Sunday, January 31, 2016

Enoughness and the Age of Consumer Capitalism, part 1

trees reflected in a winter pool

There is nothing more destructive to capitalism than the satisfied customer.

Lately, much of my work professionally is focused on reviving American practices of democratic citizenship, as well as reforming our economic culture and our public policies in ways that are less destructive to ourselves and our world.  There are various dynamics at work, but when I look around at all the various problems and potentials of our era, I've long maintained that consumerism is at the heart of the matter.

I thought I'd make use of this blog to try to flesh out my thinking on the topic, so bear with me . . .


Depending on your priorities, market capitalism can be an efficient way to organize your economic affairs.  Those who possess wealth set up enterprises, and those who don't have wealth must exchange hours of work for a wage.  The desire for a good wage motivates the have-nots to be diligent and ambitious workers and the desire for profits motivates the haves to create goods for their customers in a cost-effective way.  When government is strong enough and democratic enough to set ground rules and make sure the common good is protected to some degree, it's not a terrible system.

For millennia the grunt-work of civilization was done with human and animal bodies, supplemented with the power of falling water and bustling wind, but now coal, oil and gas do the work and ask for no wage other than the effort it takes to get them out of the ground.

It's probably more accurate to call our current system "consumer capitalism," because the energy subsidy from fossil fuels enables a new variant, in which wage earners don't just occupy themselves with subsistence - the reproduction of the workforce - but they secure enough wealth to become key customers in their own right.  And they become a necessary and vital market for the goods being produced.

By the time we got a ways into the 20th century, there was actually enough wealth being produced to ensure material security for everyone, arguably even to a degree of comfort and luxury that would have satisfied an upper middle class burgher from a few generations past.  Leisure and time - freedom from labor and drudgery - had been the privilege of the few, but was now within the grasp of the many.

I ponder what might have happened if we had developed "enoughness" as a core cultural value- if our system had been oriented toward ensuring that people found satisfaction and self-actualization in a materially modest, cozy existence where there was less work and more leisure, more fellowship and edification and less competitive consumption.

But that is clearly not where we've ended up.    Today, instead of free time we have workers putting in 60-hour weeks to pay the rent or rise up the ladder, and mothers dropping their 3-week old babies at daycare.

We have millions of young people medicated and self-medicating to endure a ruthless culture of striving, in which the ability to stay focussed on working and spending are the parameters of life's success.

Our time away from work is no longer "free", but instead an effort of consumerist leisure - whether passively consuming media products or actively - and expensively - constructing our identities as golfers or runners, backpackers or Caribbean vacationers, video gamers or stadium tailgaters.

We work long hours for our wages and forget how to do a thousand things our great grandparents could do for themselves.  We've had our crafts and callings taken from us and replaced with things and services that we can buy from our direct-deposit paychecks.

We bring the global poor into our orbit as factory drones, but with the promise that they can soon join us under the bright lights of our consumerism.

Along a different trajectory, within a culture of enoughness, we might have been the beneficiaries of a golden age of prosperity and civilization - or at least achieved some sort of sustainable global existence. Is it so hard to imagine?

Next week, I'll continue my effort to sketch out this predicament - and the ways that our unhappy system is enforced and evaded . . .

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Down to the future

This is an old chart that my father drew up over 30 years ago, around the time I was starting in college, and the global population was 4.7 billion.  The brown line at the top represents available natural resources.  The red line represents population, and the green line, available food.  It makes a simple, straightforward and true point - that natural resources don't increase in the way population and food production have, and at some point in the future declining resources meet ascending demands and so population stops increasing.  Depending on the choices we make it could stabilize or crash catastrophically.

This was true then and true today - as global economic growth starts shuddering to a halt; as soil and water resources degrade; as the anthropocene extinction event continues inexorably; and as climate change inserts itself as a destabilizing wild card.

Nevertheless, after drawing up this chart, my father went on to complete his career and settle into retirement without ever seeing the elbow in this graph.  He didn't join a commune or build a bunker.  He worked and paid his taxes - sent his kids off to colleges and graduate schools, watched them get jobs and found families of their own.  He worked as an educator, activist and community leader to create smarter and more resilient communities around himself, but he didn't or couldn't extricate himself from our doomed and destructive way of living.

I study this yellowed and dog-eared piece of posterboard, as I prepare to usher my own son off to college.  I wonder whether I will retire into a society that continues to tread water despite it's unsustainability - or whether I'll come to regret not joining a commune or building a bunker.  I wonder whether I've given my sons enough resilience to deal with what is coming - the elbow in that chart that we still refuse to prepare for.

