January 20, 2016 § 19 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.
January 7, 2016 § 9 Comments
The blue sky almost gleamed in the morning light. An electric sapphire firmament hanging low over the green grass. Cold water moving fast through the creeks whose banks were widened by the unseasonable flow. A spring day by the look and feel of it. In reality, it was Christmas Eve in the year of a super El Nino. We were winding along country roads on our way north to visit my mother who lives on the outskirts of Chicago. Every time I return to that cast iron city so bathed in smoke and fog I can only feel satisfied with my choice to never again reside there.
In honor of a friend who died this past summer, I met up with a man I have known since high school and we, along with his girlfriend, went to see the new Star Wars film. Our deceased mutual friend was a great fan of the original trilogy, and it seemed a fitting way to center getting together while we were both back home. Of course, the flip side of such an outing is having to enmesh oneself with the throngs of other movie goers, and to submit oneself to the barrage of cultural pap, heavy with subtext and clues to the greater cultural malaise that is a Hollywood movie viewing experience.
Before the film, there are of course several coming attractions for other movies which by and large all seemed to express the same handful of palpitating urges that must be metastisizing just beneath the skin of the general public’s artfully crafted facade of contentedness. With the exception of a children’s cartoon, every film we were shown a trailer for was about the grand destruction of society in one form or another. Most of these couched their plot lines in the superhero milieu. Batman and Superman will be fighting Doomsday while the X-Men will be fighting the Apocalypse. Captain America was in there somewhere too, punching, kicking, and I can’t remember what. Some other films, the names of which escape me, also focused on massive catastrophe of some kind, but the protagonists were unexpected heroes who were trained to be better, faster, stronger by military mentors. It was hard to not come away with the feeling that a large contingent of this society is seething beneath their complacent smiles, waiting for the day when the skylines of the cities are aglow with flame, when the rules are no longer enforceable, when the millions of other human beings who are constantly interfering with their lives are wiped out in a clean flash of light, and the scattered remnants – themselves included – get to run around with guns shooting anyone else who happens to be in the way.
A better psychoanalyst than myself could likely un-stitch the many tangled threads of collective conscious that seem to be on display in such a venue, but the negative space was clear. Not present were any films about people cooperating to solve problems. Not present were even simple stories about people living normal lives, albeit beset by uncommon struggles, but at least content with modern western existence. A movie without a firefight or some kind of glorious combat was glaringly absent. Interestingly, the superhero plot points often seemed to revolve around internal conflict within the ranks. Is this a representation of the collective unconscious? Are we all gearing up for a fight against all enemies, foreign and domestic?
Apparently it rained at the North Pole in recent days. Tornadoes ripped through Texas during the holiday break while floods ravaged England. The El Nino event that has been supercharged by climate change is indeed wreaking its share of havoc. Larger, continuing ecological calamities like tree die offs around the globe and oceanic extinctions which are glaring and happening almost in slow motion prompt some people to ask, “Why are humans so inept when it comes to responding to environmental crises?” It is a reasonable enough question on it’s surface, but I am skeptical whenever all humans are lumped into a group and then laid on the couch to be analyzed. Are humans inept? Or are other forces preventing otherwise well intentioned and intelligent humans from addressing such crises? It isn’t as if no humans care about the living planet. Many are willing to lay down their lives to protect a stretch of forest, a river, or a species. Around the world, being an environmental activist is quite dangerous, and not because of some ineptitude, but because other humans who stand to gain from the conversion of the living world into dead materials for capitalism’s factories hire out the execution of humans who would get in their way.
Capitalism, and indeed, industrial civilization must be insulated from those who have not been so disconnected, so alienated from nature or so humiliated and shamed by their powerlessness that they might strike back at their abusers rather than identifying with them.
No, it is not that humans are inept at solving ecological crisis. It is that we are prevented from doing so by people with power. Unpacking this further, we must acknowledge what classes we as individuals reside within, and what power we do and do not possess. I cannot with the stroke of a pen prevent a dam from being constructed, or order the deconstruction of one that already exists. I cannot stand before a board of directors and tell them to cease particular business practices, let alone to close up shop permanently. Not without being summarily accosted and dragged out of the room, anyway.
There are people with such power though. Certainly, there are. It is just a rare thing indeed for them to exercise it as such, but they absolutely exist. They are keenly aware of the system that they serve and how much wealth their service to this system has provided for them personally. Any inklings as to the dangers generated by their use of power that may have penetrated their thinking are likely exterminated by denial. Denial is really, really easy when everyone around you is washed in it as well. In towers of glass they laugh at our concerns, they berate us, and they devour the latest scraps of million dollar lies about how everything is just fine, how the Earth is here to be plundered, about the supremacy of man, about our right, our divine destiny really, to dominate the living world. Their great wealth proves it.
