Monday, July 14, 2008

Vernacular Zen (re-post)

I'll post new content next Monday with a cross-post of an article on Algeria & Morocco that will soon appear in The Oil Drum. In the interim, here's a re-post of one of my favorite posts from 2004, and a much needed dose of denial-free optimism for these troubled times:

Vernacular Zen: Glimpses of "The Original Affluent Society"

I am an advocate of localization, simplification, self-sufficiency and fulfilled ontogeny. Slow food. Tribalism. A thousand other catch-phrases that, above all else, raise a singular objection from friends and critics alike: isn't your idealized vision starkly juxtaposed to your professed enjoyment of the finer things in life?

My response: on the contrary, my good friend...these worlds are in fact one in the same, only separated by the disinformation of the consumer economy.

Povero o Rico??
Is this an image of a "poor" fishing village or one of the worlds most exclusive resort islands? Actually, it's both--a picture of the idyllic island of Panarea (just North of Sicily) taken by the author while sailing away aboard the 38' sailboat "Fandango."

I have spent, to be perfectly honest, more than my fair share of mornings slowly enjoying an espresso as the fog burns off the slopes of Mount Etna in the distance, the scent of blood orange blossoms mingling with the sharp aroma of coffee. This is the kind of perfect moment that embodies our cultural ethos: sacrifice enough of what you love now, and you'll make enough money that some day you'll be able to buy back those priceless experiences in the form of a luxury cruise, a meal at that new bistro or a beach house in Florida. The irony is that this perfect moment cost about 65 cents--that's less than 8 minutes wage for a cashier at McDonald's, and yet it's enough to make highly paid executives and professionals alike salivate. This should tell us something...

The finer things in life can generally be divided into two categories: material and experiential. Despite the relentless psychological barrage of advertising, most of us can readily admit that it is the experiential that is truly rewarding and fulfilling. Many even recognize their own predilection to fulfill their desire for the experiential by compensating with an excess of the material. Commercialism tells us that the experiential--that which requires time--is too costly, out of our reach. Our time, we are led to believe, must be sacrificed to meet the demands of the economy. But time is free for all of us. It is the great equalizer, something to which we all have equally random access. But in the modern economy, where average individuals cannot directly provide for themselves, they are duped into trading time for the basic necessities of life--necessities that are directly available to the poorest of the Earth. As this economic hierarchy has intensified over time, we continue to be duped into trading our time for material possessions--far beyond those required to survive. The memes of our economic culture have convinced us that the material is a fine substitute for the experiential. A nagging doubt, dissatisfaction with our own suburbanization, some unknown, unfulfilled yearning tells us that, despire the overtures of mass-media, even the materially rich among us still long for the experiential.

The sun on your face, playing with your children, staring at a fire until late into the night, sitting still in the forest listening to the wind rush through aspen leaves, talking with friends, laying on your back in a meadow and watching the clouds pass above you. All of these things are free--they require only time. Hunter-gatherers around the world spend, on average, less than 20 hours a week "working". The rest of their time was available for the experiential, the "finer things" in life. Perhaps this is why anthropologist Marshal Sahlins calls them "The Original Affluent Society", or why Paul Shepard says that humanity's time in the "hamlet economy" was the best it ever had.

The finer things in life are nothing more than a connection and a oneness with those things that modern culture insists remain separate or "sacred". This connection is available to all of us. Reconnecting to the finer things in life is not dependent on success within the modern commercial economy...on the contrary, my good friend, this reconnection requires that we take a new--or is it old?--approach to life. This is vernacular zen.


Big Gav said...

I like when you re-run some of these old classics.

I was thinking about another of your older posts today, "The Closing Of The Map".

While I'm increasingly disinclined to buy into the collapse scenario as being a likely one (contrarian to the core), I was thinking that you could perhaps try a post on "The Reopening Of The Map", with peak oil driven collapse undoing the supporting structure of the all-seeing market state.

(If you take requests that is - I'm sure you've got plenty of higher priorities at the moment).

Jeff Vail said...

That's a good idea--for August maybe. I was actually looking at my "closing of the map" post when considering what to re-post, and nixed it because all the old Google map images are now broken links. It will be a good update to discuss the simultaneous closing (through technological means) and opening (through rising transport costs and relocalization) of the map as we move beyond peak oil.

I guess it all depends on how you define "collapse," and over what timeline. I certainly don't see zombie hoards roaming the streets and pillaging farms, but if you view it as "collapse of the realization of national entitlement schemes, of the growing consumer/middle-class that can play at being rich thanks to easy debt, of the dominance of the West, and of the dominance of existing Nation-State institutions," then I think we will see that kind of collapse--albeit grindingly slow over the next few decades... For those who are willing and able to take personal initiative for themselves, for their community, and not rely on government to solve their problems while blaming "others" for getting them stuck in the first place, I think things could actually improve over that time period.

Big Gav said...

Ah - well - if you define it that way then yes - I can see it happening - in some places anyway.

Other places I'm not so sure about - the EU seems more likely to retain its shape if they keep pushing on diversifying their sources of energy the way they have been.

In one sense being subordinate to the US for the past 50 years has worked to their advantage as they haven't been able to gorge on cheap energy and have become more efficient as a result.

Anonymous said...

I don't suppose that the "Fandango" played a part is facilitating this 'experiential' pleasure?

The best things in life are indeed 'free', but one invariably requires some material resources to be able to access these things.

Furthermore, there is no clear dichotomy between a 'quantalia' of pleasure that derives from material or experiential sources; ultimately all happiness is subjective, and therefore -to a certain extent- relative. An impoverished fisherman will find some very different sources of pleasure compared to a 'yachtie'.

Let's not dismiss the material. Expresso coffee is one of the most technologically dependent beverages on the planet... and as wonderful as it is (can be), it still suffers from diminishing marginal utility. Along with a human phenomenon that we simply call 'habituation' and which also applies to even the most stunning views.

Jeff Vail said...

"one invariably requires some material resources to be able to access these things"

Without a doubt... I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment on habituation--it's truly an awareness and consciousness issue. For what it's worth, my favorite esspresso/blood orange memories came while earning well below the American median wage--I think it's a question of prioritizing our use of what "material" we have access to in order to leverage increased access to the "experiential."

Anonymous said...

IMO, we all what we don't have, I think this drives most the madness in the world. He is right in a way tho, not all 6 billion people can sit on Mt. Etna sipping nice beverages and enjoying the breeze. I am kind of a pessimist because I think the world built on leveraging wealth to get at the experiential will actually destroy much of the experiential world. I mean I you can still have a nice time watching the cit lights from a good vantage point but its not quite as unique as watching the sun set over the mountains or a less anthropogenic terrain. I think we all need a world that can give us enough variety to give us different experiences because of the first statement. Many smokers prefer to wait a while before smoking again so they can get a buzz such as when they first took a hit, and eventually if you went back and experienced the same espresso/blood orange experience again after many years it would be just as pleasurable if not from the nostalgia.

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Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a quote from a famous climber of the 60's in yosemite. (cant remember his name)
"At either end of the economic spectrum lies a leisure class"

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