Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Get Thee Over By Me, Satan

I got a very funny email from a correspondant who asked that I not use his name when I write this. He tells me that he's newly aware of peak oil and climate change, and wants very much to encourage others to make changes. The problem is that in doing so, he's afraid he's turned into his own worst nightmare - a moralist who goes around telling people not to have fun. He says that he has spent his whole adult life raging against people who worry about private sin, and here he is saying, "you really should use a cloth bag." So he asked me to reassure him that even though we need to cut down on our emissions, there's still hope for a life of sinful joy.

And I'm very happy to oblige this kind gentleman, because I think that's a real danger - there are actual, powerful moral issues at play here, but I don't really want the job of chasing people around their houses scolding them for using incandescent lightbulbs. I've never much liked people who sat around telling others not to have fun - and there is some of that in my writing - because some of the kinds of fun we're having are so damned destructive. But I wish to reassure the gentleman in question that my own vision of the future does not, as Jedidiah Springfield said in _The Simpsons_ involve "endless hard work and a tasteless mush I call rootmarm."

So in coming up with an answer for this, I thought I should reassure everyone that the big sins, the good old fashioned seven deadlies, are still not only available, but peak oil and climate change present us with some exciting opportunities for exploring their outer limits. Some of you may have ethical issues about one or all of these things, but generally speaking, none of the below do any harm to others, and so, as far as I'm concered, are none of anyone's business.

So, how shall we commit them? What ethical lapses are left to us, once we clean up our ecological footprints? What forms of immorality can we blithely enjoy, knowing that our energy usage is down?

Well, there's Lust. This one is my personal favorite of the seven deadlies, and one of the best options for post-peak sinning. Because, after all, in some religions non-procreative sex is considered lustful and therefor bad. But, in ecological terms, the more non-procreative the better - after all, reproduction has a heavy environmental impact. So exploring those alternative orifices? Good for the environment! Going gay or lesbian? Very environmentally sound, since the risk of accidental pregnancy is quite low! Ogling your lover? Better than tv or computer time! Orgies? Human powered!

Sex itself is by far one of the best forms of sustainable entertainment available to us. It requires few accoutrements, and most of those can be made of sustainable materials (lubricants, underwear) or serviced using solar batteries and renewable energies. Care must be taken, of course, but you can make about 50 condoms for the same amount of energy used in three plastic supermarket bags. Knock yourself out! It can be done in low light conditions, has the useful advantage of providing cardiac benefits and warmth in low heated rooms, and is the original low cost entertainment.

Home-style, solo lust is also very much environmentally sound. Masturbation is an excellent hobby that, if you spend enough time on it, can help you break any unfortunate, wasteful habit from smoking to collecting stuffed pigs. Good pornography (made by consenting, well paid grownups I assume we all know) is available at used bookstores, several of my local yard sales or can be downloaded from the internet and printed onto the back of recycled paper for regular reuse. Really, unless your particular taste runs to being wrapped in latex or the mile-high club, there's just no way to make good old safe sex unsustainable.

Gluttony: You'd think I'd be against this one. After all, I'm always concerned about fair distribution of food. And there's a point there, but I'd be a raging hypocrite if I focused on it. And the reality is that if you grow food, or enjoy local produce, there are some remarkable opportunities for gluttony. It is no accident that the word "glut" and "gluttony" are related. Growing your own food practically demands you overindulge in season.

Think about raspberries. You wade into the patch, getting pricked for your trouble, and brushed with red stains on your clothes. Of course, you could just fill your pail and put them virtuously up for the winter, but tomorrow you'll be drowning in raspberries again, and it would be practically a sin to waste them. You *have* to eat them - there are just too many of the lush red things asking to be devoured. Then you take the ones you were too full to eat back to the kitchen and lick the jam off the spoon. By the end you are thoroughly sick of raspberries - until tomorrow.

And so it is with everything when you grow your own. One day you have the first six pea pods, and you say, "Oh, peas!" A week later you are groaning since you've eaten your weight in peas morning, noon and night. Plus, let's be honest, home cooked food tastes so much better than commercial food - it may be better for you, but you are a better woman than I, Gunga Din, if you can resist home roasted asparagus, or if you can just eat one.

How about Sloth? Oh, it is so hard to choose which of the seven deadlies I like best! This is another endearing one - lying around doing nothing is one of my best things! Here's the thing that most people don't realize - a low energy lifestyle, generally speaking, is one with a lot of free time for napping and reading trashy novels.

Seriously, we've been told over and over again that we're about to be dragged back to lives of endless drudgery, when, in fact, as Juliet Schor observes in _The Overworked American_, historically no one ever worked as hard as workers have in the era of industrialization. We tend to think of our current era as englightened, giving us lots of free time, but that's only in comparison to the 19th century industrial era, when employee hours peaked. Agricultural labor throughout history has been far easier than most people's jobs today.

