Monday, February 25, 2008

we should do it anyway

I think there's a terrific psychological difference determined by the frame of mind in which one takes certain actions… There's not much joy in taking defensive actions. But if you can think of it as contributing to "the repair of the world," then you have a totally different view of the action. Now you can really be happy about it: you have made a difference (however small) by this action. Over time, [this point] of view [can] have an effect on your personality and character. The defensive or "forced to do this" motivation tends to harden and closes you, shutting you away from others. The "repair of the world" motivation tends to awaken compassion in you, to soften you towards others.
–Pat Meadows

Of course if we're going to suggest a way of living radically different from the one we've developed in this country in the decades after WWII, it's probably in our best interest to explain why such a change is necessary. It is, as many people have pointed out, very necessary because a decrease in the amount of energy available to human beings is very likely going forward. Many of the other resources that make our way of life possible are also available in limited quantities and we'll be reaching those limits sooner than previously thought. And change seems especially prudent considering the condition of our climate due to the warming of our planet. In other words it seems like a reasonable sound position to take, the idea that we must change the way we live or risk our very survival.

But this is a defensive position. It says we must do this or else. And as scary as the "or else" is, making change in defense is much different than doing it offensively; as a way to gain not as a hedge against ruin. Pat Meadows is responsible for popularizing "The Theory of Anyway," as an early response to those people who are calling for change "or else!" They were and are still right of course. If we don't change we are likely to experience more pain and suffering than need be, but that kind of a defensive motivator isn't always helpful. For one thing it tends to foster resentment. If we feel like we have to do something we're likely to cast about for someone to blame. Or we are likely to do it with a heavy heart and that doesn't promote success. That is, we are less likely to succeed in transforming our own lives and our society in general if we are moping about making change to ward off doom. Likewise we are less likely to experience resistance from ourselves, our family and friends and our community if we can frame the changes as positive in nature and not dreadful sacrifices we must make if we are going to survive!

The good news is that doing this, framing the changes we must undertake in terms of how very beneficial they would be for us is easy. It could be that in our surprise to learn life for Americans will be changing dramatically in the 21st century, we let our dismay overshadow the understanding that this might allow us to fix some really awful realities we'd come to accept as just another part of life. We have tended to think, out of complacency or more likely out of loyalty to our own way of life, that this way of living is the best way of living possible and that there's no need for fundamental changes to our "non-negotiable" American way of life.

Following WWII, the United States experienced a renaissance of sorts. The US was the only industrialized nation whose infrastructure hadn't been bombed into oblivion. In the aftermath of such destruction our farmers helped to feed the world during a time in which the world was unable to feed itself. Our manufacturing capacity was ramped up during the war which meant we were able to make all the stuff the rest of the world needed to rebuild itself, which meant a steady stream of wealth from abroad. The US also remained the largest oil producer in the world during the decades that followed the war. This meant not only an enormous amount of cheap energy available to US citizens but also another source of wealth as we exported petroleum to other countries.

There was a great construction bonanza as this nation rushed to provide a good life for the fighting men returning home to their families. For several decades after WWII Americans increasingly moved to populate the countryside surrounding cities all over this country. Technological advancements led to the creation of all sorts of new appliances to go in all those new houses. War rationing was over and foods and other formerly restricted items, like tires were once again available to anyone who could afford them. Labor laws and government initiatives kept businesses from over exploiting workers. This meant a larger percentage of the work force was able to participate in the consumption of goods and services and the middle class was born into what was described as the American Dream.

So it was from the beginning that the middle class valued not just their ability to keep hunger and the other problems of poverty at bay but that they were able to participate in consuming more resources just like the wealthy, if still to a lesser degree. Of course what we see today is the runaway version of the American dream, a culture consumed by consumption. We are in terms of material wealth, three times better off than we were in the 1950s. Everything from the size of our cars and our homes, to the size of our entrees has grown. In purely materialistic terms we are wealthier than ever before. But polls show this wealth hasn't translated to happiness. The National Opinion Research Center has been asking Americans annual just how happy they are. It turns out that we peaked in terms of happiness in the 1950s and have been growing ever less happy since; despite all our new stuff.

Of course we have been growing more sedentary too. We spend much more time sitting in cars, sitting at work and witting in front of the television than we ever did in the middle of last century. And this has had an effect of both our physical and mental health. As we've continued to adopt more tools of convenience and comfort we've also seen a rise in those chronic diseases associated with such a sedentary lifestyle. All of this material wealth has also come at a cost. As a people we work more hours than any other nation in the world. The level of stress can be measured in studies and conveyed as statistics. Despite our rise in levels of material wealth we still see high numbers of suicides rivaling those of homicides. (That is, in America you're probably more likely to kill yourself than to be killed by anyone else) Or you can just spend time in public and absorb the level of anxiety that permeates our culture. More than half of all American adults have taken some sort of medication for depression, not counting those who self medicate regularly with drugs less regulated by the government like alcohol or tobacco or an entire tub of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. The United States spends more than twice- double!- the amount of money as any other nation on health care and yet we rank 44 in life expectancy. We have an infant mortality rate that is higher than that of Cuba. Who, by the way, has more doctors per capita than we do here in the US. It’s clear from our ailing health that the way we live is not in our best interest.

