Monday, October 22, 2007

Back to Work

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.)

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.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Work, Work, Work

What will you do with your life? What work will you do? How will that work sustain you, your family, your community?

Do we ask any of these questions when, as teenagers or young adults, we plan our futures?

Most people seem to think of work as what they do to earn enough money to live where they live (or perhaps what will enable them to move somewhere more desirable—for whatever reason), buy food, clothing, pay rent, and support all of the other mundane realities of everyday life—both concrete and ephemeral. But the question of work keeps coming up in my reading, and keeps connecting with other concerns. And it's all related to Morris's basic question about how we live and how we might live.

Some folks, like Curtis White in the May/June issue of Orion Magazine (The Ecology of Work), and Wendell Berry, clearly think of work as something more, something with the potential to sustain a view of culture that extends beyond the everyday: something more permanent, like teaching and learning, making art, building, creating community, healing. I think agriculture fits into this general category, unless it’s seen simply as a business (an individual/family enterprise, instead of a corporate one). This second category of work also provides the means to satisfy basic needs, but adds the possibility of intellectual (or, for some, spiritual) satisfaction.

One of the first questions asked of a sentient child (one who has reached the age of actually having contemplated the answer to the question) is this: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answers we expect, such as “a fireman” or “an astronaut” or “a doctor,” often occasion a further question: “Why do you want to do that?”—and the answers are again fairly predictable: “Because they save people in fires” or “because I want to save us from aliens” or “I want to save people the way the doctor saved Grandpa.” Children’s answers often include rescuing others, which indicates somewhat altruistic tendencies—although the real reason may have to do with being seen as a hero. I’m certainly no psychologist, and have nothing but anecdotal evidence and experience to support my claims. But I do know that no six-year-old ever says “I want to be a philosopher” when asked about career choices. And few of them, these days, aspire to becoming farmers—unless they’ve already had experience on a farm, and then only if they haven’t had to watch Farmer John off the piggie that got made into the brats that went on the barbecue.

More and more and more we are insulated and removed from the work that actually sustains the first category I mentioned: food, clothing, shelter. We purchase all of the above from someone else, who has purchased it from a wholesaler, who has purchased it from (perhaps) the initial provider and has warehoused it to sell to the retailers. In the case of shelter, few of us build our own housing. Instead we pay someone rent to live in a dwelling he or she owns, or we “buy” a home through a bank, eventually paying a considerable amount more than the actual selling price in order to live in it while it’s being paid off. Somewhere down the line, someone whose work it is to build has contributed his or her labor to the construction of that dwelling. Sometimes we add our own labor by repairing or augmenting our homes, but more often than not this contribution requires few skills—scraping, re-glazing, and painting windows, for example. But the real repairs and the big jobs generally go to contractors or handy-folk who do the work for us. And then we grouse about how nobody seems to do a very good job at this sort of thing any more.

I am beginning to notice, however, that at least one aspect of “category one” seems increasingly to involve closer contact with actual work: food-gathering. Many of us grow at least a small portion of what we eat—summer tomatoes, a few herbs, occasional fruit and nuts. A growing number of us seek out local growers at farmers markets and even participate in co-ops that make the job of locating local food less onerous. And an even larger number buy from outfits like Whole Foods, Central Market, and Sprouts that feature foods from smaller (often local) farms, more humane dairies and ranches, and more access to organically-grown products. That this last phenomenon is a growing trend (and has caught the marketing department’s eye) can be seen in my local Tom Thumb (Safeway), which has recently undergone a radical makeover and been transformed into a Whole Foods/Central Market clone.