In the end, I do much as my father did - work to create more resilient people, environments and communities, keep alive a handful of useful skills including gardening, storytelling, and ecology, and engage with the world we have as best I can.  It's even possible my sons will do the same.  The human ability to muddle along is not to be underestimated . . .

For a complementary rumination upon this dilemma I recommend Brian Kaller's eloquent blog.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Nine predictions for 2016

In the spirit of making this an annual exercise in humility, here are my 9 predictions for 2016:
  • 2016 comes in at the second hottest year on record, just behind 2015.
  • Clinton / O'Malley handily defeats Trump / Rubio in the presidential election, despite months of breathless concern trolling on the part of the punditocracy. 
  • Obama ushers out his presidency with an unprecedented number of blanket pardons for non-violent drug offenders.
  • A cultural panic ensues when a US community outlaws the playing of football for youths under the age of 18.  The state legislature quickly repeals the law.
  • As Iranian oil comes to market OPEC finally ratchets down production to keep oil in the $30-50 range for most of the year.
  • Domestic terrorism - especially against Blacks, Muslims and liberals - will claim more American lives than Daesh, Al-Quaida and their ilk combined.
  • Vladimir Putin will survive an assassination attempt.
  • Internet advertising will be exposed as utterly ineffective, and the business model for internet content suppliers begins to collapse in earnest.
Then of course, it is easier to predict the many things that could change, but probably won't.  So folded into prediction #9:
  • Because representational democracy has gone off the rails at the federal level there are a number of things that won't change:
    • Americans won't take back their democracy from the wealthy interests that have hijacked it; and corporations will continue to write regulations to suit themselves.
    • Assault weapons will remain legal despite more mass shootings.
    • Militarization of police forces, systematic use of homicide and excessive force, as well as officers' de facto immunity from prosecution will continue unabated despite the mounting financial and social costs.
    • We will not develop a constructive or effective plan for dealing with Islamic fundamentalism.
And now is when I note that all of my predictions seem awfully gloomy or pessimistic.  When it comes to optimistic predictions that could be concrete enough to be judged right or wrong a year from now, it's hard to see important trends that are looking positive.  

I asked Nico, who just turned 14, what progress he saw being made in 2015.  What were the things that showed us humans moving forward?  For him, the acceptance of gay marriage, improvements in prosthetics and the successes in robotic space exploration (Mars, Pluto, Asteroids) were the main ones that came to mind.  And maybe something would come out of the Paris accords on climate change. Not exactly a landslide of positivity.

For 2016, it seems likely that Black Lives Matter will successfully bend the trend away from ever more lethal policing against minorities.  It's possible that the Republican party's current experiment with extremism, will scare it back toward sanity and toward an engagement in governance once again.   I hold out hope that young people will increasingly seek creative ways out of the consumerist cul de sac they've been led into.

But for the most part, I foresee another year in which we muddle along and fail to solve the problems which are rumbling beneath us like methane bubbles in a melting permafrost. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking back at my predictions for 2015

I'll emerge from my blogging hiatus to revisit last year's predictions to see if I can improve on my 2 out of 9 from last year.  In terms of the big picture, my over-arching prediction from the beginning of 2014 has remained accurate.  We mostly muddled along with the status quo and we neither made progress on solving our problems nor did we bring our civilization finally crashing down upon our collective heads.

