Sixteen Tons and What Did You Get?

Sharon March 27th, 2008

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

- Original Lyrics by Tennessee Ernie Ford, but my favorite version is by the Nighthawks

Ok, we’re at the end of a boom, headed solidly into what is known as a “bust.”  As Richard Heinberg so aptly put it, the party is over.  Most projections suggest that even if we’re not at an oil peak, oil will never be cheap again.  Neither will food.  A lot of people’s houses will never be worth what they paid for them, much less appreciate enough to allow them to keep borrowing money for more home improvements or upgrades. 

I was thinking on this subject as I’ve been known to do (I can just here you saying, “no kidding,  - does she ever shut about it?” ;-)), and it occurred to me to ask you all.  Was it worth it?  That is, do you feel like that last 10 years were good years for you?  Or for the country?  Was it all good enough that it was worth the price - both the one we’re going to pay now, but also the trade-offs we had to make in the process?

That last question might seem unfair - after all, who in their right mind would say anything good about the direction the US has gone in for the last 7 years?  Surely she can’t attribute everything about the Bush administration to peak oil and the boom times?  And as to the first, well, sure, there were good times, right?

But think how much of what we’ve lost you can attribute - that is, it isn’t just a coincidence that we got involved in a vast, endless oil war, that we lost much of our personal freedom, that we consolidated wealth into a narrower strip of the population than ever before, that corporate power grew exponentially.  I think this is one thing that a lot of people still don’t grasp - these things did not just happen - they were the logical cost of what we got in exchange.

That is, it isn’t possible to build an economy dependent on an ever-increasing supply of cheap oil without eventually making evil choices simply to keep the supply flowing.  It isn’t possible to stop taking care of ourselves and paying corporations large sums of our money to meet our most basic needs without those sums translating into political power.  It isn’t possible to increasingly invest in the money economy at the expense of the home and family economy without many people being increasingly priced out of the economy all together - and so on. 

We went shopping for a set of things - more stuff, bigger houses, more energy, endless growth, corporations who will take over any inconvenient jobs for us,  and we didn’t look very carefully at the price tag.  Essentially, we put it all on our credit card, and now we’ve hit our limit, and the payment is coming due.  And most of us had no idea what we were buying.  We did it in ignorance - but partly willful ignorance.  Because the evidence was out there if we had wanted to see it. 

Now I know that most of my readers are not blue collar workers, but I was struck about how apt the lyrics of “Sixteen Tons” are increasingly to all of us.  Yeah, it is presumptuous for middle class white folks to bemoan their fate when there are plenty of other more screwed people around us - except that most of us are going to be just another species of debt slaves - ones who are luckier than some, and less lucky than others.  And I know not all of my readers are all that middle class - and I suspect fewer and fewer will be.

Here’s the thing - we really did sell our souls to the company store.  The company store isn’t a literal spot - it is all the places that the growth economy says “put your money here” - and lookie, the company you just bought your shoes from is probably a subsidary of the same folks you pay your credit card bills to.  The whole growth economy is a company store - you keep the system going by paying in (buying stuff), some of the same money (a little less each time)  rotates around and pays you to buy more stuff, but some of it gets filtered off to go deprive you of access to power and put wealth in the hands of people who already had it. Catherine Austin Fitts calls the growth economy and the political system that goes with it “the tapeworm” and that’s not a bad name.  The thing is, we can never, ever catch up - we’re never going to fix the problem by chasing those dollars around in the circle again, and letting a few more people skim off the top.

So was it worth it?  If you think about what we lost in our democracy, in self-sufficiency, in good health as we ate crappy commercial food and sat in front of the computer all day, in our kids as they came to belong to popular culture and the tv advertisers more than they belong to us, was it really worth it?  For those of us who got them, were the nice clothes and the cool toys and the iPods worth it?  For those who didn’t, was it worth it that some of us got it?  Why the hell aren’t we angrier at ourselves, and those who facilitated these choices?  The reality is that life shouldn’t be “another day older and deeper in debt.”  The company store never has anything so good that it is worth getting to the point we’ve got to. 

Every so often, I run up against someone who is just plain horrified at the idea that in the future they might have to grow gardens, preserve their own, get out use their muscles to grow food, repair their underwear, to get out and do the work of making our own and meeting many of our own needs.  That work sounds too hard, the price sounds too high.  Over on the Oil Drum when I suggested we might need 100 million farmers, someone called me “Pol Pot” and suggested I was going to be driving aging baby boomers out to midwestern cornfields at gunpoint (ok, I admit to thinking that that image was kind of funny, actually ;-)).  That’s an extreme version of this conviction that it would be beyond horrible for us to have to meet more of our needs, but I do think that’s a common reaction - the idea that the work is too hard, that we’re better off now.

But I want to question that.  Are we better off?  Are we really?  Is the level of vulnerability we have to economic crisis better?  Does our food taste better?  Do we have what most parents and grandparents have - a secure future for our kids?  Do we know that they will have “better than we did?”  Do we look forward to a stable, optimistic world where things get better?

Any evaluation of how “bad” it will be to go back to an agrarian society has to have at its root an honest evaluation of what we have now - about what will be better and what will be worse.  And it has to contain an honest evaluation of the price we pay for what we get.  Most people on either side of any debate will pretend that there is no price tied to their “side” and a high one attached to the other.  We’ve gotten so used to the growth economy, and so confused by the sheer scope of what we live in that most of us can’t even see that the price tag was hanging off our company store purchases all along - we just didn’t read it.

 You went to work every day, and you contributed to the party.  You moved your metaphorical sixteen tons, whether you did it with sweat or with the long aching muscles of someone who sits on their ass all day.  And now, the FED will bail out companies, and let them come for your foreclosed house, and the credit card companies turn you into debt slaves.  That party is over - but it is extra over for us, who will not be bailed out.  Unless, of course, we bail one another as best we can, with what we’ve got. 

Time to recognize that we didn’t want half this shit anyway - and that none of us were prepared to pay this kind of a price.  So we need to find a new way - close the fucking store, start rethinking the system, and ask ourselves - what do we really want, and what is the price we’re really willing to pay for it?

And the answer to that is this - stop giving them your money.  Stop buying from the company store when you can.  And start building another economy - one that can hold us up when things fall down.  It isn’t easy.  It will suck.  A lot of us have unused muscles.  A lot of us will suffer.  But no small refinement on the present system will fix the problem - we paid too much for something we didn’t care enough about.  We lost what mattered.  Now, we have to get it back, and we’re going to have pay even more.  The difference is some things are worth high prices.

Democracy. Hope for the future.  A better world for our kids.  Once upon a time they were worth “Our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”  They are sure as hell worth digging some dirt for.


