In May 2017, we released “Suburban Stockade: Strengthening Your Life Against an Uncertain Future” (available from Amazon in both trade paperback and Kindle versions). Teresa Peschel has spent several years writing her “manifesto memoir” about her concerns for the future and how you can best protect your family from the worst of it.
I could say more, but Teresa said it best in her introduction:
Introduction: Making a Bargain With Omelas
(c)2017 Teresa Peschel
This book began as a series of blog posts. I called it Fortress Peschel as that amused me. Every Saturday, another section was posted online for the world to ignore.
When I wrote those posts, I did not go into detail about my religious beliefs; my feelings about the world being greater than what we see around us, that unseen world just around the corner that you can never quite reach. The world, that is, on the other side of the mirror, here and yet not here, a world that has to be taken on faith.
I think about it daily. Those beliefs color the philosophical underpinnings that make up Suburban Stockade.
More and more, as I get older, I want less and less. I do not feel the need to backpack through the Himalayas. I don’t want to own multiple houses. I have no desire to jet around the world, seeing quaint, indigenous natives displayed for my entertainment like zoo animals. They lead their own lives and do not need me staring at them.
I like a simpler life. I want less, I use less, and I need less. This can be freeing. In the immortal words of John Michael Greer, known online as the Archdruid: LESS. Less energy, less stuff, and less stimulation.
Having LESS means I can pay more attention to what matters, and I can enjoy what I have rather than wanting more than I need. Supposedly, one of the secrets of happiness is to learn to be happy with what you have and what you can achieve.
If I cannot be happy unless I’m batting clean-up for the Yankees, then I will never be happy. Batting clean-up for the Yankees, like being a prima ballerina, an astronaut, or an opera singer, will never happen for me.
If I want things I cannot have, I am going to be very unhappy. I’ll make myself miserable, and I won’t enhance the happiness of the people around me. However, if I can be happy with my quiet life of writing, sewing, gardening, and living in my small town with my family, then I have a very good shot at being happy.
The problem is that we are encouraged to be unhappy with what we have. Our economy demands that we buy more stuff, consume more services, and throw away perfectly good items. Our society belittles saving money and rewards broadcasting our status via our purchases whether they are the tea we drink or the vacations we take.
All of that stuff saps our energy and that of the world. It takes energy to make, energy to ship, energy to buy, and energy to work to earn the money to buy more stuff. Then it takes more energy to use our stuff, store it, maintain it, and finally, the energy to say, on holding up, say, that old-fashioned, outdated cell-phone – the one that doesn’t allow you to talk to people on Mars – “I need a new one but what will I do with this one?”
Think about that cell phone. If you get a shiny, new smartphone, what happens to the old one? It still works. Recycle it? Sure, why not. Just drop it off at the recycling center when they do Electronics Collection Day and forget about it.
But where does the old cell phone go? This object, that was once so new, is made of hundreds of tiny parts. It cannot be repaired easily or updated, and it cannot be easily disassembled.
This object, like so many others in our lives, was made by slave labor in China, under the filthiest of conditions, polluting their land in a way that would never be acceptable in the United States. It is made of complex materials, many of them rare earths that were mined with picks and shovels and heavily laced with the blood of those miners, and devastating the environment now and for generations to come.
Garments are the same. Clothing used to be valuable, expensive, carefully repaired, and passed along. Now, we throw an unwanted shirt away, unworn, with the tags still on it.
Why is clothing so cheap? Because it is made essentially by forced labor. I know damn well how long it takes to make a button-up, long-sleeved collared shirt. It takes hours. Sewing the thirteen buttons on the placket, collar, and cuffs takes me a good half-hour alone.
How can that shirt cost less than $25?
If I were to make a shirt, starting with cutting out the pattern pieces from fabric, it would take me four or five hours. If I sewed shirts on a regular basis, I’d get faster at piecing the sections together and attaching the collar, cuffs, and placket, but not that much faster.
Garment factories have specialized cutters and machine operators who each do one task. They’re very fast. They are paid about 39¢ an hour. In the United States, we’d like to make at least minimum wage, say seven or eight bucks an hour.
We’d also like bathroom breaks, a lunch break, and to work on a factory floor that isn’t a health hazard. We’d like a sick day or two, even a vacation day. We’d like to work in a clean factory that doesn’t poison the neighborhood.
