The Times this morning featured an article on a home foreclosure auction in Minneapolis, where buyers hoped to acquire bargain-rate properties from victims of the recent sub-prime mortgage fiasco—yet another manifestation of the role bare-faced greed plays in our economy. Having participated in such an auction once, years ago in Philadelphia, in hopes of buying (with a group of friends) a big old house being sold for back taxes, I can understand the hope such an event generates: a buyer of modest means imagines that a foreclosure offers the chance to pick up a decent house for an affordable amount of cash. Unfortunately, it seldom seems to turn out well—it didn’t for us, because the bank that held the original note bought it back for just over what we could afford—and the same kind of speculation that brought on the sub-prime crisis in the first place is still going on. One pair of buyers were looking for houses they could buy for cheap, rent out for a year, and then resell when prices went up.
But this is just another symptom of the devaluation of needs and the valorization of wants that characterizes so much of modern life. The work that sustains us is underpaid (sometimes barely paid at all), the things we really need are turned into luxuries by people whose business it is to sell us bigger, more expensive, and/or more environmentally costly items than are actually necessary. Our ideas about what we need become colored by what the wealthy say is a “right”: such as having as big a house as we want, according to a recent letter-writer to Natural Home Magazine (July/August 2007). This was a response to an article extolling the virtues of smaller houses, a clarion call first sounded by architect Sarah Susanka with her book, The Not So Big House. A reader responded to the article with a huffy assertion that it was his right to build whatever size house he desired. It was not, according to him, Natural Home’s business to preach otherwise. In response to this letter, however, the magazine printed a very thoughtful counter-argument from reader Charles Flickinger, who noted that “As a culture, we desperately need new values (actually old values) to divert us from the insane path that consumerism has us blindly running down. We should know that the most important things aren’t things, and that conservation and thinking small are virtues” (September/October, p. 12).
Similar distortions of the relationship between want and need are apparent in the realms of food and clothing. Rather than concentrating agricultural efforts on securing safe, healthful foodstuffs, the agricultural industry (!) has begun to focus its attention on non-food products, such as corn and sorghum for biofuels. In addition, such phenomena as genetically modified crops (and the patenting of particular genes), and hormone injections in cattle are all designed for efficiency and volume—not for health (although the food engineers will claim that their patented genes reduce the need for chemicals), but to provide cheaper food whilst procuring greater profits. Never mind that the results are far less palatable than locally-grown, heirloom varieties (with unpatented genes), or that hormones fed to dairy cows inflate their udders to preposterous sizes (no woman who has ever breast-fed a child can see engorged cows without feeling sympathy). But the food is cheaper, and the better stuff is more expensive, so the less well-off will be stuck with tasteless, mass-produced pabulum unless they have access to community gardens. But we will be able to drive our big, gas-guzzling internal-combustion engines even when our sources of foreign oil turn off the taps.
Clothing, originally designed to protect members of a relatively hairless human species from the cold, has become a mega-multi-gazillion dollar industry. The “need” for fashion designers and retailers in the industry is reflected in the recent implementation of two BFA degrees in these areas at the college in which I teach. Beyond food, and beyond housing, the designing, manufacturing, and marketing of clothing have become the symbolic epicenter of the modern substitution of want for need. Once tied to cultural traditions and governed by the availability of materials, clothes have become the symbol of the person: you are what you wear. And what you wear is marketed to you by celebrity designers and manufacturing conglomerates, who have no concern at all about who you are, or whether or not what you wear is going to add to the turmoil in the world about garment workers’ wages, exportation of jobs, pesticide use on fiber crops, or whether or not our running around half-naked is going to color other countries’ views of what we stand for. Along with the slow/simple food and the small-house revolutions, I would really love to see a simple-clothing movement—all of which would focus on sustainability infused with conscientious design. In the nineteenth century, the women involved with the Arts and Crafts movement eschewed fashionable corsets and replaced them with more comfortable styles that allowed for freedom of movement. If a piece in the International Herald Tribune is any indication, such a change may already be afoot: Arts and Crafts: A New Organic Spirit in Fashion (although the article’s from May 2005). Homework for fashion design students: locate more indications that an Arts and Crafts revival is brewing in fashion. A sustainable clothing movement could start with a simple experiment, like the one that went into The Little Brown Dress. (Thanks to Jenny Lewis for pointing this one out to me.)
(Thanks to Jenny Lewis for pointing this one out to me.)
Undergirding all of the above (re-educating desire regarding basic necessities) is the very idea of work. One of the basic principles of Morris’s philosophy of work was that it not be onerous, monotonous, dangerous, mindless—but rather satisfying, purposeful, enjoyable, meaningful. It would be interesting to survey most workplaces today and ask employees to tick off a list of the above adjectives according to how they described the present situation. Perhaps we could add a few more: discouraging, exasperating, frustrating, as well as stimulating, exciting, creative. But I doubt that many of the jobs people have to do today would earn significant points on the positive side. Few of us have entirely satisfying jobs, nor should we expect that any job would be completely satisfying all the time. But too many people in the world slave away at jobs that have no meaning other than to satisfy consumer markets and corporate lust for profit. On a recent broadcast of PRI’s Fair Game, Faith Salie interviewed John Bowe about modern-day slavery in unlikely places like Florida (podcast here; and see a review of Bowe’s new book on the Cup of Joe Blog and Bowe’s own blog, Nobodies), where he pointed out that slave-labor conditions are alive and well in places awfully close to home.
The sad truth is that slavery aside (and it is difficult to put it aside, once you know how widespread it is), those jobs that produce basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter) earn the lowest wages, and reflect conspicuous consumption better than anything else: “gourmet” food, “designer” clothing, housing “estates.” The managers do quite well, while the people who do the slogging get paid next to nothing. I’m tempted to place teaching in this category as well—but that’s another blog altogether, and we do tend to be better paid than your average garment worker or fruit picker.
The only thing most of us can do about any of this is to take small steps. We can begin by recognizing what’s going on. For example, until I heard the interview with John Bowe, I had thought that the closest we came to slavery in this country was at some of the maquiladoras on the Texas-Mexico border. But now I know better, and I now have to conduct a bit of research in order to buy oranges and orange juice without contributing to the problem. Many of my students are already far more aware of these situations than I am, and our conversations often lead me to new insights. These same students often have less disposable income than I do, and so already shop at thrift stores—but they aren’t as able as I am to make more expensive food choices, and most are not exactly in a position to grow their own veg.
They are, however, in a position to make choices about how they work, and for them I have the following website: WhyWork (Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage-Slavery). At least one of my former students is living what these folks describe as the “portfolio life”—and the promise of being able to fulfill Morris’s quest for a life of useful work vs. useless toil seems to be more attainable in the digital age than I had originally thought. We don’t all have to go back to plowing the land in order to do meaningful work—as long as we’re conscious of where our food, shelter, and clothing come from, and as long as we make sustainable choices that ensure a decent life for those who provide us with our real necessities.