But that’s just it: it’s a trend. There’s not as much evidence of a philosophical sea-change—a realization that farm workers are exploited and underpaid, that people who work in agriculture, providing the rest of us with trendy foods, are generally paid much lower wages (and some are actually modern-day slaves) than people who sit in front of a computer all day—doing what? Crunching numbers? Designing ads to sell the latest food fad to the minions? Although we’re paying more attention to what’s in our food, the interest seems to be driven more by fear of cancer and heart disease (and the growing portion of our wages that go to health care insurance, if we’ve actually got it) than by any genuine, wide-spread concern about the people, animals, and environment that make the food possible in the first place. I may, of course be too harsh on my fellow beings, but the experience of seeing women decked out in full-length fur coats, buying organic wines at Whole Foods is pretty depressing. I can only hope that they go for the humanely-raised beef tenderloin while they’re at it.

After the success of this summer’s experiment with air conditioning (or the lack thereof), I’m primed for a new one: to see how much of my own food I can grow on my half-acre plot in historic McKinney, Texas (whose motto is “Unique By Nature”). Plans are afoot to re-design the back yard (leaving the Accidental Garden mostly to its own devices), laying out a veggie patch nearer the house, and to solve the perennial lawn problem by getting rid of most of it. The barren patch in the front yard will become home to herbs and edible flowers, as well as stuff birds and butterflies like, to replace the now-defunct herb garden that’s been shaded out of existence by volunteer trees. The front patch will get ample sunlight and confirm my neighbors’ conviction that I’m a communist—or at least an unrepentant tree-hugger. I plan to placate them by actually cultivating the space, and not just letting anarchy reign.

All this will, of course, require work: digging, actively composting (not just throwing rotting veg into the bin and praying for biological activity to occur), careful landscaping (this will be the hardest part; my tendency to let nature design itself, higgledy piggledy, would get in the way of food production), and actual attention. It may also mean fewer blogs, because one reason people don’t do the kind of work I’m talking about is that it takes “too much time” away from “more productive” activities—like sitting in front of a computer.

And now, if you don't mind, I must (before I head out to enlighten my students about the Classical tradition in Western art, and on what started this whole blog in the first place: William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement) go out and make my small daily dent in the bumper crop of pecans (from eight trees of at least three varieties) that are littering the entire property. The fuzz-tailed tree rats are not holding up their end of the bargain, so I am becoming--involuntarily--a nut farmer. Maybe I should change my name.

photo: Where the new food garden is going to go. This photo was taken two years ago, before the drought had ravaged the area.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Tangled Webs

Once again, a confluence of articles in the newspapers and magazines I read regularly, combined with events occurring in my classes, has led me blogward. It continues to amaze me that the focus required to produce an essay or two per week seems to generate spontaneous couplings of information, and some interesting partnerships.

Friday night I taught my first-ever class in visual anthropology. I started off showing a few short films from the Faces of Culture series, and introduced concepts like cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. Now, I’m a jaded old fart who’s known about all this stuff for the last fifty years, but my students were essentially unaware that in addition to introducing smallpox and other diseases to the Americas (about which they already knew), the colonialist impulse had wiped out the entire population of Tasmania, and is still in the process of eliminating most surviving small-scale economies. So the number of people on earth who maintain close, day-to-day contact with the mother planet is dwindling as I write. And while colonialism per se has largely disappeared, the ethnocentric impulse that fostered it is alive and well. Latent imperialists, especially in the United States, are still trying to convince others that we know what’s best for them, and that our values and ways of life are far preferable to theirs. Of course, the big difference now is that some of the “others” are fighting back—in ways completely anathema to those very values and ways of life.

Having just heard and read several stories on local and national media about how French women are now getting fat (along with their children and husbands), I realized how much of modern angst is connected with the techno-imperialism that has pretty much begun here and is spreading everywhere. Even the French, who have long been able to turn up their noses at American “lifestyles,” are buying into the technologically infused, too-rapid pace of life exported from North America. They no longer “have time” for the activities that kept them slim: long, leisurely meals with family and friends, walking everywhere, not snacking on fast food between meals.