But I did go out on a limb with 9 predictions for 2015 - Let's see how I fared.  I predicted that:
  • It will be one of the three hottest years ever recorded globally.
1 for 1.  Global temperatures began a leap upwards this year, and 2015 will go down as the hottest on record.
  • Obama attempts to put ending mass incarceration onto the public agenda.  In particular, the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders.  The possibility of blanket pardons cause the Republicans to go ballistic and half of the Democratic party runs for cover.
1.5 for 2. Half credit.  Obama actually did make the effort, but a distracted media and a dysfunctional Congress ensured that it never took center stage.  Instead, Black Lives Matter emerged as a powerful civil rights movement protesting the slaughter of African Americans by police.
  • Ebola flares up in Asia.  These several thousand deaths rattle the global economy much more than the African outbreak did.
1.5 for 3. No credit.  Ebola slowly burned itself out in West Africa and fortunately gained no foothold elsewhere.
  • Americans are shocked when police officers in a major metropolitan area are found to have intentionally singled out and assassinated several critics of police brutality.
1.5 for 4. No credit. The atrocities perpetrated by bad cops continue to mount, but this one doesn't seem to be in the tally.
  • Globally, disgust with their political elites continues to bolster support for radical, anti-establishment parties, and in more than one European country they win power, if not for long.
2 for 5. Half credit. Syriza in Greece and the recent up-ending of the status quo by Podemos and Ciudadanos in Spain fall into the spirit of this prediction, but for the most part Europeans didn't rise up to throw the bums out.  
  • Occupy re-emerges as a political force among the younger generation - organized around its "debt jubilee" and other efforts to disentangle young people from participation in an economic and political system that is rigged against them.  The Establishment derides them as naive and disengaged.
2 for 6. No credit. The mantle of youthful discontent and economic critique was picked up by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren instead.  
  • (Carried over from last year) One of the world's great monoculture crops will mostly fail this year.  Although this will be blamed on a new pest or blight, the failure will actually be due to a combination of narrow genetics, unstable climate and the decline in agricultural research.
2 for 7. No credit. Agriculture plugged along despite its unsustainable and fragile state.
  • Kitchen gardens, backyard chickens and other small animal husbandry continue to increase dramatically in popularity and practice in the US.  Grassroots pressure to change zoning and regulatory restrictions continue to find success.
2 for 7. No idea.  I haven't researched it.  Certainly the media isn't talking about it.
  • Oil stays below $70 per barrel.  Low gas and oil prices drive several mid-sized energy companies in the US to loan defaults and bankruptcy.  The government organizes a multi-billion dollar bailout of loan guarantees and subsidies to keep drilling operations going, and to keep dreams of Saudi America alive.
2.5 for 8.  Half credit.  Oil did indeed stay below $70 (and is currently under $40 a barrel), and energy companies have been bankrupting themselves, but it hasn't gotten to a crisis stage yet, nor has the government had to intervene.

So, compliments of some slightly generous grading I give myself a 31% accuracy rate, which is a significant improvement over last year's 22%.  We'll see if I can improve on that for 2016.

Monday, September 7, 2015

August Travels

 August flew.

On the second of the month I flew out to Denver.  A research question had arisen about how people respond to the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

I had wanted to go back to Colorado in any case, and there were some good reasons to select it as a field site.  So my videographer and I met there and spent a few days button-holing people in Denver and out in the blasted parts of Aurora - getting folks to talk about the good things and the bad things of raising the minimum wage.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.  We'd start early so we could wrap up our interviewing before the day would finish its relentless climb into the upper 90's.  Then we'd deal with the data we had and figure out where to get ourselves some dinner and some beer.

We had about 50 interviews done, which what we'd promised, by the time I settled him at his hotel on Wednesday afternoon.

From there it was off to pick up the travel-weary Monica and the boys at the airport.

After day or so's interlude in Colorado Springs - where I did some more interviewing, and Porter visited a college - we tooled on up through Boulder - (another college) - and onto the lap of the Rocky Mountains.

And joined Mark, Sarah and their kids in Estes Park, 
where the meadows are still in bloom, even in arid August.

My sister, Christine, flew in to join us and by Sunday morning we'd strapped on our backpacks.

We all hiked up from Bear Lake to Lake Helene,

And down into Odessa Gorge,

To a ranger cabin on Fern Lake.

Mark is a park ranger.  He and the kids fished for trout.  As did an osprey.

Pine martens hunted the lakeside and the cabin's stone foundation, 
and I saw one make off with a ground squirrel.

On Monday we hiked to Spruce Lake and further up to Loomis Lake, in its snow-streaked cirque.  

Where we ate lunch.

But only Chris and I were lunatic enough to swim with the trout in the green, frigid water.

Pikas mocked us from the talus.

On Tuesday it was time to hike back out - our packs lightened by a couple days of eating.

On Wednesday - by now we're to the 12th - we said our fond farewells,
 headed up the Fall River road, and over the pass.

Saying so long to the marmots and the ptarmigan.

And we drove out along the creekish headwaters of the Colorado river 
and all the way to Utah, 
to pitch out tents along the Green River at Dinosaur National Monument.

Where we looked at petroglyphs and dinosaur bones.

and hiked

for a day.

And then drove north through Wyoming

Looking for bighorn sheep, but they eluded us.

We camped in the sagebrush under vast and star-gritted skies,
and watched the Perseid meteors streak along the Milky Way.

On Friday we stopped in Jackson to buy supplies 
and skirted the Grand Tetons which were dark purple and flickering with lightning.

