As humans, we have basic needs for food, shelter, medicine, and a few durable goods like clothing, tools and cooking implements.
The quality of our food, our shelter and our medicines all go to promote our health. To be healthy means to be free of disease and sickness, to be strong and energetic, and to live a long life. Beyond this, we pretty much just want to have a good time.
We’re a social species; we need community – to form bonds of friendship, respect and love. Being part of a community helps with having a good time. It’s more fun to grow food or build a house with the help of others; the quality of the product is usually better, too.
We have large brains, and although the evolutionary jury is still out on whether these are adaptive or mal-adaptive organs, we have a need to use them for various types of stimulation and self-expression. Intellectual and creative development are essential ingredients of human happiness.
So – food, shelter, medicine, a few essential goods, community, and intellectual development and creative self-expression – what else is there? How about security. Having a degree of security in the attainment of well-being is also important.
That’s pretty much it, isn’t it? Good news! Life is simple!
Obtaining these needs in sufficient quantities seems like it ought to be pretty easy. So why does life seem so complicated and difficult most of the time?
Roots of the Problem
If I had to answer this question with only one word, I would say, “institutions.” To quote Edward Abbey:
“In our institutions the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. There will never be a state as good as its people, or a church worthy of its congregation, or a university equal to its faculty and students.”
Many of our institutions are deeply flawed, and it is evident that these flaws are at the root of our discontent, thwarting our efforts to achieve a happy life.
For example, one flaw at the root of our modern economic system is the “grow-or-die” mentality – the mentality of a cancer cell.
It is impossible for the human economy to grow indefinitely on a finite planet Earth, although economists, politicians and the heads of the Great Corporations are hell bent pursuing policies and strategies for as much growth as possible, as quickly as possible.
The symptoms revealing the physical and biological absurdity of this economic foolishness are increasingly apparent in the form of pollution building up in our air, water and soils, the degradation of ecosystems and catastrophic losses in biodiversity, and the disturbance of the climate.
Our media institutions are deeply flawed as well, first and foremost because they have done such a shameful job of informing us about things that are truly important.
In fact, the media is often implicated in our outright deception, as in the lead up to the war in Iraq. Their advertisements are designed to make us feel inferior so we’ll go out and buy crap we don’t need to try and feel better. The media is heavily into the game of deceit and manipulation – what good do we get from this?
The No Spin Zone
But it would be foolish to expect our media to inform us on these matters, since the corporate institutions that own the media are the same that heedlessly and recklessly pursue profits and growth at the expense of our communities and the environment.
Perhaps we might expect to learn about these problems in our educational institutions so that they can be fixed. But there again, the same “special interests” are at work, not informing us about the ecological and social realities of our world, but rather training us to be effective servants of their world – which is organized around profit and growth.
The educational institutions train, for example, the specialized servants of industrial agriculture.
Industrial agriculture uses massive amounts of toxic chemicals, degrades the soil, impoverishes biological and genetic diversity, destroys rural communities and livelihoods, treats animals cruelly, is obscenely wasteful, and is entirely dependent upon huge public subsidies and heavy inputs of non-renewable fossil energy.
How can we be healthy if our food is poisoned and its nutritional value reduced by bad farming methods? How can we be happy knowing animals are suffering for our food, and knowing that our trip to the supermarket makes us complicit in the destruction of the environment?
How can we feel secure knowing our dinner is dependent upon fossil fuels, for which war after war is being fought to secure?
Our flawed educational institutions also induce a helplessness that goes along with the overspecialized training we receive in the service of a bad economic system. To the extent that we are employed as specialists, we have neither the time, nor the skills, nor many of us the inclination, to be generalists, to be able to do a variety of tasks for ourselves.
Back to the Land?
How many of us could, if we had the time, grow our own food, process it, prepare it, preserve it for winter? How many of us could, if we had the time, build our own home and design its landscape, making use of ecological principles for efficiency and aesthetics?
How many of us could plough a field or sustainably log a forest using a team of horses? How many of us could make our own clothing or tools or furniture, if we had the time and inclination to do so?
Very few, because we have not learned to do them. Instead, our educational institutions render us dependent on corporations and other institutions to employ us according to our “profession.”
We sell our labor to one institution for a wage, which we use to buy all the things we need for our lives from other corporate institutions. And thanks to our media, who foster the sensation of unlimited wants through advertising, we can never seem to “get ahead,” or keep up with what is “fashionable.”
How can we be happy if we are always wanting something more? How can we be content when we are constantly made to feel inadequate with what we’ve got right now?
