Archive for June 25th, 2008

One More Thing

Sharon June 25th, 2008

I wrote my last post, and I went off to hang laundry, and I got to thinking that it sounded wrong to me – that I made the post sound too much like I was talking about far away people who are not me.  And that bothers me.  So I thought I’d stop what I was going for a minute and correct that.

 I grew up mostly in a town with strong, strong class divisions.  There was a wealthy section (really wealthy) in Beverly (Bevery Hills is actually named after the wealthy section of Beverly and a much more working class section.  Guess which side I lived on?  And when I was in middle school, going to the school that had most of the working class kids, I was tracked in among the very bright, college bound, lots of potential kids.  And by the time I got to high school, where they merged the working class bright kids with the wealthy bright kids and edited some out,  most of those very bright kids from my side of the tracks (literally)  weren’t in the top tier, the ones headed to any college but the community ones or maybe UMass.  It wasn’t because they got less smart – they were still incredibly bright and talented.  But in some cases, they didn’t have parents to advocate for them to keep them “on track” and in some cases, they fucked up.  Maybe because they were fuckups, or maybe because the pressure of being seperated out from the people in your neighborhood or your class was hard. 

I found it so – my family has a lot of education but was economically struggling most of my childhood, and lived mostly in working class neighborhoods growing up.  We tended to have much more education than our neighbors, but the same economic problems.  Most of my family worked in human services, teaching or doing social work or doing other low-paying but slightly higher status jobs than the truck drivers and fishermen and plumbers who owned the houses around us.  And the lure of the neighborhood, and of the class culture around us was strong – these were the kids we played with and our friends.  It was hard being seperated out from them -  hard because other kids made it hard, of course, and made you pay a price,  and hard for reasons far too complicated to articulate when you are kid, reasons of class and culture and belonging that I still struggle to fully articulate.  I never made it to Professor, in part, I think, because I never could see myself as a Professor, never could imagine myself in that world, with all of its class and cultural connotations.  I know some people who crossed that boundary quite successfully, but I wasn’t one of them.

I was a fuckup myself, so long that I’m embarrassed to tell y’all – it isn’t like it stopped in high school.  I was lucky – I was bright and articulate enough that teachers let me go, gave me decent grades I didn’t deserve, helped me explain my screw ups enough to get into good colleges and get enough scholarship money to go.  I was lucky in college and graduate school – good teachers thought I was worth helping even when I fucked up again and again.  I got the education and the critical thinking skills I have because all along in the process, people gave me more credit and help than I deserved.  Professors gave me books, helped me get grants, and put up with the fact that I was often deeply ambivalent about the work I was doing and my place in it, and that that ambivalence often played out badly, for reasons I didn’t understand.  And they forgave me because they thought I was worth forgiving – and I’d like to think that’s true of almost everyone, that it was true of the people who didn’t get that extra boost.  They were worth forgiving too – they just never found anyone to do it.

Had I had just a little less grace from other people, just a little less kindness, just a little less capacity to pull things out at the last minute, had otherd gotten a tiny bit more frustrated with me, I doubt I would be writing this now.  Or perhaps I would, but as a different person, from a wholly different set of experiences.  One of my high school teachers pulled me aside when I was a freshman, and I was failing his class – simply because I wasn’t doing the work. He told me he was going to pass me anyway, and that he didn’t expect gratitude, but he did expect me to do what it takes to get of our town and go do something else.  It is, of course, trite beyond bearing to say “we have to get out of this town, it will destroy us” but sometimes there’s some truth in trite beyond bearing.  The thing is, I was boosted, all the way, to getting to the point where I could understand energy issues, to get to the point where I could have a life in which I had time and energy and understanding to cut back my consumption, above all, to a point where I could see the wider world from a different perspective.  Some of it was my doing, of course.  And some of it was the grace and mercy of others. 

So another answer to the question of why I feel sorry for people who consumed too much and screwed up their own finances is this – I could easily be them. I made stupid mistake after stupid mistake in my life, and generally speaking, I wasn’t punished for them.  People wanted to help me and did.  I usually didn’t get justice – I got mercy.  I understand the temptation of justice, and the sense that one doesn’t have energy to care about the sufferings of the fortunate – and I also understand that sometimes perfect justice doesn’t get you better results than a more merciful approach.  I’m guilty of asking for too much justice myself, and forgetting that I too got the benefits of mercy – and that I can’t see that I’d be more useful to the world if I’d gotten only what I really deserved.

I guess that’s why as the energy crisis explodes on the rest of us, I’d like to advocate for mercy for those who don’t yet fully understand.  Maybe it won’t be forthcoming in the world of creditors or government support, but there’s no reason for the rest of us to dispense justice.  By all means, feel sorriest for those who have the least.  But sympathy and kindness are not small things to be rationed out by droppers, only to those perfectly deserving – they should be ladled out and poured from buckets and flow out of us like rivers.  Any scarcity of kindness is artificial – and far too many things are growing scarce for us to have artificial shortages of generosity.


Why I Do Feel Bad for the Middle Class

Sharon June 25th, 2008

In response to yesterday’s post about people getting shut off by their utility companies, Kiashu took me to task somewhat for sympathizing too much with middle class energy wasters.  He points out that those getting shut off have incomes that should allow them to pay the bills if they conserved at all.  The people really suffering are the poor – not the middle class.

 And, of course, Kiashu is right.  In fact, I’ve made that argument myself from time to time.  I’ve taken it further, and argued that the American working poor have it pretty good in comparison to the world’s poor.  So, on the one hand, I’m right there.

And yet, I’m still going to say that it is worth feeling some sympathy with people who have been getting along and now simply aren’t, even though the problem is their own damned fault in some cases.  Why?