This may on its face seem like just another defense reason for change, the idea that we must or we will stay sick. It isn't though. Advocating for a change in the way we live that will make us healthier is inseparable from advocating for a change in the way we live that will make us happier.

It will also give us more choices. The myth goes something like this. "We have more choices in terms of what we eat than ever before!" In Bring the Food Economy Home, Helena Norberg-Hodge et al, addresses this directly saying.

It is easy for the Northern consumer to believe that industrial agriculture and global trade have actually led to an increase in food diversity. A well-stocked supermarket can overwhelm with its apparent food choices: fifty different kinds of breakfast cereals; eighty feet of shelving devoted to fruit juices, soft drinks and other beverages; six different brands of cottage cheese; ten varieties of potato chips… Much of this apparent diversity is illusion, however, since the 80 percent of the supermarket that consists of processed foods offers little real choice. A close look at several different packages of crackers or canned soups will reveal virtually identical lists of ingredients. In many cases, the ten different brands are owned by the same food conglomerate- the only diversity is each one's distinct packaging.

These transnational food corporations makes decision that result not in more and better choices for eaters but fewer choices. The decision about what to offer is often governed not by taste or for nutritional reasons but because of what foods will travel best and last the longest on the grocery store shelf. The result, as Norberg-Hodge suggests.

Thus dozens of apple varieties once may have grown within a few miles of a supermarket that today sells just three or four- those most favored by large growers. No matter that a Red Delicious is not as tasty as an heirloom apple variety the Red Delicious looks and travels better.

In China the number of rice varieties under cultivation decreased from 10,000 in 1949 to about 1,000 in 1972. "In the United States 95 percent of the cabbage, 91 percent of the field maize, 94 percent of the pea, and 81 percent of the tomato varieties have been lost." Broadly speaking we've lost ¾ of the world's food diversity in a century.

A return to small scale, sustainable agriculture and local eating would be eliminating some or even most of the exotics we've come to think of a staples but it would could mean a return of diversity over run by the globalized agriculture and decisions made based not on the preference of eaters but on what practices will make food companies the most money.

In addition to the health benefits of changing our lifestyle and focusing more on quality and less on quantity we are likely to see more benefits from a way of growing food that requires fewer chemical inputs. All of the pesticides and fertilizers that allow industrial agriculture to operate on depleted soils come at a cost not fully understood by the medical community. There are studies linking these chemicals to human health problems (not to mention environmental problems) but it seems logical enough to just suggest that being able to avoid foods grown using toxic chemicals will make for a healthier happier life.

And we should be growing food without the use of such chemicals not just because it's bad for the health of those of us who are eating the food but because it's bad for the health of those people growing our food. The UN reports between 20,000 and 40,000 farm workers die globally each year due to pesticide exposure. UP to 300,000 farm laborers in the US have illnesses related to pesticide exposure. If we think that we're not in some way responsible for these illness and these deaths then we're wrong. And again this is not to be seen as a defense posture from which we should act but as a way in which we can make decisions that repair our world. We can take back the notion of morally respectable behavior and apply it to this portion of our lives. We can demand a system of growing food and eating it that doesn't not, as a consequence, include us in moral unacceptable practices.

A similar argument can be made in regards to the current practice of raising animals in this country. This is not the argument that animals should not be consumed by humans but the argument that we do have a responsibility to treat those animals in a humane and morally defendable way. Factory farming of meat is not doing that now and it would be a decent of us to demand a change. Of course that change would inevitably taste better. It’s true that locally raised, small scale sustainable meat comes without the growth hormones, the pesticide residues, the antibiotics and the dubious preservatives but it also just tastier. It's an obvious example of how doing what's right by our bodies, the bodies of other people and animals and doing right in terms of the environment also happens to mean food that tastes better. It's like we've been going out of our way to poison ourselves and the planet. Or more correctly put, we have allowed a system by which a few people get rich by promoting questionable agricultural practices. We need to make changes not as a defensive response to these practices but as a way to transition to a healthier, happier way of eating as an act of repairing the world.


Morgan Glover said...

I have been reading your blog for several months now. I am an education reporter for the News & Record who is working on a project about peak oil production to come out in late spring. I also have a personal blog called Greening Guilford ( I wanted to know if you would be open to being interviewed for the story. I am taking a local as well as state and national perspective and I am trying to interview as many people as possible. I also have a lot of family in Concord.
You can reach me at 373-7078 or

Morgan Josey Glover

Morgan Glover said...

I forgot to mention I work in Greensboro. The full number is 336-373-7078. Sorry about that.

Bruce F said...

Congratulations on your baby girl.

I can't remember when I was here last , but looking at the stuff your writing I can see why I bookmarked it.

Anyway, on to the friendly sales call.

A few of us who live in the city of Chicago are trying to grow heirloom vegetables on our rooftops in cheap homemade earth boxes. In response to huge environmental problems, it's a small but rewarding way to push back. Also, we think they're a great way to build connections in a fragmented social/political landscape.

Here's the , alongside the pics is an extensive how-to guide with plenty of links.

[for some reason the tag is always messed up but the link still works; yes this is human powered spam, sorry]