34 Responses to “Sixteen Tons and What Did You Get?”

  1. Aleciaon 27 Mar 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Amen, sister.

    My husband and friends think I am crazy for learning how to can food, grow food, make cheese, make butter, etc…but I know that these things are going to keep them alive in the future. In all honesty, I am looking forward to the agrarian shift, just not all the violence and horror that will surely come with it :(

  2. Philon 27 Mar 2008 at 2:47 pm

    Check out this hour-long lecture by Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, entitled “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class”

    It’s a real eye-opener.


  3. Idaho Locavoreon 27 Mar 2008 at 3:20 pm

    It is hard for me to accept that my life is going to most likely be a lot harder and a lot shorter than my parent’s lives, and even more difficult to accept that my children’s lives may be harder and shorter still. It’s hard for me to accept that nothing can really be done about it at this stage, and that whatever chance I had earlier in my life to really make a difference, I wasted. If our economy truly does collapse, and we truly do go through a long-term depression scenario, then it will be a very bitter pill for all of us “little people” to swallow.

    We are working harder than ever right now to finish our own preparations, and also to put aside what extras we can to help those we love who are not preparing much. I’m also trying to adjust my mindset so that I can start looking for the glimmers of silver lining in the cloudy weather ahead. Surviving hard times is more than just having lots of beans and rice in the cupboard - I believe it is very much an attitude thing. I realized some time ago that I need to invest as much time and effort into preparing my attitude as I am investing into stocking my pantry!

  4. Sharonon 27 Mar 2008 at 3:23 pm

    I don’t know if “harder” is avoidable IL, but “shorter” probably is. I don’t know that we *will* avoid it, but it is most likely possible to keep lifespans high in a poorer, less energy intensive society. I’ve done some work on this, and I’m optimistic - if we put our resources in the right places. That’s a big if, of coures, but unfeasible. I wouldn’t leap to the conclusion that our lives will inevitably be shorter.


  5. Rebeccaon 27 Mar 2008 at 3:38 pm

    I know a woman who is in her late 80s, and all of her parents and grandparents lived into their 90s. Shorter lives are not necessarily a product of a harder life, and in fact the opposite may be true in many cases -many of the modern diseases that kill so many are a product of sedantary lifestyles.

    Right now Cuba has similar lifespans to the U.S. -and that country is much poorer, spends much less on healthcare, and people have harder lives than we do.

  6. Idaho Locavoreon 27 Mar 2008 at 3:40 pm

    Hi Sharon - I said shorter because, well, I don’t see us being able to afford, and perhaps not even having access to, the same level of preventative care and health care that people take for granted right now. I also wonder how emergency services will fare as cities feel the crunch of lower property values and lower property tax income. I can see these issues, plus the increase in crime as having the potential to make most everyone’s lives shorter. But I do hope I’m wrong.

  7. Idaho Locavoreon 27 Mar 2008 at 3:45 pm

    Rebecca, I understand and I hope you and Sharon are right. But I also believe that while there may be many folks who will live longer and hopefully healthier lives during and after the change, there will also be many who live shorter lives because they will die early from common diseases that we are able to treat now, simply because they will not have as much access to medical care. Or those who will die in accidents or in childbirth because they weren’t able to get treatment in time to save their lives. That’s the unfortunate flip side of the “everyone will be less sedentary so health may actually improve” coin.

  8. Richard in Albanyon 27 Mar 2008 at 3:49 pm

    Greetings! It’s been a long time since I’ve sent in a comment, but I wanted to say, I’m right there with you. At least in spirit. And it’s interesting–I just took a “higher-paying” job, but I’m working harder and I still feel like I’m falling behind. And I work with people who are nice enough, but I’m pretty sure that all of us are going to be caught flat-footed, nonetheless. One of the aspects about the job that I left that I wonder if I’ll come to regret is that there are people there who I think could be valuable in building a community. I hope I see some of those people here, but I’m not sure. We’ll have to wait and see.

    Ever since I gave up sugar and flour which had probably been a good 80% of my sickening diet before abstinence, and then I later moved from eating frozen veggelz over to fresh produce–admittedly bought mostly at ye olde Price Chopper and Hannaford up here in the C.D., but also from Farmer’s markets up here, and Korean delis and the like when I lived downstate–I noticed that I really want to participate less and less in this society. My partner really is into the H. Clinton campaign, but I can’t and won’t get excited about the federal distractions trying to capture our attention.

    (Side note: I also really started to wake up to the seasons and how exquisitely different say the Groundhog Day-”Sprinquinox” window is from the “Sprinquinox”-May Day window. How the Autumn Equinox-Samhain window is brisk while the Samhain-Christmas/Yule window is “festive” and can be rather full if we slow down a bit. This time up till May Day, btw, is energetically making me want to crawl out of my skin. The last thing I want to do is sit at a computer all day, and yet here I am, participating in this vampire-empire (”Vempire” anyone?) and allowing others to remind me that I’m trying to live in several worlds at the same time. I’m studying to be a Feri Witch Priest and try to embody some earth-based magic and beauty in the area. FWIW)

    I try to have faith that these difficulties that will arise are for a reason. I believe that we recovering compulsive eaters and recovering addicts of all sorts–be it debt, drinking, drugs or depraved sex–will have a lot of lessons in the power of surrender. And it is a potent and sometimes-delicious power, I must tell you. I will never forget the first times I really felt joy, which were AFTER 39 years on the planet. I have had moments of recognition and satisfaction, but real joy is quite a different animal, and it can come as a choice, believe it or not. I chose joy over fear at a bookstore where I found out my credit card was maxed out. It was pretty amazing, actually. And I felt it again, when I realized after taking a whiff of rosemary, which at the time reminded me of Vicks Vapo-Rub, that the food I was eating was literally healing me from the inside out.

    I’m not sure why I’m writing all this. I hold a lot in, actually. Even in 12-Step rooms, I get the sense that denial about this aspect of our reality is mondo-thickly inzah-deedzah. I add my prayers into the mix to help hasten the collective bottom, if it be the will of God, Goddess, the Gods, the Goddesses. The many in the one, the one in the many. I’m not sure that it’s a wise prayer, but I’m convinced it’s a necessary one.

    Thanks for being another voice, Sharon. And I hope one of these days we do meet. Perhaps one day we’ll be in line together at the Honest Weight Food Co-op, or maybe even at the new one that’s allegedly opening in Troy sometime later this year. My partner Jody and I often go to the Farmer’s Market up there, we belong to a CSA actually.


  9. Heather Grayon 27 Mar 2008 at 3:52 pm

    I wasn’t as aware of economic and environmental issues as I should have been, 10 years ago, but fortunately some things we always did, since I was a kid in the 70s and we were all trying to be more environmentally aware. There are definitely things we could have done better, if we’d been more aware. We kind of ended up doing most of the right types of things simply because we were tired of the rat race and wanted to get back to basics (I left corporate world in ‘97, and L switched to telecommuting).

