Awakening as the day’s first rays of sunlight brighten my bedroom, I dress hurriedly and run downstairs. Even though it’s a Saturday, I’m eager to get to “work.” Passing through the kitchen on my way to the back door, I notice that my wife, Anna, has already made some coffee. Pouring myself a cup, I take it with me as I head out the back door on my way to my workshop. My workshop is where I work. I’ve been self employed as a furniture maker for a couple of years now, and presently I’m working on a fine dresser for my neighbor, Sam. As I cross the yard on the way to my workshop, I see Anna tending our garden. Our young son William is feeding our small flock of chickens and other animals, intermittently playing with our two beautiful dogs.
We’ve had so many tomatoes this year that we’ve been trading them to the neighbors for their surplus produce. It’s been absolutely marvelous to enjoy such a variety of fresh, organic produce in this abundant year. I still recall the tasteless, wax-like produce we used to buy in the commercial grocery stores years ago, thinking that was normal. I’d never shop in another grocery store for produce after tasting what I and my neighbors can produce.
In addition to tomatoes, our garden produces several dozen other types of fruits, vegetables, beans, and herbs. Besides corn that we acquire from local farmers, we feed our chickens food scraps that we would otherwise throw away. In return our chickens produce the best tasting eggs imaginable, their poop is a surprisingly good fertilizer, and they are effective pest controllers. In all, our plot of land produces about half our food. The other half comes from my talent as a furniture maker. The dresser I’m making for Sam will provide us with meat from his farm for several months.
I used to work in Manhattan as an accountant for a large firm, where I was paid a large salary. My wife and I owned a great condo, a nice car, and had all the trendiest gadgets. We dined in the finest restaurants, went to Broadway shows, and occasionally flew first class to Europe. We really thought we were “fulfilled.” One day, while reading about the “downshifting” trend in Europe, I realized just how unfulfilling our life really was. I also came to appreciate how little control we had over our lives. I was totally dependent on my employer to maintain our precarious existence. Without my high paying job, we’d promptly be forced to give up our nice condo, car, and luxurious living.
I discussed these thoughts with my wife, but it took many months for the truth of my words to sink in to both of us. We weren’t “living” in any real sense; we were existing. Worse, we were not in control of our lives, but existed at the whim of the executives controlling my firm. After much talk, we sold our condo and car, moved to rural Kentucky, and bought an old house with some land. It was a major transition for us, especially since we didn’t know a soul there, but the lifestyle quickly grew on us. The most surreal thing about our new life was the absence of stress about finances, job security, noise, crime, etc. I daresay, we had unwittingly found paradise. While we never thought about having children when we lived in Manhattan, somehow, living in the country made childrearing seem like the most natural thing in the world, and it wasn’t long after we moved to that paradise that Anna became pregnant with our first child.
Today we largely support ourselves. We produce much of our own food. My talent is in great demand. I currently have orders for half a dozen pieces of furniture from my neighbors, all in exchange for products of their labor. I no longer have any fear about my job security.
Moreover, we’ve shunned much of the materialism we once regarded as essential to living. We don’t subscribe to cable television; our television is used only for watching movies on DVDs which we share amongst our community. We got rid of our fancy car and bought an old pickup truck, but we rarely even drive that because pretty much everything we need is near enough that we can use our bicycles. We have no technological gadgets, not even a mobile phone. We have a computer and a dialup Internet connection, which we use for e-mail and reading news online.
Our life is much simpler than it was, but we are happier. Looking back, it’s surprising how much stress came from having to acquire and maintain all those gadgets we thought were so vital. Besides working, we spend a lot of time talking to each other, visiting with our friendly neighbors, playing cards with them, and reading books that we also share amongst our community. Even our limited dependence on our neighbors has reintroduced us to the concept of tolerance for others’ differences. Anna is now learning to knit sweaters from one of our neighbors, whom in New York we would have considered too odd to associate with. And now my brother, who is worried about his own job security, has decided to move here. We’re looking for a house for him now, and it will be wonderful to have him and his wife living near us.
Responding to my essay titled “The End of Civilization”, some people suggested I should write about the solutions I referred to in passing. The foregoing fiction is meant to introduce readers of this essay towhat I see as one solution to the many crises facing humanity and our planet. In a nutshell, my solution to what ails us and our planet is this: reject consumerism, globalization, corporatism, and government, and return to localized, productive, community-oriented, sustainable living. The purpose of this essay is not to condemn, criticize, or judge anyone, but to get people to open their minds to the possibility of a different way of living than what they’ve been taught to pursue. Although I frequently refer to the United States, much of what I have to say applies to the whole industrialized world.
Production Versus Consumption
The United States economy today largely revolves around consumption. Everywhere one turns in this country they are bombarded with messages telling them to consume, consume, consume. One can even see such advertising today on the risers of steps in subway stations! And we have responded as prodded, consuming to no end. But are we happy? I don’t think so. In fact, it seems that the people I’ve known to consume the most are the least happy. It’s as if their consumerism is a surrogate for happiness.
