What Does It Matter?

We are living in the most destructive and, hence, the most stupid period of the history of our species. The list of its undeniable abominations is long and hardly bearable. And these abominations are not balanced or compensated or atoned for by the list, endlessly reiterated, of our scientific achievements. Some people are moved, now and again, to deplore one abomination or another. Others - and Hayden Carruth is one - deplore the whole list and its causes. Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone's individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence. - Wendell Berry "A Poem of Difficult Hope"

In the circles I run and write in, it is a common device to claim that other thinkers and writers have failed to understand the real, deepest cause of our problems, and have instead embarked upon too superficial a narrative. What's fascinating about this is that the thinkers doing so are almost always correct - that is, they nearly always right that someone has missed a deep underlying cause. The reason for this is that causes are nearly as ample as effects. Thus, the person who laments America's dependence on foreign oil sources can be usefully corrected by someone who observes that the problem is everyone's dependence on a finite resource, rather than a geopolitical error of resource development. The same person, speaking of finite resources can be accurately corrected by someone who observes that a growing population is the "real problem" - that with few enough people, resource constraints would not be an issue, with many people, they inevitably become one. The person arguing in favor of population as the central underlying issue could then be corrected on several grounds - one might, for example, argue that the fundamental problem is the lack of equity between men and women, in which women lack the means and freedom to control their fertility or personal economies. Or you might argue that the fundamental problem is not population, but social inequity - that the poor have access only to children as a source of improving their well being. Both of these critiques (and plenty of others) would, in fact, be correct, and both of them would also be subject to further correction. It is, as they say in reference to something else, turtles all the way down.

I am cautious, then, of trying to identify first causes, because they are so easily overturned. At the same time, however, I find the articulation of origins, if transient and uncertain, to be valuable in that each exercise in imagining a root cause allows us to see our errors in new and useful ways. So recognizing that someone will inevitably argue that something else is truly the root cause and my own articulations are mere symptoms, I would like to suggest that we do not have a resource problem, or a climate problem, or an economic problem - we have a way of life problem.

Several years ago I was invited with many other people to attend a protest march on the coal plant that supplied the Capital with energy. Many other people, including Mr. Berry attended this, marching pubically to demand we stop warming the planet with coal. I wished to attend, but was unable to, but when talking to some friends who were in fact planning to attend, I felt that there was a gap in some participants' understanding. Many of the younger people I met who were excited to bus down to Washington understood very well the dangers of coal - of mining and mountaintop removal, of contamination of water or destabilization of the climate and were courageously willing to stand up to stop coal consumption. What was missing from this protest in some cases was a sense of the connection between that and how they would live. Coal is the single largest element in American electric production - how many of them were prepared to live with about half as much electricity?

Some undoubtably were. Wendell Berry, who has tried for decades to convince Americans that the pre-electric past was not hell, for example, has an extraordinarily clear idea of this. Most of the young people I met on their way to the protest, and even some of the older ones were not. They felt that we should replace our coal with renewables, and if they understood the technical and resource challenges to doing so, assumed (or preferred to believe) that we could do this rapidly without substantive sacrifice or personal constraint. They saw the merits of the protest, and of closing the coal plant - and these were manifest. Without, however, the corresponding emergence of a daily life, a new American dream that consumes far, far less, however, such protests are doomed to failure, because we do not really want them to succeed, do not really want the life we would get if anyone took us seriously.

I believe strongly in political action - I took part in my first protest as a teenager, I have been arrested for political reasons, and I feel public protest is good for the soul, not just for drawing attention or making change. I didn't go, however, because I had to stay home - my son was nursing, my husband was working, the farm needed me, and I have come to think that this staying home had its merits as well. I do not say this to devalue public protest, which I think has an important role - but I do think that protest must be tied to the creation of other kinds of daily change.

This prioritization of protest over the emergence of an ordinary, sustainable life is understandable in a society that prefers the large and shiny to the small and domestic, and that demeans daily personal actions and ways of life as unimportant. I have in much of my other work attempted to articulate the ways in which our personal actions are in fact, political and the conventional distinctions between personal and political intellectually bankrupt, and while I may have made a modest fame in doing so, I've mostly failed so far. This is problematic because it is precisely the emergence of a life worth living - and that can be lived by all the 7-9 billion people who will share our planet in the coming years that is most urgently necessary. If creating and modelling some sort of preliminary life of this sort is my project, I come to it well after Berry, and less gracefully. Still, such a vast project with so few participants can always use one more.

In many ways, the story of the twentieth and early twenty-first century has been the overturning of one way of life (very broadly construed) and the emergence of another throughout the world. The consequences of this way of life and its variants is evident - we consume more of everything, so much so that we are using more than the planet can sustain, and rapidly, making the future resources of the planet less available.

This way of life had some true merits, and I don't want to deny them. Its greatest virtue (and great flaw - and how often our great strengths and flaws are one) has been the recognition of the value of at least some of the people who are here now, a prioritization of the present. I am inclined to be somewhat kinder to this prioritization than Berry is above (and Berry is of course, more nuanced than any single paragraph quote could indicate) and argue that in many ways the present, the people who were here, we calling out to be recognized. Our prioritization of the present is responsible for good for many individuals - the children who did not die before age five, the mothers and fathers who go to keep them, the recognition that it was not enough to wait for heaven's justice, if such a thing exists, to provide freedom and justice for people of color or women, that those who were here now deserved such things. The sense that the people who were here now deserve more now and better now is not inherently a bad thing.

The difficulty is that our virtue became the single most destructive flaw of all time. The recognition that those who were here now deserved more became, as such things often do, pathological. Not only did we deserve children not to die before age five and clean water, but also electricity, private transportation, college education for everyone, a personal computer in every home, etc...etc... We moved rapidly beyond what could actually be achieved by every person, while preserving enough to go around and for the future. And the prioritization of the present meant an increase in struggles between multiple presents - the conflict between America and China for supremacy (now largely over and largely lost by the US) can be seen as a conflict between to presents, whose needs cannot simultaneously and equitably be met. Most of the world was never even in the running to have their needs met.

