Wednesday, October 03, 2007

What are you living for?

As humans, we have basic needs for food, shelter, medicine, and a few durable goods like clothing, tools and cooking implements. The quality of our food, our shelter and our medicines all go to promote our health. To be healthy means to be free of disease and sickness, to be strong and energetic, and to live a long life. Beyond this, we pretty much just want to have a good time.

We’re a social species and so we have a need for community – to form bonds of friendship, respect and love. Being a part of a community helps with having a good time (most, but not all of the time – sometimes it’s good to get away from the crowd), and also in deriving our other basic needs. It’s more fun to grow food or build a house with the help of others; the quality of the product is usually better, too.

We have big brains, and although the evolutionary jury is still out on the question of whether these are adaptive or mal-adaptive organs, we have a need to use them for various types of stimulation and self-expression. Intellectual and creative development ranks up there with being a part of a community in importance so far as the need for having a good time is concerned.

So – food, shelter, medicine, a few essential goods, community, and intellectual development and creative self-expression – what else is there? How about security. Having a degree of security in the attainment of these elements of well-being seems to me to be the final criterion.

That’s pretty much it, isn’t it? Isn’t that good news, that life is so simple? Obtaining these needs in sufficient quantities seems like it ought to be pretty easy, doesn’t it? So why does life seem so complicated and difficult most of the time?

If I had to answer this question with only one word, I would say, “institutions.” To quote Edward Abbey, “In our institutions the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. There will never be a state as good as its people, or a church worthy of its congregation, or a university equal to its faculty and students.”

I think Abbey is right in pointing out this deficiency in our institutions. In fact, many of our institutions are deeply flawed, and it is evident to me that these flaws are at the root of our discontent in what should otherwise be a happy and easy life.

For example, one flaw at the root of our modern economic system is its “grow-or-die” mentality – the “ideology of the cancer cell,” incidentally, to cite Ed Abbey again. It is impossible for the human economy to grow indefinitely on a finite planet Earth, although economists, politicians and the heads of the Great Corporations are hell bent pursuing policies and strategies for as much growth as possible as quickly as possible. The symptoms revealing the physical and biological absurdity of this economic foolishness are increasingly apparent in the form of pollution building up in our air, water and soils, the degradation of ecosystems and catastrophic losses in biodiversity, and the disturbance of the climate and global biogeochemical cycles.

Our institutions of the media are deeply flawed as well, first and foremost indicated by the fact that they have done such a shameful job of informing us about things that are truly important – things like the ecological crisis we now find ourselves in and that has resulted in large measure from the economic foolishness I just described. But it would be just about equally foolish of us to expect our media to do a good job informing us on these matters, since the corporate institutions that own the media are one and the same corporate institutions that are heedlessly and recklessly pursuing profits and growth at the expense of our communities and the environment.

Perhaps we might expect to learn about these problems in our educational institutions. But there again, the same “special interests” are at work, not informing us about the ecological and social realities of our world, but rather training us to be effective servants of their world, organized around profit and growth.

The educational institutions train, for example, the specialized servants of industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture uses massive amounts of toxic chemicals (including carcinogens and endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins), degrades the soil, impoverishes biological and genetic diversity, destroys rural communities and rural peoples’ livelihoods, treats animals cruelly, is obscenely wasteful and polluting, and is entirely dependent upon huge public subsidies and heavy inputs of non-renewable fossil energy.

How can we be healthy if our food is poisoned and its nutritional value reduced by bad farming methods? How can we be happy knowing animals are suffering for our food, and knowing that our trip to the supermarket makes us complicit in the destruction of the environment as well as rural people’s livelihoods around the world? How can we feel secure knowing our dinner is dependent upon fossil fuels, for which war after war is being fought to procure?

Our flawed educational institutions also inculcate a learned helplessness that goes along with the overspecialized training we receive in the service of a bad economic system. To the extent that we are employed as specialists, we have neither the time, nor the skills, nor many of us the inclination, to be generalists, to be able to do a variety of tasks for ourselves.

How many of us could, if we had the time, grow our own food, and process it, prepare it, preserve it for winter? How many of us could, if we had the time, build our own home and design its landscape, making use of ecological principles for efficiency and aesthetics? How many of us could plough a field or log a forest using a team of horses? How many of us could make our own clothing or tools or furniture, if we had the time and inclination to do so? How many of us could wander in a forest identifying edible mushroom species (as opposed to the deadly poisonous varieties), or herbs, roots, barks or other plant materials from which to derive medicines to treat common ailments?