By contrast, enormous satisfaction comes from producing something, especially if the product embodies one’s own special talent or skill or is inspired by one’s own initiative. This, of course, is the opposite from conditions in the United States today. Listening to people talk about their jobs, it seems that most people in this country hate their jobs. Can you blame them? They are not actually producing anything of value, unless one considers working as a retail sales clerk, serving food in a restaurant, or riding telephones on a cube farm to have great value. In order to produce something of real value, one needs a skill, and possessing such a skill affords one a sense of self worth and job security. I’ll bet plumbers enjoy more job satisfaction than stock brokers.
Although people consume and consume, few, it seems, question whether their consumption is making them happier, or whether it might actually be making them unhappier. For example, you buy a mobile phone and it comes with an allotment of minutes each month and a two-year contract. Now, in order to get the maximum value out of your purchase, you feel pressure to use your full allotment of minutes, but at the same time you fear exceeding that allotment because you’ll get reamed.
Later you decide you want to get a different mobile phone service, but too bad, you’re trapped in a two-year contract. Mobile phones are certainly convenient, but think back before we had them. We also didn’t have to worry about receiving phone calls at unappreciated times, getting work-related calls at home, remembering to pay another monthly bill, using up our allotted minutes, or being locked in a contract. Or take that latest trendy gadget you bought. Did it work perfectly, or did you pull your hair out trying to get it to work satisfactorily? And how did you feel when, right after you spent your hard-earned money on that gadget, a better model came out at a lower price? Six months later, was it sitting dormant on a shelf in a closet? Might you have been happier if you simply hadn’t bought it in the first place? Consider that if you had not bought that gadget, you might have experienced less stress and have more money in the bank or less debt on your credit card today.
Obviously, we need to consume some things, such as food, in order to survive. Clothes to wear are nice too. But needless consumption, either because we’re programmed by advertising to consume or because we’re searching in vain for something to make us happy, merely increases our debt and depletes our planet’s vital resources. If instead of indiscriminately consuming everything in sight, we consumed only what we really needed, and then produced ourselves that which we consumed, we’d be a lot happier and wealthier, and our planet would thank us for it.
Local Versus Global
I’m not suggesting that we should each manufacture everything we use. What I’m saying is that we should look to ourselves first; if we cannot provide what we need, then we should look to our neighbors; then our town; then we should reconsider if we really need the thing; finally, and only as a last resort, look outside our local community. Imports should be the exception, not the norm. Some people might argue that imports result in cheaper products. This is precisely the problem with our way of life. Because everything is too cheap we consume and consume. If things cost more, we’d consume only what we needed, and when we did consume locally produced products, it would benefit our families and neighbors, not faceless corporations in faraway lands.
Twice in the last year I’ve seen in local grocery stores garlic from China for sale! Think about that for a moment. This tiny bag of garlic, which is being sold for about one dollar, traveled more than five thousand miles from China to California. Does that make sense, especially when the town of Gilroy, California, just four hundred miles away, is a major producer of garlic? This is an example of what’s so terribly wrong with globalization. It may well be cheaper in the cold, hard accounting of dollars and cents to farm garlic in China and ship it all the way to California, but what about the precious oil consumed and extra pollution generated by shipping it? What about the jobs lost in the United States? Just because we don’t have a good way to quantify these costs doesn’t mean that their cost is zero, that we can simply ignore them. I think most people would intuitively agree that shipping garlic from China to California makes no sense. This story about garlic is a trivial example, but multiplied by thousands of other products being shipped and sold in fantastic volumes and the problem becomes considerably more serious.
Imagine, on the other hand, that you exchanged some tomatoes you grew in your yard for garlic that your next door neighbor grew in his yard. How much more efficient and sustainable is this hypothetical scenario, compared to the absurd real-life scenario described above?
One of the greatest tragedies of modern America is the decimation of its small town “Main Streets” through globalized competition. It used to be that a small business owner would set up a business in their local community, the employees of this business would be family members or neighbors, the profits would be reinvested in the local community. The prices might have been higher than those of globalized businesses, but a higher level of service would have been provided as well. Such businesses fostered community stability and created a decent standard of living for generation after generation. Many of the people who once owned their own small businesses in such small towns now work for the very globalized corporations that helped put them out of business. In our consumerist frenzy to find the lowest prices we have unwittingly put ourselves out of business, so to speak.
We could return to the days where we shopped in local stores, owned by our neighbors, and which sold locally manufactured goods. We can afford to pay higher prices to local merchants by shopping more judiciously, by recognizing that there is intangible value in dealing with someone we know, and by appreciating the benefits afforded to our communities by such local businesses: community stability, increased standard of living, educating our young about responsibility. It’s our choice.
(To be continued)
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