Against human nature one cannot legislate. One can only try to educate it, and that is a slow process with only a distant hope of success.
(Bernard Berenson, Rumor and Reflection: entry for February 11, 1942)
This week, as I was waiting to get my hair cut, I eavesdropped on a conversation between two other customers in the barber shop who were comparing notes about their rainbird lifestyle in southern Arizona. Both of them spend five or six months each year away from the wet cold coastal weather, camped out in a foreign country, living the idle life of the retiree. As I listened to them talk, I couldn’t help feeling how we squander resources as though they came in unlimited supplies. Here are people who presumably worked for many years, acquired skills and experience, put down roots in their home community, and then reached a certain age at which it became socially acceptable (encouraged, even) to throw all of that away, turn their backs on the place where they live, and fasten themselves onto a life of hedonism, consumerism, and golf.
I know how hard it is to talk about this sort of thing without coming off all hairshirty and self-righteous. People absolutely have a right to live the way they choose; what irks me in this scenario is the pitiful range of acceptable choice that we see when we consider how best to live our lives. I simply rebel at the idea that it’s alright to become an elder in one’s community, acquire the rights and responsibilities thereto appertaining, and then flee to live an inward-looking life — that it’s alright for that to be a way of living we should aspire to, rather than what it looks like to me: a flat-out abdication of responsibility, of adulthood even.
That does sound hairshirty and self-righteous. So be it.
I raise this only to convey some sense of my permanent mystification at the ways we live and the ways we are encouraged to live. I know I’m not alone in feeling at times as though I’ve crash-landed on a planet reserved for pharmacological experiments or strange psychological games among the captive population. Sometimes nothing adds up, and this de-elderization program is just one of many glitches in the social code that we’re living inside. Just one of many aberrations we seem unable to get to the point of recognizing and walking away from, because the enticements to stay collectively mad are still too strong and overwhelm our periodic urges to ditch it all and go sane for a change.
Who knows? Maybe in a few more years I’ll be ready to sever ties with whatever community I happen to be living in and wander off into the Freedom-55 wastelands with all the others, drawn to something that doesn’t seem real now but might become irresistible with the passage of time. What is it? Not being beholden to anyone or anything more than the absolute bare minimum. Total freedom to come and go as I please, to buy what I like, not to have to put up with any stupid crap from anyone, to eat what I want when I want. With no regard for what’s going on around me. A permanent temporary resident of Wherever.
These symptoms are known well, but the prescriptions are diverse and untested. Many thinkers in the peak oil/collapse side of the world express their belief — or hope — that with the dwindling of resources and the consequent withering of the economy we’ll rediscover older and presumably healthier styles of creating community. I believe that, but somehow without much conviction; it falls into the category of “things I can believe but not visualize” along with a future with radically fewer cars, widespread urban agriculture, stores filled with locally-grown food, smaller energy-efficient dwellings, and the rest of the litany. Barring some kind of diabolus ex machina to prolong the petroleum-based nuclear-fired plastic fantastic carnival of waste, these things are inevitable, as is a saner and more human set of social arrangements that would see many of our elders earn and deserve an honourable position as holders of wisdom and experience rather than as the most profligate and the least concerned with the health of the culture and the well-being of the younger and more vulnerable members of the tribe.
Sometimes, in moments of lucidity or optimism or maybe benign delusion, I can see the glacial pace of change sped up and shifting visibly. The thinnest tendrils of new behaviour or thought take on solidity, and it becomes almost possible to see what might be the precursors of change. Points become vectors; unassociated facts cluster into patterns, and these start looking like trends. It’s easy to be wrong when the evidence is so flimsy, but there are moments when the forces pushing us in the direction of social wellness choose to reveal themselves, tantalize us, and then fade back into the texture of the familiar world.
All of the small and isolated occurrences that gather together to form these patterns, which become trends and finally irresistible social forces, arise from small individual responses to social forces, trends, and patterns happening around us all — some so visible and real that we can name them; others so subtle and subterranean that we don’t know how to untangle them from the things they affect and mix with. At all times we’re doing the best we can to cope with the world around us, and our idiosyncratic provisional solutions to this unending puzzle combine with those of the people and organizations in our environment to form wholly new arrangements of people, beliefs, and actions.
I believe that there is no master key to hasten the process of change, no set of policies or political arrangements, no prescription for what ails us or the world. As I see it — and this may change, and anyway you’re free to see things otherwise — the only way to build any kind of tough alternative to prevailing patterns is to stay alert to what doesn’t work, step away from the nonsense, and try to find other people doing something similar. Through the collective creation of alternatives, we organize ourselves and our actions into new patterns. When the patterns achieve critical mass and the ability to reflect back on themselves (meaning that we can stand outside of and articulate what it is we’re up to), they become trends and eventually social forces.
It all starts at the lowest level, requires persistence and clarity, and might look for the longest time as though nothing is happening. But something is happening.