Thursday, December 14, 2006


With all due respect to Ralph Waldo Emerson...

Pun Pun’s philosophy can be succinctly conceptualized as a practical demonstration of self-reliance. I want to talk a bit out what is meant by this term “self-reliance,” partly because it is integral to what we are doing here and the kinds of transformation that Pun Pun is promoting in Thailand, but also because I think it is a very valuable concept for our well-being in the United States.

Last night Pi Jo gave a talk on his philosophical development and how his life experiences have led him to pursue and promote self-reliance as a way of life for himself, his community and his country. What follows are some notes from his talk interwoven with my own ideas about how the idea of self-reliance can be understood, expanded and practiced in the U.S. as well as Thailand.

Pi Jo grew up in a “poor” village in the northeast of Thailand, where, he says, “money was basically useless, since, even if anyone had money, which most did not, there was nothing to buy since there was no marketplace.”

Jo’s hometown is an agrarian village where people were and still are, though less so today than when Jo was a kid, self-reliant. Everyone had a garden, and people worked together in the rice fields to plant and harvest the rice. Jo said that people in his village worked for about two months out of the year – and this mainly involved cultivating rice. Work in the gardens required about 30 minutes a day. The rest of the time was for preparing food, working on crafts and projects, and free time.

Jo left the village as a teenager and moved to Bangkok, where he stayed for seven years. Here life was very hard since he spoke only a little Thai (his village speaks a different dialect), and it was hard to get a job. In Bangkok he worked eight- or twelve-hour days and made very little money. Often he went hungry. All around him he saw people stressed out and working very hard for money – usually too little money – which they would exchange in the market for some food, pay rent, etc.

Jo experienced a great internal conflict since he knew how easy and happy life was in his village, but he was afraid of what would happen to him, what people would think of him, if he left the city life in Bangkok and went back out to the forest. He had a transformational experience one day sitting by a river as he watched a butterfly sit comfortably and carefree on a long leaf of grass that was pushed about by the flowing river. “Why can’t I be happy and free like that butterfly? Why am I a slave in this city life?” he thought.

What Jo realized is that the so-called “modern” lifestyle has trapped many people and made them slaves. In the modern economy, people must work eight hours a day to get food, and for thirty years to get a house. Most jobs are like prison: working inside, staring at the clock, waiting for lunch break or time to go home. People come home from work exhausted and turn on the TV for mind-numbing “entertainment.” The TV mostly tells people that they are unhappy, that something is wrong with them, that they need to buy something to be happy in the future.

But why can’t people be happy right now? Why work eight hours a day for food and thirty years for a house, when you could be happy right in this moment? Why work at a job that is like prison, and principally serves to make someone else rich, when it is so easy to be happy right now? Why not work for two months a year instead of twelve? Jo knew from experience that this work with the rice was not like what most people think of as work – it was fun! It was more like play! From miles away you could here the farmers joking, laughing and playing while they harvested the rice. This work was done with friends and family, with a great spirit of community and play – very different from the prison-like work of the people who worked in the corporate offices of Bangkok.

The slavery metaphor is not an exaggeration. About 80% of Thais are in debt (probably a similar figure in the U.S.), which is a kind of economic slavery. This happens, Jo says, because people pursue money instead of happiness, because money is mistaken for security. But money is false security. When the Asian financial crisis happened about ten years ago, many rich people committed suicide since their wealth disappeared. Others went from high paying jobs to pushing a cart in the street selling noodles.

Monetary value can change wildly and thus is not secure. The rich person fools himself into thinking that his money will protect him. True security is found in self-reliance – the ability to grow food, make shelter and provide for one’s own well-being. The “poor” villages of northeastern Thailand are in fact much more secure than the business executives of Bangkok. My ancestors provide a U.S. analogy to this – during the Great Depression they were “poor” farmers in Appalachia. While Wall Street executives were hurling themselves out of the windows of New York skyscrapers, my ancestors were planting crops and tending the animals and eating feasts of “organic” foods and having a grand time. They were “too poor,” so to speak, to be affected by the Depression.

This is what self-reliance is about – providing for yourself and those around you. It’s not some kind of hermitic isolation. It recognizes that the “self” is greater than what we think of as the body. My “self” includes all the people, plants, animals, minerals, microbes, and substances around me. When I eat food from the garden the molecules of vegetable become molecules of my body. I poop out “waste,” which gets broken down and reintroduced to the garden as nutrition, to grow more vegetables which I will later eat. The work of making the home, tending the gardens, building the community involves other people that are also part of my “self.” Considering these insights, self-reliance is not just about me, but about the people and ecosystems around me as well.