Most of all, the story that prioritizes those who are here now erases those who will be here - they have no claim. One could trace the history of the 20th century as a narrative in which a way of life that for all its limitations, presumed that the future had some rights, to the emergence of a way of life in which there is no future, and one's posterity cannot be connected to us, so we cannot be responsible for it. First, the material space in which we lived was altered so that generations of people who expected to live and work in approximately, roughly the same places as their parents and who would expect to be followed by future generations no longer had any connection to place. Mobility was prioritized, and so was separation, so much so that the "generation gap" of the 1960s and the snide jokes about grown children living in their parents' basements came to convince us that the highest role of adulthood was to get away from your past in a literal, material sense. Given that, why preserve what you have? Why hold on to the old house, the old farm, the land, the family history - if you have raised your children with the value of erasing it, of growing beyond it, of abandoning and dismissing it, why preserve? Why limit consumption just because it takes from the future - what certainty do you have that you will have a future, or that your grandchildren will visit? Why think of seven generations ahead, when afterall, after 70 years of understanding at some visceral level that others could destroy the habitability of the world - is it not enough to hold what you can as long as you live?

It is, of course, also extremely profitable to consume a great deal and sell the future, so that has taken on its own life. Profitability being what it is, it is most profitable if you can also convince those who have lived quite modestly with fewer resources that they would be better off and happier living like those who have abandoned the future for the present, and this, appealing as it does to our most selfish and petty interests, is not difficult.

All of which is simply a complex way of saying that the problem is how we live - the "non-negotiable" American way of life, which is now, with minor variants, the way of life of the whole portion of the planet that can get their hands on it. No one, of course, is willing to take full responsibility for this - thus, we see as we have battles over global warming that debate responsibility. China cannot constrain its emissions, we are told, because it is bringing its people out of poverty and into the way of life that we in America pioneered. America cannot constrain its emissions in part because China will not and also because we must strive mightily to retain what's left of our economic standards. Thus we live in a global game of chicken with little hope of any actual restraint.

Except, perhaps this - we could change our way of life. Those of us who perhaps inadvertantly became global trendsetters, telling an idealized story of how much better and happier we are through consumption of what the future might otherwise have used, might consider telling another story, and if it were told compellingly enough, might engage others, as our original story of freedom and happiness gained through the abandonment of future claims, future people and future rights.

In the quote I began with, Wendell Berry attempts to articulate what the value of protest is, meditating on Hayden Carruther's poem "On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam" - particularly protest that is in many ways doomed to failure. Since "protest doomed to failure" quite aptly describes the work I advocate, I found his arguments quite compelling. I should say that I think it is quite sincerely the case that we could, with protest and action and most of all the emergence of a new way of life, do a great deal to mitigate our circumstances. That said, however, I do think that even were I and the many others who have read the numbers and come to the conclusion that we cannot go on as we are to be successful beyond even my wildest aspirations, we would fail, and indeed, have already failed to save many lives, to protect species and places and the viability of future lives as well as present ones. This is the human condition, to be doomed to failure, and we are at the moment more doomed than average, or as Berry says later in the same essay,:

And what might have been the spiritual economy of Eden, when there was no knowledge of despair and sorrow? We don't need to worry about that.

Nearly everyone who thinks about these things knows that we are, to put it bluntly, plenty doomed enough, and it wears on us. I get daily several emails saying essentially, "I agree with you and try to do my part, I consume little and less each year, I grow a garden, I tend my place and my community, and I live each day surrounded by people who destroy what I do in a moment, or who care nothing about this. I feel that I bear all the disadvantages of this - I have less than they do in a culture that doesn't value less, I struggle more with my time in a culture that believes that all labor should be saved by burning fossil fuels, I live as rightly and honestly as I can, but it wears on me to always do the hard thing and have less. How do you live with this?"

Berry offers us one possible answer - that the point of our protest is not to change our neighbors, it is not to change the world, it is to create a world in which we have at least preserved the value of things by our valuing of them, we have at least held inside ourselves the fact that these matter. This is small consolation when your dreams are grand and the necessities so vast and urgent.

I'd offer another, however, because I believe there is another value to protest - and by this I mean protest in our lives as well as political protest actions. It is this - when protest is successful, on those rare and remarkable and wondrous occasions when resistance is possible, it is successful not because of the pure, clear polticial persistence of actors who carry signs or passively protest or fight legal battles. Instead, it is successful because political protest is chained not to doors or trees but to the emergence of a new way of life. This way of life is not perfect or sufficient, but the overwhelming emergence of something new and different in ordinary and daily ways is a hallmark of almost every successful political protest.

The success, thus of the Civil Rights Movement, which hardly eliminated racism or inequity, but did make many things possible that were not before, and did at least transform some of the ways that people lived together. was tied not just to protests, but to the emergence of a new daily way of life in which black and white people who had previously lived together in one set of structure relationships began to tentatively develop a new one.

That is the success of protests ranging from Stonewall Riots to peaceful marches to legal challenges to the blood throwing of ACT-UP activists for gay rights has been enchained to the emergence fo a culture in which gay people are openly and honestly members of our own families, neighbors, loved ones, friends, and in which we expect to have Dave and Jim and their daughter over for dinner along with Rose and Steve and their daughter.

I know about the daily acts and transformational changes of the Civil Rights movement from those who have managed to recapture the history of ordinary life before, after and during this period of rapid change. I know about the daily acts and transformational changes of the Gay Rights movement because I lived within it - saw the ways that my mothers, together at church, at my school, among our neighbors changed the way people thought. It is much easier to draw attention to a parade, a protest, a legal event, and these matter, but what mattered as much or more was the everyday action of ordinary people who went about the hard work of developing a life in which black and white people, or gay and straight people lived together differently than they had. It is often assumed that the public protests created the way of life, but I would argue otherwise - the public protests are an expression, a call to action, a way of drawing attention. They matter, but they matter only so much as they enable and support an already existing underlying transformation.

