Am I romanticizing poverty?

Sharon January 17th, 2007

Someone who reads my blog recently emailed me with the accusation that my Community Solutions Paper and my writings in general are a call to mass, collective return to poverty, and that I’m intentionally romanticizing subsistence agriculture. And I started wondering, am I?

And the answer, I suspect, is a little bit, in the sense that I don’t think anything is served by my saying, “your future and the future of your children is drudgery and misery.” I think it is certainly possible that I elide some difficulties - or rather, that I prefer not to focus on them. Some of that is the optimist issue - I am one, despite my dark prognosis for our culture. And part of it is that ultimately most of the things that will necessarily get harder aren’t the things I value most. That is, I suspect our physical loads will get heavier. On the other hand, I suspect that will only be good for my overall health and wellbeing, so I choose to look at it not as a negative, but as mostly a positive.

There are some things about a life low on the economic food chain that, I think, really are better. For example, poor agrarian societies generally have stronger social ties. In many cases, people who live in simpler economies with fewer things they can’t have dangling in front of them report themselves to be happier. And the things about contemporary, wealthy society that really matter are mostly things that we can continue to have - if we are very careful. The things that wealth has given us that I value are these: basic medical care, including birth control and preventative care, social support networks for the elderly, the disabled, the very poor and other vulnerable people, good education, access to information, access to clean water, safe food and secure shelter, personal freedom and a just society. And what is fascinating about all these things is that they aren’t very expensive. A good education, up to and including college doesn’t have to cost 30K a year. Basic public medical care including vaccinations, preventative medicine, midwifery, simple palliative care for the dying, many basic medications, birth control, and some hospital care doesn’t have to cost us what it does. Neither do libraries, public services and support programs for the poor.

It is worth remembering that when the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped supplying oil to Cuba, crashing the economy and everything along with it, the Cuban government did exactly the opposite of what the American government does in hard times - they kept up their social support programs. Instead of taking much needed funds out of education, social welfare, programs for the elderly and poor, they kept those up. They opened new University campuses and more clinics since people couldn’t travel as far or as easily for medical care and education. That’s a choice we can make too - if we want to.

On the other hand, am I going to deny that our wealth has been extremely pleasant? Heck no. I’ve enjoyed all sorts of things other people can never imagine. I’ve travelled. I’ve had pretty things. I have a home of my own, I can travel to visit family far away, I have nice clothes and cool toys and a computer to write on and the internet. Right now I’m sitting here on a 15 degree day, two sleeping dogs at my feet, in a warm house typing and listening to The Little Willies. Pretty soon I’ll get up and dig some leftover Thai noodles (Eric makes them) out of the fridge for my lunch. Would I prefer to be outside, hand pumping icy water into buckets and carrying it? How about chopping wood?

Probably not, although I may go out and hatchet up some kindling later on, since our new woodstove just arrived and I want to have a good supply. But for me, the larger question is this. If that were my life, if I were hauling water in the cold instead of writing here, would I be unhappy? Maybe momentarily, but generally speaking, I don’t think so. I like personal comfort as much as anyone else, but, as chintzy as this factoid will seem, the things I really care about don’t depend on my not having to grow food or haul water.

Our perceptions drive our sense of what is work more than the actual work does. How many people can remember doing some now-unthinkable job when they were young and poor, and now say, “but we were happy.” I’ve met people who walked in the snow to their outhouses, who boiled their laundry on their coal stoves, who hung their dripping, freezing laundry off a fourth story balcony. And I’ve hauled a month’s worth of laundry 1/2 a mile on my back in a sack, I’ve carried my groceries for a mile, stood outside in the cold waiting for a bus every morning, walked four miles to work… And when I look back at every one of those activities, it really wasn’t that big a deal.

We tend to look back on what we used to do and think “Amazing. We were happy. All that work didn’t impinge on us enjoying life.” But what’s amazing about that is what we’ve forgotten - that all that work really doesn’t impinge on us enjoying life when it is our life. We take on our labor savers as though they are a miracle, but the life we had before them is usually not so very bad afterall. The miracle, if you can call it that, is that they’ve reshaped our memories so that our pasts are untenable, and untenantable to us - we begin to think that we can’t go home again.

Do I romanticize subsistence agriculture? Maybe a little. I like farming, and someone who doesn’t might not agree with me. And I tend to think that if we’re going to have to do something (and I have little doubt that we have to, for a host of reasons), we might as well go into it excited, treating it as an opportunity to optimize and improve upon our lives, rather than as a tragedy to be endured.

