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Essentials

How much of our lives and culture is made out of nothing much? Of stuff, whether practices, beliefs, or physical objects, that in hard times would prove valueless and be soon abandoned? How much of our so-called social progress depends on the breakdown and replacement of these artificially menaingful cultural components and artifacts, and avoidance of permanence, depth, durability, true value?

Think of the contents of the average dollar store, say during some holiday season or other. Count necessities and what’s the total?

Think of what’s in your house, those carefully selected items large and small that someone in the household deemed necessary to make a home. Unplug the power for a week, and what’s left? Are you still using the soap, but no longer the clothes washer? Using the wood stove instead of the toaster, the wooden spoon instead of the mixer, the sun and the sound of birdsong rather than the wakeup alarm? Those hand tools and the fishing tackle are looking pretty useful, along with those buckets, that wagon, quality shoes. No radio, no news feed, so you get together with the neighbors to make hay and conversation while the sun shines, and plan the garden. Are you walking down to the farm market for exercise and carrying stuff instead of going to the gym? Thinking about which building will serve as the local community hangout, and who will play the next dance?

What about the books in your library? Copies of ones you read in your youth in which you now see the flaws, works of reference no longer relevant mixed in with some which will always be useful? Cherished life-changing volumes that helped you to see, really see, showed you life, broke through your pain, your egotism, your fear? Field guides? Now they won’t last the next few decades in this damp climate, so what will you keep? Do you have personal stories, family histories, songs and poems committed to memory? The screens are all off, the invasions into your living room by purveyors of vehicle love and the next entertainment series silenced. What will you want now? What’s worth working for?

And what do you have in your person, and here is where it might get a little uncomfortable. But it shouldn’t, no, not at all. Because eve if your place in the global economy has disappeared, you have the DNA for all you need for the local scene, and you’re in that wonderful gene pool of the community that still, even after all that domestication, can work it on this earth, at least enough.

Who are the folks that make up your neighborhood? As the electricity grid decays, the gas runs out, the refugees arrive, who are the pillars of the community now? Not the department store CEO or the hedge fund manager? Not the real estate broker or bank manager, or even the famous local actor or football hero. There’s the bicycle mechanic, the farmer, the philosopher, the minders of children, the story tellers. The builders, teachers, caregivers, preachers, prophets, and poets. The mail carrier, the horseman, the herbalist and the healer. The hunter, the brewer, the worker of stone, of textiles. Hewers of wood and drawers of water. Wise elders and energetic youth.

And how was your holiday?

 

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Aren’t we all just basically like me?

While a student delegate to a leadership conference, I heard a talk by one of the senior staff, also senior pastor at a large church, who in the course of his talk, said something like, “We have to admit that we all want to be in control. Let’s face it–that’s why we’re here, why we are in the positions we are.” It didn’t sit right with me, and I thought, even if it’s true for some in the room (all top level national student ministry leaders, almost all men in their forties through sixties), it seemed disrespectful, invasive somehow to make such assumptions about everyone based on the speaker’s own personality or inclination. Was I supposed to recognize that at the base of my interest in being a leader was necessarily a controlling personality? So I, we, could confess it, choose to “let go and let God” and so on. But that shoe just didn’t fit. I don’t really want to be a leader. I don’t like being in charge, and the more influence I may have over people, the more trepidation and sense of burdensome responsibility I feel. Sure I want to influence, but because of principle, and in the way I would want to be influenced–through education, reason, relationship, example, for my own good and willing usefulness to others. Not through any kind of control, however subtle.

Now I have a mental antenna for such statements, in speeches, books, sermons, advertisements, and conversation. When I read on a book overleaf that “Every educated person must read this” or “no one can fail to conclude…” or some such, I shake my head. It’s just another form of “Do this, and you’ll fit in with the group.” Again, it overlooks individuality, appeals to the herd instinct, that desire to be moving along with the crowd. I suppose some people want to be influenced that way–in a sense they don’t feel comfortable believing or doing things that aren’t already accepted by a critical mass of others, or seem to be.

We have all succumbed to the temptation to make choices based on majority choices. Which MP3 player to buy? You ask the guy working on the floor. He shows you the “best seller.” As if that’s necessarily the best choice. No intelligent person would think so. See, now I’m doing it to you–did you notice? “We have all…”, “No intelligent person would think…” making assumptions about you and inviting you to believe them in order to move you on to accept my next idea. Watch out.