    Becoming more aware has certainly helped us to speed up our timetable for things we want to do/learn! And, in the past year we’ve had some time to think about what things need learning first, and what can wait until later… for instance, I bought a few nice books on knitting, including a couple you recommended, Sharon, because Lyle knows how to knit and I’ll eventually have time to learn knitting in-the-round. Right now, while I’m happy we have the books for future reference, I know I don’t have to make socks this year because the socks I own are still in pretty good shape — and I can mend the smaller holes/wear spots to make them last longer.

    Some books we can use now, others will have to wait until we have our own place to apply them (the in-laws would never go for humanure, for sure).

    I am planning on learning more about dehydrating food stuffs this year though. I ordered some dehydrated veggies and tomato powder from Walton Feed for emergency stores — already packaged for long-term… but it occurred to me that I could probably make tomato powder myself — you reconstitute it to make sauce or juice. Then I wouldn’t have to can as much. We have some screens and windows from when we replaced the old windows at the old house (yes, we moved them), so we can build solar dehydrators. Then I figure we can put them through the mill… should be interesting :)

  10. Brian M.on 27 Mar 2008 at 4:04 pm

    OK first, middle classes are rare, small anomolies if you look at the experience of most people on a global scale, either now or over time. It just isn’t the case that “most parents and grandparents have a secure future for their children.” People have been terrified of what things would be like for their children and grandchildren for millenia. Secure futures are rare, not scary ones. Likewise most people have always lived lives of “another day older and deeper in debt.” Sometimes its slavery, or debt to the landowner, or to the ruling class. The company store is new, but eternal debt isn’t. You say “the reality is that life shouldn’t be “another day older and deeper in debt’” but it always has been for the vast majority, and no one has ever found a way around it, for more than a small upper or middle class, until we decided to blow the fossil fuels on a couple centuries of luxury. And WHY have people always been trapped in the cycle of debt? Easy, because the arable land is finite, but people want to grow their population beyond it. Sex is just too fun, children are just too tempting. The growth economy has been with us for a long time in more agrarian and less financial/industrial forms, than the current tapeworm economy.

    So have the last 10 years been worth the price? Well I agree we have to count both the costs and the benefits and both are real and serious. I’ve gained an education, and learned much about the world around me. That alone might be worth slaving the rest of my life, we’ll see. Certainly, living in a house with a garden and staying in one place is much nicer than the tiny apartments and moving every year. It was nice to be over the poverty line while it lasted too.

    If we look at society we’ve gained a lot too. Look what has happened to computers since 1998. This very blogosphere offers an alternative to the mainstream press vastly superior to anything we had in the 90s. Or Wikipedia. Wikipedia puts so much information at the hands of anyone with computer access. The friends of the poor have been trying to create something like Wikipedia literally since before the French Revolution. Look how much better tech we have for wind power, heck maybe even those new solar cells will work. Even without cornucopian optimism, we really did achieve important things, by delaying the collapse for a decade. Consider Merck’s and the WHO’s work to eradicate river-blindness. Or if we look outside of the US, China and India have made pretty impressive strides, and global poverty is simply not as bad today as it was in 1998. Will those trends all reverse as we collapse, sure, but they may not revert fully especially in the long run. Or consider the great developments in art and intellectual culture since 1998. Pick your own sampling, but for me Strauss-Howe theory, Cook’s Illustrated’s work in empirical cooking, Pollan and Nestle’s arguments on Nutritionism, China Mieville, Old Crow Medicine Show, Cowboy Bebop, molecular gastromony etc stand out. We spent out vast wealth, borrowed against the future, partially on great art that will stand the test of time and enrich the future generations we borrowed it from. We wasted lots of wealth on crap, no doubt, as all past generations have. Are we angry with 1340s Europe for squandering their wealth on frivolities before collapsing in the face of the Black Death, or do we admire the art and science and good things they achieved despite squandering lots of wealth? Well both! We will be vilified for everything we have wasted, but some of what we spent things on will remain and enrich a grateful future. Both stories are part of the honest truth. And lets be honest “Democracy. Hope for the Future. A better life for our kids.” did we still have those in 1998 or were they long lost far earlier? Will a kid born in 1997 have a better life than us? Than a kid born in 2002? And democracy? when exactly was that lost? Oh we have lost much, and mortgaged much. And we lost much over the last decade. And we’ll see more and more of just what the costs are as they roll in. We’ll see the ice calving off the Antarctic and wonder how bad will it get? Oh there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but we must remember what we bought too.

    But none of this gets to the heart of the matter, you see I had no kids in 1998, and I have 2 kids now. Is a kid worth spending the rest of your life in debt-slavery? Of course, always has been, always will be. That has always been the deal, and there have always been plenty of takers and that is why debt-slavery of one form or another has always been common, except during the last few centuries. For a while land was easy enough to steal from natives that a regular joe could own enough land to be secure even without eternal debt. Then as that ran out, fossil fuels made the 1st world so rich, that you could have kids even without going into eternal debt, even if you didn’t have enough land to be self-sufficient. But eternal debt has always been the majority fate, and religion and art and kids have always been among the things that made that fate bearable.

    Oh I agree with Sharon on so much, but even the crappiest of decades can be worth a staggering cost. Each extra day is worth a staggering cost. That’s the tricky bit about LIFEstyles, the stuff you buy not be worth it, but the life itself is infinitely precious, even when it is full of foolish choices. That’s the paradox, the choices can be regreted, and yet they made us what we are. You cannot unravel the tapestry of a life. All you can do is bear the terrible costs anyway, and look for such consolation as you can find. And this is how it has always been for most people. Americans just like to think we are special somehow, and somehow fate doesn’t apply to us.

  11. Idaho Locavoreon 27 Mar 2008 at 4:26 pm

    Phil, thank you for that link!

    Folks, he’s right, it’s a good talk. Basically, this gal is trying to bust the myth that we got to where we are (debt and no savings) solely because we just can’t stay out of the outlet malls.

    Have a look and see what you think.

  12. Adamon 27 Mar 2008 at 4:30 pm

    A couple of notes on life expectancy. On my father’s side, my paternal great grandfather and his three brothers came to the U.S. from Sweden he was the youngest of seven children. When he was 92 he went back to visit Sweden before any of his older brothers or sisters died.

    On the other hand, my maternal grandmother grew up on a dirt poor farm in rural New Hampshire. She was the oldest of thirteen children only four of whom survived to adulthood.

  13. Karinon 27 Mar 2008 at 5:26 pm

    I’m watching wild turkeys cross our road as I write this..sigh..anyway the last ten years, was it worth it?

    Well, on a cultural, societal level we are in a pickle. For me, I’ve always lived simply whether by choice or circumstance. Ten years ago I was struggling with Multiple Sclerosis. At the time I was diagnosed I was a single mom working insane hours and literally running myself down..for what? So that I couldn’t take care of myself or my son when I got sick, for another paycheck that was never going to satisfy what I needed let alone what I thought I wanted.

