Posts Tagged ‘material minimalism’

Mutant Ideologies

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

something greather we could be tw

Something Greater We Could Be painting by Nolan Winkler

“Do not blame others for things that you have brought upon yourself.” Alexander McCall Smith

In 1968, when I was nineteen, I read The Population Bomb by Paul and Ann Ehrlich. That book and several others I read over the next few years, along with a life-changing journey through Mexico and Central America as a translator for a marine biologist, turned me into a zealous proponent of zero population growth, mass transit, organic gardening, and material minimalism.

That was fifty years ago. Since 1968, the world’s human population has more than doubled to over seven billion, the world’s automobile population (non-electric) has more than doubled to 1.2 billion, and organically grown food accounts for less than five per cent of the food grown in America. The earth’s fisheries are depleted, carbon emissions are increasing rather than decreasing, and we have an American government dedicated to undoing what little good our government did for the environment over the last forty years.

When I find myself in conversation with people who are just now becoming alarmed about climate change and the unfolding economic and environmental disasters engulfing us, I am reminded of the anger and disinterest and disingenuous lip service that greeted me for most of the last fifty years whenever I wrote about or discussed these issues and suggested ways to avoid much of what has now befallen the world. And though I am sad and disheartened about the unfolding disasters decimating human societies and life on our precious planet, I am not surprised by these disasters or the lack of substantive response to them.

My more cynical friends explain the collapse of our environment as a result of human nature. But even a cursory study of the myriad indigenous societies that existed prior to their annihilation by the forces of capitalism and overpopulation, reveals that human nature created thousands of societal systems that depended on sustaining the optimal health of the environment. And at the heart of those sustainable practices were minimal population growth and zero net pollution of the environment.

Thus I would argue that human nature is not the cause of the various crises threatening us today. I would suggest that the great threat to the continuation of life on earth was caused by mutant ideologies—capitalism and patriarchal monotheism—that destroyed those thousands of indigenous societies forming the fabric of humanity for tens of thousands of years—societies that evolved to harmonize with nature, not in opposition to it.

One of the books I’m currently reading is the beautifully written Wisdom from a Rainforest by Stuart Schlegel, a recollection of his two years of living among the Teduray of Mindanao in the 1960s.

“They had lived for untold generations in the forest—since ‘the beginning of time’ they believed—without its becoming destroyed and replaced by grassland. They carefully protected certain forest trees, which they valued for fruit or other potential gifts. They avoided overcutting bamboo stands that they considered particularly useful. Hunting, fishing, gathering were all carried out with care not to overexploit the natural resources on which human life depended. Their lives were simple, but not poor, and life was a journey, not a battle.”

Yes, Schlegel is describing a pre-industrial society, a system of living that evolved without money or cars or telephones or machines of any kind. And it is possible, I suppose, that money and machines and the changes they bring to society inevitably elicit a self-destructive response from our human natures. Maybe my cynical friends are correct, and human nature, when exposed to all the modern inconveniences, becomes a globally destructive force impossible to curtail.

I met Stuart Schlegel when I was nineteen, the same year I read The Population Bomb. He was my Anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz, and I took two courses from him. When I was trying to decide whether to stay in college or drop out, I went to him for advice, and he was the only adult of those I consulted who suggested that a break from academia might be just the thing for me.

Reading Schlegel’s bittersweet memoir, I now understand why he gave me such counsel. He clearly felt that Western Civilization was a plague upon the earth, and he saw American academia as an extension of that same male-dominated hierarchal system that is the antithesis (and ultimately the killer) of the Teduray manifestation of human nature—egalitarian, non-competitive, regenerative, and highly cooperative.

As Schlegel writes in Wisdom from a Rainforest, “Teduray children were taught from an early age to scan their social world for what they could do to encourage and assist all other people, and they were taught most certainly never to inflict physical or spiritual injury on anyone. This commitment to mutual aid, support, and respect gave these people a quality that is almost impossible to describe, a sort of peace combined with a palpable graciousness.”