However, our economic choices dictate that it’s too expensive to manufacture clothing and other products under those conditions, pay people a living wage, and offer reasonably safe working conditions, so we export those jobs overseas. In return, we get back clothing, electronics, and all kinds of other stuff, for far less than it would cost to make here.
Isn’t that wonderful? We spend so little to fill our houses and our lives with stuff, but we never count the cost. After all, nobody wants to pay more than the rock-bottom minimum, and nobody we know works in those factories.
I first learned this lesson in the early 1980s in the drapery department at Boscov’s department store. We sold gorgeous embroidered sheer panels at two price ranges. One was very expensive. One was astonishingly cheap. I would routinely have customers ask me about the embroidered panels. They would balk at the price. They would ask for cheaper ones. Then they would ask which ones were made in the United States.
It was the more expensive ones, of course; the ones made by workers who had clean, safe working conditions and were paid a living wage. The other ones, just as pretty and one-third the cost, were made by Chinese prison labor. I and the other sales staff always told the customers this.
No matter what people said about preserving jobs in the United States and buying American-made, when they stood at the cash register, they bought the Chinese prison labor panels. They chose the short-term goal of lower cost for themselves over the job security and happiness of workers who they did not know.
They made their Omelas bargain.
Don’t get me wrong. I like modern life. I like wearing clean clothes and living in a house that keeps the winter winds and summer heat at bay. I like driving somewhere in twenty minutes that would take hours to walk to. I like eating food that other people have grown, shipped in from across the country and the world.
Those are very pleasant options. I’ve read Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor and the amount of work those people did every day just to eat is astounding. I don’t want to live like that. I like many things about our lives. However, I try very hard to not lose sight of the underpinnings that support our lives of comfort and plenty.
This is where the Omelas bargain comes in. I learned about Ursula K. Le Guin’s story from an Archdruid’s blog post. A historian of the first water, he can be very, very conservative, in the old meaning of the word: when you needed a compelling reason for changing what you were doing since something new and shiny and untested might have bad consequences. Traditional peasant cultures were very conservative. When you have little margin for error, and every spring brings with it the risk of famine beyond the routine hunger, you learn to be careful about changing what you know works pretty well.
The story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, concerns the citizens of the shining, perfect, beautiful city on the hill and the bargain they make to keep their wonderful, easy lives. In exchange for this perfection, one chosen child is tormented daily almost to death; a child that begs for release, cries for mercy from its captors and receives none.
The citizens of Omelas know about this and most of them are okay with one child’s permanent misery paying for everyone else’s happiness. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, right? Not everyone can swallow this bargain, and those are the people who walk away. Interestingly, the citizens who walk away don’t do anything to help that miserable child. They just go somewhere else.
If you are a fan of Doctor Who, you’ve seen the Omelas bargain in action. The second episode of the fifth season, “The Beast Below,” appears to be inspired by Le Guin’s story. Matt Smith, as the good Doctor, comes up with a solution to the problem, which the residents of Omelas never do. Unfortunately, we do not have the Doctor in his blue box coming to our rescue. We have to clean up our own mess.
There is no avoiding the Omelas bargain in our culture. We’re surrounded by the fruits of other people’s labor made under dreadful conditions, but since they take place far, far away, we don’t feel for them. So what do you do: embrace the bargain or leave?
We find a third way, and that is to use LESS: less energy, less stuff, and less stimulation.
The third way is to question why I should be mindlessly buying. The third way is to not waste the resources I use. The third way is to give my time and resources so others can share in the wealth of the United States. The third way is to garden and landscape so that I provide habitat on my quarter-acre city lot for my fellow critters. The third way is to shop locally, so my money stays in my community. The third way is to buy locally produced items, so those jobs stay in my community.
Does this mean I buy less? It does. Do I avoid much of our consumer culture? I do that too. Not having a television hooked up to the outside world helps.
Does this contribute to our goal of Financial Independence? It surely does. Spending less means more money can be earmarked towards more important goals.
Does using less make the environment around me a touch better? I think it does. If our one car is sitting in our driveway rather than being used for random errands, I am not polluting the air with its emissions, I’m not clogging the roads, and I’m not burning precious fossil fuels.
It’s like that story, “The Star Thrower”, a 1969 essay by anthropologist and educator Loren Eiseley, about throwing starfish back into the ocean after the storm. You cannot save them all, but you can save some.