    Somewhere along the way our idea of happiness was translated into the things we have. And we must have them at any cost. My cost was my health and thank the heavens that I figured it out. Now in a 5 year remission I think it was the changes I was forced to make that slowed my life down and simplified my desires. I learned to garden, knit, can,care for sheep and chickens and take care of myself and my family.

    We are in for hard times. It is the skills we hone and the connections with people we
    nurture that I truly believe will allow us to adapt to what the future has in store for us. I guess that is called hope.

    Peace, Karin

  14. Sharonon 27 Mar 2008 at 5:54 pm

    A lot of good comments - IL - I think high lifespan, low investment societies are possible. Difficult - you have to prioritize a lot of resources over to health care, but doable. Do I think it is likely - maybe not. But not out of the question even in the current quagmire.

    Brian, I think you are right about some things, but not about others. Historically speaking, indebtedness hasn’t been available to most people through most of history - you literally couldn’t get deeper in debt, because to do that, you’d have to have access to credit. So, no, I don’t think you are correct there. You could argue that through most of history people haven’t been getting “ahead” but that’s different than actual indebtedness. For example, even in the nastiest serf societies, say Russia with its new serfdom in the 17th century, it wasn’t actually possible to go backwards much, except by being killed. Now lack of access to credit comes with its own problems, but I’m not sure on a historical scale that we’re speaking of the same things - slavery, certainly has existed in many societies. But traditional slavery is not the same thing as debt slavery - period. My claim is hardly that slavery is better - it is almost always worse, but I think it is a useful distinction - they aren’t the same thing.

    As for wanting better for your children - that, I think has been an articulated historical goal, at least since Herodotus expressed it, or Moses, and probably much before. Again, most people, historically speaking, have not been able to achieve much better for their children, but mostly people have tried. And it is fairly rare (not at all unheard of) for them to make things as much worse as we have - I did leave unarticulated the explicit reference to global warming, I thought it went kind of without saying. That is, some attempts to do better for your children have gone horribly awry - but we’re getting to be champions on this one - or we’ve forgotten the project. I’m not really sure which.

    I don’t know, Brian. I haven’t noticed the world’s poor having overwhelming access to Wikipedia - most of ‘em don’t have computers. Not that I don’t like the internet, I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for it - but the vast majority of people served by wikipedia are the same ones who could go to libraries and look stuff up. And all that gets taken away and disappears into the wind the day anyone’s power goes off and stays off, or they simply can’t afford to pay for the replacement to the broken monitor. Cooks Illustrated is way too anal for me, and I don’t think the results are any better than people who don’t waste entire sixteen entire chickens to get a decent recipe, Howe-Strauss doesn’t strike me as describing historical cycles any better than a host of other people, etc…

    Frankly, I don’t think that the last 40 years or so have produced a lot of great art - or at least not a lot in the rich world. There are exceptions of course, and I could list mine, but this is much more of a drought period than a growth one, except in music. Literature, the plastic arts, even cultural growth, I think have been extremely slow, despite the influx of fossil fuels. And I don’t think that’s an accident. Of course you are right, we bought it all - good and bad, and Tom Waits alone might be worth the collapse of an economy - of course, you’d have to postulate that Tom Waits wouldn’t have written songs if we’d made different choices, which may or may not be true. On the other hand, then there’s the question of whether it would have been worth never having industrial civilization exist just to avoid Hootie and the Blowfish.

    And I’m glad you think the net for you was good, although I might rehash our argument about your tendency to overstatement about your own personal circumstances - my guess is that even without the education, you’d probably be able to live in one place if you cared about it and worked for that. But maybe I’m assuming too much - I certainly think without my education I’d still have done ok - the reality is that the things that made it possible for me to get the kind of education I did were priveleges in and of themselves. There are exceptions, of course, and perhaps you are one of them - someone who could never have gotten their by themselves and came with every disadvantage. I wasn’t - some but not enough to keep me from being able to feed my kids and get a place to live - if a cheap one. But I don’t see my kids getting what I had - and the reality is that we could have made it last a lot longer - it didn’t have to go out like a bright candle.

    Your commentary reminds me of Barthes’s marxist critique of _The Great Family of Man_ exhibit, where he points out,

    “Birth, death? Yes, these are facts of nature, universals facts. But if one removes History from them, there is nothing more to be said about them; any comment about them becomes tautological…True, children are always born:but in the whole mass of the human problem, what does the ‘essence’ of this process matter to us, compared to its modes which, as for them, are perfectly historica? Whether or not the child is born with ease or difficulty, whether or not his birth causes suffering to his mother, whether or not he is threatned by a high mortality rate, whether or not such and such a type of future is open to him; this is what your Exhibitions should be telling people, instead of a an eternal lyricism of birth. The same goes for death: must we really celebrate its essence once more, and thus risk forgetting that there is still is much we can do to fight it?”

    Frankly, I’d be with Barthes here - not always, but in this case. Yes, in the great scope of human history our situation blurs among the scope of human suffering. And yes, middle classes are comparatively rare - as are societies with no major class divisions (although both consistently reappear though history). But I’m not convinced that gives us much that is useful - it is the specificity of our state now, not the lyricism of universal human suffering that matters here. I don’t claim to have gotten into as much detail as I perhaps might have in a longer post, and this is a heavily rhetorical post and perhaps deserves to be dissected as such. But I’m not sure the universal lyric of human suffering and broad swath historical context is particularly useful.

    As for children - of course they are worth any degree of debt slavery. The question is whether we have any choices, and to what degree we are choosing *THEIR* enslavement too - or lengthening their term of service. Historically slaves have often chosen to get their kids out of slavery any way they could - and we both know what “any way” means here. We do have choices about how deeply we dig the hole, and how we use the rest - both individually and collectively. I’ll write lyrics later, when we’re completely out of options.


  15. Sharonon 27 Mar 2008 at 7:01 pm

    I’m not sure I was clear in my post, mostly because I’m not sure I was clear in my own thinking - I think that right now is meaningfully different than other moments in history. Among other things, we still have part of the fossil fuel legacy with us - and because it is becoming clearer and clearer we can’t burn it all rapidly, even if we can get it of the ground, and because a crisis point is coming, there’s, I think a good deal of possibility of change in the long term. I use history in all sorts of ways too, some productive, some not, but right now really is right now in a host of ways that are *different* than the long scope of history - and some the same.

    The thing is, the collapse point is just one point - it happens, and a lot of our analysis stops there. But then we start remaking, and for a while, society is remarkably malleable in both good and bad ways. Potential visions emerge and for a while you are up to your ass in Messiahs. A lot of what I write is predicated on the knowledge that it would be great if we changed things before, but we may not - but the odds are we’ll have no choice but to change later. And maybe, just maybe we can make less moronic choices at that point, until things get set in stone and our grandkids sit around talking about how the government in Cleveland or Minsk or down on Wayne Street is full of assholes that don’t care about the common person.