It is this that is the value of protest, and why I am so very convinced that it matters that we both protest the totalizing, encompassing nature of our consumptive, destructive society, and also that we nurture and create and explore and develop the emergence of a new way of life. I know from watching the lives of my parents that this kind of work is tiring, and it seems to have few public rewards. A protest is dramatic, it is exciting, you can attribute a great deal to it, but it is the life that underlies it that in the end matters most. I understand why it is frustrating to have less and use less, to be mocked or disdained or simply regarded as something strange. I understand why in a society where public protest is regarded as "action" and living is regarded as "inaction" it would seem that nothing was being accomplished or changed.

At the same time, when I was 8, and my parents came out to me, they were afraid. They were so afraid that they concealed their relationship, and only even revealed it to their children after a long time. They feared losing custody of my sisters and I, they feared loss of jobs, they feared physical attacks, and they had reason for fear. We could not let people know.

Seven years later, my mother and step-mother were foster parents, caring for other people's children, implicitly recognized in many quarters as better parents than a significant number of straight people. Nine years later, my step-mother came and spoke to my high school class about being a lesbian and gay and lesbian issues, with the full support of my school principle. 10 years after that, my mother and step-mother were married in their church, in a celebration that included their grown children, their forthcoming first grandchild in utero and most of their congregation. A few years after that they went were married at city hal in the town they have resided in for nearly 30 years.

There were a few moments in my childhood where I looked and said "things are changing" but for the most part, I was barely aware that they and I and my sisters and millions of gay families were engaged in the creation of a way of life that fully included them. I knew many people who despaired at various points, who said "we will never be able to..." and some of them were right, they still aren't able. Yet, many of them were wrong, and now they can. Saying that we have not solved it all, that gay people still suffer discrimination, that gay kids still kill themselves, that the beatings have continued although moral has improved is entirely true - but it doesn't change the fact that the world is diffferent, that gay lives are different, and there is more to be done, but what has been accomplished was worth accomplishing and mattered enormously.

We know that it is possible for people to use vastly fewer resources, produce vastly fewer emissions, live with much less than we do and still have good and worthwhile lives. We know that there are things in our present that we need to preserve for our future, and things that we must and can abandon. What those are and how we do this is our project in the world - whether you call it adapting in place or creating a new life or a quiet domestic political protest or whatever you call it this is the only thing left that can save the world - or at least a little piece of it. The political process will follow the emergence of a way of life and there will be plenty of things for us to chain ourselves to, to march against, to speak out for, to go to jail for, to challenge in a court of law. All of those however must be subsequent to this - that we make a life worth living, that allows us all to live, and makes a place for posterity.

This is the best that will ever be said of even our most successful efforts to preserve a world in which people can go forward - that we will fail to do enough. Despair, the logical companion of failure is part and parcel of the project - Carruth's poem, Berry's essay are both fundamentally about despair, about failure and the responsibility of those who fail. The odds are good that changing our way of life will not result in anything that we can call success on a world scale, that it is too little, too late. I don't think there's any point in denying this. Nor do I feel it is worth denying that most of the time, even if we succeed in some measure, it will feel as though we aren't doing enough, are paying too high a price, are losing the wars and all the battles. Most of all, we won't get the credit we would for marching and waving our signs, because such things emerge in part as a shorthand for the work of daily action. Without the shorthand to signal our protest, many of the unimaginative won't see it - some of us may forget to see it.

It isn't an easy project in a world that assumes a great deal of energy and emissions, that says freedom is consumer choice and that participation is mandatory and that wealth is our goal. So when you are in the garden, when you ride your bicycle or walk, when you explain to your neighbor yet again why you don't want their lawn chemicals on your yard, when hang your laundry, when you deliver a meal to a neighbor who is ill, when you say "no, we don't do that," when you teach your children who you are and why you do the difficult thing, when you try and convince yourself that you aren't too tired, when you get up in the morning and it looks like all you've done is pointless remember this - you are doing something hard and vast and new. Without your work and courage there is no hope at all for all of those with the courage to chain themselves at the gates. Without those who chain themselves at the gates, enough people will not know what you have done. With both together, change begins.



More like this

Amen, Sharon. Thank you. I've been feeling overwhelmed by the persistence of the consumer madness. This helps.

So what do we do when neither street protests nor lifestyle changes, in combination, suffice to redirect societal momentum away from the precipice?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

Pierce, I think Sharon's already answered that. We keep doing it because it is worth doing and because nothing else stands a chance of succeeding.

Stephanie Z - Any time you come up with better strategies and tactics, pls let us know asap!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

Watching my husband and son brewing beer together today, I see joy emanating through the cracks of concentration, the two heads joined in measuring and recipe reading. Sure, they could drive down to the store to pick up a twelve pack, but these two have something else going on besides brewing beer.

And that is the point. We have contentment that money cannot buy.

Peace to all in the New Year.

By Java Jane (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

Pierce, I think Sharon's already answered that. We keep doing it because it is worth doing and because nothing else stands a chance of succeeding.

Amerikalı ünlü golf Oyuncusu Tiger Woodsâun çapkınlıÄıyla sarsılan evliliÄi resmen bitti
ÃNCEKi gün golf Åampiyonu Tiger Woods eÅi Elin Nordegren ile resmen boÅandıklarını açıkladı. Ancak Elin Nordegrenâin 750 milyon dolarlık bir anlaÅmayla boÅandıÄı iddiası dikkatleri çiftin üzerine çevirdi. Bir dönem en çok kazanan sporcuların baÅında yer alan Woodsâun bu anlaÅmayla servetinin yarısını ve çocukların velayetini eÅine verdiÄi ifade ediliyor. ingiliz Telegraph Gazetesi, bu boÅanmanın ardından dünyada en pahalı boÅanmaların listesini yayımladı:

Pendikâte park halindeki 18 araç kimliÄi belirsiz kiÅilerce kundakladı. Ãç ayrı mahalledeki araç yangınları, Pendik ve Tuzla itfaiye ekiplerinin çalıÅmalarıyla söndürüldü. Polis, failleri yakalamak için çalıÅma baÅlattı.