This realization resonated with an article in the Sunday Dallas Morning News by Barbara Kingsolver (“Dig into the dirt”), whose new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life joins a growing number of similar reflections on eating locally and reconnecting with our lunch. In her short piece for the News, she reminds us that her (and my) generation “has absorbed an implicit hierarchy of values in which working the soil is poor people’s toil. The real labors of keeping a family fed are presumed tedious and irrelevant” because “we have work to do, the stuff that happens in an office or agency or retail outlet.” As sympathetic as my students might be to the plights of aboriginal communities, I doubt that many of them are plunking down big bucks at a technical school in order to go back to farming the land and growing their own. As a culture, we have so thoroughly transformed ourselves into this radical form of homo faber that we cannot even imagine returning to our agricultural roots, except, perhaps, to put in a small veggie garden.

As Ronald Bailey puts it, in a piece critical of Kingsolver’s “latest fiction” for Reason Online, “I am very glad that people want to spend their lives raising tasty Mortgage Lifter tomatoes and Albemarle Pippin apples. And I am also very glad that I don't have to.” Bailey, donning the mantle of the Enlightenment to protect him against what he apparently sees as a growing tide of irrational Romanticism, reels out the stats: factory farming allows for more production on less land, results in cheaper prices, and has “liberated many like me from farm labor so that we could do other work.” Having grown up on a farm himself, and having participated extensively in its highly unglamorous tasks, he makes fun of people like Kingsolver and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) for what Bailey seems to think of as agricultural dilettantism. But he misses the point entirely, and ends up making Kingsolver’s case for her. He goes on to list all of the advantages of modern agriculture (which are primarily financial) including increased incomes and the ability to choose other work. He talks about the Peruvian farmers and sheepherders in New Zealand being able to sell their products to gourmands in America, but neglects to mention what the advent of modern farming techniques has done to other parts of the world, especially in places like Bali and India. But my students, who will be viewing a segment from the film, The Goddess and the Computer, will know that the “green revolution” has exacted a heavy price from the people it was designed (by us wise Westerners) to assist.

The fact that we simply have not found a balance between technological desire and the needs of our selves and our planet is becoming increasingly obvious. In an article in last week’s New Scientist (only the abstract is available unless you're a subscriber), Daniele Fanelli cites growing evidence that we are nowhere near being able to achieve sustainable development. The only nation that is, Cuba, will undoubtedly fall away as it grows more economically successful. The article focuses on research, conducted by a team from the Global Footprint Network, that “quantifies the area of land required to provide the infrastructure used by a person or a nation, the food and goods they consume, and to reabsorb the waste they produce, using available technology.” The result is the EF (Ecological Footprint) index, which the World Wildlife Fund recently used “to calculate that two more planets would be needed to support everyone in the world in the manner of the average UK citizen” (Fanelli). Like all such studies, this one has its critics, but the science seems solid enough that it should serve as a warning that we really do need to rethink priorities—and these probably should not include foisting our technological dependence on others.

Finally, I want to recommend a book: Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, the most imaginative thought experiment to arrive since Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. Sometimes, when I’m feeling especially cranky, I like to think that the best thing that could happen to this planet would be for us just to leave. Weisman imagines what would happen if we were to disappear, suddenly, and he goes on to explore piles of evidence about how things would change, and how long it would take. It’s a riveting read, and a compelling reminder that we’ve spent most of the time since we left Africa (and a considerable amount of time before that) altering our environment willy nilly, seldom taking into consideration anything, or anybody, else. The material on the book’s website is also worth taking a look at, because there are some lovely CG images and some nice interactive features.

It’s perhaps ironic, but probably inevitable, that a book describing in such minute detail how long the effects of our technological juggernaut will last also makes use of high-tech web-based materials to augment the message. I guess it’s not called the “web” for nothing; the metaphor becomes richer the more we connect information, ideas, and everyday events, and our dependence on our technologies grows with every connection we make.