How can we avoid feeling anxious if the level of affluence we hope to achieve is always receding away in front of us, even as we grasp for it more fervently? And how can we avoid feeling depressed at the meaninglessness of this blind consumerism?
It turns out that our medical institutions have their answer to these questions, too – prescribed pharmaceuticals.
I ask you now, as I have asked myself many times, “What are you living for?”
Think Local, Act Local
I am living to be healthy and happy and secure. For this, I simply need adequate food, shelter and medicine, to be part of a community, to be stimulated intellectually and express myself creatively, and to attain a measure of security in the procurement of these elements comprising genuine well-being.
And as we have already seen, meeting these needs and achieving security should be simple; if it is not so, it is because of the interference of flawed institutions.
Therefore, meeting human needs and achieving health, happiness and security should follow naturally from the opting-out of participation in flawed institutions, and pursuing well-being in a more efficient and direct fashion. That many people achieve affluence through obedience to institutions, but lack health, happiness and general well-being also recommends this strategy.
This opt-out requires what I would say, “local self-reliance.”
Local self-reliance involves the creation of a local economy for food and other essential goods. It means relying upon traditional knowledge of medicinal plants, herbs, barks, roots, and ferments in health care.
Local self-reliance calls for the ingenuity and the labor of humans and animals in place of artificially cheap (due to subsidies), polluting, non-renewable forms of energy. Homes are built with locally abundant materials such as mud, stone and straw, and make use of passive solar heating and cooling, rainwater collection, solar water heating, etc.
It involves the local community, of neighborliness, of more face-to-face interactions, and of cooperation instead of competition. It involves the development of place-centered knowledge, its ecosystems, climate, geology, hydrology, and wildlife. It requires us to take responsibility for educating ourselves, which is the only way we truly learn anyway.
Abbey again: “Freedom begins between the ears.”
Local self-reliance involves the promotion of creative self-expression that produces things both useful and beautiful – a rocking chair, a painting or sculpture, a piece of music, a tasty dessert, an efficient wood stove, or a composting toilet. (Yes, even a toilet should be beautiful and well-made). Craftsmanship and care are central to these creative works.
Local self-reliance means that we will have to work. It means we will get sweaty and dirty with some regularity.
But it also means we will have to think. We will have to undertake problem-solving exercises that require the use of our intellect as well as the use of our conscience, our compassion and our intuition – we will have to think ecologically.
Our scientific efforts will not be divorced from our morality and emotions, as the modern paradigm has attempted to enforce, often with disastrous results.
In short, local self-reliance means getting what we need to live long, healthy, happy lives in ways that are direct, efficient, ecologically sustainable, and secure.
Opting Out of the System
As long as we rely upon far-removed institutions that operate according to logic flawed at the deepest fundamental levels, and in fact whose “success” completely depends upon the continued failure of our communities and the destruction of ecosystems, then we only exacerbate our frustration in attaining true well-being.
We must turn our backs on a broken system and begin to do things the right way, for ourselves. We cannot expect institutional support for this work, and nor should we. It’s not needed anyway.
Get over the idea that you need money to do everything. Money is just a symbol – don’t make too much of it. You don’t need money, you need food (so grow it), or a place to stay (so build it or crash with some friends), or a hat (so knit it), or whatever.
In many, many cases, knowledge, creativity and resourcefulness can substitute for money. Not having much money forces you to develop these skills, which anyway are necessary for obtaining true wealth and well-being, instead of the symbolic, insecure, false kind of wealth that money represents.
Travel the world and learn by direct experience as much as possible. Read what you want, when you want – you’ll retain more.
To quote Ed Abbey once again: “What is reason? Knowledge informed by sympathy, intelligence in the arms of love.”
Context is what imbues information with the qualities that allow for the development of sympathy, deep understanding, love and compassion that turn the storage of mere disembodied facts into wisdom. Context is what you get from experiential learning, as opposed to the mere disembodied facts inculcated by institutional learning.
So if you want the happy, healthy, easy life, and a good measure of security in hanging on to it, then eschew the institutions – educational, corporate, political, economic, and media – and get right down to the work of building a viable local economy and promoting local self-reliance.
Recruit others in this work – you can’t do it alone and you’ll need all the help you can get. And besides, overthrowing the system is way more fun when done with friends.
This essay is turning out to be a regular Abbey-fest, but I’ve got to end with this quote:
“How to Overthrow the System: brew your own beer; kick in your Tee Vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.”
Josh Kearns speaks the truth, y’all. Comments are welcome.