    Crisis comes. And then comes normalcy again - and what normal is can vary an awful lot. And that is hopeful - because we don’t have to fuck things up quite so bad in the next go round.


  16. Birdwellon 27 Mar 2008 at 7:09 pm

    This aging baby boomer has been waiting and watching for the other shoe to drop since the 70’s.

    I learned about peak oil in college… saw the economic upheavel that the energy crisis brought about for many of us then. I truly believe that as a society we are in a transition/upheaval peried much like the shift from feudal society to renaissance city states… not goverment-wise… but social, economic, political, religious aspects of life.

    The only debt that I carry is the small mortgage on my house… no credit card debt, loan payments etc. Don’t have a SUV… nor a vacation house, nor expensive clothing, ipod…Never have.

    This boomer gardens extensively, know how to sew and repair clothing, wield a hammer, plumb a waterline, shingle a roof, put up the fall’s harvest of produce, fix a bicycle, prune a tree, take down a child’s feve without a doctor….

    Not all boomers are selfish, vampires draining the life blood of the generations behind us. Some of us have lived modest lives, using the modest resources we have to contribute to making the world a better place now and for the childrena and grandchildren we leave behind, and trying to share what we learned over the years with anyone who is willing to listen.

    Sorry.. touched a nerve there… otherwise I think what you have to say is always insightful. I think yours is one of the most valuable voices we have for those of us who are worried, praying about the future that lies ahead of us.


  17. Kiashuon 27 Mar 2008 at 8:34 pm

    Interesting article.

    I don’t know that we’re really talking about working harder. Certainly in a lower-energy economy there’ll be less sedentary jobs. In the 1930s Orwell wrote that it was only because other men were on the bellies sweating in a small tunnel breathing in coal dust that he had the comfort of a warm fire and was able to spend his life writing, and it’s true. Sedentary lives are built on the hard labour of others, and built on the energy of fossil fuels.

    Take away the fossil fuels, and there’ll need to be more hard labour, so there’ll be less sedentary jobs for people. That much is obvious.

    But I don’t think that’ll really be a tremendous shock to people generally. What I think will really hurt will be the loss of safety nets. I can happily grow some vegies in my yard, if it works out I have a nice home-made meal, if sun or storm come, it’s disappointing but it’s okay. But if those were all I had to eat, I’d be watching the weather and them a lot more closely.

    I was thinking this in the last couple of weeks. We had a small heatwave, a few days over 100F, and then yesterday we got a month’s rain in a day. As it was some of my plants got sunburned and tasted a bit bitter when harvested, and now they’re a bit waterlogged. But had those plants been my only food, I’d have been a lot more stressed about the weather.

    But I’ve got a safety net, I’ve got some money and the local market. Now, local markets are always going to exist, but absent fossil fuels, all the food production will be local, so that the weather that destroys my crops will destroy theirs, too. So there’ll not be the same safety net. And that’s going to cause stress and fear.

    This goes on beyond just food, to water and power and medicine and education and so on. As it is here in Australia at least, nobody has to be homeless or hungry more than a day or so. There are safety nets. A lot are imperfect and slow and involve stupid bureaucracy, but really nobody is going to die from it.

    But absent fossil fuels, and if nothing’s been done by the country to prepare for that, and if we have a Depression, then those safety nets will go.

    And I think that really is a big change and significant change, to have nothing to fall back on. That takes what is not really very hard work - growing enough food for you and your family, or working at some other job enough to get that food - and makes it harder for you psychologically and emotionally.

  18. Jaseon 27 Mar 2008 at 8:37 pm

    Whoops, you’re an idiot. All this back-to-the-land stuff? Ridiculous. The whole point of progress is to free up choices - so that we can live better than hand-to-mouth animals. Stop making American Idol and iPods and such not, but start building nuclear reactors and rockets and basic research facilities. Not an ‘equitable’ distribution of resources? There are too many people to begin with.

  19. Ailsa Ekon 27 Mar 2008 at 8:46 pm

    Was it worth it? Short answer, no. Long answer? That would be gibbering and incoherent enough that you all would decide I needed to be better medicated or perhaps just put away for my own good. I think I’ll just take the weekend to work on forgetting the question.

  20. megon 27 Mar 2008 at 10:23 pm

    As a 19 year old girl with no serious interest in anything that will make me wealthy or even middle class I am pondering my options and dedicating myself to learning: learning about gardening, learning animal husbandry, learning cheese making, learning how to sew and cook and conserve and preserve and manage my affairs conscientiously. I guess I’m bracing myself for the worst-case scenario, but really, there’s no way I can learn anything that won’t be useful to me no matter what my economic situation is. Here’s to elbow grease!

  21. Anonymouson 28 Mar 2008 at 3:09 am

    “It isn’t possible to stop taking care of ourselves and paying corporations large sums of our money to meet our most basic needs without those sums translating into political power. ”

    I disagree with this, because I’m not sure the causality is the direction you suggest. Walmart lobbies for special tax breaks, which the local politicians give and sometimes try to hide, which then makes it harder for local businesses to compete with walmart, and makes Walmart richer. Nor do I think this is the first time this has happened. Today we have NAIS, which is trying to eliminate small farmers via bureacracy, but a century ago we had mandatory pasturization, which benefited the dairies that mixed milk from hundreds of small farmers as they didn’t have to worry about the quality control from all those small farmers. (No, I’m not saying there are not sanitation benefits, but I don’t believe there were mass deaths due to bad milk from local dairies prior to the gov’t requiring pasturization. And any cost savings accrued to the large dairies not to the individual dairy farmers) Today we still have draconian rules against non-pasturized milk (raw milk) sold to willing consumers who know what they’re getting and who they’re getting it from.

    This same process goes on across the board, with large firms lobbying for rules that eliminate competition from smaller firms.

    So, I’d argue that the political power preceeds the money power in many cases, then amplifies it. In short, the deck is stacked against the consumer having a choice even before they go to the store, so it’s not entirely a “consumers chose this” story.

    Other than this point, I agree with the rest of your post. Recently I’ve been thinking that if my hunch of how bad this gets is correct, that even the wealthy people will be regretting it. Eg, look at Mexico, where the wealthy people have to drive around in armored cars, and worry about being kidnapped. Or, look at people’s attitudes towards hitchhiking today vs 40 yrs ago, to see how far we’ve fallen in just that time.

    At some point, people will realize that having a stable social fabric was quite valuable, but it’s much harder to get it back than it is to keep it.


  22. Rebeccaon 28 Mar 2008 at 8:06 am

    Idaho, you’re right that some people will die of easy to treat problems. That still happens everyday. The reason I’m optimistic is that a lot of those easy to treat illnesses can be treated with basic sanitation -hand washing, water boiling -knowledge that hopefully will not go away. A lot of the things I’ve read suggest that many, if not most, deaths in childbirth were caused by unclean conditions. Very few women actually die of childbirth even with these. With any luck we will hold on to some of the basic surgercal procedures that save lives -stitches, C-sections, removing the appendix.