Photo: This was taken in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, in 2003; it serves as a reminder of the impermanence of human presence--especially in light of Weisman's book--but also that some cultures do not want their "footprint" to be permanent. The ancestral Puebloans who built this place meant for it to fall away when they had gone.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Aliens, Redux

Well, I was wrong. The Dallas Morning News did print my letter. Sort of.

Thus begins a small rant about the cavalier form of editing that seems to be going on these days: never mind the context, just print the sound bite or whatever fits the space.

The context here is a story the News ran about a woman who was seriously injured by a man whose failed suicide attempt (by jumping from a relatively low highway overpass) knocked her out and caused her car to veer into adjoining lanes and into the paths of oncoming cars. As a result, she has been unable to work at her job as a manicurist, and the story recounted her plight as a non-English speaking immigrant who depended on her co-workers as translators. These same co-workers had been collecting donations at the salon to help her through her ordeal. The story prompted one reader to send the following letter:

Ten years, no English?

Re: "His leap almost took her down – Stranger's suicide try leaves driver with injuries, nightmares," Sunday news story.

I sympathize with Lan Nguyen and her ordeal and understand how that would surely traumatize anyone.

What really got me fired up was not what happened to her, but the fact that she has lived in the United States for 10 years and still cannot speak English.

If you're going to live here and be a productive citizen, then have enough respect to learn the language spoken by the customers that provide your income.

Kelly Williamson, Kaufman

Well, this letter got me fired up, leading to my sending the News the following response (copied here from my last post):

In regard to letters from Kelly Williamson and other readers complaining about immigrants’ English language skills (or lack thereof), I have one question for these critics: when was the last time you tried to learn a complex language as an adult? It’s one thing if you’re a child, at peak language-acquisition age; it’s entirely another if you’re adult—especially if you don’t happen to live in a particularly supportive community. I have also noticed that folks who live around here are neither very good at understanding (nor very tolerant of) “foreign accents.” They even need subtitles on the news to understand interviews with non-native English speakers! I’ve even heard adult, native-born Texans complaining about “Yankee accents,” insisting that they can’t understand what’s being said.

As long as people can make themselves understood, and translators are willing to help them out, what’s the problem? It’s not as if immigrants don’t want to learn; but who would even attempt the long and difficult process if they knew they’d face impatience or even ridicule for their efforts?

And this is what the paper printed:

Patience for novices

Re: "Ten years, no English?" by Kelly Williamson, Wednesday Letters.

When was the last time you tried to learn a complex language as an adult? It's one thing if you're a child at peak language-acquisition age, but it's entirely another if you're an adult, especially if you don't happen to live in a particularly supportive community.

As long as people can make themselves understood, and translators are willing to help them out, what's the problem? It's not as if immigrants don't want to learn, but who would even attempt the long and difficult process if they knew they'd face impatience or even ridicule for their efforts?

Candace Uhlmeyer, McKinney

So, the letter ends up sounding like a rather personal attack on Mr./Ms. Williams, and much less like a general indictment of local attitudes and lack of tolerance for accents. There's no indication in the printed letter of how impatience and ridicule might be manifested, and makes me sound rather like one of those whiny liberals who don't like it when communities aren't "supportive."

For a while I thought I might fire a snippy note back to the editor, but finally decided to vent here, where I'm the only editor, and I get to decide what's said. And, in today's letters to the editor, I've found someone who agrees with me, so I'll let her have the last word:

What's important here?

Re: "Ten years, no English?" by Kelly Williamson, Wednesday Letters.

America is made up of immigrants. If Lan Nguyen's customers are happy, what difference does it make what language she speaks?

Luckily for Ms. Nguyen, most Americans are much more compassionate than those who would exploit a sad situation just to make a political point.

Carol Perkins, Dallas

But then, perhaps Ms. Perkins and I have been taken over by pod people . . .

Photo: Again, I'm including what I hope is fair use of an image from Wikipedia.