Now here's a series of coincidences for you. My husband (who is usually spot-on in these matters; after all, he led me to Firefly) casually mentioned during our Sunday morning newspaper-read that "you might find this interesting; Alan Cheuse liked it," referring to Jeanette Winterson's newest novel, Stone Gods. Part of the novel takes place in ancient, pre-environmental-disaster Easter Island, which also happened to have been featured in the Sunday Travel section of the paper. Anyway, after reading the review, I looked her up on the web and opened up yet another window in my serendipitous world.
I read her biography, and discovered that she's another arrogant, cranky middle-aged writer (we should start a club!), but one long-published, with an interesting rep, and recipient of an OBE (now I'm really impressed). I read an excerpt from the new book--which is now on my to-buy list--and then wandered over to her essays, where I hit on "Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings." This, of course, raises a bright flag, because this is the organization William Morris founded in 1877 to prevent the wholesale tearing down of historically important buildings, and/or their cheap and nasty "restoration" or "modernization." Lo and behold, Winterson had purchased an eighteenth-century derelict in Jack The Ripper territory and restored it, complete with a ground-floor shop that now houses a Continental deli run by chef Harvey Cabaniss (of whom I had already heard). Moving on to an essay called "Good Housekeeping" I came across this gem:
We are eating too much and we are paying too little for our food. . . . My philosophy is to eat modestly and buy the best you can afford. In our crazy world a chicken costs less than a cinema ticket. Our obsession with cheap food has destabilised farming throughout the world, polluted our soils, driven small producers and small shops into the ground, allowed the supermarkets to monopolise our lives, and made us fat.
Had I "met" Jeanette Winterson before I had finished More News From Nowhere, I'd have pinched her for a character.
In an essay about Philip Pullman, author of the series His Dark Materials, she describes Pullman's attitude toward modern education:
For Pullman, the obsession with invented standards, pointless testing, endless form-filling and a moribund National Curriculum are killing the joy of learning, and driving the best teachers out of the system. 'I used to teach the things that excited me', he says, 'and when the teacher is excited, so are the children. What do we want to do? Stuff them with facts or open their minds?'
Had I read The Golden Compass (or, as it's called in the UK, The Northern Lights) and met Pullman before MNFN, he'd be in there, too. As it is, I've only read the one book, and seen the disappointing film based on it, but I'm already a lifelong fan.
Both of these writers share my disdain for two important constituents of "plutopia" (my new name for the greed-based economy in which the West now wallows. It's not wholly dystopic--yet--but our attitudes toward both food and education are symptoms of increasing intellectual and ethical impoverishment, portending further ill for the future). Our lack of education--of desire (in terms of what and how we eat), and of the mind (in terms of how we teach our young)--have helped to build plutopia, and only by addressing these failures can we hope to replace it with anything that even vaguely resembles a world in which everyone can be accommodated in some measure of fairness, justice, and peace.
Only by adjusting our own perceptions of "need" vs. "want" can we begin to understand the true nature of poverty. And I am getting sick to death of pundits who describe anyone who lacks electricity as "living in abject poverty." (For my perspective on the larger questions, see "Rethinking What it Means to be Wealthy" and "Rethinking What It Means to be Poor.") The line usually runs something like "They're so poor they don't even have electricity"--as if this particular technology is necessary to the very notion of civilization. But it's not. It's perfectly possible for people to work the land, provide sufficient food and clothing for themselves, and dwell in thriving communities without ever having seen a light bulb!
Although knowledge of electrical principles has been around since antiquity, and had come under serious study by the eighteenth century (remember Mr. Franklin's kite and key experiments), it wasn't until the nineteenth century that it became practical to bring electricity into commercial and domestic use. It may be "necessary" to modern life--hence the science fiction scenario of an electromagnetic pulse as the threshold of disaster--but it is certainly not necessary to life itself, nor even to "civilized" life. Plenty of civilization happened before the nineteenth century. Of course, that's also when things started falling apart, what with the industrial revolution, Blake's "dark Satanic mills," Ruskin's hated locomotive, and the end of pastoral life as we knew it.
But few people even know these things these days, because we're so intent on stuffing our children's heads full of factoids we can measure on standardized "assessment tools" that only test what they can memorize--not their ability to think, interpret, translate, imagine, create, or use what they've learned. "Irrelevant" information isn't taught because it doesn't fall into the current catchment basin of what education "experts" think kids need to know. Knowledge doesn't actually happen until the child has managed to integrate information into some kind of cultural context--so most of the information they commit to memory only long enough to spit it back on the exam is useless anyway. And of course the reason they need to know anything at all is in order to be successful in the marketplace.
We in the US complain bitterly and loudly about the price of gasoline and food, both of which cost more in the rest of the West than they do here. But if we truly understood what's involved--if we were better educated about economic realities instead of having been spoon-fed the pabulum we get predigested into sound bites from media sources--we'd be complaining that they cost too little. The true cost, in lives and life ways, is profoundly higher than most of us realize--or want to realize. But plutopia has taught us to think only in terms of monetary cost, and even the word economy doesn't mean what it once did, since it's now synonymous with "market economy" and any other use of the term is suspect.
I'd really like to spend Earth Day in my "nowhere"--without electricity or formal education. But since I can't, I'll keep prowling through Winterson's lively website, and dig into the second segment of Pullman's series (The Subtle Knife). I'll spend a couple of hours this morning in my little carbon sink, amidst the wild grasses and the primroses, and hope that the birdsong drowns out the traffic from the highway. There I can celebrate a smaller footprint, and be grateful for what I don't have.
Addendum (7 May 2008): This month's Orion Magazine contains an excellent and highly relevant article, "The Gospel of Consumption, and the Better Future We Left Behind." I'm encouraged both by the content of the article, and by the discussion that follows.
Photo: A lovely carbon sink at a bend in the Owens River, near Lone Pine, California.