Monday
May162005

« Loss Of Self Empowerment »

Peak Oil is daunting. We face the loss of the goods and services we use every day. We face having to do work that someone else has done for us. That might sound unnerving, and for a while, it will be. But indulge me for a while as I suggest that maybe it has done more harm than good to turn all our work and play over to them.

poster: made in china, because we needed cheap shit more than good jobsMade in China: Because we needed cheap shit instead of good jobsCorporations are unrelenting in convincing us that we need their goods or services, else our lives will fall apart. Actually, that may not be so because people had lives before corporations (B.C., I guess) and will continue to have lives after they fade away and lose their grip on most every aspect of our lives. Corporate practices have unsustainability written into their very nature. What you and I must do is imagine a life where we don't buy something because we are told to, or because our neighbor bought the same thing first. If we can be conditioned to buy, we can be conditioned to not buy. We were conditioned to buy on flimsy grounds, and we can recondition ourselves away from that for reasons that resonate in us for pure reasons of trying to preserve our humanity above all else. As the saying goes, a journey starts with the first step.

First off, let us remember American culture and corporate practices thrive on an assumption that people are stupid and can be herded like cattle. They thrive on people's desire to be part of the new and exciting. They thrive on people forgetting their integrity. They thrive on a culture they helped create: disposable culture. Seventy years ago, products were made to last because that is how things were done because it made the best sense. It still makes sense, but for a long time now, things have been made to be disposable. The euphemism we now hear and accept is "planned obsolescence." Things are made now that have little potential of being preserved for more than their planned lifespans. None of us would think of sharpening the blades on our disposable razors. We wouldn't think of reusing paper towels (or the more realistic option: use cloth towels once again). Most things are made cheaply now in part because the economy demands it. There has to be a reason for us to buy more of whatever we are using, or to get next year's model, etc. If goods were made durably in the first place, there would be less need to perpetually replace these widgets.

Even houses are made this way. One of the earlier steps away from the community based living patterns of old was to make the house itself a commodity that could be made cheaply by experts and sold to the everyman. But even in the early days, these houses were made in stylish and appealing ways, and now are regarded to be some of the most valued designs around at any price. But the house I live in is the perfectly boring standard issue suburban box. And it is not even made well! The useful lifespan of a property like mine is about 50 years. How do I know? Drive around my neighborhood and look at all the houses with significant remodel projects going on. Then compare them to the ones with no remodel work being done. My house and neighborhood were built in 1957. Coincidence? No. Not at all. These houses are not made with the same care as ones from 50 years before them. These houses were made quick and dirty all across San Diego during a boom time when we had more wealth than sense, and a desire to throw out the old simply because it was "old."

Another aspect of corporate control over our lives is the way corporations convince us that we are unable to do our own work, and that they have a solution that can do better for us. They breed the insecurity in us that leads us to trust them enough to turn over our dollars for whatever good or service they offer. One one hand, it is good for the economy because more widgets are made, and more people are employed, but what is lost is people's ability to trust themselves in their own homes. I am as victimized as anyone; I call a plumber too. I call an electrician for anything more than the most basic stuff. I hire a mechanic because I don't trust myself to do the work competently. I don't mind hiring guys because peace of mind is a good thing, but I do reflect on how somehow I have been scared by someone or something into thinking I can not do this work myself. Think for a minute about all the things you hire someone else to do that you could do yourself. And then ponder whether maybe you are losing a bit of personal pride and satisfaction by not learning to do this work yourself. Not everything out there for sale or for hire is necessarily something we need to pay for. But we are told that we should if we want it done well.

Entertainment is another centerpiece of real human living that has been distorted. I think each of us have heard grandma say "when I was your age, we didn't have television. We had to make our own fun!" Well, in a post carbon world, we might not be looking at so many films and listening to so many CDs. It will take oil to make the films and disks, and with entertainment being so slick now, it will take a lot of expense to move entertainers to far flung places to film or do tours. It will be harder to move mass produced " product." We can't rely on Jennifer Lopez or whatever popstarflavoroftheweek is to entertain us forever. We can't allow our culture to utterly fold up and disappear when all the lowest-common-denominator entertainment goes away. We might want to learn how to sing from our hearts again. We might want to learn how to express ourselves through our own efforts in the arts and drama and music. We need to know that what is in our hearts and minds is just as valid (and more so) than what we can buy at Tower, or what we can download from the iTunes Music Store. We need to relearn how to preserve our works of art on tangible media or in our community's collective memory because we can't trust that there will always be computers and the Internet to create and distribute such material around the world in a blink of an eye.

Another part of the corporate domination that flies right over most of our heads is the matter of what we throw out every day, after we have bought and paid for it. My own "a-ha!" moment came when I realized the sheer number of small plastic containers that got chucked into the trash maybe minutes after I opened them and consumed their yummy contents. I watched as small cups for yogurt, lided containers, or partitioned dishes for dips or other foods were just heaved into the bin. I shop at Costco and rarely cart my groceries home in 15 bags, but many of them come in what actually are good containers that can be reused. Well, each time I buy this stuff, I have more, so I needed to find a use for the stuff. My wife and I started to buy bulk foods more. She took a liking to baking bread from scratch. All these little containers helped store flour, seasonings, sugar, seeds, nuts, and whatever else came to mind. With her interest in baking, we cut out the need for store bought bread, and also cut out the "need" to buy the brand name Ziplock or Glad or Rubbermaid containers that do the same thing as our cast off yogurt and sour cream containers now do. And frankly, these product containers are actually better products than the stuff that can be bought from a brand name. Pardon the misleading labels, but it's working fine for me.

Corporations and their practices rely on us to forget our own inventiveness, resourcefulness, community potential, and the worth of our own labor or thought. I don't stall for a minute in thinking that maybe that business ethic of making people feel helpless has contributed to a range of social problems. We could watch how people are made to feel they must pay for all of their daily needs and wants, and must run to keep up with that system by struggling to get a "good" job that gives them the money to do all this stuff. Well, slowly, people are going to have to rediscover their own potential, and the shared potential of their community. What do we work for if not to meet our needs? And why did we let big business tell us we could not meet our own needs without their "help"? If our economy is founded on pressing more and more people into debilitating insecurity and self doubt, then what are we really asking for when we say we want economic growth? I don't think we can keep this up for much longer. Our system is already taxed beyond belief, and is already in decay in many places. America was not built on insecurity and self loathing, but it could fall apart if we have too much of the stuff.

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