawn breaks. While still technically winter, the robin hopping along the ground near budding daffodils tells me that spring is here. Another cold front is always possible, but this winter that never really materialized is bowing out. The garden calls for so much attention. Greens need to be planted, pathways need covering with wood chips, and I need to get annual seeds started and placed in a cold frame. Energy surges upward from the subterranean metropolis of tree roots and mycelium, and as it flows through the flesh of hickory and maple, oak and dogwood, so to it flows through my limbs. I am anxious to get back to the long, slow process of developing our homestead. My endless list of projects is less daunting these days as I approach it one job at a time.

Out in the world of human hollering and bickering, an impending election is drawing a lot of attention. I try to ignore it. I try to focus on our small hollow here in the backwoods. Our community of young families trying to get by on the day to day with what little we have while surmounting the challenges that the raw entropy of civilized life throws at us can absorb pretty much all of the mental capacity I have to offer. But then there are whispers and hints that the authoritarianism and racism being whipped up by certain campaigners finds it way to my ears, and I ask myself, if it comes here openly and brazenly, what am I to do? What cannot be tolerated? What requires a response, and am I prepared to offer one?

Perhaps we should all start asking ourselves such questions. By the time the shadow has covered us all, it is too late to take shelter from the storm.

Filling the Void

February 18, 2016 § 12 Comments

The flue damper drops with an iron clang that reverberates through the kitchen. At three hundred square feet, the straw bale cabin we are currently living in heats easily with the old wood stove. I pile the belly of the steel box high with oak so my lady and our daughter can return to a warm home. Plodding through the snow in my knee high boots, I head out to start my Cherokee. It fights me when temperatures are below freezing, and convincing the engine to turn over requires patience and a handful of tricks, including occasionally popping the hood and manually pumping some gas at the fuel rail. This is not a process I enjoy, and I have been researching a solution for a couple of weeks now. It would seem that a new fuel pump and assembly are in order. Last week found me replacing degraded “O” rings in the oil filter adapter to seal a leak there. Removing the filter adapter was an exercise in zen. The process required that I lay on the cement floor of my friend’s unheated garage, the ground drawing my heat from me, as I removed a very inconveniently placed motor mount bolt while flecks of aged engine grime fell into my eyes and mouth. Turning a wrench an eighth of an inch at a time can really ground you. On my next day off I can try to tackle this rough start problem. Always making plans, making to do lists, spending my days before I meet them.

The driveway is a little over a half mile long, and I move slowly over it, absorbing the details of the forest on every side of me. Gray sky, born of a mist that intermingles with the countless slender fingers of trees reaching upwards, arterial in their deliberate formlessness. A monochrome wash of tones accentuates the golden leaves of the beech trees. These small tear drops of paper flicker like watercolor candlelight. Through the forest I curve on roads still layered in an inch or two of snow. Even the thinnest branches of the trees all have a brushstroke of white highlighting their organic motion, which speaks of rivers and lightning, of nerves and fissures, of the geometry of the world entire. It is clear to me in this moment that I am witnessing poetry, that the Earth sings, that there is the most amazing, most gut-wrenchingly divine performance before us, all containing pieces of wisdom great and small, waiting for us to grasp them. And we don’t care. We aren’t interested.

A car pulls up close behind me. I am driving too slowly. I let them pass.

Collapse is a very odd fascination. I cannot help but think that such an interest is a by-product of the civilized mind. I also cannot help but think that the collapse so many people fear is related to their perception of time, which is in its modern form, shaped by the superstructure of our society. Capitalism has commodified our time. People in our culture sign thirty year mortgages, they make promises to pay for cars and phones and anything that can be bought with a credit card. The entirety of neoliberal capitalism is predicated on the notion that there will be more energy and stuff tomorrow than there was today. Imaginary wealth in the form of digital notations, be they named “stocks” or “bonds” or any other “investment vehicle” exists purely in an abstract future space. Civilization already has us living within the confines of abstractions built from so much collective imagining, and these abstractions form the foundation of an even more illusory notion of time in which we have convinced ourselves that we exist. When predominantly western, white, middle class people fear collapse, what exactly are they even talking about? I posit that they are actually anxious about the destruction of the future, by which I mean a constructed notion that does not actually exist.