To visit the geyser basins

and the wildlife

of Yellowstone National Park.

We camped at Lewis Lake for Friday and Saturday nights,

and spent the days around the park.

On Sunday afternoon (by now the 16th) we drove northwards to Coeur d'Alene.

Porter, at 17, has a learners permit and we gave him the wheel.

And then on to Seattle across the smokey plains of Eastern Washington, 
where we visited with an old friend just out of surgery.

Into the Cascades, weaving a bit to avoid the fires that filled the skies sometimes with acrid haze.

Out and down along the Columbia river gorge to Portland, 
where it was a withering hundred degrees, buying books and seeing friends.

And back again into the Cascades.

To chill morning hot springs along the Umpqua river

and famous volcanic lakes

until we got to old friends in Sacramento and Davis.

And delivered Porter to his school in Carpinteria,

and his view down mesa to the Pacific ocean.

By the time we flew home I'd been gone three and a half weeks and August had flown.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Summer Honey Harvest

One of the girls on butterfly weed
I took some summer honey off the high hive today.

They'll keep two deep boxes and a medium for their winter lodgings, but that leaves another three boxes on top.  One was full of capped honey, one was mostly full of nectar and uncapped honey, and in one they are drawing comb - though in no rush about it yet.

a frame of capped honey
I took off the heaviest box and removed the frames - gently brushing off the bees.  It was a cloudy, breezy day, but the bees were placid - except for a few gung-ho guards, who resented the disruption.

I placed the frames into an old Coleman ice chest that I pilfered from my father long ago - and lugged them inside.

The last time we harvested, two years ago, was during the dearth and bees besieged the house, drawn by the scent of honey.  Today, with flowers still in bloom, they had other places to be.

We scratched off the caps and placed the frames into the extractor - a hand crank centrifuge that lets you spin the honey out of three frames at a time.  

Into the extractor.

Porter turns the crank.

 Straining out the beeswax,

and 30 pounds of honey sits in the jar. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Disgorging books

The ceiling of our bedroom slants downward with the pitch of the roof, and creates a triangle of de facto storage space behind the bed's high headboard.  I'm clearing out some of the stuff, including boxes of books.

When you're an academic, you keep a great many books, not because they have something to teach you, but because they offer up analyses that you can argue with or they represent people you can cite in your bibliography - whether or not they were useful to you in the end.  Now that I'm not in academia, those books are easy to let go.

I also have too many anthropology books - the publishers give them to you when you're teaching in hopes that you'll assign them in your classes.  Some I've read or skimmed - many more I haven't.  I've hung onto them, but come to realize that I simply don't read much if any anthropology anymore.  I came to feel that anthropology wasn't trying to teach me anything that I didn't already know - that it had fallen into a rut in which myriad richness of detail was mustered toward the same old arguments:

The argument is some variation on the notion that power acts on people's lives - in that people's lives are circumscribed the actions of the more powerful.  Equally true is that power is creatively evaded in that people are actively managing the system to do some approximation of what they want to do.  And the official stories (ideologies, histories, sciences, journalisms, myths) of the powerful never tell the full tale of what is actually happening in this collision.  Anthropologists for the most part step in to tell this underlying, untold story.

But anthropologists mostly translate their important insights into an academical jargon - a language of the powerful.   That is, after all, the coin of the academy.

I still think anthropology has a more accurate understanding of human beings than other disciplines, but I'm no longer so interested in fitting those insights into academic writing and reading.  First of all, it seems a way to avoid helping the people you are supposedly listening to and speaking for.  (Though in fact, every anthropologist I know does help the people they work with - though it often has little to do with what they publish.)

Second of all, if we were to  come up with another truly useful concept - like Gramsci's hegemony, Goffman's total institution, or Freire's  banking model of education - what use would that be put to?  It's customary to complain that anthropologists are ignored when it comes to policy, but the goals of much policy making these days is to suit the powerful.  In fact, people wonder why Americans haven't taken to the streets.  In my more paranoid moments, I think it is entirely possible that an increasing subtlety and sophistication of "soft power" is in part a result of our academic studies of power - being used toward ends opposite of what ethnographers and others hoped.

In my less paranoid moments, I see a spectacle of bread and circus and fear-mongering that would be familiar to despots throughout the ages - and I know there's no real mystery about our complacency.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Finding empathy - when abuse victims don't leave

I enjoy following the blog Plowing through Life, as the author, Martha, in her charming, easy and life-affirming way relates her various musings and experiences, shares the photos she takes on her bike rides around her Canadian town, and posts the jokes and cartoons that amuse her.  Her blog is a welcome eddy of positivity in my internet feed.