Many lower consumption, lower energies societies provide evidence of this. 11th century serfs before the Norman Conquest worked only 176 days per year, spending the rest on sabbaths and holidays. Helena Norberg Hodge describes the Ladakhis as able to meet all their needs by working about 4 months of the year, with the rest of the time spent partying. Eric Brende in _Better Off_ describes peak labor among the Amish as less than many white collar employees.

The reality is that it can be very challenging to find the time to do the work of creating a sustainable society *and* doing the work we have to do right now to make money to pay our mortgages, but in a lower input society as a whole, we might get a great deal of time back - time to be spent on indolent pursuits. In fact it should be. Because sloth is great for the environment. You aren't driving anywhere. You aren't writing things on the computer. You aren't bustling about running the vacuum cleaner. You are simply lying there, dozing, reading, trying to remember who sang "Jesse's Girl" or scratching your behind. If you reduce you food consumption to match your energy level then you've found the perfect environmentalist activity.

Envy - I can't think of any way to make envy fun, if you are the one being envious. In fact, envy is just icky - while you can enjoy being lustful or gluttonous, who can imagine having fun envying people. I can't think of any useful way that peak oil or climate change will make envy more fun - although I think one of the virtues of a sustainable life is that you honestly don't have to envy anyone anymore. Once you start seeing the things we're supposed to want as overly consumptive and toxic, you can shake things off and give envy the boot...at least until someone shows you their super-cool bicycle powered washing machine.

Pride: Pride is about feeling yourself better than other folk. And moralism of any stripe, including environmentalis, comes with a hefty risk that you'll feel some pride and self-righteousness. I think anyone who wanted to shoot an arrow at me on the sin front could get me here.

But there's one sort of pride that may be a sin, but has some virtues too - it the kind of pride that leads you to give money away even when things are tight, and the kind of pride that drives you to take care of yourself even when times are tough, and you could use some help. This has a down side too, but it also creates strong, self-reliant people who have a right to be proud of what they accomplish. And that kind of pride is something we will see a lot more of as time goes on - because as things get more difficult, those of us who do get on as best we can will have more and more reason to be proud of that accomplishment.

But we can't mistake the kind of pride for the idea that everyone is in the same circumstances, or that only bad people need help. That's the pathological version of the sin - instead, we take pride in our own ability to help others, and to get by when we can, without sitting in judgement.

Anger: I have to tell you, this one is in no danger of going anywhere. As the old saying goes, if you aren't outraged, you aren't paying attention. The reasons for anger and outrage are multiplying, and if you want to rage against the machine, the dying light or anything else, there's ample territory for that rage. Just aim it somewhere useful.

Ok, Greed is bad. We know that. We're in this mess because of greed. A whole lot of this mess comes because we've got problems with greed mixed up with envy. But let's be honest - we're all a little bit greedy. It is just a matter of what we want. I have a list - trees and perennial plants for a larger forest garden, goats, angora bunnies, a hoophouse, a James handwasher, enough cashmere yarn to knit a really nice sweater, the walking wheel in the antique shop next to me. I'm a pig, I know - I have a beautiful home, plenty to wear, a big garden, a nice spinning wheel, and all I can think, in the immortal words of Tom Lehrer speaking of pornography, is, "More, more I'm still not satisfied." Mea culpa.

But here greed is mixed up with ambition. More, as Bill McKibben puts it, is roosting on the same tree as better. And sometimes it really does take something else to make things better. The question is can we be greedy, avaricious people, and manage our greed, learn to live with "not now" and one present under the tree instead of sixteen.

Because greed itself isn't the problem - it is how we relate to our greed. Every small child has a mental list of presents they want, things they've seen they'd like. But what differentiates a normal kid from an extreme spoiled brat is their relationship to the reality of constraint. The brat resists constraint, the normal kid whines about it for a couple of minutes and then gets over it. The brat has never been taught that he doesn't have the right to everything he wants. The normal kid has had that lesson pointed out a few times. It isn't like one of the kids doesn't want a giant Deathstar with real ray gun - the normal kid has just been told he's not getting one and that he'd better behave about it, and he's recognized that he might as well get over it.

So our future is one of greed, I promise. But it doesn't have to be one of self-destructive greed. It is perfectly possible for us to turn the pleasure of avarice to acceptable sources, to sit around and be greedy for that new sweater or the yarn to make it with, for the cool tool or beautiful decorative item. It is possible for us to take exquisite pleasure in our greed, nursing our anticipation of the big thing for a long time, enjoying the fantasy of having and the pleasure of wanting.

