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Choosing Life

April 26, 2023

I find myself yearning for a life that is lived by the light of the sun, that has no electric lamps to enable nighttime busywork. I imagine how much healthier and well-rested I would be. I imagine all the waste that would not happen because I would be doing less. I imagine how much more time I would have to consider and reflect and put my thoughts in order. I imagine having the use of the abundance of time that I was born to live, rather than the sporadic moments that I can snatch from capitalism.

But there is no place or time for rest, for reflection, for physical or emotional relaxation. I know that every culture has felt like daily life is a torrent of flowing disaster, and maybe that is how humans are wired. We are nervous beings, being rather defenseless and weak, so we are on always on the alert for danger. Given our increasingly efficient means of communicating those alerts all over the planet, we find reason to be alarmed every minute of every day. We are connected to a machine that has gears and wires sending signals and responses from everywhere to everywhere. Our bodies never feel safe. We stew in the biochemical morass of fear responses, adrenaline eating away at our internal organs and our tenuous connection to mind.

We are also kept too busy with busywork to be able to feel it all properly. To process. To absorb information and make sense of it. We are kept working and do not have time to reflect and understand. We can only respond. And there is such negligible time in between disasters, no down time, no time when we are not on high alert. We roll from one calamity to the next with no resolution to any of them. We try to respond, mostly we fail, and then we are forced to move on to the next disaster.

Yes, this might just be how humans are wired. But it might also be that the human situation is tangibly different now.

There have been plagues and famines, disastrous weathers and wars, but always before these things were limited in scope. And for most people, disaster happened elsewhere. It was known about but not known in body. However, our rapacious want has seen to it that everything happens everywhere now. Our disasters are global and all-encompassing. This is metaphorically true, but it is also physically true. We both hear about more disaster and, particularly in the last couple decades, we are far more statistically likely to experience disaster than humans used to be — disaster affects more of us, more frequently. Most importantly, those who have been historically insulated from disaster are now feeling its effects. These are the people who control much of the flow of alarming media messaging. So when they are harmed, the rest of us get to hear all about it — in alarming detail. (That they are also the people most responsible for these disasters is grimly amusing to the rest of us…)

The Great Simplification, Steve Breen was talking about the depression he entered when he realized that our systems were antithetical to life. He thought, ‘My god, they’re going to kill all of us!’ This is a paralyzing realization. But what is worse is to recognize that ‘they’ have been killing ‘us’ for centuries. Using up bodies, destroying life, churning this wonderful planet into imaginary gain for a very few white men is exactly the point of Western culture. I wonder if Breen’s epiphany was less about the killing and more about who would be included in us. In a contracting world of proliferating crises, ‘us’ includes the very people this system is built to serve.

This is the natural conclusion of turning a dwindling pile of resources into profit. We all die in the end. And this is increasingly hard to ignore, though there are many who are telling us to try harder.

A normal response to continual crisis in a given system or region is to leave. This is a time-honored human coping mechanism. Truly, it’s a general coping mechanism for life. Life avoids stress. When stresses accumulate, life responds by dwindling around the areas of strain and oozing away into other places and patterns of organization. This is the basis for speciation and for extinction. It is possibly the organizing principle of the universe. Nothing stays where it is under stress.

People these days, particularly young people, are under quite a good deal of stress. This may have always been true, but back in the days of a growing economy, in a world where there were options elsewhere when the local stress became too much, enough people in the younger generations had realistic hopes of escaping to keep them working within the system — if perhaps in another part of the world. In the past, young bodies could go where there were opportunities, or they could tough out the pain and abuse of having low status and look to a day when age brought them a bit of relief. That day did not come for most humans in this culture, this is true. But this culture worked well enough for those who controlled the messaging and imagery, and so the story of those who did not rise was comfortably erased.

This is no longer true. In many ways. There is no place to escape to, no new world or growing economy. There is no place to hide away all those who are harmed by this culture. They are everywhere. They include your children, probably you in the not so distant future. There is no place that is free from the many interwoven, perpetual crises. So young people have done the math and concluded that there is no reason to tolerate the stresses of being low status in this culture. No reason to hope that there will be a change for the better. No reason to endure these crises. And they are deciding to leave.