    When you add up the death rate, it’s total deaths, not how they got there. So, even when the flip side is in I think we will still have a net benefit. Oh, not for the ones who die -but everyone’s number comes up eventually!

    And no, it wasn’t worth it.

  23. Sharonon 28 Mar 2008 at 8:33 am

    Kyle, I agree with you, the loss of safety nets are going to be the toughest parts. I think to the extent that it is possible, that’s my primary goal - to start building in replacements for as many lost safety nets as possible.

    SGL, I think you are right - but the whole thing is circular. What gave Walmart lobbying power to begin with? Its size - which was created by our dollars.

    Birdie, looking back, I don’t see where I said that Boomers were all selfish or anything like that. I don’t think that - I grew up with Boomer parents who taught me a lot of what I know about living frugally and carefully. My father has never owned a car. My mother and step-mother taught me to garden and to make do and a host of skills - they are all baby boomers. I have my issues with generational cultures - and not just with the boomer generation - but I try not to make the mistake of confusing them. I’m sorry if I did so and offended you.


  24. Anonymouson 28 Mar 2008 at 8:41 am

    My answers to your questions are no, no, and hell, no.

    Selfishly, however, I am grateful for the madness of the past few years (and they’ve been pretty crazy, haven’t they?) because I’ve turned away from it, and, in doing so, enriched my life. I grow things. I fix things. I make home-cooked meals for my family every day. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid for the future, but in a way I’m already feeling the benefits of a simpler, less materialistic lifestyle. Bunt to the Whee! (I grin every time I say it and my kids think I’m nuts!)


  25. MEAon 28 Mar 2008 at 10:12 am

    For me the last ten years have been a gift — a chance to have my little family, get them through the most vulnerable years of childhood, and make what preperations I can for what lies ahead. For those years, and the five previous, I also had the chance (and, I hope made much of it) to build friendships in my community.

    But one world-wide sale, I think the last ten years have been pretty horrible. Western “culture” seems to produce very little of beauty for the masses (yep, I’m one of them) while greating a climate in which violence, greed, and indifference to the suffering of others have become comonplace. At the same time, despite lip service to diversity, esp. where it butresses the status quo, we’ve lost the ability to appreciate the aestics of others. (Yes, this has happened before; but there have been times and places where it was less so, or where you could at least argue that while there were many aspect of the culture than ranaged from moral reputnant to merely unpleasant, there were either some positive aspects (more than we see now) or a mass movement to improve things.

    We got some positive medical benefits, some lifting of poverty for a few people, some good things out of this, and I don’t want to deny that, but I really think that we could have done those and so much more.

  26. Heather Grayon 28 Mar 2008 at 1:33 pm

    Hm. On the subject of creating beauty in the western culture, while I guess there hasn’t been a lot for the “masses”, as in large scale distribution, as an artist I have to take some exception to this opinion. I certainly hope the art I’ve created over the years has been beautiful and meaningful to the folks who have seen it, bought it, received it. Maybe nothing earth-shatteringly beautiful, but I do my best. And I’ve seen plenty of other beautiful work by other artisans, some of which I can even afford.

    I don’t sell a lot of my originals, but I have prints and cards of them to sell, specifically so more people can afford something special for their homes or offices (the cards are 5×7, so they can be cards or small pieces of artwork). Now I’m getting into weaving, and have managed to sell a few scarves — they’re wool, so they’re attractive, useful, and durable. I’ve woven some yardage and will weave more, but likely those will be for myself and family and maybe a few friends — who could afford me, even at minimum wage?

    It’s a strange thing, making things that very few people I know can afford (the scarves are my way of making handwovens more affordable, but they still aren’t cheap). Although, perhaps somewhere down the line other folks will have things I need, and then being a weaver will be useful as a profession again. Meantime, it’s a good thing I have lots of different skills.

    (Oh, and on the so-called benefits of the past decade or so, while I very much appreciate the less invasive surgical techniques that have been developed, but could care less about having an iPod, cell phone, flat tv, or any of those other ‘wonderful’ gadgets.)

  27. Brian M.on 28 Mar 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Ah most people haven’t had access to financial debt, as in the opposite of financial credit, until very recently, they have been embedded in other systems of indebtedness, fuedal debt, family debt, social obligation, etc. Debt is an older and more flexible concept, and honestly I think we will go back to more social forms of debt rather than more abstracted financial forms of debt.

    You can fight my particular examples, fine, although I of course do disagree on Strauss & Howe and Cooks Illustrated and such. Better one kitchen spends 20 chickens getting a bang on recipe and transmits it to many, than 200 kitchens spend 10 chickens a peice experimenting until they get it right. But my only point was that we have gotten much of real value in the process of recklessly spending. Maybe in 100 years they’ll have different opinions of what was of lasting value, but I really do think they will pick some things from this decade as having been of enduring value. Was the 1808-1818 worth it? Yes over a long enough time horizon the enduring values remain, and the ephemeral harms become water under a bridge, even if we fight over what was best and worst from that long ago decade.

    My bigger point like yours was about exactly what the scope of a was it worth it question can be? How is the lyric suppose to work? As opposed to what? Non-existence? Is it better that the world continued from 1998 to 2008 rather than ending in 1998? YES! Yes it must be, despite all the foolishness! Even the worst imaginable world is preferable to oblivion. Did we do more harm than good? Quite likely, but even so, if the alternative was not having a decade, that would be even more harm than even we managed to do! Even if every decade is downhill from here until oblivion, the decades are STILL WORTH HAVING because they are still better than oblivion. A declinist path is still worth walking. The cost of having the 1998-2008 decade was pretty damn high, but the cost of not having a decade is even higher!

    Or maybe you just mean could we have made better choices, spent our decade in a more productive less damaging fashion? Well yes and no, that “could” is slippery as a fish. In some sense it couldn’t have happened any different than it did happen, and in some other sense it could have. We some power over our own lives, but have limited power over history, and even that works best when used at moments of crisis when the bonds of history are loose. Many people tried to make 1998-2008 different than it was and failed. It is hard to budge a decade from its path, a decade has a lot of momentum, especially a decade right before a crisis is really getting underway.

    So we look at the gory details of history and we say what could we have done better how could we have done better? Good questions, hard questions, useful interesting questions. You ask, instead was it worth it? Was even our paltry, half-assed, foolish attempts to live our lives and guide history into the future worth doing, and the answer is always yes no matter how bad a job we actually did, no matter how much the harms out weighed the victories. Maybe we’re differing on theology, or ontology, or I’m misunderstanding the question or something, but I don’t see how anyone can look at a decade of world history, any decade, and say that it wasn’t worth it. Maybe one can say that about a particularly bad decade of their own life, but of all world history, for all lives? Maybe that’s why I fight the Buddhists and the Marxists, birth and death are not just facts, they are also of transcendent value; the poetry of human existence is not the answer to every possible question, but it IS the answer to the question “is it worth it?” Even lives of poverty are worth living.