Four Chairs

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

four chairs

Four Chairs photograph by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Spike Milligan

Marcia and I recently bought four new chairs for our dining nook, and I think the way we got these chairs and the feelings they inspired will be of interest to people of my generation, those of us born in America between 1945 and 1955 or thereabouts. We were teenagers and young adults during the world-changing era known as the Sixties, which I believe lasted roughly from 1963 to 1975. By no coincidence those are also the years of the American chapter of the Vietnam War.

Exhaustive economic studies have found that my generation, despite the mythos of the Sixties, is the most materialistic generation to ever live on this earth. Whether that is true or not, when I and many of my age peers were in our twenties, we rejected the materialism of our parents and the larger society and chose lives of intentional simplicity, a choice that profoundly shaped my life ever after.

For one thing, choosing to live lightly on Mother Earth separated me from the vast majority of other people in America and made me keenly aware of the hierarchic nature of our social system, a hierarchy based on how much money and possessions a person has. Thus by choosing to have little, I found myself at the bottom of the heap, but because many of us made this choice in the Sixties, I did not feel lost and alone. On the contrary, I felt encouraged and excited about the potential for societal change that material minimalism and egalitarian socialism promised.

Anyway, the Sixties fizzled out, the so-called hippies became ravenous materialists, and those of us who remained true to the ethos of the Sixties found little support for our ideas and proclivities. Had I been even slightly prescient in 1972, I would have bought a few houses in Santa Cruz when a nice two-bedroom home a block from the beach could be had for seven thousand dollars. But I was not prescient and I didn’t buy, so today I do not sit on a mountain of gold.

“I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Henry David Thoreau

Which brings me to how we got our four new chairs. Marcia and I went to Santa Rosa to spend three days before Christmas with Opal, Marcia’s mother, a sneaky good pool player who always says, “Pure luck” after sinking another in a series of formidable shots en route to victory.

For lunch one day the three of us went to the Nepalese Indian restaurant Yeti, and when we were seated in our elegant wood-framed, broad-bottomed, high-backed, royally reddish upholstered chairs at the handsome dark wood table, Marcia declared, “I love these chairs. They are so comfortable. I would love to have chairs like these.”

We inquired of our friendly Nepalese waiter if he knew where one might purchase these enviable chairs, and a moment later the owner of Yeti, a charming man named Narayan Somname, came to our table and said, “Yes, I have more of these chairs in my warehouse in Glen Ellen. How many would you like?”

“Well, er, four,” I said, looking at Marcia to see if she wanted to jump at the chance. “How much do…”

“I will sell them to you for ninety dollars each,” he said, nodding. “They require some assembling.”

We pondered the situation for the rest of our scrumptious meal and concluded we would buy four. We arranged to meet Narayan at the restaurant the next day to give him a check and get the chairs, which he would bring from Glen Ellen, and that is what we did. The chairs came two to a box marked Made In China, the two boxes just fitting in the trunk of our trusty old Camry.

As Narayan closed the trunk, he said, “You may have noticed in the restaurant we affixed braces to the legs because after a year, some of the chairs began to wobble. I will take ten dollars off the price of each chair so you can purchase the necessary hardware.”

We arrived home in Mendocino on Christmas Eve, and after we got the woodstove roaring and our frigid house was habitable once more, I unpacked the chairs and found in each box a piece of fabric wrapped around a couple dozen bolts of widely varying sizes, with no directions for assembling the chairs.

Four hours of cursing and futzing and puzzling and grunting later—did I mention cursing?—the four chairs were assembled and arrayed around our dining table where, for the last ten years, four small uncomfortable folding chairs had served us with the aid of additional cushions for butts and backs.

We sat in our new chairs, Marcia pronounced them marvelous, and I thought they were marvelous, too, but I also felt a little guilty about having such beautiful chairs to sit on.

The next day, writing to my friend Max, I said, “These new chairs make me feel very adult. I wondered if I ever would.”

Max wrote back, “I laughed aloud at this. Maybe all along you merely needed the exactly right chair in order to experience a change of consciousness? Or I should ask: what is it about these chairs, do you think, that causes you to feel very adult?”