On the other hand, maybe there’s a lesson here. It’s true, apparently, that influencing people, whole bunches of people, is about convincing a few, a laborious and seemingly fruitless process at times, but who then make the masses believe it’s the new normal, by a kind of cultural diffusion. It’s the scientifically tested ten percent rule. Essentially, once ideas are accepted by a critical mass of ten percent of folks, the majority will accept the same ideas. Read more here: http://news.rpi.edu/luwakkey/2902

Gives me hope that maybe soon we’ll reach the tipping point for ideas about peak oil, global climate change, the need to power down and transition to a low energy lifestyle and resilient local economies. A little late, because of the tipping point of the changes themselves, but still, maybe we can survive them better, lighten the blow on the most vulnerable, share the burdens, and eventually thrive in some new way.

That ten percent will be a hard-won accomplishment, a labor of generations, even. A constant telling and retelling. Talked to my dad on the phone the other night about that, how he had to tell us over and over to turn off the lights when we left rooms, close the door and keep the heat in, put on a sweater instead of asking to turn up the heat. We just want our kids to get it, understand the whys, and be motivated to do what’s right on their own, but instead there’s a need to remind over and over and at least help them form the necessary habits. I thanked him for not giving up, for telling and retelling us. He knew way back that our over consumption would come back to bite us, and in his writings, lifestyle and conversations chipped away at the erroneous majority opinion.

So press on, prophets, preachers, workers, writers, artists, parents, leaders, all. As the apostle Paul said, ‘let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2013 in Culture & Society, Parenting & Family

 

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Welcome to Eaarth

I’m reading Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben, getting an update on how our planet’s systems are already on Tilt, already irreversibly different, while we muddle around, send our leaders jet-setting to climate change initiative conferences, reading in the papers how they fret and fuss about who can and will pay the price of even responding to present crises, let alone preparing for the next. Taking notes, hoping to have an influence in my circles. I am floored, thinking about it all, asking what do we do, and how do we get everyone on board faster, faster? How do we act justly toward the poor countries who are most affected by our voracious consumption, our addiction to growth, our willful blindness to the laws of physics and ecology? Quickly, before mammalian survival instincts take over and the higher human values of justice and equity get trampled? Quickly, while “the preservation of the American way of life” is still positively correlated to preserving lives in other places? How do we divert our tremendous drive and creativity away from making junk and trouble to solving our problems and creating a new paradigm for our culture?

Between chapters I am aware of the irony, the hypocrisy as I drive one son forty miles to a swim meet and back (and out to a coffee shop for my treat between events). And why is it the trucks and SUVs seem to be the most likely to be going ten mph over the speed limit, anyway? Because SUVs and new pickups have such a smooth, quiet ride, drivers can’t hear the pistons pumping, the engine laboring, so it feels like nothing at all to press down the pedal, can still hear Pink Floyd crystal clear on the Bluetooth audio. Me in my ’93 Accord, I can feel and hear that gas burning (and some of the oil, too), and it makes me want to cut down. Lord, save us from too much luxury, insulation from realities we need to know about.

How about a series of training seminars for auto salespeople, helping them realize it’s not responsible to sell big machinery to people for commuting down the freeway, getting them to seed the whole auto-buying clientele with the idea that we all want to power down. FERC warning labels on low fuel economy vehicles too, like cigarettes, if people insist on buying them. Only takes ten per cent to believe it, and it’ll spread like wildfire (whether it’s true or not–see the article). Sell gas-guzzlers by permit only, with special controls on weekly mileage and speed. Discounts for shared ownership in the New Sharing Economy. Neighborhoods, through the new online neighborhood social networks, for example, organize the ownership or lease and booking of the heavy duty truck for hauling recyclable metals to the recyclers, prunings to the community composting site, a load of lumber to the building site.

The next day I drive my son a few miles down the freeway to early practice, and go back and pick him up an hour and a half later. I go for a run before breakfast lest I become too flabby and weak from living my sedentary lifestyle. Then I drive my son to the bus stop because our bikes were stolen, and so he can avoid straining his back carrying heavy textbooks and swim gear.  My husband drives our daughter to her school because she stayed up late doing homework after procrastinating all afternoon with her smart phone. Then he drives alone sixty-five miles to work for the week. At noon I drive my younger son to Phys. Ed. class so he can stay in shape too, and I take another walk to drop off a check to pay for my weekly exercise class. At five I drive a few miles to the high school athletics meeting, where we hear about the positive life lessons the kids learn in high school sports, and find out about all the swim meets we’ll all be driving to and watching in nice heated indoor pools.