  28. Greenpaon 28 Mar 2008 at 3:55 pm

    And I just read Voltaire’s “Candide” last night- for the first time, having successfully avoided it until actually curious.

    Ouch. :-)

  29. Sharonon 28 Mar 2008 at 6:28 pm

    As they say, in the long run, all of us are dead. But in the meantime, with Barthes, again, I’d say the particularities matter. I find it hard to believe that you really think that I’m asking “was it worth it be alive for 10 years, wouldn’t we all have been better off dead and making good compost?” Clearly either I’m that incoherent a writer, or you are misunderstanding me for your own amusement. Let’s see - there’s a whole post up there asking whether the particular economic trade offs we made to get rich were worth it, and the sense of the thing that you get is that I’m asking whether it was worth it for us to be alive at all. So I know you aren’t an idiot, so either I’m having an idiotic moment, or you are putting me on. I’m guessing the latter. Maybe I’m tired or something, because I’m not getting why - you have apparently translated the above to “lives of imperfection have no value” through some system I can’t track. It certainly wasn’t what I thought I said, or intended to say, or even what I see when I read things over, but authors are notoriously bad at their own work. Let us agree that life has value, even imperfect, and from that bare minimum discussion, could we go on to the actual parameters of the choices we’ve made and the specificities that make specific choices good, valuable and worth the results. Apparently I can’t get us there.

    Yes, there have been forms of debt through all of human history - and yes, the particularities matter. We can sit around and discuss which forms are like other forms, but it is not sufficient to say that other human beings had family obligations that operated in some ways like credit debt and in some ways not, and thus, these two things are lyrically the same. Things matter in both the ways they are different and the ways they are the same. I doubt either of us have enough free time to parse all the ways that familial debt is both like and unlike credit card debt, but the truth is that again, the broad swath blurs distinctions that really do matter. I would tend to say that it is possible to ask whether a set of choices was worth it without actually indicting the whole of human existence - and while I don’t call myself a Marxist (or for that matter an anything ist except a hybridst), I’ll stand with them on this - reductio always ends up ad nauseum ;-).

    I could go through this, but I admit, whether it is me or you, I’m not getting how we got where we are. Either I set up a big straw man or you did.


  30. Robyn M.on 29 Mar 2008 at 10:14 am

    Ah, I misunderstood you. I saw the was it worth it, and didn’t see the “were the particular trade-offs we made to get rich worth it?” I’m not trying to joke, or insulting you as an incoherent writer, no one else thought the way I did. I am trying to answer the question as I mis-understood it.

    I’m not sure I did make particular trade-offs to get rich. Not within the last 10 years. Maybe my parents made trade-offs to get rich 30 years ago, and I am the beneficiary (and debtor) to the plusses and minuses of their decisions. Certainly I made trade-offs of many kinds of my own over the past 10 years, but “to get rich” isn’t exactly the right way of cashing out my motives either. I beat myself up all the time, but I try to use my more rational side to pull back and evaluate things more honestly. Even most Americans weren’t doing the things they were doing to get rich in most cases. They wanted to get by, to be respected by others, to do their duties, etc. They thought what they were doing was normal. The downsides were systematically hidden from them by artists and advertisers trying to get them not to think about what they were really doing. We exist as part of a system trying to get us to be a certain way, we try to fight back against that system in various ways. The results stem from the push and pull of these interacting. The system had worked long and hard at sapping American’s abilities to think critically, see the truth, or understand the negative consequences of their actions. Many knew to some extent in their heart of hearts and tried to resist to various extents, but people also decieved themselves and the system worked hard to help people decieve themselves. Very few people honestly saw the costs and benefits and chose as a decision to get rich despite the horrible costs. So maybe we both created straw-men of various kinds in our rhetoric.

    I didn’t just mean that the present is better than corpses, although I meant that too. The next decade will be hard and many will think it isn’t worth going on. But the fabric of our lives is bound up with the history and the society and the details around us. If America had been different over the last 10 years we would all be very different people, even if we were still alive. That other me, who exists in some parallel world where America somehow jumped off the tracks of destiny and magically cleaned its house and became moral in 1998, he is a valuable person. He’s probably even better than me. I’d certainly rather be him than who I am. But I am good too, even though I live in a fucked up America, that had a decade of excess and waste, and I have adapted to it and picked up bad traits from it. We shape the times, and are also shaped by them. But in any system the times have far more power over us, than we have over them. As the system breaks down our power grows.

    An abused child blames themselves for the abuse, and for many other things. And it destroys them slowly until they heal. The spoiled child does not perceive their wrong, but feels only entitlements, and more entitlements. And this wounds them too in a different way. We are children of our societies, of our laws, of our times, of our history, as well as our actual parents. It seems to me that anyone who feels no sense of wrong for what they personally have done over the last 10 years is pretty darn spoiled, and needs help learning to face reality without self-deception. But anyone who blames themselves for the ills of the world from 1998-2008 is like the abused child, taking more blame than they deserve. Most of us, did what we could, within our own frailties and limitations, to cope with the world we found ourselves in in 1998, or earlier. And we were unable to change the times more than we did, and we were unable to change our own lives more than we did. So again, I think that the costs of the choices we made over the last decade were real and horrible, but that they were worth it nonetheless. And if you don’t think even our f***d up world is worth it, why not let this world cease and suffice with those other worlds where things went better? For I am not saying this is the best of all possible worlds, but that even a world this bad, and this far below the ideal is still worth it. The existence of worlds and individual choices seem very linked to me, in a way they don’t to most. This seems to tap into the primal questions of free will, and the problem of evil, and the reality of alternatives, to me. That’s not what you were trying to talk about I know, I’m not trying to strawman you again even if that’s what I wind up doing. I want to moderate you, by trying to give the opposite side the best run I can. Yes beat our breasts for our wrongs, and foolishness, and all that we have done in the last decade. Yes, reflect on the terrible costs. But reflect on why we did what we did, too, forgive ourselves for our mistakes, bear the terrible costs as nobly as we can, and value what we have bought with them all the more for the costs. So yes, it seems to me that the costs were high, but that even our particular choices were worth it. If both sides of the choice were not worth being, why would the choice itself be allowed to exist? Maybe the problem is that I just think about the reality of possible worlds, and the goodness of the Divine so differently than others. Or maybe the problem is that you seem to talk about some mythical “we” I don’t really believe in. Individual Americans made a lot of particular and conflicting choices trying to pull America in various directions, and the overall result was a massive credit expansion, and lots of other problems. But I just don’t believe that some “we” decided “hey lets get rich even though it will screw over lots of others,” collective action just doesn’t work like that. Now I’ll play Marxist (or at least Hegelian) and say that it is a dialectic process rather than a collective decision. If it was a collective decision it would be a bad one, but it wasn’t. It was lots of individual decisions trying to cope with the world they were in as best they understood, and added up to a badly non-optimal result. And each of those individual particular decisions was worth it, even though many of them were non-optimal. But I’m not really sure you’re trying to talk about a bad collective decision either. So I don’t really know why we are disagreeing either. And as usual I have written too much, and spent too much of a lovely Saturday morning arguing. Ah well.