Second that amen BetsyR.
I think JavaJane has an important point too. What I see among my friends is that living with less - even the just slightly less that I live with, causes us to change our focus. My friends bring me bike parts and vegetables and I do welding and repairs for them. We plant trees and ride around looking for fruits. There seem to be more neighborhood potluck parties. We are learning to live well without needing so much money.
I'm happy Sharon for your discussion of failure & despair - I guess I have always more or less assumed that I'd fail at whatever I did, at least part way. It doesn't seem to me that success or failure needs to be the deciding factor. Isn't the good thing still good even if you fail at it?
I still think that living well is still the best way to change things -
"that we make a life worth living, that allows us all to live, and makes a place for posterity."
I like that.

By Eric in Kansas (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

Stephanie Z @ # 6 (& maybe # 7 - ?) - Let me try to state my position more clearly.

I have done, and am doing, both the protesting and the simple-living things near to the limits of my ability and circumstances. After decades of this, it seems painfully proven that the system can absorb both modalities and continue on its juggernaut way with scarcely a hiccup.

To actually and significantly turn our species toward less destructive ways of life will require much more involvement by people much better informed and educated than what we see now. (Though I haven't tried it myself, watching the experiences of friends who've tried to save the world by becoming teachers has convinced me that, like holding rallies and gardening, such strategies are at best necessary but rather small components of social change.)

Neither the back-to-the-land movement nor ranting about how much harm our present approaches are doing seem anywhere near waking people up. I'd say the peak impact of both tactics occurred, in the US, in the late '60s and the '70s - both kicked easily to the curb by the bad actor elected in 1980 and his posse.

I greatly admire what Sharon Astyk is doing, on her blog and on her land, but can't read her writings without major attacks of déjà vu. We need something more, and we need it soon (and I freely confess, as a movement veteran going back ~40 years, I'm not likely to be the one who invents it).

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

Pierce, please!

Ronald Reagan was a symptom of a country in trouble. He was not a creator of the demise of the back-to-the-land movement of the 60s/70s or of any other movement back then. The people of the US did not fully understand the dire situation they were in back then any more than they do now. As the Boomers grew up, they seduced themselves with adult toys and accoutrements created by easy money and easy living (partly thanks to North Sea and North Slope oil.)

But now, a generation later, they ARE beginning to understand the situation compared to back then, but a critical mass of common understanding has not been reached yet with the general public. It takes time. It takes demonstrations. It takes demonstrations of a different way of life, lived by us here, that shows friends and family that a better life is possible by living smaller.

By the way, I voted for Reagan. He was better than Carter, the latter being a man that was so bad of a leader, so un-inspirational that he couldn't have led a worm out of a dropped apple.

But I smartened up. I haven't voted for a major party candidate since those 1980s as I think both parties are merely two sides of the same coin. You see, I don't think we will ever change the world for the better by passing more laws and forcing more change on people from the top (government) down. Unless people truly understand WHY change is necessary, unless they see others living the change, they will resist and never buy into the movement, no matter how many "protests" run down the Mall. Reagan was that resistance back then to change not yet fully comprehended by the majority and the Republican flood last month was more of the same.

Grassroots change is a large, if not the majority, part of the answer we seek. It always was. Will it be "enough"? Well, no, but nothing is at this late point in time.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

The problem stems from our destructive culture. Derrick Jensen has written about this beautifully, and I highly recommend his books. We live in a culture of death; why else would we destroy this planet and everything on it? We must change the culture by educating others and ourselves about what is happening. We have to start today. Right now.

The Transition movement (and others, like Common Security Clubs, Gift Circles, Time Banking) help to move us away from this insane relationship with the planet that gives us life. Only by reconnecting with others and our local land, water and air will we be able to make this huge change.

By Susan Norris (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

Maybe part of the problem is that even "living with less" you aren't, not really.

Sharon's life uses a few less things now, but it was built on a stack 'o privilege and in one sense, still benefits from it. After all, I don't see any Native Americans in her neighborhood. She could buy land. How many people can afford that? I don't know anyone who can without moving to a more marginal environment and causing even more damage in the process.

ANd Sharon had an education -- something that was utterly, totally out of reach 100 years ago for all but a vanishingly small number of women. (and is out of reach for many now).

The labor-saving uses of energy weren't just labor saving, they allowed a lot of other things to happen that made Sharon's life possible. It's easy to romanticize the way people used to live.

The reason some of us focus on wealth distribution is that the whole simple living thing never seems to make a dent, and honestly, never has. But what did make a dent was guaranteeing certain rights of people. That seems to have worked pretty well. And doing that allowed the space to create other kinds of modes of living.

It's no accident that nations in the developing world with fewer resource problems tend to be the ones where there is something like democracy operating. Costa Rica, for example, has problems with poverty, but there are refugees showing up there from Nicaragua. (They have an "illegal immigrant" problem not dissimilar to ours). Part of the reason is that people are in a position to make decisions about how resources get used. For instance, the amount of energy and such that go into making a bunch of bombers could be used for something else. I always felt that even just moving around where you put resources makes a gigantic difference.

That's the whole problem I have with some of this. There's always this sense I get that people are looking at a bunch of sepia-tinted photos of the past, and withdrawing from the world. I don't think we need more! more! more! but I do think that as a species we've managed to do a lot that I don't think we really want to give up.

Think of this: even with all the inequity, something like an education is even on the table for women. It's possible. And many of the energy-hungry, resource-intensive things we do made that possible in the first place. For instance, you no longer need to pump out 13 kids and hope one of them lives to be five so you have some labor on your farm. You aren't likely to die in childbirth, either. That used to be common.

One reason for prescribed gender roles in preindustrial settings is that it worked and people could not afford to innovate. The consequences of failure were too high -- innovation in certain areas was too dangerous and risky. It's why a lot of those societies seem rigid. They are. They have to be, or everyone could die, especially in marginal environments. For example, Bob the Inuit says "I have a new way to hunt seal." Joe says "yes, but if you fail, the whole family starves to death. Wanna make a bet?" Bob says, "Yeah, I'll stick with what I know works." (There were people who innovated -- or societies would not change at all -- but there is a reason it took a half a million years to get from one type of stone tool to another, and why someone who was transported from 5000 BC to the birth of Christ would not see much that was that different).

I have been to places where kids die early. I think those folks have every right to see their children grow up, and not worry that a prick from a dirty nail, or a fever, or getting pox will kill them, you know?