The money-based economic system obscures these connections and constructs the self in a very narrow and isolated way. Within this system, I just need to worry about myself and how I can get money to by the things that my “self” (my physical body) immediately needs or wants. Thus the primary purpose of my life is getting money that I can spend to get things like food, a house, a car, whatever.

This perspective doesn’t take into account what are the effects of this consumption or of the work that I have to do to get money. Kentucky farmer and essayist Wendell Berry writes about the near-sighted environmentalists who probably do more damage to the environment through their work-a-day jobs and their “modern” standards of consumption than the benefit of their donations, membership in conservation organizations and political lobbying efforts can offset.

The solution to these problems is to create more self-reliant agrarian communities. This will promote both the well-being of people and the environment. The “modern” economic system divides this solution neatly into two problems: people sacrifice well-being and security and work very hard to get too little money to satisfy their ever-expanding “needs” that are generated by the economic system in a self-stoking way. Thus we have unsatisfying levels of over-consumption accompanied by degradation of the substance that provides for true well-being: the environment. A good economic system, on the other hand, according to Pi Jo, “helps us to rely on ourselves more.” Maintaining our environment in ways that enhance its ability to maintain us is integral to this type of economy.

I have been looking for a term to succinctly conceptualize what it is I am after in my work and philosophical development, what kind of transformation I am working to create for our society and world. I think “self-reliance” is the best conceptualization I have come across yet. “Sustainability” is too blasé: if you were married, and someone asked, “How is your marriage?” and you replied, “sustainable,” would that be good? It’s kind of lame – if I were married and someone asked me about it, I would want to say, “it’s hella awesome!” or some other expression of how cool it was (presumably it would be very cool).

And a “sustainable economy”? Kind of boring. Who says we should sustain anything? What about changing stuff that we don’t like? What about doing stuff unsustainably on purpose because we’re confident that the long-term benefits outweigh the costs? For instance, I am not against all use of fossil fuels. I am for fossil fuel use, although with a few critical stipulations, like not using them so fast that the planet’s ecosystems can’t process the associated pollutants (like CO2), and, using the surplus of energy and value created by their use to develop technologies and methods that make fossil fuel use obsolete. And I’m certainly not for invading other countries and killing loads of people to get at their supply of fossil fuels.

Anyway, that’s a bit of a digression and I don’t want to debate it here. The point is that “sustainability” may not be the best name for the target we’re aiming at.

“Permaculture” is another candidate term for a conceptualization of what we’re working towards. But “permaculture” is kind of a dumb word. The “perma-” means permanent, and since when is anything permanent? What’s permanent about your life, or your family, or a country, or an ecosystem, or anything over geologic time? In a way, it’s kind of weird that we even have a word for “permanent,” except mainly for referring to God. And even with God that’s still a limiting concept and probably doesn’t apply.

Plus, I think permaculture is kind of a hippie, woo-woo thing and wouldn’t have mainstream appeal in the U.S. The ideas, concepts and practices are sound, but the packaging is not right.

Self-reliance is a concept that can take off in the U.S., a concept for which mainstream America is ripe and waiting. Self-reliance has a kind of rugged, independent ring to it that will appeal to the American psyche. It’s the same ideas as permaculture, but with more of a homesteading, Do-It-Yourself kind of vibe and less of a granola-hemp-patchouli element. Self-reliance is more of a get-out-there-and do-something kind of thing, whereas permaculture has a lot of the standing-in-a-circle-holding-hands-chanting-in-Sanskrit kind of thing.

If I had to boil the difference between the two down to one word, that word would be “gumption.” Self-reliance implies gumption. Mainstream America has an enormous reservoir of gumption, buried just beneath a veneer of “modern” disenfranchisement, consumerism, and market-culture-enforced passivity. My work in this world will involve what I believe to be a very easy task, and that is to punch through this surface skin and reawaken the sleeping giant of common American gumption. After scratching the surface, a transformation for self-reliance should follow spontaneously.


Anonymous said...

Sad that this boils down to a conversation on semantics. don't get me wrong--finding the right words to express your ideas can be really helpful in clarifying things for yourself and others... But do you really think we need to sell ''sustainability" to the western world, packaged in some other jargon? You begin to sound like a marketing exec.

and btw, if my marriage were fuckin' awesome, I would also want it to be sustainable, yes?


Anonymous said...

I've never stood in a circle chanting with permaculturists...but I did get hog-tied by some back country Appalachians.