Monday, August 04, 2008

Growing into tomorrow

Over the years I've spent countless hours reading, learning and speculating about the future of humanity and the planet we call earth. In my first years of college in 1988-1990 I first started learning about the human rights movement, alternative agriculture, and the budding american Green movement. I founded a Green local in my college town, Kirksville, MO and I began to identify myself as an activist. Between my time away from family as well as this fundamental shift in my identity I began to notice a crack which became a gulf in how I related to my fellow humans and they to me.

Looking back I've come to realize that the "activist" is actually a strange phenomena. In a participatory democracy, there would not be a need for "activists" which are really just citizens which are involved in the community process of self-government. In a participatory democracy all citizens are active. The republic that we have today is, of course, a far, far cry from a real democracy. To suggest that it is democratic is to twist and pervert the word to such a degree that it no longer resembles its original meaning. (It was never a participatory democracy at all, but a republic that was supposedly controlled by citizens via representatives via "democratic" elections. But really, the differences, while important, are another topic for another time.)

Over the years (most notably beginning after WWII and the rise of suburbia) the people of United States have been taught that life is about the American Dream. It is about being happy which comes with certain material possessions as well as a neatly defined nuclear family of husband, wife, and kids. Of course the American Dream is open-ended and the list of material possessions grows and grows and is never completed. In accepting the American Dream as our way of life we gave up citizenship and became consumers who were no longer concerned with the serious responsibilities of being involved in government. In allowing ourselves be redefined we gave up power to those who did the redefining: the wealthy upper-class which controlled corporate capitalism and the state.

The role of "activist" came about because there are still citizens that strive to be actively engaged. I've come to realize that the disdain and outright hostility that I've faced as an activist is a fairly common experience and is related, at least in part, to the psychological and life investments made by the majority of people in the U.S. People went along for the ride. They were offered a way of life and they took it. They may not have even realized what was happening. My parents are a good example. They were a product of their socialization and they accepted what was put before them as the normal way of life. The development of suburbia and a shift to consumerism were the next steps to be taken after the Great Depression and the emergence of the U.S. as a world power after WWII. My parents got their jobs, bought their car and home then started having children. They moved, kept their jobs, bought another car and continued to raise their kids. They invested their lifetimes in this way of life. They believed in this way of life. My two siblings followed suit with their own families, jobs, homes, cars, pools and kids.

Imagine the emotional response of having that way of life criticized. By definition an activist (active citizen) is critical and vocal. The role of the citizen is to strive towards informed and ethical decision making for the community good. It is an unfortunate fact that to be an active citizen in our society often leads to separation from the majority in thought and behavior in part because we are often considered to be "judgmental" which, of course, we are. We do "judge" in the sense that we form opinions and conclusions regarding the everyday life around us. Being an active citizen is a never ending process of responsibility which leaves no stone unturned. It means looking at how we get things done: transport, growing of food, production of material goods, etc. and making determinations of how those actions and systems are working or not working.

In the 20 or so years that I've considered myself an active citizen I have consistently been met with resistance. Most people are not open to the idea that their way of life requires the suffering of others. It's not comfortable or convenient because it implies a sense of guilt about both the system and the people who are a part of it. If a way of life is implicitly unfair and unsustainable and we willingly participate in it what does that say about us?

With the arrival of peak oil, climate change, and serious economic crisis all at the same time, many people are seeing the cracks in the way of life that they have taken as a given. As the cracks begin to expand and the system crumbles the whole gamut of emotional and mental states will run its course through the "consumers" of this nation. I suspect that anger, fear and confusion will dominate. The process is already well under way and if we're lucky it will continue to unwind slowly. If that is the case then perhaps panic and violence will give way to community-based movements of cooperation. I don't hold out much hope for this. The shift in our way of life is going to be monumental. Every aspect of how we live is about to change as the cultural, political and ecological repercussions of the past 60+ years step onto the stage. Perhaps the two most significant differences between the Great Depression of the last century and this "Long Emergency" (as James Kunstler refers to it) are the planet's population of 6.5 billion people and dwindling fossil fuel resources.

Eleutheros of the excellent blog How Many Miles from Babylon describes it as a
shift in paradigm :

Facing the realities of our immediate future calls for a shift in the paradigm, a shift in thinking, a shift in the mindset.

--
We are mentally conditioned to think that we would be happier, more comfortable, in a larger over heated and over cooled house. We think prepackaged food is vastly easier to prepare. We think a food processor is a hundred times easier than a knife. Of course this farmstead is on the lunatic fringe. We have experimented with cutting all the firewood we need for heating and cooling with hand tools. It's some more work, to be sure, but not much. Yet in the imagination of the uninitiated, a chainsaw is many hundreds of times less work.

On this farmstead 85% of our food involves zero food-miles and almost all the rest is bought bulk, we use very little electricity and no commercial gas or other fuels. We wear used clothing. We drive bottom feeder vehicles and those only very rarely. Yet how much do we impact global energy and resource use? None, negligible at any rate. The random motion of molecules accounts for more fuel savings that we do in the scheme of things. What we represent is not some quantified amount of energy and resources saved, but rather a complete paradigm shift from the consumerist world.


I've said many times before that I think it is far too late to stop what is coming. It is a done deal. The question is how will we handle ourselves as this amazing shift in our way of life occurs. Will we rise to the occasion? Will we learn and share the skills necessary for survival? Will we step out of our air-conditioned lives and do the work that is now required? Billions of people on planet earth deal directly with survival issues every single day. They know hunger, thirst, extreme cold and heat... for them, survival is not a reality television show but a fact of everyday life.

When fossil fuel based agriculture fails and the shelves remain empty will we eat the drywall of our over-sized homes or will we learn to grow and preserve food the way our ancestors did? I wonder how many people have a basic understanding of how to garden and preserve food? How many have actually tried it and thus have an awareness of how much can actually be grown on any given amount of land or how much time is required? What about growing from seeds and saving seeds for the next season? Will they have access to gasoline and a tiller to prepare the soil or will they double dig by hand or sheet mulch with cardboard? Do they know about squash bugs or japanese beetles? What will they do about water during times of drought? Will a nation of people used to consuming fast food and microwaveable box dinners even know what to do with the vegetables that they've grown? How long will it take them to learn to enjoy real, whole and healthy food?

As individual people we have a lot of growing to do. As individuals that inhabit rural roads or streets in towns and cities, we'll need to develop better relationships with neighbors which can then be grown into communities.


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