Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Surviving Plutopia

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.


Margaret said...

What a great post. I love your blog and I feel honoured to be on your blogroll!

A friend of mine was just commenting on her blog how sad it is that people are now encouraged to celebrate earth day by buying some sort of "green" product. How absurd!

It's amazing how some people in our society equate physical work with sin. I was flipping past the television show The View (yikes! I know) the other day and one of the hostesses was commenting on the recent scandal about the FLDS community in Texas where a young girl had reported abuse. What seemed to strike the hostess most about this community was NOT that they were victims of sexual abuse, which was the real issue, but the fact that they had to "make their own clothes." The horror! It goes without saying that it is amazing how messed up our values are if THAT is what worried her most about that community.

By the way, I have also enjoyed looking at your novel, More News from Nowhere. I look forward to sitting down and giving it a good thorough reading when I have the chance!



Owlfarmer said...

Margaret, thanks very much for your generous remarks. I enjoy your blog immensely, and many of our interests seem to coincide. It's a real joy to encounter others who appreciate Morris for more than simply his design work.

I agree wholeheartedly with your observation about the FLDS situation. Many media reports around here (it's essentially local news) focused on those "poor children" who couldn't watch TV or play video games, had to work in the gardens, and wear home-made clothing. Never mind the real questions. I'm not sure we can expect a more enlightened response from a public that sees no problem with having little girls run around looking like hookers, however. Alas, this is probably fodder for another post, so thank you for making the point.

Miyamashi said...

I'll definitely have to check out Jeanette Winterson, and add her books to my long list of things-I-need-to-read. And then, I need to sit down one day, outside (possibly at White Rock Lake), my practically-soul-eating computer behind me and off, and get down to going through my list in the peace of some semblance of nature--though even that, sadly, is being further developed as we speak, and it, quite frankly, pisses me off.

If you ever do happen to start the CMAWG (Cranky, Middle Aged Writers' Guild, of course. I just happen to like acronyms. How would you say that? "See-maug"?), please give me the notice, so that I can apply for membership once I get older and, hopefully, wiser and more worldly.

Having grown up immersed in the debilitatingly lazy, selfish, painfully stupid AND ignorant world of today, I've often found myself torn between wanting to do something about it and being shamefully held back by the sheer fact that I'm often as lazy as the rest of them and am having trouble breaking out of it. What I wouldn't give to be able to spend some time in a place where life wasn't governed by money and our capitalist ideals of "work", but where living for living's sake (as opposed to for the green or the reputation that goes with it) was the only thing that mattered...I've always been fascinated with tribal life, and would like to experience it and how it would change my own outlook that was bred into me....

Ironically, the only way to do that would be to garner a rather large sum of money, which would take getting further immersed into capitalist lifestyle before being able to forcefully break out of it.


The talk about education hit an especially hard chord. Having been in the first year of Texas students to be introduced to the dreaded TAKS test, I got to see just how badly standardized testing and the resultingly LOW...well, standards it promoted have affected me. Having been force-fed the TAAS since I could hold a pencil and having learned more about making pretty, dark circles in places marked "A, B, C, D" (and sometimes even "E", for variety and flavor) than I did about the actual subjects, being suddenly assaulted with new tests that fell into NEW patterns of deep and utter pathetic mediocrity almost killed me.

To this day, I'm angry, not that they changed the test on us, but at how much it made me realize that, through most of my schooling, I had learned almost nothing at all. I suddenly knew that I had wasted years of my life learning how to shortchange the system, not how to actually learn and expand my mind, and it was a truly frightening realization.

I think that's quite enough rambling from me. Sorry for the rant, but this post definitely stirred up some thoughts in my head, which is what its purpose was, I assume. I hope you got some amusement from this comment, at least.

I, like Margaret above, have started reading More News from Nowhere, but need to sit down and go through it. It's very interesting so far, and I look forward to reading more. Too bad I can't take it to White Rock with the others in my reading list, haha.

Owlfarmer said...

Thanks for your insights, Morgan. Although your ability to articulate your responses seems to belie my beliefs about the state of Texas education, your experience seems to mirror that of my own children who are about ten years your senior. So things don't seem quite as bleak as I had thought, after all. If I keep getting a couple of students like you per quarter, I'll probably make it to retirement without too many regrets.

Your comments fit in well with my next topic (you guessed it: education), so you might want to stay tuned. You might also consider taking my visual anthropology course (get a preview at owlfarmer.com), scheduled to be offered in the fall. It counts as an upper level humanities elective for the BFA. Your interest in tribal life might find some support there, and it'd be interesting to see what an animator might do for a project.

jenzai studio said...

Who is this Morgan person? Someone I should meet, I think!

There is a part of me that always thrills at talk of "recession". I've never quite been able to put my finger on why that is, but I think it has to do with what you are writing about; about less being more. I was shopping at Costco yesterday (can I admit that safely here?!), which is pretty much the embodiment of your concept of plutopia, and I got really depressed. I've been reading Pollan's Dilemma and am generally feeling powerless and hopeless about my options for feeding my family. It's probably time to balance out my reading with a little more solution oriented writing from Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Does Winterson propose any solutions? (I'm looking for baby steps, here...)

Your post is so timely, (or at least my reading of it is!), as my fourth grader just finished taking the TAKS yesterday. They have her so stressed out about it, and even though she knows I don't give a damn how she performs on the TAKS (it IS all a performance), the weight of it has been beaten into her psyche so thoroughly since Kindergarten that it still makes her sick to her stomach when test time comes around. I've been thinking seriously about home schooling this year, and am going to go meet a group of un-schoolers who meet at a park near my house (not the Fundamental born again kind, the feminist-liberal kind). You know, because I don't have enough going on! I'm not sure I can sit idly by any longer and watch the public school system destroy my daughter's natural curiousity and love of learning. And Georgia is supposed to start Kindergarten next year. ugh!

If it's okay with you, I'd like to link your blog from mine, as it makes it easier for me to check in with the new stuff you post. These days, if something isn't right in front of my nose it's pretty much off my radar. I hate pregnancy brain...

Anonymous said...

oh my goodness, I just saw that I am on your blogroll, under Blogs of Beauty no less. That just totally made my day! Did you already tell me this? I think that you did, only it fell somewhere into the vacuum of my brain. I, too, feel honored to be linked from your blog, and am now going to go exploring your other links...

Owlfarmer said...

Thanks for the input, J. I sometimes feel so "up there, above it all" because my kids are all grown up and there are no grandchildren in sight (who's she to be blabbing about this stuff, one might ask). So you and Lucy are the only people I know who are really going through this--and I ache to see what's going on when your girls are the ones whose hearts and minds are at stake. Today's post is particularly timely, too--so maybe there is hope after all. Maybe you can all move up to McKinney and I can home school your kids . . .

I moved your blog, however, to my art/craft roll because I'm discovering so many new and beautiful blogs by people who actually create stuff. I didn't want them to get lost among the weird museums, mapping, and science collection.

By the way, I just checked in to make sure nothing had happened while I was out in my garden grading exams, with the purpose of checking your blog for a bit of R&R. So thanks for taking the time--that just made my day!