Stephen B. - please! (sorry, couldn't help it)

If you voted for Ronnie Baby, then you should recall how much of his schtick, on and off the campaign trail, was an explicit backlash against the "rad-libs" - not to mention his successful smearing of Carter as such (about as honestly as contemporary descriptions of Obama as a socialist).

I don't think we will ever change the world for the better by passing more laws and forcing more change on people from the top (government) down.

So the civil rights laws (to pick the '60s movement that was most successful) were failures and unnecessary? The Clear Air & Water Acts meant nothing?

Reagan was that resistance back then to change not yet fully comprehended by the majority and the Republican flood last month was more of the same.

Here I think we agree, though prob'ly not if we probed more deeply. Reagan was an overt reactionary invoking a mythical past, just like the teabaggers who worship him: both sustained by resentment against loss of social & material privileges. The changes needed to create an ecologically viable economy (just to pick one facet of what SA is urging) will also be perceived as material deprivations, and will be painted that way by pro-status quo scapegoaters. To get past that will necessitate new strategies and better leadership than "progressives" have mustered in my lifetime - but during the time I have left, it would be really nice to see a start made.

(Signing off for the night, in hopes of picking up tomorrow...)

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

Years ago I came to a fork in the road in my life. I started to understand why organic and local was important, and what sustainability meant and I saw others around me trying to make themselves heard, to change the minds of people, to change the world. In my heart I knew that I too could do that, but then I wouldn't have the energy or the time to live a simple sustainable lifestyle.

I felt it was more important to be the change I wanted to see, rather than to try and convince the masses that they should change what they were doing. My life is by no means sustainable yet, but I'm working on it. I do occasionally do activist work, but only when it fits into my life.

Thank you for writing about how important it is to do that daily round. One of my core values is providing a home for my family and my community. I know it seems boring and kind of old fashioned, but what else do we really have? It's not boring to me when people know they can stop by whenever, because I'm often here at home. It's not boring to me that I have time to do the things I love, because I stay at home. I love my home. I am an intelligent, feminist, pagan woman and I choose to live a simple life full of meaning and simple pleasures of good food and companionship. It's well worth going against the mainstream. The fact that it's good for the planet and for humanity is just icing on the cake.

I don't think we will ever change the world for the better by passing more laws and forcing more change on people from the top (government) down.

Yes, because I think we've reached a point of very diminished returns on more government laws. While the major ones you cited were good laws, we've passed SO many laws and regulations, many very minute ones, that people are simply being overwhelmed. I'm thinking laws about cell phone use, for minors, behind the wheel, laws about how quickly one must shovel the sidewalk out front of your apartment or be ticketed by the city, the no-chickens in the backyard laws, the no-clothesline laws, the obtuse tax laws that NOBODY understands completely come 1040 time, the law MA has about paying my town $100 for the privilege of me digging an ordinary hole in my back yard, etc. etc. etc.

Let's not even talk about the failed drug laws, S510, TSA personal freedom intrusions, The Patriot Act, etc, etc. etc.

I doubt a single person in the US can get through a single day, let alone a week, without breaking some regulation or law that requires at least a $100 fine or jail time if only they knew about the law or regulation.

It's so bad now even people such as myself are finding themselves overwhelmed and in backlash mode against any more government control.

No, change for a simpler, less consumptive life at this point starts with the people. The government at this point is hell bent on creating more complexity because that is what justifies government's existence at this point (along with the highly paid and benefited govt. politician and appointee positions.) That and the federal government controlling all of our trade via controlling our money supply via The Federal Reserve and more and more of us down at the grassroots level have had quite enough.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

As well, the Civil Rights laws came about because enough people at the grass roots level, were ready for it.

That is, government FOLLOWED, rather than led the evolution.

The trouble is, government is following further and further behind every day, nowadays, on things that matter.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

I know what will finally change people's ways for the better: Holocausts. Fields of starved and dead. Killer weather making agriculture and community impossible in places that were previously habitable. Brownouts, blackouts, water rationing of the sort most of us have never known.

So bring on that eco-apocalypse. It's gonna suck and we might not make it as a species, but it's the only way to get junior out of the Hummvee. At that point, the Sharon Astyks of the world will be called on for their experience trying to do things right. Won't that be nice?


By CS Shelton (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

I would argue that this is the least stupid period in the history of our species, if only because if you think this era is stupid - which it is to a maddening extent - look at the past.

People wonder why I don't like most people.

By Katharine (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

I know what will finally change people's ways for the better: Holocausts. Fields of starved and dead. Killer weather making agriculture and community impossible in places that were previously habitable. Brownouts, blackouts, water rationing of the sort most of us have never known.

So bring on that eco-apocalypse. It's gonna suck and we might not make it as a species, but it's the only way to get junior out of the Hummvee. At that point, the Sharon Astyks of the world will be called on for their experience trying to do things right. Won't that be nice?

What about those of us who aren't terminal idiots about all this? Do we get the same punishment?

Seriously, have you thought about this much?

By Katharine (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

I didn't say anything about anyone deserving anything. There's no justice in this world and I didn't imply there was. I feel really bad for the species we've extincted so far and preemptively bad for the ones we're working on and it gives me no comfort that stupid people will suffer along with the righteous.

I'm just saying everything must get worse before it gets better, and that's exactly how this is playing out.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

I think that hope lies in human beings having what may be an unlimited capacity to learn. The predicament is that we apply this capacity almost exclusively to our outer world and have come to believe that everything that is wrong is somehow the fault of someone outside, and everything can be fixed by changing things on the outside - the neighbours, the government.

It is pretty obvious though that this approach simply does not work. It appeared to work when we were trying to get a piece of wood turned into something that better served us, spoons, chairs, heat, but when it comes to the vastly more complex issues us as a species of 7 billion with all the inequality and waste etc, it isn't working. I think it is because of the way we think, and it is the way we have been predominately thinking for millions of years. So, it may be better to focus our extraordinary capacities in a different direction.

It turns out that this is very hard and extremely slippery! But, the less time and energy we put into looking elsewhere for solutions the more we have to apply in what might be a more fruitful direction.