Time to get more serious about using my bike, when I’m not hauling bulk groceries or working through my checklist that takes me all over town, or picking up kids, dropping off kids. Time to stop ferrying the kids around to everything, time to say “Sorry, here’s the bus schedule.” I’ve been trying to resist that pressure, explaining why I’m trying to limit driving, why when my teens get their licenses, they won’t automatically get a spare car and not have to take the bus.

As I contemplate the eventual spiraling down of the oil-powered economy, the abandonment of extraneous or dilapidated and unfixable facilities and infrastructure and wasteful habits in order to focus on basic needs, I’m thinking, what are essential skills, knowledge, and attitudes that have value in all times and places? Getting adequate food – fishing, hunting and gathering, food storage, preservation and preparation. Getting clothed and sheltered – making coverings and dwellings from local materials. Having fun together/building community-music, poetry, story telling, dance, service. Staying healthy – first aid, medicine, nutrition, safety, defense, peace making. Parenting – raising children to be content and capable. Teaching. Writing. Woodworking, ceramics, metal work, fiber craft. Natural history. Spiritual guidance. Teamwork, leadership, respect. And we will need plenty of knowledge and wisdom and we might not be able to Google it, so I won’t get rid of my books just yet.

“Like someone lost in the woods, we need to stop running, sit down, see what’s in our pockets that might be of use, and start figuring out what steps to take.”

I listen to the news, and now I have enhanced filtration that makes a mockery of the economic policies explained by politicians there. The push for more oil pipeline and rail transport, more new overseas markets, moving to an even more global economy. In TV it’s ads for new cars, Black Friday specials on housewares, sports gear, toys and games, the newest gadgets. The jingle bells all ring hollow. Time to retrain everyone, time to reform the whole system–what we produce, what we promote, what we sell, to whom we sell it. In a positive way, of course, not through pressure and panic. Sharing the vision–we have to work together to figure out our common bottom line and make sure it all adds up to something positive.

This year at the family Thanksgiving I took charge of the compostables and recyclables for the first time. I live in a green city and have extra space in my bins, and my in-laws live in a non-recycling, non-composting kind of county, so it was something I could do to help. First year I stepped up to do that–leftover food, paper cups, aluminum foil, and plastic water bottles (Grandma needed to simplify on dishwashing this year–good for her) were all going into the same bin and I swooped in to quietly separate them. I had never done this before, been reluctant after in the past being what I would call undiplomatic about my green habits when I first came into my husband’s family. I was seen as extreme then. But it went very smoothly with a minimum of digging in the garbage, and the cat got her treats set aside too. Garbage reduced by two thirds.

I’m concerned, yes–very, but I’m looking forward to making myself useful on this tough, new planet.

 

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Could it be the beginning of the end, the revenge of Gaia, the end time for all God’s children?

Could it be the beginning of the end, the revenge of Gaia, the end time for all God’s children?

Through the mental, metaphysical philosophical fog, which comes and goes–not too heavy right now, but how would I know?–I’m seeing a pattern. Something about the dominant culture hurdling headlong into something, dragging almost everyone else with it, to the edge of a precipice, or to a suddenly downward slippery slope. And I’ve lost the words to say what’s wrong, lost the right or ability to speak about it to anyone around me. Everything seems to be moving too fast for me–the effect of three of my children hurdling through their teen years? And I feel I’ve missed my opportunity, maybe I should have done more inculcating, more world view training, more something, so they’d all really be somebody, and not just conform to some warm norm that won’t get them through the storm. Not that I’m really concerned that they won’t be free enough thinkers, but they are heavily marketed, and I hope they can see through and walk the narrow, rocky road that leads to life.

It’s not just about global climate change, water crisis, peak oil, species destruction, accelerated genetic contamination, overpopulation, mass migrations, though it’s all of those too. Maybe something about how so few of us are engaged in looking deeply into anything, there are so many glossy, high-def, shining, interactive mobile screens to surf us along gently, even without the thrill and certainly without the skill of real surfing. Shallow and distracted. Yet not minoring on depth in order to major on breadth, either, more like drift, distraction, dullness.

