Humans are very social beings. For thousands of years they have lived cooperatively in groups. Granted, part of this behaviour was simply for survival; but it is also very natural for humans to live interdependently. Before the industrial revolution, before the advent of the automobile and flying, people travelled and migrated much less than they do now.
Even today, millions of people around the world live in small villages. Whether farming or hunting as their primary means of maintaining a food supply in order to survive, humans natural inclination has been to work together cooperatively. As the old expression goes, “Many hands make light work”.
Imagine one man, with one paddle, in a small dugout canoe, with one spear going out onto the ocean to harpoon a whale and drag it back to shore all by himself. Imagine a farming village. Each person in that village going out into the forest, cutting a few trees down, clearing land, fencing it to keep animals out, planting, watering and weeding their little patch all by themselves. How much sense would that make? What if their crop failed? What if some animals ate it? The spring that they watered from dried up? Or they became sick or injured? If that village was very individualistic, that person could conceivably die from sickness and starvation. The reason these systems have worked for thousands of years, is because humans instinctively and unconsciously understand the value of living co-operatively.
You may ask then, “What has happened? What has changed? How did we get here? What are the fundamental differences?” The first, and most profound one, is our lives as a result of “modern technology” have become much, much “easier”. When I say, “easier” here, I do not mean “better” or having a higher “quality”. “Easier” here means simply, less labourious.
Until quite recently, in the scale of human history, everything was done by hand. From logging, fishing and mining to the building of Rome, Greece and the pyramids of Egypt. Carving out a piece of land by hand out of the dense forest of southwestern British Columbia for farming took years: tree by tree, stump by stump with no mechanical help other than hand tools and possibly oxen (and if you could afford it, maybe a bit of dynamite). The vast majority of our food, clothing, housing and transportation materials were all produced locally. This means that the vast majority of people had some connection to real tasks that actually produced something. Very, very few people had a job in an office, stockmarket or even a bank. By far, the majority of people were employed in an occupation where they produced a needed product or service. Contrast that now with thousands of “unneeded” products and services.
In 1900, 90% of Canadians were involved in farming. The other 10% either helped a friend, relative or neighbour to a degree that they also would have a connection to the land and hard work. The industrial revolution and the rapid growth that it spawned, dramatically changed the western world, virtually overnight. Farm tractors, the first of which were steam powered, and the many implements and attachments greatly reduced the need for labour on farms. Fossil fuel based fertilizers further increased the yield, combined with petroleum based poisons for insects and weeds, made food production easier and more “efficient”. By turning another one of the earth’s processes into yet another commodity of capitalism, known as factory farming, we greatly reduced the degree to which we were connected to the earth on a “feeling level”, as people; which in turn de-valued food, farmers and farming in our minds.
This created two of many results. One was the price of food, relative to median income, has dropped over the last 60 years as the race to the bottom continued, driving us all further into the addiction of selection, convenience, and at the lowest price possible. This kind of thinking ultimately gave birth to “big box stores”. The second thing that “happened” was that people seeking an “easier” and “better” life were drawn to, and migrated into, cities. Cities provide much less of a means for you to sustain yourself, by growing your own food; require you to compete with others; essentially require that you get a “real” job in order to make money to provide yourself with basic food and shelter. Ironically, where many of these people had come from, they already had basic food and shelter. They also would have had more of a social network and social support during times of economic upheaval, sickness (physical or mental) and people around them in times of bereavement such as the death of a loved one.
Why did this all happen?
The short version, since a book could be written on any one of the points in this article, is marketing purely for profit. Many of us were raised in houses of between 600 and 800 square feet with one bathroom. Why do we have so many houses now that are between 2,000 and 6,000 square feet? Until recently, most families only had one parent who worked outside the house. We managed with just a tent for camping – we had no motorhome, microwave, barbecue, boat, hot tub, time share and no one, when I was growing up, had two car garages. Where we live, many people in our neighbourhood are not able to put any of their four cars into their garage because it is so full of stuff that they are hoarding, that they got on “sale”.