I replied, “The previous chairs I bought were small and inexpensive and not particularly comfortable, and there was a Spartan precarious feeling to them. I still feel slightly immoral buying new clothing, though I do buy new shoes and I bought a new piano in 1980. I don’t know. Maybe in so completely rejecting materialism, I got stuck in the mindset of my penniless twenties, and spontaneously buying four groovy chairs feels antithetical to my lifetime practice of owning a few excellent things and making do with minimal everything else.”

Celebrity Saviors

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

magician

Mr. Magician painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2013)

Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin of the influential Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in England say many of the solutions proposed by world leaders to prevent “runaway global warming” will not be enough to address the scale of the crisis. They have called for “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the United States, EU and other wealthy nations.” Democracy Now

You may have heard that Russell Brand, the British comedian and movie star and ex-husband of pop diva Katy Perry, has made quite a splash of late talking about bringing down the current earth-killing systems of government and finance and replacing them with truly democratic socialist systems that serve all the people and stop killing the earth instead of only serving the bloody hell psychotic super rich. Russell isn’t saying anything new, but he speaks well, debates well, and has a lovable fearlessness and charisma that attracts the attention of thousands of previously disinterested people.

Also recently, Angelina Jolie, the mega-famous movie star and wife of mega-famous movie star Brad Pitt, received a humanitarian award from the same folks who hand out Oscars, and she made an eloquent acceptance speech in which she said that there but for fortune she might have been trapped in a refugee camp with little hope of having a good life, and she was determined to continue to work as hard as she can to help those less fortunate than she.

Simultaneously with Russell and Angelina broaching these subjects so rarely broached by super-famous celebrities, I happened to read the transcript of the show on Democracy Now from which I took this article’s opening quote, and I thought, “What if Amy Goodman interviewed Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks and they spoke the identical words spoken by these two scientists no one has ever heard of? What kind of an impact would that have on the world?” These scientists are talking about living lives of what many people in America and Europe would consider extreme material simplicity: no more traveling by air, minimal use of automobiles, getting around by bicycling, walking and using public transportation, radically reducing energy consumption in the home, not buying imported food, shopping locally, and so forth.

Then I had an epiphany that goes something like this: since hundreds of millions (and possibly billions) of people around the world care more about what celebrities do and think than they care about anyone or anything else, what if Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and Justin Beiber and Madonna and Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Lawrence and Lady Gaga and all the world’s most famous celebrities could be convinced to live lives of material simplicity in order to slow and eventually reverse the destruction of the biosphere?

Impossible? I don’t think so, especially if we, the people, can convince a few key super stars to make the change, and in so doing make material simplicity seem exciting and sexy, which it is, for then other celebrities will follow suit in order to, you know, be among the coolest of the cool.

“There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” Annie Lennox

While watching sports highlights on my computer, I saw a thirty-second advertisement for shoes or shaving cream, I can’t remember which, that features a mega-famous basketball player going to exclusive parties and driving a million-dollar car and being swamped by fans and living in a mansion and buying diamonds and consorting with gorgeous women. As we watch the footage of the superstar’s high life, we hear the voice of the mega-famous player we’re watching say, “If they took away the parties, the hot cars, the fans, the money, the high life, what would be left?” Now we see this superstar jumping incredibly high and making a fantastic shot as he answers his own question with, “Everything.”

And I took this to mean that this superstar, worshipped by millions of young men and women, cares more about basketball than he cares about all those glitzy, greenhouse gas spewing, meaningless wastes of life and time, which means he is the perfect candidate for assuming a life of material simplicity and modeling earth-saving ways of living for his followers. Okay!

“90 companies on the list of top emitters produced 63% of the cumulative global emissions of industrial carbon dioxide and methane, and all but seven of the 90 were energy companies producing oil, gas and coal. The remaining seven were cement manufacturers.” Jon Queally

That’s right. Two-third of all the greenhouse gases emitted on earth in the last two hundred and fifty years were emitted by ninety companies producing oil, gas, coal, and cement, and most of the remaining greenhouse gas emissions came from people using that oil, gas, coal, and cement. Thus the solution is clear: we have to stop using so much oil, gas, coal and cement.