Does this moral stance make life worse for sweatshop workers in the Third World? I don’t know, but I’m sure not helping by buying disposable fashion, either. The price I pay does not translate into money for the seamstresses, and it wastes huge amounts of resources.
Whenever you hold something that was manufactured outside the First World, you can bet the conditions under which it was made were horrendous and that few Americans would tolerate them.
Interestingly, we have Third World conditions in the United States. Think of the fieldworkers picking those strawberries, packing those tomatoes, harvesting that fresh spring mix. Agricultural work is hard, stoop labor. To get those amazingly cheap prices you see down at the grocery store for fresh produce, you have to use plantation labor. People my age may remember Cesar Chavez and his grape boycotts. I do not believe he would be impressed by the improvements in working conditions.
Your local farmer’s market is less likely to have those issues than the giant mega-farms that supply supermarkets. At least you can ask about working conditions and when you buy from the farmer, you put more money in his pocket so he can pay his pickers a bit more.
That unending race to the bottom, to pay the least possible amount, drives wages down. Unending population growth and open-borders immigration drives wages down as more people compete for fewer jogs. Automation drives wages down as more people compete for still fewer jobs. Off-shoring factories drives wages down as the jobs get fewer still for the people left behind who need them.
It isn’t a good idea for a country to have a growing population at the same time that jobs get fewer and fewer. This is why I refuse to use self-checkouts. I go into the bank and use a teller. I use the call lines rather than the internet when I have a question or a problem with a company. Every time you use a self-serve line, you are sending a message to corporate headquarters to get rid of another job.
I understand that their employment affects what I pay. I understand, boy do I, about pinching every penny. However, if I need less, then I can spend just a little bit more to buy my paint at the local paint store instead of the big box hardware store.
The Omelas bargain never ends. How much of your life has to be supported on the misery of unseen others across an ocean? There is no good answer.
This is where we, as a culture, decide that we want what we use to be long lasting and repairable. The problem with that decision is that less money changes hands. If I buy a toaster that lasts twenty years, then I’m not buying another and another and another.
However, if everything is made to be long lasting and repairable, even if it costs more upfront, it saves money and resources downstream. If we choose to use less, to not replace our dishes on a regular basis, then we need to spend less money over the long haul.
If we rework our tax laws to reward businesses for hiring people and punish them for automating jobs out of existence, then we would have more jobs. That would certainly be a good thing, as people need to work and have a purpose in life.
Sitting on one’s ass on the dole doesn’t turn many of its recipients into musicians, artists, and poets. Think about trust fund babies. You read about the dissipation, drug use, and mental illnesses among those heirs who never had to work a day in their lives. The scions of the rich don’t seem to become musicians, artists, and poets, yet those people get more education and opportunities than most of us will ever see.
Would spending much less money on products because they last a long time and can be repaired change the economy? Oh boy would it ever.
As I mentioned earlier, our economy is built on dissatisfaction. Why else would you replace your dishes? A set of china should last, barring dropping them on the floor, until the next ice age. Dishes don’t go bad. They don’t wear out. Why do you replace your dishes? Usually, because you’re tired of your old ones, that’s why.
I did replace my dishes many years ago, and I wrote about it in the chapter on organization. I replaced my old mismatched dishes by adding to the set we already had. I did not buy new ones; I bought old ones from a china match service.
Life under a sustainable economy would be very, very different, but I believe it is necessary. We should employ people and not machines. Automation should be used to make the job safer and less backbreaking, but after that, why use robots when people need jobs? Robots don’t need jobs.
Robots and automation are a choice our corporate masters make, aided by the politicians they buy with campaign donations, so they don’t have to accommodate the needs of human beings. They choose profits over people, when it should be the other way around.
If we all did this, there would be more jobs for people, products would last longer, and wages would rise a bit. Seamstresses in China getting 39¢ an hour might receive 49¢ an hour, a 25% increase in pay. They might even work in cleaner factories and get a sick day now and then.
I cannot save the world, but I can make my little part of it better and greener. I can try hard to use my share more sensibly without making it worse for someone else.
What I won’t do is pretend that my choices are consequence-free and cause no harm. I won’t pretend that my green life is green, when the pollution generated at the rechargeable battery factory is out of sight in China. That pollution is still there, and it will be for a long, long time. The people who live and work there get to suffer so I can have a nicer life. All I can do is to use less and use what I have responsibly.
“Suburban Stockade” is available in trade paperback (with the kindle version coming) from Amazon.