But that’s just the consumer end, because there are real individual folks behind it all, creating that code, driving those machines, inserting those genes. Surely they still have their wits about them, are capable of purpose, vision, idealism. But not like it used to be, when a few tycoons, geniuses, think tanks, mavericks would move in a new direction and change things forever. When it was just a matter of making sure enough of those powerful and influential people had our ear, or even better, had a heart of wisdom. Now culture molding, revolution, not to use the term breakthrough, comes through a kind of oozing, oily wave pushed by trillions of individual molecules way back who are just in a tide, and the push-pull could be the moon for how easily influenced it is. This kind of change has a life of its own. Maybe the driver is something along the lines of economic growth. And the voices raised against that drive have been pretty much ignored by the dominant culture since they started to squeak against it. Back in ’92 at UBC I heard David Suzuki call not only for reduction in growth, but reversal, or there would be severe consequences. I heard him again last year on CBC still saying the same thing. But there’s a disease that affects those who get into political office, or that they must have at least in some degree in order to win office in the first place, which is, believing that a nation’s economic growth is a mark of its success (not to say sustainability). No public official or other advertising-dependent entity would be caught dead saying publicly “Spend Less,” as does the  Advent Conspiracy , as one of its four defining statements.

This oozing toward self destruction, sometimes slower but then more quickly as we are lulled into thinking we have reduced, reused, recycled enough, is of biblical proportions. Bringing on the judgment, instead of the Kingdom, after our thousands of years of respite, our second, no, third, chance. Maybe the whole slate has to be wiped out, and the remnant start all over again, just like those Mayans, those Aztecs who saw the looming collapse of their so-called golden ages, and crept off quietly into the jungle to rekindle an existence more harmonious with this world before they forgot how.

Tonight I’ll probably have that dream again–the one I used to have when I was twelve, about hurdling down the road in a car, with no one in the driver’s seat, and me in the back seat and not having the skills or position to do anything. Yet I try to climb over the seat, see if I can save us from crashing–there are other passengers, but they are silent and out of view. And I wake up sweating.

 

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Doorbuster sales backfire

30% off! 50% off! Now 75 to 80% off! Makes me wonder how much value the stuff really has. If it was wilting lettuce, day-old bread or over ripening bananas, it would make sense. How much of the markups are to pay for the avalanche of ad mailings retailers consider necessary to stay competitive? Do I really need several pages of newsprint ads for every big box store in town every day? How much for overhead costs of maintaining mostly empty stores on non-sale days? Turns me off shopping is what it does. I half-heartedly clip coupons, store them in my car and let them expire. No worries, the discounts just get deeper. If I really need a few things (and no matter what the discounts, I’m to the point where there are certain things I will never need), I’ll just go in a get them, saving the time of reading the ads and planning my route, the money of driving all over town and buying extra things I notice on the way, and the stress of going out on big sale days. If I pay a little more for individual items, I consider it a simplicity tax, because over all I’m spending less in time and money. My favorite bargains are at the charity-run second-hand stores, anyway.

I looked at some research on retail markups, and here’s the list I found on wisebread.com:

  • Prescription Meds:  200-5600% (revolting that these should be at the top)
  • Glasses:  800-1000% (Does that seem right? Is that for all the “free” adjustments later?)
  • Furniture:  200-400%
  • Shoes:  100-500%
  • Clothing: 100-350% (highest for jeans)
  • Cosmetics: 60-80%
  • Cell Phones: 8-10%
  • New cars:  8-10%
  • Groceries: 5-25% (higher for luxury items)

Here’s to a world where manufacturers make good, useful things without polluting and pay workers a fair wage, where retailers charge a consistent, reasonable price for minimally packaged goods advertised truthfully through the web or other low cost, low energy means, and where every community has sources of locally relevant products and skills. Some items could be rotated by season if folks don’t need them very often. Others could be made to order. Music, arts, and crafts could arise from local culture and express true personal, community, and regional soul, and the “entertainment industry” could die a natural death. Here’s to a world where communities would share the wisdom of history and resist a return to less resilient and more global economy.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2012 in Culture & Society, Economics

 