Where do we want to go from here?
How do we transform our individual lives, our families, our neighbourhoods into a more harmonious and sustainable community? Much can now be found on the internet if you enter the search words “sustainability” and “transition towns”. More and more people inherently grasp that we must change the way we live. Currently, the per capita rate of consumption of Canadians is 5 to 10 planet Earths. That means, if all of the world’s 7 billion people consumed at the rate we do, we would (currently) need 5 to 10 plant Earths. Needless to say, we only have one; and the time, energy and money that gets used for space exploration has got to be one of the greatest jokes of all time. Trillions and trillions of dollars looking for other places to live rather than learning to get along right here on earth. China and the Middle East has already entered into lease agreements in Africa where they will have essentially slaves grow food for their countries. The Middle East, because they are consuming much more every year, are keeping more of their own oil to run things like power plants to run air conditioning. Currently the Middle East uses more oil than all the oil produced in Alaska or the North Sea just for the desalination of water (towers that use fossil fuel and the process of reverse osmosis in order to remove salt from sea water to create drinking water), at a tremendous expense. This is yet another example of ecological footprint created by destructive lifestyle choices. Dubai, as an example, a desert area which is regularly at 100+ degrees Fahrenheit is known around the world for having indoor ski hills, run completely by oil.
Soon, as water becomes more scarce, food prices rise and the global conflict that will result, it will become more clear that our society, our culture must transition. The first step, is to recognize, acknowledge and admit that we cannot and must not continue on this path. The second step is for all of us to actively engage with ourselves and one another asking, “What are we going to do?” Or better, “What are we going to do differently?” One thing for sure, we cannot rely on government. Our governments now, more than ever before, have become facilitators ensuring the corporatization of our culture and the profit of industry being the overriding and dictating factor in all our decision-making. Ergo, if there is a piece of farmland and one can show “profit” to be made from destroying that farmland and making it into a golf course, there will be virtually no thought that considers the long term value of that land for food production. Then there are all the other social and environmental values, which serves our health and that of all the other living things; not to mention clean drinking water.
This process of transition and change therefore requires us to be active in our own circles of influence. This means having your own household and groups that you are already a part of (and if you are not already a part of one, its time for you to become part of one), participating in the movement for change.
The first change requires that we understand and admit that population growth and “carrying capacity” (or climate change for that matter) is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that 10% of the world’s population consumes 90% of the world’s resources. How moral and ethical is it that the average Canadian consumes in one year about what the average Asian consumes in their entire lifetime? How ethical is it that we regularly buy food grown by people on land that was formerly theirs and they themselves cannot afford to buy the food that they grow, with the wages they are paid for growing that food? So the first change is that we seriously reduce the amount that we consume. The number one way to do that is looking at travel, particularly car and plane travel.
Number two is our food system. How ethical is it that 95% of our food on Vancouver Island is imported? We must rebuild local food production. 50% of all the world’s grain is fed to animals to produce meat. 30% is now being used to produce fuel for cars. This puts an incredible strain on farmland and soil. It also increases the price of grains which are a staple, especially for low income people in the developing world. This then creates conflict in these countries, which then creates more problems like the current hoarding of food by speculators who wait for shortages and prices to rise so they can profit on the starvation of people in the developing world. In short, encourage local food production by renewing your commitment by eating more locally, in season and eating less meat. Remember, it will take time to rebuild local food systems after years of farmers getting the message that they shouldn’t bother growing food and us putting subdivisions and golf courses on prime farmland. It is going to take more than just shopping at the farmers’ market when we “feel like it”. This is a long term commitment.