If, and this might be a big if, human beings have an ultimate purpose then I believe that the purpose is the same now as it was 100,000 years ago, and quite possibly time has nothing to do with it. Looking at time to solve the problems might be the biggest red herring of them all.

By Andrew Ramponi (not verified) on 27 Dec 2010 #permalink

Stephen B @ # 18: ... the Civil Rights laws came about because enough people at the grass roots level, were ready ... That is, government FOLLOWED, rather than led the evolution.

As a native Mississippian whose personal experience dates back before the Civil Rights laws, let me tell ya: no way, José!

A major fraction, perhaps even a plurality (nothing close to a majority) of Americans were "ready for it" - but much of US society, primarily but not at all exclusively in the South, had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the segregation era. It couldn't have happened without the grassroots, but the National Guard, courts, FBI, etc, also played crucial roles.

Given that everything else you've said here echoes standard libertarian tropes (a kernel of truth magnified far out of proportion), I'm not a bit surprised that you omitted any response to my other example of positive social change from the '60s/'70s, the Clean Water and Air Acts. Perhaps closer to your ideological home, consider another federal intervention that I was kicking myself for not including when I clicked the "Post" button last night: Roe v. Wade.

We were able to implement major changes from the bottom-up a generation or so ago. Now, just about every social trend - yes, especially the Tea Party, even (gasp!) Facebook - is corporate-driven. How do we change how we change things?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 28 Dec 2010 #permalink

I didn't "omit" what you said. Rather, I said the "major" laws you cited were good laws....and by that I meant the pollution control laws you just cited again.

Still, I think we've reached the point where, because government has attempted to micro-manage SO many behaviors as of late (see again my previous examples), we've gotten to the point where there is a significant backlash against government attempting anything more.

How do we deal with the corporatism? Well, as I see it, big, centralized government located far away goes hand in hand with corporatism. Many of the laws we have implemented can only be borne by large organizations. Small enterprises have been largely wiped out, not just by modern economics, but by their inability to cope with all the rules and regulations. (Think for a moment, of the many essays Sharon, Joel Salatin, et al have written about the illegality of running a small farm.) Large, unresponsive government has been taken over by the corporations that alone can work within the framework created by large government.

I have no problem with many of the major laws government has passed over the years except that it doesn't know when to stop and becomes an all consuming, all encompassing entity all in itself that has in turn made a simple, lower impact life outside of the formal economy all the more difficult to lead.

Another way we change things is by not applying labels to others without their permission, thereby alienating them.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 28 Dec 2010 #permalink

Stephen B - my apologies if I "alienated" you, and my thanks for an intelligent reply that undermines the stereotype I had previously perceived.

That said, I think the problem of over-regulation derives directly from the problem of over-population: we don't (yet, sfaik) have any rules requiring everyone to bathe daily, but those who spend a lot of time in crowded elevators have probably entertained the thought that such a law might help.

However, now or in less-peopled centuries past, we (humans) show little evidence of being able to reshape our institutions and worldviews in the ways now obviously needed. From here in Usofa, it looks like the Japanese have had the most success in reinventing their own culture - but nothing has yet trickled out to my neighborhood indicating that their "Green" component has gotten beyond the energy-/water-/space-saving stage (though American society remains decades behind on that level).

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 28 Dec 2010 #permalink

I learned a long time ago it's nothing about the destination but rather the adventures in our journeys to get there. Individually and collectively, we have power to bring about change. This keeps me from getting discouraged.

Pierce, you really got me thinking about something all day today while I was at work.

The question I had was just how far *do* I expect government to go to solve our problems. Thinking about successes such as the Voting Rights Act and the Clean Air Act, one has to say, yes, government can help fix things. But then I think about the more recent record of government and I have to wonder.

Earlier, I ran a laundry list of all the penny ante rules and regulations that government, at all levels has imposed on us, from clothesline rules to the implementation of the Patriot Act. I could go on and point out that my own town here in MA has literally doubled the size of its health code book over the past dozen years that I've lived here, a code book, that in my opinion, was already substantial before. Now I have nothing against health enforcement, but when one gets really into it, the minute details that our town goes into now regarding everything to do with health, really boggles the mind.

There was an interesting study some years ago that found out that Massachusetts residents, along with several other, "liberal", large government states, gave a lower percentage of their income to charity than did several less, liberal states. Nothing was proven, but the researchers did get several comments from those in the higher tax states that those residents felt less need to help the needy because they thought and expected the government to already be helping those that needed help.

My point here is that we're expecting government to do more and more while we, the individuals, do less and less. We needn't worry about doing things in a healthy way, since, if there was a problem, there must already be a rule and if there isn't a health code rule prohibiting something that must mean that it's something that's safe to do. (That is, at a certain level, we're so sure that the government has all the bases covered, we neednât cover the bag ourselves any longer.)

Going further with this, Sharon, several years ago, wrote a blog entry about religion and Peak Oil I think it was. In any case, I recall her writing and challenging those who would call her religion a "fairy tale." Fine she said, but if not for religion, who was going to bury the dead, do the marriages, and celebrate the other life milestones she asked? Government just doesn't do as good a job of those celebrations as people in their religious, or other private, non-governmental organizations do.

What I'm getting at is we simply cannot expect government to do it all, but that's exactly what many seem to be counting on when we try to legislate nearly everything before the population, at least in some kind of majority, is ready for the change.

The Voting Rights Act came, perhaps not because the people of Mississippi in the majority were ready, but because the people, as expressed through their Congress and President, around enough of the rest of the country were. I happen to think we need some government action on Global Warming, (that is one reason I resist the libertarian label for myself :-) )but clearly the population as a whole, sadly, isn't ready to go there regarding GW amelioration via government edict.

One thing government has done recently, is put forth a ban on incandescent light bulbs. Fine. I havenât had many of those things in my own house in years for the obvious reason that they use too much electricity, contribute too much CO2 for that electricity, and are basically a bad investment personally. But I do have a few. Iâm thinking of the one inside my oven. I happen to like being able to see my pie baking without opening the oven door, but what to do when the incandescent bulbs are gone? Compact fluorescents wonât withstand the oven heat. Ditto that for LED bulbs. I guess the government will grant an exemption for incandescents for baking oven lights. Score one more for an even more complicated regulation book regarding the manufacturing of light bulbs without really solving the problem.