But I also note that I’m happier since we moved here. And I think this might not be a purely personal preference. Some of you may have watched the PBS documentary series “Frontier House.” Like all such things, it was imperfect in its creation, to some degree more about the personalities than the work. It was originally intended to debunk the myth of Little House on the Prarie, the romanticism of subsistence agriculture. And in the end, it failed to do so - in fact, it proved that that romanticism wasn’t entirely misplaced.

At the end of 6 months without any of the amenities of 21st century life, without indoor plumbing or refrigeration, thermostats or grocery stores, 7 adults and 6 children came out of the experience changed. A majority of the adults and all the children overwhelmingly found that they preferred their frontier lives to the ones they returned to. One of the men actually moved back to live in his old cabin and help out on the ranch where the filming had occurred. Another child experienced a serious depression, because she missed the life she described as more “real.” Overwhelmingly, the kids on the show said that they missed having chores, they missed taking care of animals, and they missed being with their parents all the time (this included multiple teenagers). A wealthy woman building a 5000 square foot house admitted that her house felt too big, and that in a 400 square foot cabin, six people had never felt crowded.

Now Frontier House was television, but what matters about it is how thoroughly it failed to do what it set out to do - it showed all the physical harships of frontier life, but the producers had assumed that those physical hardships would overwhelm every other part of the experience. They did for a short adjustment period, and then they ceased to for most of the participants (in general, the women were less happy than the men, in part because of the producer’s insistence on mimicking traditional gender roles). And what happened is that the emotional, and spiritual and personal benefits of the life overtook the transitory concerns of physical work, and again, life was good.

So maybe I’m a little romantic. But I draw hope that if we may not be more comfortable, we might still be having fun.

Sharon

17 Responses to “Am I romanticizing poverty?”

  1. RASon 17 Jan 2007 at 5:23 pm

    Hey Sharon, I don’t think you’re romanticizing things at all, certainly not to a bad extent. Too many people think IPODs and cell phones are part of the necessities of life and that they couldn’t live without them. That’s nonesense, of course, and those folks never stop to think about what those things actually cost them (and I’m talking more than money here).

    Have you ever read Juliet Schor? She’s an economist, and her books The Overworked American and The Overspent American are well worth the read. For anyone, but for the subjects you’re working on in particular. One of the most interesting points she makes is that we work more and longer hours today than people did in the Middle Ages (when virtually everyone was a subsistence or peasant farmer!). Anyway, I highly recommend them.

    The traditional gender roles thing in The Frontier House series is really crazy -on the *real* frontier they weren’t that strict at all, because back then, it took everyone to make it. The “farmer” may have technically been the husband, but everyone did the work!

  2. farmer, vet and feeder of all animalson 17 Jan 2007 at 6:52 pm

    Sharon
    Of course I started reading your blog since it is similar to my view on things but I still don’t think you are completely off base. People right now are scared that they will have to be farmers—when in reality most have never even known a farmer (the type like Joel Salatin or someone farming under 300 acres). They think it’s awful and hard and terrible—yet they complain bitterly about going and working for “whitey”. Whitey holding them down as my husband says (by the way—I am Caucasian not that it matters but considering the comment…) They are also scared they will have to give up going to the mall every Saturday or eating out at McDonalds and Chik fil-a all the time—because that is all they know. And for the older one’s that remember differently—my mother STILL comments to this day how embarrassing it was to have to say their phone number out loud in school. The phone number gave you away as city or country/farmer. And as you have mentioned—what better way to get people to do your bidding than to make fun of them for their lifestyle. Which is exactly what the government did and allowed and still does.
    Don’t let someone make you doubt yourself because he/she speaks from their own insecurities. There are many ways to live sustainable but our country won’t get in the act. We used to live in Texas—why do they still barely have incentives for solar there to this day? What better place for it. No change to anyones life with that—and they can drive an electric car. Go figure why people can’t grasp this oil/climate/carbon thing. HAH!

  3. Davidon 17 Jan 2007 at 9:27 pm

    I *LOVE* this blog.

    My take on this is: so what if you romanticize poverty? Look at the extent to which our society romanticizes wealth. And very few people feel obliged to point that out; and when they do, it’s usually seen as sour grapes.

    Anyway, I don’t feel that you’re romanticizing poverty so much as simplicity and subsistence. To heck with the naysayers… they can have the romance of unattainable and immorally distributed wealth.

  4. Eileenon 17 Jan 2007 at 10:13 pm

    I can understand why some people think that, but they don’t understand the whole package, I’m sure….part of it is the yearning for simplicity that was happening anyway. Part of it is optimists (like us, apparently) making the best of the situation.