According to Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin of Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the average American is responsible for producing approximately eight (8) tons of greenhouse gas per year. Furthermore, 1.5 billion people in China are catching up to Americans with a per-person average of five (5) tons per year, with 1.5 billion folks in India gaining fast on the people of China in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Kevin and Alice estimate that we must quickly reduce the global per-person yearly average to two (2) tons of greenhouse gas emissions to have any hope of the planet being habitable a few decades hence. They also remind us that the average per-person tonnage is brought way up by the wealthiest people on earth who do lots of flying around in jets, living in huge energy-gobbling homes, driving too many gas-guzzling cars, and buying lots of things they don’t need brought to them from many thousands of miles away.

“On personal integrity hangs humanity’s fate.” Buckminster Fuller

So…you check your email. A friend sent you a link. You click on the link and are taken to a headline JUSTIN BEIBER JOINS CO-HOUSING COMMUNITY. The accompanying article reports: “Following a celebratory tweet to his eight hundred million devoted followers, the Beibster rode his bicycle towing the small trailer holding all his worldly possessions to his one-bedroom apartment in the zero emissions and totally self-sustaining co-housing community of High Hopes in Townsend, New Jersey, his ultra-groovy pad to be shared with the Beibster’s awesomely cute wife Gretchen, also known as She (Accordion).

“I’m totally digging working in our big organic garden and teaching guitar at the local community school,” said the Beibster who will be traveling by tramp steamer with Gretchen to Europe next month for their acoustic bicycle tour touting his new album Light As A Feather, featuring his global hit Cleaning Up My Act. “When we get home from Europe, we’ll hang here at High Hopes for a few months and then go gigging by train.”

In the afternoon, you turn on the radio to catch your favorite Eco-Revolution show Get Natural with hosts Tina Fey and Russell Brand, coming to you live from the straw bale solar community center of Quail Run Cooperative Farm a few miles from downtown San Luis Obispo. Tina and Russell, co-founders of Quail Run, have as their special guest today the famous director James Cameron talking about his latest 3-D comedy thriller Turning Down The Heat starring Robert De Niro, Denzel Washington, Hugh Jackman, Beyonce, and Adam Sandler as improvisational ecological innovators sent into the way-too-hot center of North America to befriend the desperate people living there and implement zany innovative ways to speed up the reversal of global warming.

What makes Get Natural such a great show is the way Tina and Russell mix movie talk and celebrity gossip with tips on canning, fermentation, compost, communal living, and the new Slow Travel movement. Jennifer Lawrence calls midway through the show to talk about some new tricks she learned while making her latest batch of goat cheese and how much she enjoyed her three-week walk to Florida from her upstate New York intentional simplicity commune to shoot the seventh and final movie in the Hunger Games series, Hungry No More.

“I was exhausted after four weeks of filming,” said Jennifer, “so I took the quantum gravity zero-emissions train home. We had a stop in Raleigh, North Carolina, so the trip took almost an hour instead of the usual thirty minutes, but we produced far more energy than we consumed en route.”

There are still a few celebrities and a few dimwitted fans who have not yet made the shift, but that can’t last now that all the corporations are making such huge profits from their clever de-growth de-hedge fund strategies, and with the fines for profligate energy use so exorbitant. Yes, we’re faced with the problem of what to do with so much wealth and freedom and opportunity to be shared by everyone, but we’ll have to tackle that challenge with the same strength and conviction we brought to convincing our beloved celebrities to change their ways.

How did we do that? How quickly we forget. Let’s see, I know thousands of us barraged our favorite celebrities with persuasive informative heartfelt letters, instead of wasting our time writing to our pea-brained congressional representatives, but I can’t quite recall how we got those celebrities to realize that lip service and driving electric cars wasn’t enough.

Oh, yes, now I remember the turning point, when Brad and Angelina walked from Los Angeles to New Orleans, and hundreds of thousands of people and dozens of super-famous people joined them along the way, and how they gathered in the Super Dome to announce to the world that henceforth they would get around without flying and without the use of automobiles, and they would be assuming lives of material minimalism. Yeah, that was huge, that was when the tide began to turn.