Certainly, I am out on a limb, but that is exactly where I mean to be. Time, as it is, is not “Time” as we experience it. This is not surprising, as nothing is as we experience it. We interpret the world around us via our senses and generate a picture of it in our heads, which itself is informed by our individual biology and experience. When we speak of time, we are speaking of the abstract way in which we interpret it. Past, present, and future are clunky attempts to place ourselves within this abstract notion we ourselves have imagined into being. This understanding is culturally informed and not a hard and fast representation of reality. Not surprisingly, modern industrial civilization has imagined time into the most expedient and efficient of forms for the benefit of production; the straight line.

Over the years I have found myself constantly hurrying, loading myself with tasks in order to manifest the future. When I was saving money to buy land, I was constantly at work, picking up extra shifts, staying late. When my partner and I finally bought our land, I had to build a house, and do it quickly. If I was idle, if I spent a day at rest, I felt guilty. This guilt still builds in me whenever I find myself not busying about. Always I am in a hurry to manifest the future, and most importantly, to have it match the abstract picture I have generated in my head. It is almost as if the very existence of tomorrow depends upon me laboring to generate time itself, that without me holding it on my shoulders like Atlas, the future will fall out of being. And then where will I be? In the uselessness of the present, which is itself, destined to be an obsolete and immutable past mere microseconds from now.

The civilized mind is bent on domination. The land must be bent to serve human desires. The flesh of other beings must be whipped and tormented into serving human desires. The bodies of women must be confined, contorted, and too often forced to serve the desires of men. The story of civilization is the story of domination, the exertion of force and the repudiation of symbiosis. Interestingly, the abstract notion of time generated by the civilized mind is just another tool designed to dominate, however it contains within it a contradiction; time as modeled by civilization is infinite, particularly as it projects into the future. This creates a conundrum, as the generation of an infinite future space creates an infinite workload on the civilized mind, having to now manifest, maintain, and control an infinite terrain.

So we see the denizens of working class westerners labor endlessly in an attempt to place their circumstances in crystal, to eliminate any variance or uncertainty from days to come. Can this reasonably be described as anything other than absurd? Perhaps insane?

Sweet potatoes stick out the tops of water-filled mason jars along my window. In time they will drop roots and then slips with small purple leaves will spout from them. I will pull the slips and place them in water where they will establish further roots, and when the last danger of spring frost has passed, I will plant the slips in my garden. All of this exists in a future I have concocted in my mind. Agriculture cannot exist without a plan, without a perception of a day many days beyond this one. Civilization requires that we collectively imagine tomorrow into being, in full technicolor and high definition detail. It is hard for me to not assume that this requirement is the birth of anxiety and stress.

Abstract notions of time are, like all of our abstractions, a tool. We create tools to serve a need. Tools require not only the knowledge of how to generate or operate them, but the wisdom to do so skillfully, safely, and most importantly, of when to not use them. As is the case with the vast majority of the cognitive tools civilized humans have invented, we have found ourselves in the service of the tool of time. We are not present. We are not here. We are not listening to the poetry of the world before us because we are altogether somewhere else.

Of course, there will be those who insist that without a view of the future, we will destroy the world of the present. After all, if someone takes all of the fish from a river or dumps radioactive waste in the ocean for a benefit here and now, the future will be one in which no one will be able to eat from the rivers or oceans. Why is it then, that we see these very same behaviors running rampant at the hands of a culture so lost in its projections of time? The very economic structure of capitalism demands that tomorrow contain more production than today, yet it simultaneously destroys that very possibility. So lost in a vision of the future, capitalism blinds modern civilization to the actual makeup of the present. The map is given precendent over the terrain.

There exist cliches about various indigenous cultures maintaining a concern for their progeny seven generations out. Such ideas would suggest that concern for the future, or the invention of the future as an abstraction, is not a product of the civilized mind at all, but the human mind. Still, it strikes me as highly unlikely that any band of hunter gatherers would find themselves so concerned with a decline and fall of their world in some distant time to come. Obviously, any attempt to think the thoughts of an imagined person in some long ago circumstance is open to folly, but none the less, when I do attempt to place my own mind in such circumstances, what jumps out at me is this: Pre-civilized hunter gatherers would exist in a world where everything around them that they interacted with was placed there by nature. Pre-civilized humans must have remained ever cognizant of their surroundings, paying attention to the plethora of details in their experience in order to find food, avoid danger, note their location, etc. Seemingly, such people would find their minds more present in their circumstances. Perhaps at night they would lose themselves in thought as they stared deeply into the night sky or the cook fire, but I digress. It is hard to imagine pre-civilized people creating and agonizing over the future the way civilized humans do.