Number three is taking further action. Individual action is great; “but” the pattern so far suggests that about 10% are conscious (in that they are doing more than just recycling and are currently, actively participating in their community beyond being a soccer mom/hockey dad) and 1% of people take these matters seriously. That means they are more active socially, politically and environmentally. They are “activists”: consciously, consistently, actively engaged in creating change for the other 99%. If we want to see real change in our society, those numbers need to increase dramatically. The fact that only 34% of registered voters turned out in Nanaimo’s last election, our mayor who only got a portion of those votes claims a majority when really only about 2% of the total population actually asked him to be their mayor.
Number four (which could easily be number one) we must reduce our “busy-ness”. We have a tendency to fill our time with a lot of activities that later in life we will look back and realize it was far less important that we thought. Work together with your spouse or partner and find ways to reduce the amount of hours you need to work for money. The number one way to facilitate that is to reduce your need for money. The easiest way to facilitate that is to buy less. In short, less shopping – less “retail therapy”. If you have cablevision, please cut it off now and skip the stories about educational programming. The average Canadian watches 25 hours of television per week. The average Canadian who is 65 years of age, has spent 10 years in front of the television. If we really care about “family” and “community” then let’s put more time toward those things and less towards being busy. In that “space” we can become more aware of the world around us and what our roles and responsibilities are; then taking action becomes much more natural rather than something we are forced into because of an issue at our work or in our neighbourhood that we don’t like.
Marketing and materialism has compelled most of us to work more hours than we ever have historically as a culture. To have more stores, malls and “big box” shopping than ever before (Nanaimo has the highest per capita of retail space in Canada). Most of us are more consumed that we realize, seeking happiness through a nicer car and a bigger house. Being content in this culture with all of the messages that we are given (“you need this and that”) is very elusive. Uber individuality and “personal pan pizzas” are symptoms of a culture losing its cohesiveness.
In order for us to create a common vision in our society, we need to recognize that as a result of embracing this current, individualistic, consumeristic culture we have created a type of hyper-individualism never seen before on this planet. This has resulted in people thinking far too much about themselves and their own interests. This divides us and even pits us against one another. There are over 800 not-for-profit organizations in Nanaimo, a good number of which are working on similar issues, chasing the same funds, attempting to accomplish similar goals. The business types are an excellent example of people who share a common vision. This is demonstrated frequently by how they will come together with their common vision to assure “funding” and completion of projects like golf courses, airport expansions and cruiseship terminals. Bring a bunch of green “lefties” together and meetings can easily be lost to arguments about whether vegan soy milk or locally produced, grass-fed, ethically raised milk is used in the (hopefully) fair trade, shade grown, organically grown coffee. This is further proven by who we allowed to be elected as premier and prime minister. They will both likely go down in history as two of the worst ever in Canada.
Whether unions or young people, grade school or university if we want a future that we can feel good about, we must rise up together as a society to renew our culture, making it less competitive and more cooperative; less destructive and more constructive. Do we continue the paving of paradise or are we prepared to collectively and cooperatively put our bodies before the bulldozers?
What we ultimately need is a “cultural shift”. To take an honest look at the price that we are paying for the degree of individuality that we have encouraged in the last few “ME” generations. It is time for us to recognize the value and absolute need to move forward by simultaneously looking ahead, envisioning what we want and also looking back at how even this culture functioned when it was more connected, cohesive and co-operative. This is not an easy subject. We have all become quite spoiled – we walk into any grocery store and it is full – not realizing there is only two days fresh food supply on Vancouver Island. Making these changes requires us to consciously choose to think, speak and live differently. This results in others around us feeling uncomfortable and even threatened. Do you want to wait until these changes are forced by the future fossil fuel and food shortages or would you rather be proactive and make changes that are more meaningful, moral, ethical, responsible and sustainable?
I invite you to access the part in your heart that resonates with what you are reading here, your inner voice that is telling you, “Yes, we can make a difference!” As social creatures, we have a natural, instinctual desire to live and work together cooperatively. Let’s choose to revive this way of being in our culture in a way that creates a society that is better for all of us.
Dirk is an organic farmer, agricultural advocate, public speaker and managing editor of this magazine.