You knew there was a “but” right?
Every now and then I pop into mmlist.com which has some good insights into simplicity. Most of what he says I agree with in principle, but…. a couple weeks ago there was the article, society, reimagined, Leo treats us to his imagining of a better society but I also felt there was something very much missing in his look at society.
If there is one thing modern, urban simplicity advocates forget it is the invisible screen against which their lives are projected. What do I mean by that? Well, quite simply there is a whole mesh and network of things, services, stuff, that is a scratch and a peck under the surface that we never see, we never know about but it is there and without it all our systems would crumble and most people would find that crumbling utterly unbearable. Which I realize is probably clear as mud so I will pick on poor Leo and pull out his ideas and use them as examples.
Junking the car: It sounds like a good idea, getting rid of our cars – working closer to home or even working at home with mass transit available for those times when one must travel. To urbanites it is an awesome idea. Not such a great plan if you are rural and the nearest mass transit is 50 miles away.
I don’t hear a lot of simplicity advocates wanting to get rid of mass transportation, emergency vehicles or freight. These are part of the screen. We like the fact that our homes are not right up against the clothing factory or the manufacturing site, but as long as we want mass transportation and freight someone, somewhere has to be building buses and trains, these are built out of parts that must be manufactured, from materials which must be manufactured from raw materials that have to be harvested and shipped. Then to run the bus or train you have to have fuel (some sort of energy), it has to be maintained, the roads or tracks it runs on have to be maintained. All this requires energy, people and raw materials.
While the simplicity advocate might really want to have their nice little community free from cars in the street where are these mass transportation workers going to live? Is the miner going to raise his children within walking distance of the mine? What about the ore smelter, the steel worker or the parts manufacturer? We do not have (nor can I imagine we will develop) technology that will make aluminum parts manufacturing for mass transit vehicles a clean process – certainly not one I would want to raise my children in the shadow of – which, considering my husband works for a company that makes freight vehicles, buses and emergency vehicles, is a real possibility if we are going to localize industry. If we are going to advocate a change in how we loco-mote we need to consider the holistic costs of what we are thinking of. Do we create a better community for ourselves and our children while leaving those families who enable this lifestyle living in the shadows of factories and manufacturing plants or do we sacrifice transportation as we know it. How much would we be willing to sacrifice in order to improve our communities? Would we give up mass transportation, freight or emergency response vehicles? And if not willing to do so are we asking others to live in a way we would not choose to in order that we may live as we want?
Locally Grown Food: I like this idea, but the idea that we are going to grow enough food in back-yard and community gardens to sustain families is — well, naive. Farms, family farms, those sized large enough to produce enough food for the family living on them can only be so small. Just think of how much land you need to devote to growing food in order to supply yourself and your children (and your parents) with enough food to survive the year. I suspect my family could do in it our area (the insanely rich and fertile Willamette Vally) on right around 20 acres. This would produce enough for us and enough to trade. If we are just looking at sustaining ourselves 10 might be possible and that is with modern preservation techniques. If we lived in a community were we could trade skills for grain-crops closer to 5 might work. A back yard garden or a community garden plot is not going to supply my family’s needs. That is reality. I would love to think that I could possibly manage to do it on a 1/4 acre or something, but that would be delusional. There is an interesting discussion here with more thoughts.
Now organizing communities around farming, going back the the village model is something that rings right in my soul. If we were mostly farmers with some tradesmen here and there we could return to a system of locally grown food as the center of most family’s diets. But we would have to sacrifice a lot of modern life. This would require a rural agrarian life style for almost everyone. Which is going to mean smaller communities overall. Then you loose some things. You are not going to have a universally “wired” world and a universally agrarian world. The energy and manufacturing needs of a digital society are so enormous that the two are in reality incompatible. Building buses and trains is nothing compared to building computers, digital networks and modern communication infrastructure. Who will be feeding these factory workers making the microprocessors, network cable and video screens? Again do they have to farm and work in a factory? The amount of time to plant, harvest, preserve, store, prepare and serve homegrown food is astronomical. Not equal to the amount of time most of us work at our livings today, but it is an everyday of the year gig.
And mmlist actually does go into the idea that the ideal simple world would be a world that was highly digital. Look at the manufacturing footprint of your basic laptop, it dwarfs the bus or firetruck, then look at the foot print required for a digital infrastructure. Are we ever going to be able to provide that style of living for everyone? How this is supposed to happen I can’t even imagine. Sure I agree that this sort of vision could be real in some places, maybe the college towns mmlist suggests, I am sure Eugene would be game for it, at least in parts, but I think that vision of simplicity only works as long as it is a subculture within a highly developed, factory manufactured, consumer base world. Sort of a new aristocracy, as long as there are enough serfs to plow the field the royalty can live resplendently, just don’t peek too closely at the lives of the serfs.
What is missing in the vision? Humanity. How do we provide a quality, dignified existence to all God’s children? It is not enough for us to envision a life that benefits us while harming others, it is not enough to free ourselves and our children while leaving the rest of the world in the mud. Sure we can do just that, but is that in any way better than shopping at Walmart and buying cheep, plastic, crap from China? We eventually have to make the choice. We will eventually have to give up the freight and the digital infrastructure if we wish to have an equitable world, or we will have to accept that some parts of the world will always be the “slaves” to the wants of the rest.