Now if only we could continue to get more and more of the population to dump the incandescent bulbs along with all the other excess light bulbs, we wouldnât need a cumbersome government regulation. But again, when we expect government to always provide the answer, without us in our own lives doing the legwork first, we get a situation that is increasingly unworkable. Government grows ever larger, and less responsive, all while growing into an instrument to channel corporate power as you pointed out, and yet things continue to fall apart.

Iâm not against government being used as one tool to improve things for all of us, but we have to recognize its limits, for right now too many people, on the left side of the isle especially, think they can simply fix all thatâs wrong with the world by government edict, and frankly, I just donât see it working that way, all that well.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 28 Dec 2010 #permalink

On further thought, I'll probably be getting a wood cook stove sometime soon, and I'll *have* to get used to checking on the pies by opening the door :)

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 28 Dec 2010 #permalink

to Pierce and Stephen, and the rest of us...
Sharon wrote a wonderful piece several years ago, and has since re-posted it. It's The Theory of Anyway.
And the jist of it is this. We must do these things we are discussing, not because we can save the world, or our ourselves, children, families, communities... we must do it anyway, because we KNOW it's the right thing to do.
We have to live with ourselves.

By Sara in Alabama (not verified) on 28 Dec 2010 #permalink

Stephen - you raise a lot of worthwhile questions, and perhaps more than I can respond to adequately tonight.

I intend to start on a reply, but under multitasking conditions, so may have only a partial answer before tucking myself in this eve.

With enough digging - no reason it shouldn't be public record - I expect you'll find a Horror Story⢠behind just about all of those health code regs. Massachusetts bureaucrats may be more pro-active than most others, but do you have to wait until somebody gets hurt in your territory before banning practices that have hurt people elsewhere?

Consider the famous story of the McDonald's coffee burn. It's well known what temperatures will cause burns if a fluid is spilled, and they were serving coffee well above that temp from a drivethru on a street full of potholes. (Once it was clear that the restaurant had received numerous complaints about this exact situation, is it any wonder the jury socked it to Mickey D with both fists?) Anyway, MA healthocrats probably started working on an ordinance as soon as they realized that yes, profit-making businesspeople can be that stupidly negligent. (In most of these stories, the industry under review promptly throws lawyers & lobbyists into the fray, and that's when the resulting documents really start to put on some pounds.)

... we're expecting government to do more and more while we, the individuals, do less and less.

Quite so. Mostly it's just individuals doing less and less and expecting more and more to be done for them. In many ways, the corporate sector has moved deeper into this territory than the snoopiest government. Better education might go a long way toward addressing this, but so would better job opportunities to motivate better studying.

There was an interesting study some years ago that found out that Massachusetts residents, along with several other, "liberal", large government states, gave a lower percentage of their income to charity than did several less, liberal states.

I wouldn't have time/energy to follow up if you posted a link, but my knee-jerk reaction is to distrust such conclusions, or at least to ask a few questions:

* "Liberal", "schmiberal" - isn't the proper comparison between high-tax and low-tax states?

* "... several less liberal states" sounds too much like cherry-picking. 50 is not an overwhelming data set.

* "charity"? If church donations are included, then probably the bible belt states put everybody else in the shade. Even conceding that some fraction of that total actually provides some material help to humans who seriously need it, I would urge citizens of whatever state gives the least to organized superstition to take pride in that.

... but if not for religion, who was going to bury the dead, do the marriages, and celebrate the other life milestones she asked?

I know lots of people who jump those hurdles without any assistance from churches. Those who cannot build a social support system without superstition are to be pitied, not emulated.

...clearly the population as a whole, sadly, isn't ready to go there regarding GW amelioration via government edict.

Hell, not even the most "liberal" politician is calling for slightly lower speed limits - though there are half a dozen good non-climatological reasons for same. As long as the voting population remains mesmerized by, and has its reality defined by, corporate-controlled tv, this "popular" consensus will continue.

One thing government has done recently, is put forth a ban on incandescent light bulbs.

They had a big shelf-full last time I was in a home-supply store.

No doubt the LED, fiber optics and related-tech crews have high-temp R&D labs (many operating on tax $) whose spinoff products may well assist in baking many a future pie. Have you any reason to think thermal-equipment manufacturers haven't approached their regulators about the oven question and found willingness to negotiate exceptions? So what if it makes the code book fatter? You just cannot run a high-tech society from a brief scroll of lofty principles (nor a medieval society, judging from the record).

... for right now too many people, on the left side of the isle especially, think they can simply fix all thatâs wrong with the world by government edict...

Aww, now you're sounding like a libbie again. Most of the lefties I know (quite a few) consider government "edicts" as only one necessary step in the process of fixing what needs fixing. (Most of the other steps entail public involvement, which as you note is in deficient supply now.)

It's been 24 years since I used a wood stove, but even then some of the less backward nations had models with glass windows, plus thermometers and *flashlights*.

Okay, enough! Have a good night...

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 28 Dec 2010 #permalink

Sara in Alabama - while not disagreeing with anything you say, my goal is action with results that increase planetary/human viability. A clear conscience would be nice, but I consider that personally moot already...

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 28 Dec 2010 #permalink

"One thing government has done recently, is put forth a ban on incandescent light bulbs.

They had a big shelf-full last time I was in a home-supply store."

The ban is to be phased in over the next two or so years. They're starting with the higher wattages, and then moving onto the lower ones. Specialty and appliance bulbs are exempt. Like I said, it's complicated rule-making. How are they going to police the difference between a medium base oven light bulb and one that fits into a living room fixture is beyond me, given that there are millions upon millions of ovens and room light fixtures out there that are compatible with each other currently and won't be retired for years and years yet.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 29 Dec 2010 #permalink

Sharon's excellent post helps us feel connected to a shared truth about what's happening and how we can live in response. For me, the live presence of other humans exploring these ideas, even a very small number, helps create the deep-sigh space where we can confront it, or live what's happening, together. While I confess this has been difficult to do (and currently is) because we confuse ideology with being-in-this-together, it's the "answer" that has most encouraged and blessed me.