For a bit more insight on this issue, I asked a Metis man about the civilized notion of time versus the indigenous notion, and he had this to say:

Talking about core pillars of a completely foreign worldview very quickly turns into an esoteric mess. Any explanation of concepts of time, like saying time is cyclical will have a westerner looking for spots to add his seconds, minutes, and hours. The concept of future apart from past and present suggests a linear view of time. If you stand at the center of a circle with the past present and future all flowing within the circle, where are you? And why would you not be able to see a future? Euro worldview sees the future as a black void that needs to be filled with all the new stuff one can imagine into being. Their present is of no consequence, as it quickly becomes a frozen point in the past that can not interact with the present and certainly not the future void. Indigenous worldview sees a future that looks much like the present and past if all beings act in a responsible way. European worldview is collapse, it is an irresponsible actor.

Indigenous peoples are often accused of claiming European Worldview is evil. This is not the case. It is seen as a mental illness. That mental illness has now infected most of the human population.

People who talk to trees are very unlikely to clear cut a forest. Mainstream society would consider such people crazy. People who reject a linear notion of time, who speak to their ancestors and believe that the past is just as important as the present and the future, do not create economic systems that are predicated upon the infinite growth of material production. Mainstream society would consider such people crazy. As I sit here I cannot say that I know for certain the shape or make up of time. I can say that the tools we create are of limited use, and that when they bend us to their service and to our own detriment, we are fools to not remake them, if not abandon them altogether.

Tomorrow will come, to be sure. It will bring with it happenings and consequences. In no way am I suggesting we abandon concern for such things, but perhaps, that we remember that there are a lot of pictures we have drawn up in our minds, often collectively, and that anxiety is the byproduct of our efforts to match reality with these projections. We must remain flexible. We should make efforts to remain present, and thus committed to the terrain.

Of course, with this, I struggle too. At the end of the day, I am merely a man trying to make sense of his heartache. By the hundreds of millions humans race about, neglecting their spirits and their physical well being to make certain that lines on charts always trend upwards, to fill the black void. In doing so, they close their ears to the song that the Earth sings with every sunrise, to the poetry she writes with each curve and undulation of the topography, and to the ancient wisdom she has joyously written into every leaf, and stone, and star. We are all so much less for it. And we all but guarantee our doom.

Collapse Cafe: January 2016

January 25, 2016 § 14 Comments

But my name is not Martin.

The Complexity of Simple

January 20, 2016 § 17 Comments

The complexity of simple

Winter came as ice.  The slightest threadbare twigs on every bush and tree wrapped in crystal and then dusted with snow like confectioner’s sugar.  The entirety of the forest frosted, white outlines tracing contours until the fingers of every brach blended into every other masking the separation of individual trees, and the whole landscape was without depth or form, an unbroken line tracing itself eternally.  Time itself slowed, my breath stands still before me while the land begs, “Slow down.  Be.”

The road out was blocked by a downed pine tree.  I idled the Jeep and went to the trunk to retrieve my chainsaw, a tool that stays packed in the car for just such occasions.  Even the main highways were laden with the branches and trunks of conifers whose root balls could not sustain the added weight of their ice laden bodies.  

What is often overlooked when people talk about the “simple life,” is just how complex it can be, and just how many tools it can require.  Four wheel drive vehicles, chainsaws, power tools, axes, come-alongs, tow straps, water pumps, and all of the hand tools, files, honers, clamps, cleaners and cleansers needed to keep all of it functional.  Across the spectrum of internet commentary and niche hipster-farmer magazines that paint rural homestead living as the solution to ecological crisis and collapse, too rarely is it mentioned just how expensive being intentionally poor can be.