The difference is the object of our greed. Instead of 5 sweaters, we can be greedy for one nice one. Instead of dreaming of a fancy car to make ourselves look spiffy, we can dream of a lush garden. Instead of greed for more money, we can be greedy for more time for sloth or lust, for writing angry letters to our editor or cooking to feed our gluttony. Greed, after all, isn't so bad.

There are a few things we're all going to have to give up. Monster car races. Weekends in Paris. Cholesterol fest at the Outback Steakhouse. But really, sinnin' is here to stay, I promise!



Ailsa said...

My initial reaction to this post, before I'd even made it through the second paragraph, was "I love this woman!" Is your book out yet? If not, when? I want to buy a copy for myself, a loaner copy for myself, and copies for every one of my family and friends.

Envy, I feel for people who have farms and animals and cool stuff to process the things they grow. Greed is what I feel for Oberhasli goats (although ask me next week and I'm sure it will be a different sort altogether), apple trees, cider presses....

I also envy people who are young & healthy, but I won't go there now. If you want to do a column on homesteading and self-sufficiency for the feeble or handicapped (or if you've already done one, a pointer), though, I'd be very interested.

Michelle said...

Good post. I'm currently lusting
after some chickens, and fencing,
more land, a well, a new roof,
some nubian goats,a horse trailor

Robyn M. said...

Wow, outstanding post! Two things I want to mention: (1) have you read Dan Savage's "Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The seven deadly sins and the pursuit of happiness in America"? A great read, obviously in a similar vein as your post. (2) The distinction you're making between "good pride" and "bad pride" is one that is hard to make in the English language. Aristotle discusses the virtue of pride as being the middle (and thus good) ground between undue humility and excess vanity--there are great terms for all this in Greek, but the translations are clunky. Romance languages also have terms for good pride and bad pride. English is stuck with this one word --pride--which is almost always construed as pejorative. What a pity, to be stuck always feeling slightly ashamed of being happy with oneself because of stupid language constraints!

baloghblog said...

Two words for you Sharon.



heh heh, now you can ponder about something else... Another great post.

Anonymous said...

Oh so many things to say, even after Robyn said the best one.

Hmm. Bollywood movies and old time Hollywood movies are all about making envy fun. Far more restrained sex, but the glorious sets and costumes and unrestrained class-envy! Dance numbers and fantasies of an easier life. Back when I was a Walmart cashier, everyone talked about soaps and WWF wrestling in the break room all the time, again the essense of envy made fun! Our lives are hard, but lets pretend for a while they aren't as hard. Ah the many fantasies I've enjoyed of life as a millionaire, or a martial arts master, or a dynamite computer hacker, or an eloquent blogger and author, or a superhero. There will be movies, and tabloids, and soaps in one form or another, and professional wrestling, and superhero stories for a long long time. And these all can be quite done at low-energy levels. And I guess I don't think envy is really any more toxic than lust, or sloth, or anger. It can twist and poison you as any of the others can, but it can also be a form of release, and oddly of respect and admiration.

Dmitri Orlov argues that sloth is a big part of adapting to collapsing economies even when you aren't doing agriculture, and that pot, known for its sloth inducing effects is likely to be a mainstay of American sin. And I must say, I'm finding homebrewing beer to be one of the easier forms of self-reliance, and often sloth-inducing (although drunkenness is technically a form of gluttony.)

And greed, when Savage is trying to reclaim it, he studies America's obsession with gambling. Certainly gambling is fairly energy-intensive at the moment, but was popular in its less energy intensive forms back in the day too.

Further, cards and dice are among the more sustainable of entertainments. Board games and parlor games were popular long before TV. My own personal favorites, RPGs are a low-energy form. I think there are lots of fun entertainment formats, sinful and otherwise that will be rediscovered as things tighten, and the more energy intense forms become increasingly expensive and high-brow.

-Brian M.

tk said...

You made me laugh so hard, Sharon. Now I want to write you my own fan mail.

feonixrift said...

Envy reminds me of what I want and inspires me to work harder at it. So, maybe that one can stay too. =)

Anonymous said...

All the finger pointing throughout ( not only this post) your writing makes me glad there is no on purpose sin in my own life.

It is a bit hard to determine who or what side you are on at times.

Maybe your own?

kethry said...

on sloth: "If you reduce you food consumption to match your energy level then you've found the perfect environmentalist activity."

oh my lord. you just put the finger on the thing i find hardest.. and i can tell you that's one hell of a big IF!!!

jewishfarmer said...

Ailsa - Book #1 will be out in the fall of next year. Thanks for the kind words. And I will try and write soon about homesteading and the disabled. If you haven't followed the links on the side to Pat Meadows's blog, she's a great person to read about this stuff - she and her husband are both disabled and they do astounding things despite it.

