Monday, April 18, 2011

Structural Change

I just finished watching series 4 of The Good Life, a 1970s sitcom from BBC that aired in the US as Good Neighbors. The library system only had this last season of the show, so I requested that to see whether I would like it. I enjoyed it very much and so will probably purchase the set that contains series 1-3 at some point and then donate this to the library when I have watched it. It is about a these neighbors, both of whom were corporate suburban couples until one of the couples decides to drop out of the rat race and become self-sufficient. Some of it brought me back to my own corporate suburban 1970s childhood. Some of it was pretty laughable--like when they worked for a sheep farmer in exchange for fleeces which they spun (with a drop spindle), dyed with nettles, wove the yarn into cloth, and then sewed into a suit--presumably by hand, since the woman was always seen sewing by hand. This seemed to happen in a remarkably short period of time! All in all though, it was quite entertaining. At one point, though, it struck me how difficult (impossible?) it can be to be truly self-sufficient in a society where that is somehow held up as the ideal, but is structurally set up to make this very, very difficult. At some level, of course, none of us are self-sufficient, and indeed even in the show, they had to barter with other people to get their needs met. This has always been the case, I would venture to say, throughout human evolutionary history. Cooperation was a part of our evolutionary process and no one truly goes it alone. So, although we can strive to meet as many of our needs as possible on our own, we can't ever meet all of them. Still, having the knowledge to grow food, cook with what you have, and make do in creative ways with things you have just makes a lot of sense to me. When she cut up one of her husband's pullovers and made herself a tabard vest and leg warmers, I chuckled to myself. In the last episode she was wearing a patchwork shirt that looked like it had been cut out of other old shirts in different shapes and sewn together, seams outward. Now this is something I want to try myself. In any case, there are parts of this kind of lifestyle that not only do I find attractive, but that I actually do in my own life. There are limits--I know that unless I am doing container gardening, for example, I really don't care for it. So I will plant a few tomato plants in pots, but I have also joined a CSA and will support a local farm family that way. Brunswick happens to be a place where I can do that. In Fairbanks, we lived without running water for a couple of years. This was pretty painless, although it took organization and planning, because Fairbanks was set up for that kind of thing. There were places we could go to buy water and pump it into our containers. That's the thing--the system has to be set up in such a way to allow and even encourage people to make these kinds of changes in their lives. Clearly the system we have now does not work and millions of people know this and try to make positive changes in their own lives. This needs to happen because we need these individuals to turn into groups which will turn into larger groups that will eventually be large enough to force cultural, societal, and structural change. But these pioneers do have it a little harder--they are trying to build alternative lifestyles within a structure that is often not supportive and may in fact hinder them. So we all do what we can. One of the things I was happy to see in the show was the expression of the joy that such a life can bring. The more I have tossed aside all the trappings of a consumer lifestyle the happier I have been myself. There is little joy in shopping--I can think of few things more mind-numbingly boring. But there is satisfaction in taking a bunch of string, manipulating it with my crochet hook, and ending up with a pair of socks or a shirt. Bucking the system at any level requires creativity. I think we need as much of that as we can get.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A New Chapter

I am nearing the end of my first week of freedom from my job at a "sustainable goods" store. The owner is out of money and cannot pay for an almost full-time person anymore. I am fine with that, because I disliked the job a great deal and am glad to be done. It was quite an eye-opening experience. When I started I knew that I would be learning things, but as so often happens in life, the things I learned were not the things I thought I would learn. The part of the job that I enjoyed was the opportunity to have interesting conversations with some of the people who came into the store. Other than that, I mostly found what was doing to be a waste of my time and what I observed to be disturbing and somewhat depressing. There were generally two broad categories of people who would come into the store. Those who were there for a specific thing, like bulk earth/people-friendly cleaning supplies or wood finish for a certain project. They wanted to be greener for whatever reason. But they got what they needed and the things they bought were part of a larger commitment to simple living and lowering the footprint they were making on the earth. Then there were the people who bought things like plastic bag drying racks and stainless steel compost pails--the latter imported from China via Seattle, swathed in multiple layers of cardboard and plastic. Not quite a "sustainable good" but, as many people said, "Oooh, it's so pretty." Whether they bought one of these or not depended on the budget--they ran from $30-$50. What depressed me was the people who bought one to take back to their overly large home while thinking they were being radical because they compost. Don't get me wrong. Composting is great. It's a great thing to do. But it's one thing and not all that radical. And we are beyond the point, I think, when tinkering at the edges of this huge global problem of overcounsumption is going to solve things. I found myself feeling a bit yucky about being there after a while. I felt like I was simply helping people to keep on consuming too much stuff they don't really need. There were good things in the store, to be sure. I refilled used containers with soap, laundry detergent, and dish soap. I bought stainless steel travel mugs. Everyone has a different view of what is important to them, I know, but I became uncomfortable with the idea of selling wood finish that came to Maine from Germany via California, flooring from Scotland, and vermiculture set-ups that came from Australia while working for a guy that thinks everyone should give up their cars and not drive. Unless they are driving to his store from far away. Then it's OK. Just as it's quite fine to say that you are "saving the planet" while having stuff sent to your store from all far-flung corners of the globe burning fossil fuels every mile along the way. When the owner told me that his belief was that everyone could live in a 4000-square-foot house, as long as they did not burn any fossil fuels, I gave up trying to see where I would fit in there. The idea was so ridiculous to me that it suddenly became obvious in a way it had not been before that here was one of those people who want to say, "Sure, save the planet, but please do not disrupt my suburban, middle-class way of life. I will help by buying this pretty stainless steel compost pail." Good luck with all that. And the store? It will be closed by June at the latest.