Very few of us can do these things, because we have not learned to do them, nor have most of us learned even that is important that we learn to do them. Instead, our educational institutions render us dependent on corporations and other institutions to employ us according to our “profession.” We sell our labor to one institution for a wage, which we use to buy all the things we need for our lives from other corporate institutions. And thanks to our media institutions, which help corporate institutions by fostering in us the sensation of unlimited wants through advertising, we can never seem to “get ahead,” or keep up with what is “fashionable.”

How can we be happy if we are always wanting something more? If we are constantly made to feel inadequate with what we’ve got right now? How can we avoid feeling anxious if the level of affluence we hope to achieve is always receding away in front of us, even as we grasp for it more fervently? And how can we avoid feeling depressed at the meaninglessness of all this?

It turns out that our medical institutions have their answer to these questions, too – prescribed pharmaceuticals.

Well, bullshit.

I ask you now, as I have asked myself many times, “What are you living for?”

I am living to be healthy and happy and secure. For this, I simply need adequate food, shelter and medicine, to be part of a community, to be stimulated intellectually and express myself creatively, and to attain a measure of security in the procurement of these elements comprising genuine well-being. And as we have already seen, meeting these needs and achieving security should be simple and easy; if it is not so, it is because of intervention and interference by flawed institutions.

Therefore, meeting human needs and achieving health, happiness and security should follow naturally from the opting-out of participation in flawed institutions, and the pursuit of well-being in a more efficient and direct fashion. That many people achieve affluence through obedience to institutions but lack health, happiness and general well-being also recommends this strategy.

What does achieving considerable security in health and happiness require? If I had to answer this question with one concept, I would say, “local self-reliance.”

Local self-reliance necessarily involves the creation of a local economy for food and other essential goods. Food, especially, must be clean, nutritious and appetizing, and produced using sustainable and ecologically appropriate methods, unlike the products of the industrial food system.

Local self-reliance means to a reasonable extent relying upon traditional knowledge of medicinal plants, herbs, barks, roots, and ferments in health care and the treatment of illnesses.

Local self-reliance calls for the substitution of ingenuity and the labor of humans and animals in place of artificially cheap (due to subsidies), polluting, non-renewable forms of energy. Homes are built with locally abundant materials such as mud, stone and straw, and make use of passive solar heating and cooling, rainwater collection, solar water heating, etc. The guiding design principles are sufficiency, good craftsmanship and ecological appropriateness, not boastful opulence and shoddy construction as with most modern suburban houses.

Local self-reliance involves the promotion of quality in the local community, of neighborliness, of more face-to-face interactions, and of cooperation instead of competition.

Local self-reliance involves the pursuit of intellectual stimulation through learning about the local bioregion - its ecosystems, climate, geology, hydrology, and wildlife. It involves the development of place-centered knowledge, while also encouraging the incorporation of a diversity of knowledge from other places and cultures. It requires us to take responsibility for educating ourselves, which is the only way we truly learn anyway. To quote Abbey again: “Freedom begins between the ears.”

Local self-reliance involves the promotion of forms of creative self-expression that produce things that are both useful and beautiful – like a rocking chair, a painting or sculpture, a piece of music, a tasty dessert, an efficient woodstove, or a composting toilet. (Yes, even a toilet should be beautiful and well-made – manure is very valuable to soil fertility. It is a form of real wealth, contrary to the symbolic wealth represented by money.) Craftsmanship and care are central to these creative works.

Local self-reliance means that we will have to work, and most of us at least some of the time with our hands and bodies. It means that we will almost certainly get sweaty and dirty with some regularity. But it also means we will have to think. We will have to undertake problem-solving exercises that require the use of our intellect as well as the use of our conscience and our compassion and our intuition – we will have to think ecologically. Our scientific efforts will not be divorced from our morality and emotions, as the modern paradigm has attempted to enforce, with disastrous results.

In short, local self-reliance means getting what we need to live long, healthy, happy lives in ways that are direct, efficient, ecologically sustainable, and secure. How most of us live now – dependent upon huge, complicated bureaucracies that have neither our best interest nor that of the environment in mind, to supply us with everything we need for our lives in the form of purchasable consumer items – is not local self-reliance. It is the furthest thing from it.

As long as we rely upon far-removed institutions that operate according to logic flawed at the deepest fundamental levels, and in fact whose “success” completely depends upon the continued failure of our communities and the destruction of ecosystems, then we only exacerbate our own frustration in attaining true well-being. The attainment of true well-being requires us to turn our backs on a broken system and begin to do things the right way, for ourselves.