    I don’t think it is an accident that slow food, “slow clothing”, and The Compact groups are all forming at this point in time. There is a thread there, all of us knowing society is carreening ’round a curve. Some of us aren’t psyched about that turn.

  5. Uluon 18 Jan 2007 at 11:16 pm

    Sharon,

    I greatly appreciate your writing, and this is no exception. But I do think you are way off on a few things: When you say:

    The things that wealth has given us that I value are these:… social support networks for the elderly, the disabled, the very poor and other vulnerable people, good education

    Do you really think that our affluent society takes better care of its vulnerable people? How is that? By putting them together, away from their families, their cohesion, in concrete boxes? Something tells me you don’t mean that.

    Wealth has taken away the social support networks, and replaced them with a bungled attempt at efficiency that has lonely old people look out of lonely windows, far away from everything they love.

    And that ties in directly with the education point. I think our schools are one of the worst parts of our societies. They take away, erase, the knowledge that the elderly could have passed on. Now you have two groups in concrete boxes, the kids and the old folks, but they’re separate boxes. No knowledge transfer at all. As if you have nothing to tell when you’ve lived to be 80, as if there’s nothing to pass on that has meaning. As if a daily exchange of life and love between generations is somehow unnatural. Once a month on Sundays, that is our wealth.

    Instead kids learn the skills required to be managers or employees of retail chain stores. Yes, you’re right, in concrete boxes.

    And when the affluence will soon be over, where will the old ones go? Will they feel welcome in our homes, or have the links been broken?

    And what will the children have learned in their schools that helps them cope with having to do with less?

  6. Kristiannaon 19 Jan 2007 at 12:32 am

    Your optimism shows through in every post, Sharon, despite the unfavorable present and future scenarios that you speak of.

    You are generous and have inspired generosity in me. Your vision, which I’ve only had a glimpse of, promotes community and caring and that is the key to our future.

    I can’t say that what I have taken from your writings is you romanticizing poverty.

    Thank you!

    k

  7. jewishfarmeron 19 Jan 2007 at 3:11 pm

    Ulu, I both agree and disagree with you. I agree that wealth has destroyed our social cohesion in many ways, and that our school suck and do lousy things to our kids. On the other hand, I do, for example, see children having the economic luxury to go to school, rather than work in fields or factories as a benefit of wealth. I do think that having an economic support system for the elderly and disabled without family support systems is essential - it is worth remembering that just about every culture in history has exhorted people to remember the widows and orphans, and I’m a firm believer that in fact, we don’t remind people to do something that often unless there’s a problem with getting it done. Social security was started in part because there were old people starving to death during the depression. Having the resources, say, to get medical care for a severely disabled child is a product of wealth - in many societies, the child would just die.

    So while I agree with you that our culture has destroyed much of what is valuable in all those basic support functions, I don’t agree that they are not at least partially a product of our wealth. Does that make sense? As much as I want to see our culture return to the days of keeping elders together, I don’t want to return to the days where those who don’t have any biological families lack that support. And as much as I find the public school system to be deeply wrong, I don’t wish to return to keeping your daughters at home because you can’t afford school for everyone.

    Sharon

  8. Kelleyon 22 Jan 2007 at 5:04 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    I got the same type comment when my local paper did a write-up on me and Peak Oil and me showing End of Suburbia and Power of Community. The week after, someone wrote a letter to the editor. Part of what he said was about how peak oil was a myth and that there was plenty of oil and plenty of alternatives.

    But the part that surprised me and got to me was him saying that Cuba was not a place we should emulate. Including why would we all want to go back to being peasants working the land and being poor.

    It made me realize that the reason I admire how Cuba survived Peak Oil and the way they transformed their agricultural system is only because my world view is different from his. My world view includes oil depletion and global warming, while his does not. My world view and beliefs mean that not only do I admire their ability to survive, but that I believe we will be there sometime soon as well. So I want to learn as much as I can from their experience.

    -ko

    ps. :) I met you at the Community Solutions conference, at the social event in the New England corner. I was so surprised when you got up to speak the next day - you seemed so down to earth!

  9. adamfon 22 Jan 2007 at 11:04 pm

    I think forced schooling is at least marginally better than being forced to work in a factory or mine, sure. But a mixture of a bit of home tuition, freedom to explore interests, responsibility and roles in family or community enterprises, being around people of mixed ages, exposure to wild nature — that would be a much better mix. None of the latter require wealth, just time.

  10. Stephenon 23 Jan 2007 at 1:37 am

    I don’t think you’re romanticizing poverty, but in regard to subsistence agriculture for one’s family, it should be said that there will be years when food may be thin.