The biggest signs of crisis are among the truly poor, but that this is rapidly moving up the ladder to the middle class.  And the argument that the middle class should have made better choices also applies to many poor people – we end up on a very slippery slope if we decide that one class of people is fully responsible and one isn’t.  The poor often could conserve and make better choices than they do too – I think we can either let the poor off the hook for their choices and the lower middle class, or we can let nobody off – the latter involves a kind of personal auditing that I think is kind of pointless.  There are, in every group, people who simply can’t do any better than they are, and people who are extraordinary fortunate, those who had everything and threw it away, those who never had the capacity for much.   The truth is that if you utilities are getting shut off, you probably are functionally poor, despite your income.  And if you are getting shut off regularly, you have no idea how to adapt.  And that is worth some sympathy.

The truth is that the majority of the people we’re talking about are probably working class, two income families with crappy educations.  They use a lot of energy because they are ignorant of the issues, because they are strapped for time, and because they probably spend a lot of their income on housing, heating and transport – and they didn’t know that gas prices were going to rise and keep rising, and now they can’t sell their truck or SUV for much of anything, they can’t borrow from their housing, and they don’t yet know how to adapt.  They have the house they do because that was the kind of housing that was available, and because it was within their means and conservation didn’t mean shit in the culture.  Many of them are also probably elderly – they have the fixed expenses of the homes they thought they would stay in, and the lifestyle they’d lived so long they thought it would last for the rest of their lives at least.  I saw some of these older people recently – I went yardsaling and saw old women, in houses they’ve lived in for decades, with “make offer” signs up everywhere.  It is harder to turn the heat down when you are older, and feel it more.  It is harder to lose face – to sell the house your children grew up in and to accept that the life you imagined isn’t real.   It is easy to say they should have gone against the pressures of their culture – and some of them might have been able to do so.  And some might not.

It is easy to feel superior to them – and certainly many people here have made better choices.  On the other hand, most of my readers have a real and genuine capacity critical thinking.  I used to teach critical thinking and logic to college students, and what you see even among those comparatively priveleged (because they are going to a good college) students is that a small percentage, maybe 20% intuitively understand critical thinking skills already – they’d have them whether they were taught or not.  Another 20% can’t learn complex reasoning no matter how hard you try – they either weren’t taught early enough or they don’t have the ability.

The remaining 60% have to be taught to think in complex and critical ways.  And if they aren’t taught in college or by a good high school teacher or by life – they don’t have the ability to do this.  I am not calling anyone stupid here – this isn’t about whether anyone is smart or not – lots of smart people don’t have this skill, and a lot of people who aren’t unusually bright do.  But just as learning to knit, or to dance or to play the piano or to read is easy and intuitive to some people, critical thinking comes naturally to some, some are deficient in the ability and most people need to be taught.  In our culture, critical thinking skills are rarely taught in high school or American public schools, which are heavy on the “ready people for industrial citizenship” curriculum.  This is not an attack on high school teachers – I’ve had some wonderful ones who really did struggle to integrate these skills into a culture that devalues them.  And it is perfectly possible to go through college without ever picking them up – perhaps even the norm.  But if they are consciously taught, it is often at the college level, and the US routinely prices its working class out of college entirely.

If you don’t have critical thinking skills, you can’t anticipate cultural trends, and you largely can’t dissent from the larger culture, simply because that dissent requires critical analysis of the world you live in.  What you can do is attach yourself to a dissenting minority group, that offers an alternate worldview, and that’s how most people who do see some problem with their society handle this – that is, I’m not saying everyone in the peak oil movement, say, is a critical thinker ;-) .  But PO and Climate Change awareness, until very recently, were very small, cutting edge groups in the US - not likely to attract large numbers of follwers.  And to follow along, you have to get to the point of understanding that the problems in your society are not superficial to come to the idea that you should abandon the cheap energy culture that you have been trained to belong to.  So at least half of all Americans were simply and completely unequipped to begin conserving ahead of a crisis.  Now they have to learn, and they have to do it quickly, with an infrastructure completely opposed to their goals – and they are learning – and some of them are going to fail to learn quickly enough to save themselves from disaster.  

Others who had the equipment are going to get caught up in the problems too – even with all the planning the world, my family is not perfectly equipped for a medical crisis that exceeds our insurance, for an extended job loss, or for a host of other disasters.  Some of the early canaries in the coal mines are simply people without the ability to adapt quickly – and some of them will be people who did plan ahead – and still can’t make a go of it. I think it is unwise to judge too quickly or too harshly, since many of us I think will be caught in the coming tidal wave.   

Do I care as much about the suffering of the American middle class as I do about the genuinely poor?  No, not quite, although I think the distinctions between them are rapidly disappearing – I suspect in a few years, there won’t so much be a middle class.  But I like to think that there’s enough compassion in the world for those who made stupid choices and simply weren’t equipped to know better.  The people I have least sympathy for are those who could have known better – and I think there are a lot of them too.  But for the folks who can only follow, they probably *had* to wait to change until a large enough number of us led them that way – and unfortunately, the movement didn’t preceed the necessity.  We tried, but we didn’t get it going hard enough, fast enough.



Sharon June 25th, 2008

I mentioned in a previous email how many people have asked to join my classes who can’t pay – it seems like the number in need has risen in just the few months since the last time I ran the class.  Several of my readers have done something incredibly kind – besides enrolling in my various classes, they’ve offered to pay for additional low income enrollees.  So I have four scholarships to distribute over the two classes.  I’m about to distribute them to the low income hopefuls I didn’t have room for before, but if there are more of you who would like to be considered, please email me at [email protected]

 And to the very kind souls who made this donation (and wish to remain anonymous) – THANK YOU!!!  You have no idea how touched and happy this makes me.