Robyn, I had never even heard of the Savage book, although I've read some of his columns. I'm putting that on my inter-library loan list today! Thanks for the reference!

Steve - see, I thought it was Corey Hart. Thanks - I neede that ;-).

Brian, good stuff as always. I guess I tend not to think about literary/film/tv identification as envy, so much as either vicarious pleasure or identification, but that certainly would be a much more interesting way to think about envy than what I came up with. That's a good point.

I didn't talk about gambling or drugs, but generally speaking, I've certainly no strong objection to drugs and while unfortunately I think gambling mostly acts as a regressive tax on the scared, desperate or dumb, I certainly don't have any real desire to legislate it away. Yes, I think it is sustainable.

Anonymous - There are things here that I won't do for moral reasons - a whole host of them. But I don't particularly want to tell other people whether they should abide by my moral code. And since no one manages to go through life without the occasional sin, I'd just as soon see people having fun doing it as being miserable while they grind through their misdeeds. I've always had more taste for St.Augustine than Thomas Aquinas ;-).

As for "sides" - what are the choices? What sides are there? I'll let you know if I belong to any of them once you tell me what the options are.

Kethry, I have just the same trouble, trust me. I'm not carrying the extra pounds I am because I've mastered this one.


Anonymous said...

Gambling typically acts as a regressive tax in our culture, you are right, and that is certainly the natural niche of corporate sponsored gambling.

But there are two other forms of gambling that were practiced in other cultures. One involves long-low-stakes games, like Mah Jongg or Backgammon where people have fun socially, neighbors interact, and the little gained or lost is spicing rather than the main point. 19th century US preachers railed against this mostly because they saw it as a form of sloth. Often these games work almost as well without the stakes. Even higher stakes games were often played as covert progressive taxes, in which the richer players would intentionally lose money, to help subsidize people in the community who would have been too prideful to accept more direct help. Indeed it was seen as a way to make charity fun. It takes a pretty tightknit community to protect a backroom poker game from abuse, but it was pretty common in 19th century America. The preachers disliked this form of gambling because it competed directly with their own more overt charities. And of course preachers worried about the problems of the gambling addicts, and the folk who bet more than they could afford, and outsiders coming and cleaning out the locals, and scripture interpretation, too. But the religious fights about gambling were just more nuanced than we usually give them credit for, and very different from the pro-jobs pro-taxes vs regressive tax fights we have with modern corporate gambling.

-Brian M.

Maeve said...

Thank you for the laughs :)

I've noticed a lot of people in general, (whether or not they join in concerns about matters such as Y2K or Peak Oil etc) automatically assume that without our modern entertainments we'll live gray lives of misery and gloom.

This time of year I usually re-read Laura Ingalls Wilder's books. Literary socials, sugaring off dances, 4th of July festivities, dime societies, popping some popcorn and sitting around the fire singing songs, people *enjoyed* themselves whenever they had a chance.

I have a bad habit of romanticizing the distant past, traveling bards and village holidays, but I see no reason why we won't make meaningful celebration in our future as well.


Anonymous said...

This is brilliantly written, and me without my copy of John Wilmot to reply with an appropriate quotation.

Amelia said...

If I never see another fig until next year . . .

. . . I'll be pretty disappointed, actually. I'm sick of cleaning up the fallen ones at the moment, but I like eating them and making conserve out of them and trading them with my neighbors: Vicki had too many raspberries and Christine had too many pears and Deena had too many apples, and now we all have clean back gardens and shelves full of food (and the local thrift store is completely out of jars).

I think we'll see a resurgence of individuals making music: my son and husband both play instruments, but it's not a skill most people keep up beyond high school. One of my neighbors is a luthier; he converted his garage into a shop years ago, and we've traded well-seasoned wood for repairs on my husband's violin.

Sacheen said...

I read this while giving mid-terms to my students and laughed so hard into my hands (trying to be quiet) that I was almost crying. They asked me if I was having a seizure! Thanks for the great post and perspective.

Kiashu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hello Sharon,

As Emma Goldman might have said - if I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution...

Yes, time to trade in NASCAR for Demolition Derby! What will we do with all those useless motor vehicles?

Motivate with fun or searching for fairness and justice or better health. Guilt just doesn't cut it (for me), thank you.

Encourage us all to do what we can and stretch our possibilities-horizon.

Your blog is one of the few I regularly read.



Anonymous said...

I think it's odd that we assoicate sin with fun, when there is not only plenty of guilt free fun for the having, but also fact that generally we end up having very little lasting fun when we sin.

Gosh, this sounds preachy, which is itn't meant to be, just an observation on human nature.


clew said...

Traditionally, one is envious and greedy about the neighbor's land, though -- the place with the greener grass, just across the fence, just upstream...

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