Last week I stood outside in the cold, bundled in layers of long underwear and insulated Carhartt overalls, and with the assistance of a more mechanically inclined friend, I replaced the high pressure hose on the power steering pump of one of our Jeeps.  The repair was far from complicated, but ten degree weather is not conducive to manipulating steel wrenches or the impossible to reach bolts that are put in place by machines so that humans will struggle to remove them.  Repairing one’s own vehicle comes with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, almost akin to flipping the bird to the capitalist system that engineers itself around the need for high priced professionals and the near term obsolescence of overpriced parts and components.  Such satisfaction quickly fades however, when the next mechanical defect arises.  

The engine of my newly repaired Jeep refused to turnover, and I suspected that the eight degree temperature Monday morning brought with it was the likely culprit.  The starter seemed to fire, but then the long list of troubleshooting began.  My hands stinging with cold even through gloves, I tinker with battery cables and fuel lines.  Is there spark? Is there gas? Frozen condensation could be in a line, or on a circuit board, or even preventing the distributor arm from spinning. Motors are a complexity of moving parts, and such complexity is supposed to make our lives easier. But then we become the tools of our tools, and find ourselves serving machines.

I want to scream.  I just want life to stop handing me roadblocks.  It seems like I struggle just to struggle.  The hood slams shut and the metal clang echoes off of the steel roof of the open air carport.  I crunch through the ice to the wood pile, and bend my knee to the Earth to load up my arms with split oak.

The wealth gap in the United States is at historic proportions.  Apparently, sixty-three percent of Americans cannot afford a five-hundred dollar car repair. This is not a scenario which will be allowed to proceed.  The problem with having a handful of people be vastly rich while the majority are poor is multi-fold, but what is often not discussed is the general dysfunction that is generated by so greatly valuing people’s labor and time on such drastically different scales. Even without talking about the do-nothing billionaire class, the gap in pay between the massive portion of the population that works service sector jobs and those who engage in more “skilled labor,” generates an inability of the lower classes to access the services of the middle.  Despite having moved to a rural location to build my own off-grid home on land where I can attempt grow a significant quantity of my family’s food, I still work a full forty hours a week between two part time service sector jobs.  One of those jobs pays ten dollars an hour.  A mechanic commands anywhere from seventy to one-hundred dollars per hour in this region.  Such a disparity makes acquiring the services of a mechanic on the edge of impossible and reserved for only the most complicated and necessary repairs.

Legal services are even more expensive.  When the county demanded I install a septic system for my cabin, I could have refused, and in court I could have cited the State’s legislation protecting those who build their own homes from the intrusions of county bureaucrats.  Had I chosen to engage in such a legal entanglement, I could not possibly have afforded the assistance of a lawyer at the going rate of two-hundred dollars per hour.  The cost of compliance with the county, despite knowing full well that I am within my legal rights to refuse, is far lower than would have been the cost of justice. How can I give half a week’s wages to someone for one hour of their time? It would take me a month to afford one of their days.

Medical attention is a publicly acknowledged farce in the United States. Racketeers and mafioso middlemen have fully inserted themselves into parasitic positions across the healthcare industry with the full protection of the state. The Affordable Care Act was a papal blessing by the federal government confirming the right of money changers and paper pushers to hold people hostage to illness and injury, essentially demanding near lifelong servitude to repayment plans. Insurance, of course, is not treatment. No one ever screamed, “Is there an insurance agent in the house?” at the sight of an dying man. So we ignore small problems. We hope that fermented foods will keep us well and go to work sick when they don’t. We super glue wounds that should probably be stitched and as a last resort, we go to the emergency room and ignore the bill.

Those of us at the lower end of the pay scale have been priced out of modernity in many regards, and I imagine this is a trend that is only blossoming, and when fully unfolded, will drag a massive swath of the millennial generation into a similar state of affairs. I would imagine this economic disparity will play a large roll in bringing more people into urban centers, and preventing even those with dreams of permaculture gardens and straw bale houses from escaping them. The young are told that if they want to climb the economic ladder they should borrow enough money to buy a small house and instead to give it to a college. If it’s not one scam, it’s another.

