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Am I romanticizing poverty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editorial Notes: There's discussion on this post over at Sharon's Casaubon's Book blog.

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