Onwards and downwards and upwards!

Stephen B. - Do you really think the FBI is going to run around investigating whether people are putting specialty oven bulbs in their living room lamps? The point is saving energy, which seems very likely to be accomplished. The main threat in this realm is whether the regs are written in such a way as to interfere with the introduction of LED bulbs if & when those become cost-competitive.

May I take it that your silence on my other points equals agreement?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 29 Dec 2010 #permalink

Yes, it's a way of life problem.

I must tell you though, that at this point, when I hear "Wendell Berry says" I quit listening.

He's the perfect example of why the views he espouses gain no traction. His voice is only heard and understood by- those who already understand.

Time to find a new voice- he's useless. Cute, nostalgic, intelligent, yeah, yeah; and a complete failure in communication.

By Ranklebiter (not verified) on 29 Dec 2010 #permalink

oh, yeah, I was thinking this part was obvious, but that was stupid of me:

At your best, Sharon, you are a much more effective communicator, to non-choir persons, than Berry is. So we do have choices there.

My preference (personal) - quit citing Berry; make your points without him. I really think, at this juncture, he's a negative factor.

By Ranklebiter (not verified) on 29 Dec 2010 #permalink

Sharon-Your post was wise. Many of us can consume less and should for many reasons that you explained very well.

However, farmers did not leave family farms because of dissatisfaction with their lifestyle. Small farmers left for the city because larger farms and, then, factory farms undermined their ability to make a sufficient income on a small farm. The culture of frugality that accompanied small farms and businesses disappeared as a result of economic change. Also, mass marketing and mass production undermines traditional skills and products. (See Susan Strasser's Waste and Want, for instance.)

We can, with some effort, avoid or resist much of this marketing, but everyone needs sufficient means of support.

Maybe circumstances will lead to a change to a new culture of sufficiency and more of us will return to the days of bricolage, repair and neighborliness.

This is a wonderful post. Bravo. I especially like:

"Those of us who perhaps inadvertantly became global trendsetters, telling an idealized story of how much better and happier we are through consumption of what the future might otherwise have used, might consider telling another story, and if it were told compellingly enough, might engage others, as our original story of freedom and happiness gained through the abandonment of future claims, future people and future rights."

Amen. We need a new narrative, into which we can invite folks to step.

fenerbahçe Kulübü, turkcell Süper Lig'de kalan haftalarda maçların aynı saatte baÅlatılması için Futbol Federasyonu'na (TFF) baÅvurdu. fenerbahçe Kulübü'nün internet sitesinde yapılan açıklamada, TFF'nin açıkladıÄı programa göre, hafta sonundaki 31. hafta maçlarının farklı saatlerde oynanacaÄı hatırlatılarak, bunun Åampiyonluk yarıÅında ve düÅme hattında mücadele eden takımları olumsuz etkileyeceÄi ve spekülasyonlara neden olacaÄı ifade edildi.

I'll tentatively venture a deeper level of understanding on this topic: the problems that we have are related to the nature of life in general.

In a sense it seems similar to saying that protons are made up of quarks since our way of life is what actually has bearing on the physical world, but it seems to me that our collective predicament has some similarities to bacteria in a petri dish or elk on an island.

Diamond's description of a successful society on a small island (the details of which I don't remember very well at the moment)belies my idea, but if I recall he says that all the people living there Understood the finiteness of the island.

Without full understanding of the limits of nature by everybody, I think that any social system we can devise is doomed to failure because (a bit of a slippery slope coming up here with some vague terms) someone who doesn't understand will act in their own interest by acquiring more power and using more resources. Others who also don't understand will follow their example since they don't see any reason not to which leads to an unsustainable situation. I suppose that it might be a tipping point situation where there might be some understanding percentage of a population that would keep the society from plunging into an unsustainable spiral.

The financial collapse seems to be a pretty good example of this (although I'm no expert). My take on it though is that after the Great Depression there were some good regulations that were put in place, but were worn down over a number of years by people who didn't fully understand why they were created. They then (I assume mostly inadvertently) proceeded to create an economic bubble in order to enrich themselves.

Unexpectedly to me, the problem seems to be pointing to a solution through education. As a Canadian, I listened to a lecture recently about the American Constitution and was moved by the idea that it requires people to be properly educated in order to it to be upheld. Very similarly, in order for 'natural law' (?) to be upheld, people must be worthy of it.

To me, this seems like an issue that should be dealt with before deciding on the details of how we live. However, since Sharon somehow seems to know just about everything important, I assume that there must be some good reason why it isn't discussed.

Without full understanding of the limits of nature by everybody, I think that any social system we can devise is doomed to failure because.. someone who doesn't understand will act in their own interest by acquiring more power and using more resources. Others who also don't understand will follow their example since they don't see any reason not to..

"Understanding" the situation is irrelevant to its outcome. Bacteria in a Petri dish, rats in a cage, deer on an island, humans in the biosphere.. will exploit the resources provided by their environments until those resources are exhausted and populations collapse. The only thing that will prevent this outcome is if competitors, predators, parasites & disease keep population at or below the level that can be sustained indefinitely by the resources the environment provides. Maintaining population at this level can only occur in a biodiverse, complex, functioning ecosystem. A Petri dish, cage, or island doesn't provide such an ecosystem. In the case of humans, our natural competitors, predators, parasites & diseases have largely been circumvented and we have discovered how to exploit the potential energy provided by photosynthesis & reduced fossil carbon, to massively grow our population far beyond the level that can be indefinitely sustained by the resources provided by the environment. The unavoidable outcome is that human population will crash. This outcome is inevitable whether people understand the implications of acting as if infinite economic & population growth is possible on a finite planet, or not. People "will act in their own interest by acquiring more power and using more resources" whether or not they understand the implications. In fact, providing people with such "understanding" via education or outreach only equips them with better means of acting in their own personal or familial interests to the detriment of the group and of the environment the group operates in and consciously or unconsciously seeks to destroy.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 31 Dec 2010 #permalink