During the summer our gardens are teeming with zucchini, tomatoes, okra, and other vegetables. Sweet potato vines crawl far beyond their primary roots and lavender flowers appear along their lengths. Welsummer chickens hunt grasshoppers in a field and we collect easily a dozen eggs a day from their nesting boxes. The food that we do not preserve or immediately eat we will sometimes sell. I can fetch twenty dollars for a load of produce, eggs, and wild harvested mushrooms. A truckload of gravel laid on our driveway allowing our property to even be accessible by car costs three-hundred dollars. Our own driveway requires about two of these truckloads every spring, and that does not include the road up to our land, which we must also contribute to maintaining. The simple life is expensive, and the honey, eggs, strawberries and other fresh foods we can produce are essentially valueless to the outside world thanks to petroleum. But we have to keep pace. Little house on the prairie only works when everyone is playing. If no one uses a car, it is not expected that you will, and the overall pace of your society slows down. Money is energy and velocity. Your rate of production must be commensurate with that of those around you with whom you hope to trade, or you will be for all intents and purposes, too poor to participate.

An individual cannot work as fast or far or as long as a John Deere. A twenty-four hour globalized world that operates at the speed of electricity generates output at a rate that is beyond the capacity of human hands spreading mulch and pulling weeds. When we look at the threat of climate change and ecological collapse, many of us recognize the need for humanity to slow down, to consume less, to shut down the tar sands mines and the frack pads in favor of draft power and raw muscle. Yearly upgrades of the cell phones and gadgets that isolate us seem absurd especially when we look at the total cost of their production, so instead we envision communities of people coming together to work towards common subsistence. The machine of industrial civilization spins too fast, and burns too much fuel, so we try to walk away, only to come to the harsh realization that as long as the machine is still out there, it sets the pace, and walking away is nearly impossible. The simple life is a luxury. Conscious poverty is the playground of the rich. Want a homestead in the country where you can raise goats and pigs? You better have at least one-hundred-thousand dollars to buy in.

In this world there is only keeping up or being crushed, and keeping up usually means crushing someone else; keeping your head above water is only possible by pressing your boot into the neck of another. Capitalists and fossil fuel apologists relentlessly harp on environmentalists by declaring that no one wants to make sacrifices, that they too drive cars and eat industrial food. Of course, what is intentionally neglected is that plenty of people are more than eager to leave behind the modern western lifestyle, and that it is not a fear of hard work or sacrifice holding them back, but the financial barriers to entry. And for those who can leap the first hurdle of land ownership, there is then the cost of everything one cannot provide for themselves, because let’s face it, no one can be self sufficient. Eventually you will need something from the outside world, whether a box of nails or a broken bone set, and then you will be at the mercy of costs set by a world powered by oil. Even the barest, most primitive lifestyle is only possible with access to a vast territory, a few friends, and a state apparatus that doesn’t limit your existence or steal your children when it finds them wearing furs and eating dandelions.

My friend placed the tip of his screwdriver into the release valve on the fuel bar. Gasoline trickled out. At midday the sun had gently raised the temperature. With the turn of the key, the starter whirred and the engine turned over. I had to laugh. Of course it would start with no problem when a friend had trekked out to help me diagnose the malfunction. He laughed too. Inside the cabin with a steady warmth emanating from the wood stove I prepared a breakfast. My friend declined the homemade sauerkraut, but gladly accepted sausage, eggs, and hot coffee. I had a few steaks in the freezer and I gave them to him.

“Make dinner,” I said as I gave him what I could for his time.
“Thanks, I will.”

We will only get poorer. The low paying jobs will be fewer and fewer as the years pass, and the pittance they pay will buy less and less. Our survival in the rural places will be predicated on either preying on our neighbors by keeping apace with the terms dictated by capitalists, charging each other fees that drain an entire two week paycheck for necessary services, or by working together, giving our time and our skill with no expectation of payment, only the hope that down the line, our own needs will be met with the kindness of others.

I for one will be opening up my land to others. Rent is a backbreaker, and if I can support like minded friends by giving them a place to exist without expectation of payment, I will happily do so. Civilization is a complexity of moving parts, and theoretically, this machine is supposed to serve us. But we become the tools of our tools, and now that this too is breaking down the complexity is a burden, and more and more of us are finding that we exist in a realm of negative returns, so we dream of making something new. While we dream, we struggle.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 112 other followers