Which makes it all the more significant that she's recently been relating how she found her way to this positive place by way of an abusive marriage and the near total collapse and reconstruction of her sense of herself.

Like a lot of people, I grew up in an extended family where men and women treated each other more or less with casual respect. For a long time it was impossible for me to really understand - or even feel empathy for - people who stayed in abusive relationships. I didn't get why a woman would stay with a man who hit her or treated her with manipulative cruelty.

Obviously there was something despicably wrong with the abuser, but it seemed like the woman (or man) who stayed was to blame as well. This makes it so, so easy to give up on them. It's only from hearing stories like Martha's - stories where the victim is frank about their own participation, the damage it's done and the intricacies of the traps that keep one stuck - that have enabled me to find the empathy that I should have felt all along.

I feel bad that the indifference and blame I once directed at abuse victims - and which I know others still direct at them - serves as one more bar in the cage that keeps people from escaping. 

"Yes, he's right, my friends are right, people are right -- there IS something twisted and damaged about me - something in me that must like this, or deserve this, or be too weak to escape this."

So I want to say that sharing this kind of story is really, really important if it can change the way we think about abuse. If more escapees are willing to challenge the embarrassment and the glare of ignorant judgement, it can help people find their way out of these relationships.  

Anyway, it's a good story - on a lot of levels.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Northern Black Widow

Here's a shiny visitor.

In the yard,  upon a tarp I meant to fold.
No belly hourglass, but a tiny row of dorsal hearts upon her.

Not a good neighbor, really, 
when I have cats who might choose to use her as a plaything 
and die for that mistake.

I placed her in a jar and Porter loosed her in the woods.

Stay in banishment, please, Black Widow.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Durable Mechanics

The other day, I asked my 17 year old son to fix one of our double hung sash windows. Both of the counter-weight ropes had broken. The whole process of taking apart the casing, replacing the rope, knotting things up - and really just appreciating the simple, elegant mechanics of a durable design solution - quietly taught him more than a month of surfing the internet could.  

Our civilization shows no signs of putting itself onto a sustainable footing - and on the contrary seems to be doubling down on the devourous destruction of our underlying generative foundations.  The coming decline is going to mean (eventually) a retrenchment to more sustainable designs and approaches to life. It would save energy to replace these windows and the removable storm windows with whatever high-tech double-paned construct is currently on the market, but I've stuck with the less efficient windows, because I can repair and understand them.

I believe in "fate", but not as an external, inevitable force - rather as the culmination of the hundreds of micro-decisions we make every day, based on our habits and inclinations. I'm not ready yet to make an abrupt leap to "collapse now and avoid the rush", but I'm trying to re-orient my fate toward decline. There is no brighter future ahead.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Garden allies

It's been a dry early summer, and so far - knock on wood - slugs have been scarce.  I've seen more toads in the garden than slugs, which could be a contributing factor, of course.

Garter snakes and other creatures have occupied the high hugel that I built out of deadwood, which is probably another reason I'm not seeing slugs.

I like to think this big old matriarch has eaten her share.

This second attempt at hugelkultur turned out to be too high and awkward to cover up with dirt, so it's served as the place I toss weeds, hoping it would eventually collapse into something useful.  No sign of that yet and so this year I did put some wooden frames up top and filled them with soil.  Why stake tomatoes when I can just let them drape.  And I planted some squash plants there as well.

And resident garter snakes are just a bonus.  The great advantage of organic gardening is enabling predators to get established.  Poisons and other disruptions can wipe out pests, but they also wipe out the predators of pests, a gardener's natural allies.

And it's a fact of nature that prey species reproduce faster, adapt faster and establish themselves quicker than predators can.  Once you've used poisons, then you are committed, because the moment you let up, pests will invade with no predatory check on them at all.

Damsel flies will not only eat aphids but mosquitos as well
It seems smarter to pick the pests off your plants and put up with some depredations, because soon enough their predators will pick up their part of the alliance, and things get manageable.  

Some allies are more reliable than others, however.  The blister beetle larvae may have spent their days helpfully devouring the subterranean egg-stashes of crickets and grasshoppers, but soon enough they'll be adults chewing on the leaves of my potatoes and beets.

At the moment I'm only finding a few tortoise beetles and some three-lined potato beetles.  

The sunchokes plot are plotting expansion and conquest.