Recently, I've become interested in permaculture, both as a method of sustainable farming/gardening, and to the extent that it embodies a practicable philosophy. I'm particularly interested in the bottom-up, DIY ethos that I've seen proliferating as a motif among the permaculture/homesteading/eco-anarchist/sustainability communities. The grassroots approach seems like the only way to build a sustainable society: To start at the individual level and figure out how to live as simply as possible while keeping commercial interactions small and local and sustainable, and cutting the big corporations out entirely. This is pretty much the opposite of everything that we, as typical American citizens (consumers), have been conditioned to think since birth.
I've been reading David Holmgren's excellent "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability." In the book, Holmgren--one of the co-founders of the permaculture concept--lays out the 12 main tenets of permaculture as he envisions it. Today, as I was reading Principle Eight, ("Integrate Rather than Segregate"), I was particularly taken with this passage: "The role of the nation state in providing captive markets and subsidies for the continued growth of the corporations give the impression that these relatively recent and short-lived commercial entities are invincible organisms...Although this new global ecosystem is clearly born from human organisation and culture, a strong case can be made that it is anti-people, anti-nature and set on a course of self destruction." The message is nothing new, but his likening global corporations to organisms in an ecosystem is pretty interesting and resonated with me on several levels.
One of the recurring thought patterns I have is dismay and incredulity at how millions of people take the daily arrangements of modern American life for granted; indeed, how people strive and usually fail to meet the illusory and completely arbitrary societal goals that are part of the American identity: to own your own home, be a success, start a family, etc. And more distressingly, how these millions seem to downplay or completely ignore the real harm that buying into this bogus and destructive set of beliefs is doing to themselves and everything else on the planet.
For example, Why are shopping malls across the country packed full of people buying things they don't need and probably can't afford, mass-produced anonymously half a world away? Why do millions of people mortgage their future freedom and time on enormous houses with more space than they will ever need or use, many miles from where they work--only to spend almost as much time commuting between home and job as they do on the job, at the expense of their families, their health and their happiness? Because this is the American Dream, the "non-negotiable" American lifestyle that is the highest civic virtue and at the same time, the natural order of things.
But I don't think people "choose" these things in the real sense of that word. Rather, I think they are conditioned to believe that their behaviors and affinities are "natural," virtuous and inevitable. When it is easier, more comfortable, and more appealing to get in a car and go shopping in your spare time (and when you believe that you have to continuously buy "stuff" to be worthy of your peers), than it is to spend the same amount of time out in nature, enjoying some time away from a noisy and acquisitive culture, then culture will win out over nature every time. The default behavior then is to choose culture. By culture I don't mean museums or the theater or whatever else, I mean consumer culture; by nature, I don't mean wilderness, but any kind of outdoor experience where technology, money, ownership, and the built environment don't predominate.
Hence, filling a niche in the consumer ecosystem is the primal impulse that several generations of affluent Westerners have been conditioned to believe is natural behavior. As sprawl increases and genuine natural environments become less and less accessible, it's difficult to imagine how people with little or no access to the natural world, or desire to spend time there, can conceive of any alternative to the completely non-natural world they spend their entire lives in, let alone advocate for conservation and protection of a natural world that they know only through television. This entirely disconnected culture encourages its inhabitants to think no further than the supermarket when they consider their "food" sources; to think no further than the gas station or the electric outlet when they consider their energy and lifestyle choices; to think no further than the ever present now when acting on an impulse or gratifying a desire.
There is a vague popular consensus that this American lifestyle is rooted in our national identity, protected and encouraged by the constitution, Declaration of Independence, and other seminal ideas put forth by the founders of the nation. I will argue in postings to follow, however, that the "American Dream" as it is understood lately, goes back no further than 1945, and really only took shape in the last decades of the 20th Century.
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