    For example, although I don’t depend on my small vegetable garden to survive, this year, for the first time in over ten years of growing carrots, ALL of my carrots were eaten or chewed on. I’m not sure by what. But I got no carrots.

    Crop failures from drought, or hale storms, or insects, or disease, or thievery (esp. in the city when things get tighter) … these are really going to cramp people’s food supplies. One of the benefits of a social network is to help buffer these misfortunes, but sometimes they are over such a wide enough area that thousands of people are affected.

  11. Jan Steinmanon 23 Jan 2007 at 2:05 am

    I’d prefer people not refer to such a life style as “poverty.” What’s wrong with “voluntary simplicity?” What’s wrong with “frugality?” What’s wrong with “plain and simple living?” What’s wrong with “enough?”

    By using the “P” word, I think you play into the hands of those who are entrenched in today’s “more, more, more” way of life.

  12. jewishfarmeron 23 Jan 2007 at 3:29 pm

    Hi Kelley - I think everyone was surprised when I got up to speak - heck, I was surprised to be asked, and still am ;-).

    Jan, I really like the term poverty, and I’m not wild about “voluntary simplicity” personally, so I don’t think I’m going to change that. As you can tell from some of my other posts, I’m very picky about words. For example, Rabbi Akiva, in the Talmud, says, “Poverty is as lovely an ornament to the People of Israel as a red ribbon against the neck of a Red Heifer.” There is a long history of a voluntary poverty movement in Christianity - indeed, early Christianity embraced communal wealth as a basic principle. And “poverty” derives from a fascinating latin principle - that of the person whose power to dissent is not limited by their wealth. Literally, the word poverty derives from “the ability to sue regardless of your ability to afford court fees.” I like that inherent in the word “poverty” is the implication that power and wealth are not inherently linked.

    Besides, as Stephen points out, sometimes relying on your harvests does mean literal shortfall, and, while I hope that we are able to maintain a life where shortfalls can be made up (boy am I grateful that when I run out of potatoes, I can buy more!), subsistence agriculture represents a vulnerability I think better represented by “poverty” than “voluntary simplicity.”

    I respect your preference for other terms, but I dislike the term “simplicity” personally - first, because I do not think it is necessarily accurate - there is often nothing simple about this life - but also because both “plain and simple” with its implicit reference to a theology I don’t hold to and “voluntary simplicity” which implies you can have everything you want but you choose not to, seem wrong to me, as does frugality.

    Does any of this make sense?

    Sharon

  13. psalcidoon 24 Jan 2007 at 2:24 pm

    Personally, I even think that any kind of farming goes too far. Our planet was originally placed for a limited amount of human population, and it started to get out of hand, and extinctions began to occur, well before our overuse of energy resources. Thus, I think that it would be more appropriate to have limited agriculture and societies more in line with the old ways: gathering and hunting (note that I put gathering first…).

    The reason that I say this is because the agricultural leanings, and associated increases in population, are what caused the destruction of the native peoples of the US, and either the peoples or entire cultural leanings of others throughout the world. I guess that agriculture without massive increases in population is OK, but it is not all that realistic.

  14. tasterspoonon 24 Jun 2008 at 9:33 pm

    But see, I think choice (and the choice, as you say, implied by terms like frugality) is an important part of the conversation. I think that your enthusiasm and optimism and emphasis on the virtues of living “frugally,” or “close to the earth” are great - listening to your “romanticism,” people might CHOOSE to move towards that kind of lifestyle before they are forced to by circumstance. Sure, circumstances may catch up to all of us, I think that sense of autonomy at the outset makes all the difference. Don’t you suppose the Frontier House people were all volunteers?

    Maybe I’m way off base. Maybe the “we were happy then” came from the satisfaction of facing down harsh conditions over which people had little control.

    On the third hand, maybe the choice to be happy has nothing to do with wealth or poverty.

  15. ayeshaon 25 Jun 2008 at 2:18 am

    Poverty has become a major problem. Its bigger than what people perceive. Its the responsibility of every person to help the needy. I came across a community http://www.orkut.co.in/Community.aspx?cmm=47234928 which is about The United Nations’ campaign to End Poverty by 2015. The campaign revolves around 8 major goals which, if accomplished, would ensure eradication of poverty.

  16. Adition 26 Jun 2008 at 4:45 am

    I truly agree with consciousness awakening part of the post.!
    People rating poverty as poor from their hearts is the first step towards any revolution to be taking place..

    The Millennium Development goals of the UN..works this principle..!
    @ ayesha i m also a member of this community and glad to be a part of it .

  17. […] Astyk summed it up well, I think, here: And the answer, I suspect, is [I am intentionally romanticising subsistence agriculture] a little […]

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