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Launching resilient kids

Launching resilient kids

Rolling along home in the big blue van, I put this question to my nine-year-old boy: “What do you think would happen if all electricity was gone, and not just for a few days, but for years at a time? What kind of knowledge and skills would be useful?” No internet, no refrigeration, no fans for the gas fireplace, no automobiles. He’d been resentful of my attempts to limit computer time, take the earbuds out, use his own creativity when he claimed to be “bored.” We agreed that making fire, hunting, cooking, fixing things, communicating, and helping people were essential. His answers were thoughtful, not forced. Just reasonable. Dad wouldn’t have the job he does, but would have to draw on other skills to help support the family. Food would be from the garden, heat from wood, clothes from what we made, and things would have to be made to last.

I’m asking his these questions to help him get at the truths he already knows, or can work out. I get into a groove–I’m on the right track, finally, I think. I’ve been frustrated about my kids’ transformation into modern consumers and loss of interest in manual work and creative pursuits. Now they have mobile devices and can hardly wait to become more dependent on them, it seems. I’ve been so uptight about it I’m unable to have a positive discussion with them about the need to unplug and work with one’s own resources. My oldest son, who used to wish there was no electricity, says I’m from the old days, and doesn’t mean it as a compliment. He ignores the finer points of my arguments (and the facts about how I live) and accuses me of being against all technology. Of course, with all this individuating going on, I don’t expect a “I see what you mean, Mom–you’re right as usual.” All I can do is keep up the static, so to speak.

In this relaxed moment with only J in the van with me, we start making connections. I always was better at questioning than preaching. It’s so natural I might even open up the discussion with my older ones this way. One at a time, I think. It’s the kind of questioning that aims to uncover essential truths, and the foundations of views and lifestyles. Sure, I want to bring them closer to what I see as truth, but also to help them see the reasonableness of it, if it is reasonable. And I’m the parent, with more wisdom, surely. I’ve lived more, read more, thought more. So I have more responsibility. Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Or, he’ll eventually come back to it.

When I heard there was major flooding in the town near my parents home this fall, I didn’t worry about their electricity, water supply, or health. I knew they had stored water in the cistern, lots of vegetables and home preserves in the cellar, a wood stove and fuel, attentive and resourceful neighbors, and abundant personal reserves of other kinds. Same with Hurricane Katrina. They’re resilient. They showed me how to make a life from available ingredients, to be a producer, not just a consumer, to and pass on reusable materials, knowledge and ideas. To be suspicious of new fangled things that make us dependent on people and institutions that we may not always be able to depend on.

Will my kids be resilient when we as a society run out of cheap fuel and other limited resources? Will they be knowledgeable and skilled contributors to the local economy, and teach others what has been passed on to them? I hope I have enough time to do my part to equip them, or at least launch them in the right direction.

 
 

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Usefulness index, and truth in advertising

My son asked me a question about death versus birth rates today while we were shopping for laundry detergent in a department store. I asked him to repeat the question, as I had been daydreaming. He wanted to know how to calculate the population change rate if one person dies of hunger every three seconds, one person every eighteen seconds of other causes, and one person is born every second. By the time I was ready to pay for my detergent, we had figured it out, and as we walked toward the exit, I told him what I’d been daydreaming about. I had been scanning shelves full of products and wondering how many useful things there were for sale as compared to useless ones. We agreed that there was a low usefulness index in this store. “How many types of flipflops are necessary?” I asked. We decided maybe three, and sizes could be more flexible. “How many types of processed cereal?” None.

Then we thought it would be funny to make up completely truthful advertisements for products.

Hello, my name is Joshua and I am a movie star, paid three thousand dollars to tell you about this plastic toy car. They cost the store three cents each to buy, including the package which you will throw away. They want you to buy one or more for one dollar each. We will pay our employees as little as possible of what we earn from the sale of these cars. You do not need it and never will. It is a wasteful use of resources and will not decompose. Thank you.

Hello, my name is Gillian and I am dressed as a farmer, but I am an actress getting paid by this store  to tell you about this package of green bean seeds. These cost the store one dollar per package, and they are selling them for three dollars. If you buy and plant these seeds and care for them properly,  they will produce tasty and healthy beans which you can eat. You can also use them to grow hundreds more seeds so you will no longer need to buy any. Thank you.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2012 in Economics, Ethics, Ideas

 

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