  31. Brian M.on 29 Mar 2008 at 10:17 am

    Rats that last post was Brian M. not Robyn M. in case it wasn’t obvious.

  32. Sharonon 29 Mar 2008 at 11:11 am

    Somehow, Brian, I knew it was you ;-). And my apologies for my answer last night - I was really tired when you read yours, and just found the problem of sorting out where we went wrong too overwhelming to deal with. And don’t discount the chance that the problem was me - I can fuck up with the best of them.

    I guess this was meant to have a lot less scope than you’ve given it ;-), and that I think is do the the incoherence of my expression of the question. But maybe that’s good - it certainly got us to a place we wouldn’t have gone otherwise, and that’s interesting too. This was meant as a thought experiment, plain and simple (of course, it would work better if I’d presented it plainly and simply and with sufficient clarity that people could get it) - a question of whether the trade off in perceived affluence (not real, I don’t think there was a real gain in affluence) was worth the price we had to pay to get it. Of course, I’m talking to the converted here, particularly among my regular commenters, but I also do have readers who aren’t fully clear on what has just happened, who did think that the boom cycles made them better off or at least not worse off, who don’t connect their political power to their economic choices. And it was them I was thinking of - and trying to find a pedagogical way to make the connection between what we lost and what we gained, which, I think, most Americans don’t see in relationship to one another. They might be aware of the country going to hell, or them losing political power, but they don’t necessarily see that in relationship to how they spend their money or their time.

    As a thought experiment or an intellectual exercise, I think this may have failed, or at least morphed into a different exercise, and of course, that’s the fault of the composer, trying to teach people stuff they either don’t need to know or in ways that are too obscure to get through. I’ve had my crappy lesson days often enough to recognize them again ;-). Although usually I just get a resounding silence .

    Anyway, to go back to your discussion - in a sense, of course, we are talking alternate history - we’d be different people if we’d done differently. But of course, that’s true of all historic choice, significant and insignificant - if I’d gotten supergirl underoos instead of the wonderwoman ones, I would have been subtly altered inside ;-). It is, of course, never possible to rewind history, but it is possible to go back and ask “would supergirl have been a better choice?” And yes, changing our practices would have changed us - but we can still play thought experiment and ask which choices we ought to have made - and thus, which choices we ought to make next time something similar comes along. Of course, using history is dangerous, because depending on how you parse it, the next time something similar comes along, it may be different in some compelling way, and the results horribly, horribly different than we might have predicted. But that’s pretty much what history is - every time Occam isn’t right, its history. And it doesn’t mean not choosing is better - that’s a choice too.

    You are right, of course, there were a host of decisions and impulses going forward, and “to get rich” was not one of them in many cases - I shouldn’t have put it that way - it was rather more the question of maintaining, keeping going something that looked so valuable, and may not have been. But I guess that was the point of the larger question - to ask people who haven’t asked themselves those questions whether the thing they wanted was really what they wanted, or if it was, whether they would have cared so much had they known the price they paid. But as you say, I don’t know that we disagree that much. I’m going to call it a failed bit of pedagogy and file it away in the “don’t do that again” pile ;-). But with appreciation of the discussion that ensued.

    Well, it is a snowy, freakin’ cold Saturday morning here, and I’m supposed to be cleaning the bathroom, so I’m not feeling my life wasted ;-). And I still think Christopher Kimball et al are annoying anal, and all that anality doesn’t really make for better recipes than any other good cook, so there ;-P.

    Sharon, who would do much to avoid scrubbing composting toilets.

  33. Dougon 29 Mar 2008 at 9:59 pm

    This was not a failed experiment, Sharon! In fact, I think it’s one of your very best pieces to date. Keep asking the reader questions, and don’t be afraid of targeting outside the choir - they will forgive you, and add lots of thoughtful commentary ;)

    Motivations are a touchy topic. I don’t think that even the folks on the very top of the economic pyramid (except a few true sociopaths) were motivated by greed, so much as by fear. They have a lot and are afraid of loosing it, so they take some more to feel extra secure.

    People in the middle economic tiers are often motivated by convenience, since for many of them time really does equate to money. This logic loop encompasses most of my past sins… I never even learned to cook because eating out was always faster, and as my hourly rate increased the restaurants just got better! The same logic played out in my decisions regarding accommodation, travel, entertainment and certainly gadget acquisition :0

    Was it worth the sacking of planet earth and the enslavement of humanity? Obviously, it was hard to see the connection without thorough investigation. And even now the correct decisions mostly go against the grain of our culture.

    At the end of the day, we all face a vortex of choices at any given moment (most of which we can’t even see as possibilities). In the past, I think folks based their decisions foremost on their morals, which evolved from their family and social relations. As these influences have receded from our culture, they’ve been replaced with the logic of the market. It’s hard to imagine now that folks used to say money was the root of all evil.

    It’s like we all got so confused trying to gauge each other’s choices through these divergent moral prisms that we came to rely on ‘profitability’ as the easiest objective measure of a ’sound’ decision. I think this often played out between generations - parents didn’t argue as much with their kid’s decisions if they were ‘doing well’.

    Those of us who still have choices must base more and more of our decisions on what we know to be right, rather than what is most cost effective or lucrative.

    Step one is to stop feeding the tapeworm - only buy the things that we really need, and only from folks we genuinely like. Step two is to stop riding the tapeworm - only spend time doing the things we feel good about, and again, only for folks we genuinely like.

    The order is important! Eventually the tapeworm will throw us all off and the option of feeding it will evaporate, so best to take the steps on our own terms…


  34. MEAon 31 Mar 2008 at 10:09 am

    Sorry, Heather, I didn’t mean you, or any of the other working artists out there. But in terms of what is mass produced for people, do they get an amphore with an interesting sex sceen from mythology, excuted in lovely red and black work, or do they get a thermal cup with a blasting cartoon of some singing rodents?

    People may have gone to see Shakespeare for the gore, but they got some of the lovilest writing. The Atheneans may have been picky about who they let into the theatre, but those that went were exposed to such ideas as what is the nature of justice.

    I guess I’m just an old cynic, but it seems to me that the remakes of Jane Austen are sadly outweighted by “Meet the Browns.”

    People used to have to find beauty in the things they created themselves. Now that is rarer and rarer in the West, and I think it’s a great loss.

    I’m with you on I-pod, etc., but when I think of what’s about to be lost in terms of painless denistry and education for special needs children, I could weep. With better management, this sort of knowledge could be speading, rather than contracting.

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