Saturday, January 21, 2012

Food, Shelter, and Community.

These essays will deal with our locations within the work economy, within our communities, and on the Earth.  To write about location in its several senses is to consider the causes and effects of modernity, which has uprooted us, and which, so far, has not accommodated or tolerated the kinds of wisdom that flourish in intentional rootedness.  To choose to become native to a place, to paraphrase Wes Jackson, is, in very real ways, to set oneself against the demands of the global economy.  So, as the poor worldwide flee their ancestral farms for manufacturing and service jobs in large cities they are forced through a kind of economic and social sieve through which their traditions, folkways, languages, rich local knowledge, and idiosyncratic inheritances may not pass.  What the economy wants from them is their conformity to a system of production that cannot even perceive their richest human wisdom, let alone revere it as the accumulation of millenia.  And, as the economy grows and links the entire population, each person becomes less and less valuable per se, and more and more interchangeable with others, more expendable.  The economy thrives on each individual's willingness to spend the hours, days, and years of his or her life doing ever-more specialized jobs, and to do this always under the threat of replacement and with the live sense that the work, which is to say the life of the worker, is meaningless except inasmuch as it contributes to the economy.  No person craves a life of hyper-specialized effort for the enrichment of a few distant managers, nor does he or she find purpose and meaning in highly-proscribed and repetitive attention to the most narrowly-defined tasks and problems. I will argue that a person's sense of meaning, purpose, and satisfaction is largely dependent on rich and varied experience, and that insight, that exultant moment of comprehension, will come in proportion to our breadth of unmediated awareness of the world.  Where the economy demands our servility as mere technicians and experts, our hearts want us to be scientists and explorers and artists.

By necessity, as I write about the dislocation of modern life I will also criticize the shape of labor today, and the demands of profit.  These critiques have been made 10,000 times since the countryside began to empty in the 1840s.  Rather than try to say something new about labor and monopoly capital per se, I will focus on what I see as remedies that we can enact at the smallest scale: our choice of work; our more-or-less conscious relationships to the cash and credit economy; our relationships to the labor of others, near and far; our senses, more or less healthy, of what we want from life, and where and how we will seek it.  I hope that many intentional, informed, individual choices will steer the larger economy onto a more humane path, but, at very least, the lives of each person will become broader and more full of meaning and satisfaction.  I propose an art for living.

Notwithstanding the abstract terms I've already employed above, most of my proposed remedies will be quite small, for individuals and their families.  I will organize these essays around a few universal themes, because we are all people, and our natures are all basically the same: we are gregarious, omnivorous, hairless, intelligent apes with nimble hands, and brains built for language and problem-solving and memory.  As such, we crave friendship and conversation, delicious food, secure and pleasing shelter, solutions to puzzles, work to do with our hands, and the sense that we are contributing to the life of the tribe.  We have been banished from the garden, and are hemmed-in every side by the wilds and the tamed.  We rely on each other, and are compelled to compete.  Resources are limited, so the great spiritual practice is compassion.  So these essays will deal with food, shelter, and community.  As I see it, our true wealth is here.  If we can eat well, live in clean and safe houses, and interact meaningfully with others, our needs are met.  I can't think of a more succinct criticism of the mass economy than this, because mass economy insists on commodifying what is at the heart of our humanity.  It profanes what is sacred.

At the heart of the human world, or each human life, is a hearth, a kind of altar to what we need most.  We used to cook there, get warm there, meet there as lovers and families, eat there, even bury our dead there.  These things kept us alive.  Food, shelter, and a place in the tribe are the crux.  Be wary of any attempt to debase these things.  Take responsibility for them.  Resist the market doctrines that put them up for sale: as you job-out your food, your housing, and your social contact you forfeit your humanity.


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  2. This is wonderful! It actually brought me to tears to read these truths so plainly written and clearly woven into a coherent explanation for so much of what I've been feeling and fighting for in my life.

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  4. "I propose an art for living."

    I love that! I really love the way you've written this. You've already given so much to think about just in this short introduction. I'm eager to read more and I can tell you'll have a lot to say that will really resonate with me.

  5. Love it, Van! Keep it up!

    "Resources are limited, so the great spiritual practice is compassion."

    An art for living. Figuring that out is a lifework. A specieswork.

    It seems to me that much of this mass economy came about in part because it is trying to elevate the quality and security of food and shelter for more and more people. A mass economy to raise us out of the gutter en masse. The idea that everyone deserves a college education. That everyone deserves to have a house, to have children and several pets, to have a car, and live to a certain standard.

    In a way, maybe it's not so much that we don't have a place in the tribe, but we've been led to believe it's reasonable for us each to occupy the exact same place in the tribe. And it is a compelling thought, the promise of opportunity, of mobility, of never going hungry--or more precisely I should say, of never having an empty stomach--and a house at a constant 70 degrees F.

    The irony is that our fruit, vegetables and animal-based foods may be more uniform, more massive, and more plentiful, but less nourishing, less resilient in their development, and ultimately a net loss for our bodies and the land.

    So, maybe the mass economy has accomplished some good, but maybe it's given us more dire problems than it has "solved".

    Compassion and living artfully--word. I guess what I'm wondering is, is there not more than simply eating well, living in safe and clean houses, and having meaningful interactions with others? Many of the students who seek out BOSS experiences have these things. But they are missing something further, even.

    I think one of the most fascinating topics is that of risk and insecurity. Food security -- our food supplies are threatened by GM, pollution etc. That's Bad. And yet, I wonder whether having NO threat to our food supply of any kind is also, in the long-term, kinda Bad for us, spiritually. It just depends on the nature of the threat.

    Vicissitudes of the weather affecting the harvest? The luck of the hunt? We were designed to go hungry some of the time. We were designed to fear and respect many things in life and Nature, and I think that that form of danger--and NOT the type of risk involved in NOT kissing your supervisor's ass for your next promotion--is fact a human need.

    Maybe it's like delicious food, clean and safe shelter, and meaningful interactions are the macronutrients, like protein, fat and carbohydrate. We do need those things. But certain kinds of danger and insecurity and true hardship are micronutrients, like selenium, iodine, and cobalt. If we go without, eventually the malaise catches up with us.

    Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking essay. Chug, chug, chug!!

  6. and oh yeah p.s. this is Laurel

  7. I think your closing metaphor is right on... when I get to a re-write I think I'll more carefully lay out a difference between basic needs and the stuff that really lets us thrive, a la Maslow. The essay's too dense, and bears some fleshing out. Thanks for your totally exceellent and helpful comment.