And forests fall. The oceans are trawled. A pipeline is laid.
Often we are fed a narrative that we as the general public can “vote with our dollars,” and send economic signals to the benevolent corporations of the world by purchasing only the most ethical of goods. This notion is folly for many reasons which have been largely addressed by myself and others. But I would like to take some space to dismantle the idea even further.
First, if we accept that this premise is true, we must also accept inversions of the premise. For instance, if buying ethical product A makes one innocent of ethical harms, then we are implicitly accepting that purchasing unethical product B renders one guilty of an ethical violation themselves. Why?
This thinking generates a line of reasoning in which the consumer of a product generated by unethical means is the reason the unethical means were used. Their purchase demanded such a production process. Can you see what is glaringly absent here? For one, there is no timeline. The product existed before it was purchased. The specific harm has already been executed. But even more startlingly absent from such an analysis is any agency on the part of the producer whatsoever. We are told, by those with power and money, that if people buy a thing, that the producers can only respond in one way, and that is, to continue to produce their product in like fashion. Hence, riding in a car is the reason for Arctic drilling.
But where is the agency of the board of directors of the oil company? Could they not receive the money from their previous gasoline production, and decide that their production process is dangerous to the health of the global ecology, and not continue to seek new petroleum sources? Are they robots? Do they have no minds, no consciences? Why is the underclass the sole bearer of responsibility in this equation? Very obviously, if an oil company decided to sell their assets, pay their employees dividends and to close down operations, there would be less oil and gas available for consumption. As the producer, they have far greater agency than mere purchasers.
Basically, the whole notion of supply and demand as described by capitalism’s apologists is one sided. The general public bears the responsibility to act ethically, to make sacrifices, to go through their day and to abstain from sending any price signals to the powerful, whether wittingly or not, that might stimulate another round of ecologically destructive behavior on the part of a multinational corporation. Price signals of course, cannot be resisted by businessmen. They are victims, really, of our rapacious purchasing of their wares. We are forcing their hands.
A lack of agency over our lives culminates in humiliation. We by and large feel like beings of free will, and then we make a commute we hate to a job we despise to take commands from a boss we loathe. A face on television tells us we are one of the lucky ones to get to do so. This is humiliation. It is submission to a system that degrades our dignity by converting us into automatons of misery. Our potential as autonomous actors is diminished at nearly every conceivable opportunity to reduce risk and to generate consistency. Subject to mass society and capitalism we are only slightly above necessary as the fleshy avatar of a more important notation in a ledger. We exist as nodes in a network of capital flow, and if somehow we could be eliminated, we would be. Indeed, many are.
We are dancing bears, faces painted and dolled up in lace. The master holds a whip and a gun, so we dare not strike for fear of being killed. Eventually, the master doesn’t even carry the pistol any more because we have it internalized. He knows we would not dare attack him, and the insult is doubled. We look to the other caged animals around us and think, “If only we rose up as one, surely the master could not kill us all. If only we could combine our strength and in numbers find courage. Even if we were to die in such a struggle, we at last would be free. In our final glorious moments we would be complete, we would not exist in submission, humiliation, domestication.”
But the other animals are scared. They have been whipped. Some have come to defend the master. We don’t even know who we can trust. And it has been such a long time since we have lived beyond the cage. The wild intimidates us now. Can we even survive out there anymore? Can we even exist without the scraps the master feeds us? Then one day we see a tiger attack a crowd of onlookers. She has snapped. She rages beautifully for one perfectly flawed moment before a bullet quiets her. If only she had said something. If only we had acted together. If only we had turned our claws and fangs in the right direction. If only it was the master now lying in a pool of blood.
We have a lot of masters. We are made pitiful by clerks as well as clocks. We are degraded not just politicians and police but by abstractions and imaginary lines. We so badly need to forge time and space to be quiet, to meditate, to speak softly about just who we think we are. Technology interrupts. The buzzing of other people’s demands seeps in through the cracks to find us, to distract us, to constantly hurry us up, to tire us out, to intoxicate us, to leave us slumped over and worn.
So we go to the movies and watch civilization collapse. We envy those who get to rebuild, if only on the screen. If we keep buying such stories, they will keep selling them. And we will surely never live them.