Tuesday, February 05, 2008

52 Weeks Down - Week 36 - Change Your Aspirations

Can we take it as a given that the earth can't support 8 billion middle class people who want cars and air conditioning? If we can't, then you might look at Jeff Vail's latest post on Jevon's paradox and the new Tata Nano here:www.jeffvail.net , but I'm not sure it really needs to be articulated. There are some techno-optimists out there who think that energy and money are the only things that we need to all be rich, but the truth is that all economic output is polluting, and all economic output draws down natural resources to one degree or another. You can refine the degree, but growth eats it up.

So starting from that position, we have, as I see it, three choices. The first is to repress the aspirations of those who wish to join us in the middle class. There are two problems with this. The first is that we can't - our economic power days are over, and we can't control the growth of other economies. In fact, right now, other economies largely control us. The second being that even if we could, this would be both wrong and politically unpalatable. That is, growth capitalism has long told everyone that they can be rich, and thus allowed a majority of the populace to believe, however falsely, that opportunity simply hadn't knocked for the vast number of poor people. That is, economics erases intentionality and a whole host of truths, and tells us that we're doing our very best to make poor people richer. A change over to a dynamic in which we had to openly admit that we want to exploit the poor and make them poorer so that we can get richer would be politically difficult - ignoring, of course, the moral issue. This also makes for all sorts of good excuses for people to blow things up.

The second choice, and the one that we presently seem set on, is the creation of a different middle class, from the wealth of the old middle class. That is, we can gradually (or not very gradually) impoverish the old rich, and replace them with new rich from what was the poorer world. Several studies have suggested that in fact much of China's growth has come at the expense of America's working class. This has the advantage of greater equity, but isn't very much fun for the former rich (us) and comes with political consequences, and probably military ones as well, since the former rich still hold on to a lot of big guns.

The third choice is this - we come up with a new set of aspirations. That is, we find something compelling to hope and dream about that everyone in the world pretty much can have. And we teach our children to aspire to that goal, and offer it up to the world as we have offered the dream of affluence, and hope to G-d it takes hold.

What could that be? I know a very elderly woman whose daughter told me that her mother had once told her that what she hoped would be said about her on her death was "She never said anything unkind to anyone, and she welcomed everyone who came to her door." And it made me think about what the aspirations of prior generations have been. It isn't that our eulogies are sufficient to address this, but they provide a way of getting at the essence of what we want to accomplish.

That is, it was common for prior generations to be content that they had never taken a handout, put money in the bank each year, and tithed some of their income. Or to take pride in having worked every day of their lives, to have earned and received respect, to have been able to do business on their handshake and sense of honor, to have always had food on the table for their children and clothes on their back, and to grow to be good men and women.

To an extent, these past ambitions may be overstated - the romanticization of the past is always a danger. But we all know people, mostly much older people, for whom these really sufficient goals. Our own goals are often much more ambitious, and thus much harder to balance. And I suspect most of our aspirations are harder to achieve - that is, we much less often achieve them than if we'd aspired to smaller things.

There was an obituary here of an older man a few years ago. It read, "He never missed a milking or a (Quaker) meeting in 60 years. He never borrowed money, but lent or gave what he had. He died in the house and the bed he was born in, tended by his children, who loved him, and received, we believe, by his God." Aspiration indeed.



Anonymous said...

When I was working on my first adoption, and the social worker asked for my asperations for my child, I said something along the lines of wanted her to be able to contribute to the lives of others and have the capacity for joy. And the social worked said, "you don't ask for much, do you?"

Actually, I think I was asking for a lot, the ability to lead a useful and happy life.


spelled with a K said...

MEA, My wife and I are in the same process ourselves. For our children (even though legally they arent "ours" yet)...I don't care if they grow up to be rich, in fact I'd rather they aren't, but I do want them to live richly.

For myself. I'd love to stop worrying all the time.

void_genesis said...

Another aspect of this issue is dealing with other people's aspirations for you. I decided to give up a high flying career in research science and instead all I really want to do it to be able to provide food for my extended family come hell or high water. I am 95% happy with my decision, but the rest of my family are still getting their head around it (even as they happily accept the never ending bags of free produce I bring them). They are all well informed about the issues, and have the usual vague sense of foreboding about the future, but they can't quite let go of the idea that I should aspire to a career.

Anonymous said...

When all else fails, your heart will tell you what to do. So, it seems important that we and the generations after us develop good hearts with a capacity for compassion and love. That seems what is most important.