There is a common refrain among people my age and older: ‘Nobody wants to work.’ I am enraged every time I hear it dropping from the mouths of wealthy white people who have largely avoided the kinds of work that ‘nobody wants’ to do. Because it’s preposterous! Of course they want to work. Or at least they want to earn wages doing something that isn’t going to increase suffering in the world — and for themselves. They want to be able to have a place to live and to eat fairly regular meals. They want to build lives around some purpose. They want all the things that every generation wants. But any idiot can see that young people will not get these nice things by staying within a contracting, crisis-ridden system. So they have no reason to tolerate a shit job, even if they could afford to live on the shit wages. Which, increasingly is not the case. It’s not that nobody wants to work; it’s that there is no work that can support life within this culture. This is ‘they are killing us’ exemplified. And a large number of people are choosing life.

But the more people walk away from the system — especially those who do all the real work, the low status jobs that do not pay for living — the less capable the system is of supporting itself. As people walk away, this culture implodes. This is the fear lacing ‘nobody wants to work’. (Though there is also a sense that the speaker feels she may actually have to do that nasty work herself.) If this culture implodes, if too many people refuse to feed it their time and labor, then all that symbolic wealth — wealth that is really just a promissory note on future work done — all that vanishes. The more people leave, the less the culture is able to exchange money for real value. When nobody wants to do that work within the system, then everything in the system becomes worthless. When you have piles of dollars and nothing to buy with them, those dollars are useless. If nobody wants to work, then the wealthy will not be wealthy anymore.

This, in a time of perpetual crises and constant alarums from the whole of this globe we inhabit. It is enough to shatter the complacency of even the blindest suburbanite.

But what else can those with nothing do? They are not going to improve their lot in this contracting system. So, like any sensible lifeform, they are escaping the system. In large numbers. They are learning ways of building life outside the system, or just on the margins, by new rules, their own rules, rules that are more likely to benefit them. They are refusing the jobs that would not benefit them. They are also refusing the living that better jobs might support. They want no part of this destructive system — not even if it might, through some miracle, reward them. They are just being sensible. They are leaving. But the void they leave behind is sucking the rest of the system deeper into implosion.

On the other side of this equation, it seems to me that the sensible thing to do with money right now is to transform it into long-term, real-world, life-sustaining value immediately. (Actually, that is just what I am doing.) This means those who are shedding money would be driving the collapse, hastening it on. But they would also be turning symbolic wealth into true wealth, and because true wealth is only worth what can be used, much of the monetary wealth is likely to be transferred to others one way or another. An old woman with a trust fund probably can’t turn that money into something she can use all by herself within her lifetime. She’d likely need to exchange it for an umbrella of food, shelter and care that would cover many more bodies besides her own. It seems to me that if the wealthy were to be proactive and turn their idiotic paper treasures into real abundance, they might cease to be wealthy (which is a problem for them, of course), but they would also avoid losing everything in the inevitable implosion — and in the process they might build up the foundations of the next system. One that would care for them as well as others.

Meanwhile, there would be less need to be perpetually busy, perpetually at work, perpetually stressed. There would be more time to do actual living. There would also be less stress generated. Yes, there will still be many biophysical crises for decades to come, but when this system collapses, those crises will not be getting worse. They will not be enlarged by the ways that we live. And we’d have time to respond more appropriately, more consciously and reflectively. We might even find time to build up our physical strength to weather all this disaster.

In a recent post on How to Save the World, Dave Pollard mentioned a book by Richard Lewontin, The Triple Helix, which explores the causes of death throughout history. Contrary to all our self-congratulatory myths about improved medicine or even improved hygiene, mortality rates are most closely correlated to the same two things in all the populations Lewontin studied — overwork and poor nutrition. That is, death comes first to abused bodies. This should be common sense. Maybe it is outside our culture, but inside our culture this common sense is scrupulously concealed. Our culture is absolutely dependent on those exhausted people. If they don’t work hard and take very little reward from that work, the system can’t grow. If it can’t grow, it can’t generate profits. If it can’t generate profits, it collapses. So we hide that common sense. We say ‘nobody wants to work’ when the more accurate statement is ‘nobody wants to die for my benefit’.

But if we stop busily abusing our bodies for the sake of somebody’s profit, maybe we will gain the health and strength — and improved creativity and reasoning — to negotiate all the stress.

So many reasons to drop out. So many ways to benefit if we simply refuse to participate in this destructive culture. So much life waiting outside it strictures. And almost nothing holding us here except the words of those few who hold this temporary paper wealth. Of course, young people don’t want to do work that doesn’t benefit them, that harms them, that will shorten and destroy their one allotted lifetime. And when enough of them walk away, the words and wealth of those in power become as worthless as the work that nobody wants to do.

Many of us are choosing life. Seems sensible…


Photo by Ny Menghor on Unsplash

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: building resilient societies, collapse of industrial civilization