We cannot expect institutional support for this work, and nor should we. It’s not needed anyway. If you look closely at it, you’ll see that there’s really no substantive basis for the idea that we need all these institutions – the idea has come from the institutions themselves and serves only to prop up their dubious legitimacy.

For example, ask self-reliant Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, whose farm is an intertwining symphony of ecological miracles, what he thinks of the USDA, and he will make clear for you just how much he needs that institution to ensure the healthful condition of the meat he produces. Corrupt bureaucratic agricultural institutions do more to hurt the production of clean foods at the small scale than they do to regulate the massive industrial producers whose environmental, sanitary and labor practices, not to mention treatment of animals, are so offensive.

This is largely because main driving purpose of any institution is its own continued existence. A bureaucracy wants most to grow; if not that, to at least stay a constant size; and above all, not to shrink and die. This is, for example, often why there is so much road construction. Much of it is not necessary; it’s just that the DOT gets a certain amount of money, and if they don’t spend it all this quarter or this year, then next quarter or next year they get less. The bureaucracy’s got to maintain itself – so wasteful, redundant spending and extravagant use of resources ensues.

Another example – the corporate commercial media institutions. They don’t inform us. In fact, often they are implicated in our outright deception, as in the lead up to the war in Iraq. Their advertisements are designed to make us feel inferior so that we’ll go out and buy crap we don’t need to try and feel better. The media is heavily into the game of deceit and manipulation – what good do we get from this? Yet how many people “can’t live without their TV”? Not only do we not need it, it’s hurting us. The only rational answer is to opt out of the corporate media institutions.

And for another example, you don’t have to be part of a university to do research. If you need to do research, just do it. Teach yourself what you need to know. (This is the only way to learn, anyhow.) Get university people to help out if you need particular expertise or equipment for some aspect of the project. Take what you need from the system, but don’t become subservient to it.

Also, get over the idea that you need money to do everything. Money is just a symbol – don’t make too much of it. You don’t need money, you need food (so grow it), or a place to stay (so build it or crash with some friends), or a hat (so knit it), or whatever. In many, many cases, knowledge, creativity and resourcefulness can substitute for money. Not having much money forces you to develop these skills, which anyway are necessary for obtaining true wealth and well-being, instead of the symbolic, insecure, false kind of wealth that money represents.

Of course, sometimes you will need some actual money. When these instances arise usually something works out, at least in my experience. If I need to get a job for a bit it’s always been no problem (at least so far). Knowing rich people also helps (but not stingy rich people), as does developing a knack for schmoozing. But I cannot emphasize enough the importance of resourcefulness. (Think like an ecologically astute MacGyver.) Dumpster diving is really smart, and an ecologically responsible and patriotic act as far as I’m concerned.

Here’s another rule: experiential education is always a million times better than institutional education. Travel the world and learn by direct experience as much as possible. Read what you want, when you want – you’ll retain more. You’re after wisdom and reason, not the alienated kind of knowledge that’s mostly what gets bandied around in universities, dehumanized and cut off from reality. To quote Ed Abbey once again: “What is reason? Knowledge informed by sympathy, intelligence in the arms of love.” Context is what imbues information with the qualities that allow for the development of sympathy, deep understanding, love and compassion that turn the storage of mere disembodied facts into wisdom. Context is what you get from experiential learning; mere disembodied facts from institutional learning.

So if you’re like me and you want the happy, healthy, easy life, and a good measure of security in hanging on to it, then eschew the institutions – educational, corporate, political, economic, and media – and get right down to the work of building a viable local economy and promoting local self-reliance. Recruit others in this work – you can’t do it alone and you’ll need all the help you can get. And besides, overthrowing the system is way more fun when done with friends.

This essay is turning out to be a regular Abbey-fest, but I’ve got to end with this quote:

“How to Overthrow the System: brew your own beer; kick in your Tee Vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.”

‘nough said!


Anonymous said...


Good thoughts. Few things I don't think I would go as far as you recommend. Mostly do agree. Wish we could have a straw bale home w/ solar energy. Don't know where to start on that. You really make people think about what is going on in the world. I do miss you, though.
Love, Mom

Anonymous said...

Hi Josh

My sentiments exactly,wish I had your way with words,feel it in my heart but can't always express it,
keep up the good work.

Joe(Ladakh 2007)