Anna Marie

Greenpa said...

I'm with you here. There are plenty of folks who will accept this kind of thing, too.

But there are also plenty who will not- how do we reach the kids living in their fantasy world of endless dancing, raves, music, and American Idol?

spelled with a K said...

you'd be surprised what kids are capable of once they truly understand. Our daughter now follows us from room to room running to turn the light out before we even get to the doorway. And yesterday she suggested giving up TV for lent...a self professed TV lover suggested going without it for 40 days.

Its really an opportunity to use that idealism that children have and put it to making real change, before they become jaded old fogies like us.

Greenpa said...

Spelled K- no, I wouldn't be surprised. :-) My own first-crop kids turned out quite spectacularly, growing up hyper green. They got it, and get it. My second crop is on the same track, and doing well.

Sorry, I meant the "kids" who are 14-25, living in cities where they have little access to nature or meaningful work- and are surrounded by the world of economic obesity. I don't think those kids are dumb, or hopeless- but boy it's hard to get them to listen, and hard to let them see- and hard to give them any real alternatives.

Rosa said...

The rave kids aren't consuming that much, either. There's a surprising amount of anti-consumerism out there in all the little subcultures. A DJ needs: one good outfit, a turntable system, and a friend with a van.

Not like the good little worker bees who rack up huge debts going to college so they can get a "good" job and then *get* a good job (but not quite good enough, so they "have" to buy a house 45 minutes drive from their jobs, and have a car for each grownup) and spend the next few years buying houses and cars and furniture and having babies and maybe wakes up *after* that and thinks "wow, all this stuff didn't make me happy, maybe I should downsize a little"

Anonymous said...

My sons, 18 and 25 and who homeschooled since kindergarten, are green! They wouldn't be caught dead in an SUV or consuming industrial foods. Both are vegan. The older son supports (sends monthly payments) to Defenders of Wildlife. They read widely on every topic and enjoy reading Adbusters Magazine and environmental publications. They can teach themselves anything, very common among homeschooled or deschooled children. Their initiative is inspiring.

The 18 year old dreams of being an organic farmer and a writer. He's enrolled at the local community college for now (thinking of majoring in History and English to become a librarian and wondering if it is worth paying the tuition). His advisor was flabbergasted by his test scores and said to him "you should be going to MIT!" BTW, he had never taken a standardized test until he took the GED exam and applied to college.

The 25 year old has primarily the tactile/kinesthetic intelligence. He studied online air conditioning/refrigeration and has been on that field since he was 18. Now he's a commercial a/c technician and electronic control specialist making $30/hr. He's also a licensed scuba diver.

I always encouraged them to water the seeds of integrity, kindness and empathy and to wholeheartedly apply themselves to whatever they do, whether cleaning floors or being a professional.

We all plan to leave So. FL in the near future and live off the land in Vermont.


Greenpa said...

Vegan- you (and others!) might be interested in "Time, Soil, and Children"; a book by Beth Waterhouse from 2004. It's interviews with a bunch of kids who grew up "sustainable", and pretty inspiring. Hard to find right now, but worth digging up. You might try calling/emailing MISA (MN Institute for Sustainable Ag) - they sponsored the publication, I think.

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I always aspired to live in a house with a garden in an urban area that was diverse, with rich community of friends. Now I've got it. Fruit trees, decent yard for the inner city, a stream flowing through the northwest corner. And I have the community, too. I can walk to shopping and to public transport that will get me to the big city (SF) and the major airports and train stations. I'm in the foothills so the biking is easy.

For my children, I want them to be self-sufficient, self-starters, with good life skills as well as "academics" (whatever those mean). My older son has multiple disabilities and I don't know what the path of his life will be, but he functions well in a "typical" classroom and I believe that with strong community and family support, he can find meaningful work, friendships, and I hope even love and partnership. My younger son is bright and social; I hope he balances compassion and common sense with his strong intellectual skills.

I believe that Oakland has a future in a world changed by climate and energy crises; I aspire to stick it out here, so that my children value diversity, community, culture, and sustainable living in an urban environment.

I also aspire to beat all the odds of my cancer prognosis, combining conventional treatments with alternatives and prayer; I aspire to live a long time and be very happy.

O yes and I aspire to use my humble, funky house and our collection of crockery to bring friends together for food, laughter and support. I don't need more kitchenware/dishes/tablecloths, I need more potluck parties.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Greenpa. I'll look into it.

Good blog in the woods!


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