The annual holiday celebrations have arrived and it seems a good time to think about what we are really celebrating. It seems the historic and religious significance of these holidays have been overshadowed by consumerism. Thanksgiving and Christmas have become celebrations of consumption filled with opportunities to eat, drink, and make merry with food and gifts. It is the time of plenty (often purchased on credit), but do we really recognize when we have plenty? Perhaps it’s time to pause and think about what our consumption means and if in fact, we are happier for it.
Only a few generations ago we made many things by hand. Over the last 50 years store bought products have replaced handmade goods. Few people still work with their hands, and I often wonder what we have lost in this process? What have we lost when we no longer enjoy or even know how to make things with our hands?
Human prehistory is described by the tools and artifacts left behind. Tools were both functional as well as art. I love handling a kitchen tool that belonged to my grandmother. Human development is attributed to our opposable thumb and ability to make and use tools. So how have we changed now that we seldom use hand tools, and our hands are most often busy using a computer or phone? Are these the same kind of tools as a wood lathe, a knife and cutting board, or a needle and thread?
I love making pottery, bread, and cooking from scratch. My grandmother taught me to knit and sew and I’ve made several articles of clothes and scarves. I taught myself to carve wooden spoons and often think I should spend more time doing that…but don’t. Like many people in their 50’s I often think, I’ll do that after I retire. We are drawn to the beauty of artisan crafts and desire to explore making them ourselves, but don’t. Perhaps life is too busy, it would take too much time to make things by hand.
In a world that has less energy available, a world that cannot afford to burn more fossil fuels, we need to move away from machines and back towards things made by hand. That probably seems unimaginable if you didn’t grow up with a parent or grandparent that made things by hand. But I think the reality of living like this will be more satisfying than you can imagine.
Many years ago I stopped using a clothes dryer and instead hung clothes out to dry as my grandmother did, as my mother did until she could afford the modern convenience of a dryer. I enjoy hanging clothes outside to dry. I like the excuse to go outside, to pay closer attention to the weather. Is it going to be sunny and dry today? Is it a good day to wash clothes or does it look like rain? And while I am outside I become aware of outdoor sounds… birds, insects, the wind rustling the leaves. It makes me feel lighthearted, less weary of things I can’t control. I notice how the air smells and how it changes with time of day or season. Early morning smells different than afternoon, and afternoon different from evening. There is the smell of spring blooming flowers or bushes, freshly mowed grass in summer, or wood smoke in fall. I also noticed the fresh smell of line dried clothes; fresh, clean, and sunny. Did you know sunny has a smell? And of course, I slow down.
The same thing happens when I cook using fresh food, especially from the garden. I pay attention to what is ripening in the garden and plan a meal around what’s available. The garden food changes over the year, cool season crops in spring and fall, and hot season crops in summer. Did you know you can dig carrots in winter? We have gotten used to shopping for food in grocery stores with their abundant types of food available, shipped from all over the world. In-season and climate zones have lost their meaning. In the process the food has also lost much of its flavor, freshness, and nutrition. Food picked before it’s ripened and shipped across the world doesn’t contain the same nutrition as food picked fresh from the garden at the peak of ripeness. Garden fresh food tastes better and makes me feel better eating it.
Chopping vegetables for a pot of soup takes time. People call it Slow Food. Food processors are not nearly as enjoyable to use as a good knife and familiar cutting board. Making soup is a creative process. There is the usual onion, maybe celery, potatoes, or carrots, but where to go from there, meat or beans, tomatoes or cream base? What spices or herbs will I use; Asian curry, Italian, or Mexican? Herbs add so much flavor there is little need to add much salt. And herbs are easy to grow making me feel more self-sufficient. Some come back year after year and some gladly reseed themselves. An herb garden is a beautiful, carefree kind of place. Butterflies and bees love to visit the blossoms, and when I’m gathering herbs I can’t help but feel connected to the life with which I share my garden.
I also enjoy making bread by hand, something I learned from my mother. I got into artisan bread and bought a stone for my oven. Eventually I purchased a hand cranked flour mill to make truly fresh whole grain bread. It takes longer, but the rewards are worth it; the smell of the freshly ground flour, the yeasty dough, and the bread as it is baking. Then there is the reward of seeing my family’s smiles as they walk through the door and smell fresh bread and soup for dinner. One Sunday morning I brought fresh bread and homemade pesto for snacks after church service. A man came up to me and said “Thank you for your hospitality!” And I realized that is exactly what makes sharing food so enjoyable, hospitality. How often do we have time to entertain guests anymore?
I know that few people have the luxury of working at home. And perhaps your idea of craft making is different from mine. But I think it’s too bad that we have given up this experience in the name of progress or modern convenience. What was the convenience for? Oh yeah, so we’d have more time to do things we enjoy.
Too often people work because they need to earn a living, not because their job is their career. I think people would like to have more time to be at home, enjoying time spent at a slower pace, enjoying more leisure time to be with their family, in the garden, kitchen, or workshop. I think it may even be a deep seated need within us, to make something with our hands. Unfortunately, this need gets suppressed by the demands of earning a living. This need is ignored when we spend our leisure time staring at a phone or computer screen, trying to relax and tune out the pain we feel from the modern, convenient lifestyle we live.
A world made by hand isn’t going to happen by itself. We need to find ways to turn off the machines, tune out the digital media, and let our hands be busy instead of our brain captured by a computer. We need to learn to fix something that is broken rather than throw it away and replace it. We need to find ways to express our longing for making art, crafts, food, laughter, and lightheartedness. Hands that are busy pushing keys on a device do little to challenge our mind. Remember that thing we call eye-to-hand coordination? I’m convinced there is something developmentally necessary for our brains when we learn to do something with our hands. The experience we get from spending hours staring at the computer or phone screen is not very life affirming. Humans became human because we made the world by hand. Will the world really be enriched if a robot can make pottery? Will we still call it “hand” made?
Watching news about Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma enthralled and terrified viewers. Part of me felt safe and secure knowing I lived far away and my family wasn’t in the path of these dangerous, record setting storms. Part of me felt worried for those who were. Part of me felt disgusted by voyeurism of the media prying into people’s lives asking them “How do you feel about your home being destroyed, losing all your possessions?” It’s really sad to think that climate change only attracts our attention when it causes devastation, instead of discussing how to respond to this threat.
It has become apparent that even educated, environmentally conscious people who take climate change seriously are unwilling to make the kind of changes in their lifestyle that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use. Some educated but less affluent Americans express an interest in sustainable living but can’t afford to make the changes: i.e. buy the energy efficient home, add the solar panels, or purchase land on which to grow food. There are far too many people who deny climate change or deny that it is caused by humans.
Influential people that trust in the market want to “grow” the economy and maintain the status quo, because it benefits them financially to believe this. Even the recent damage caused by Hurricane Harvey has benefited the economy by boosting car sales. Unfortunately, the under-educated, underemployed Americans that believe fake news, voted for Trump, eat nutritionally poor food, and have terrible health problems will suffer the most from weather related disasters but have the least understanding about what is happening and how it will affect them. It seems that there are very few families educated, affluent, environmentally conscious, and willing to change their lifestyle; to be frugal, simple, and less carbon consuming/polluting.
I am reminded of the fable about the frog and the pot of water. Put a frog in a boiling pot of water and it will jump out. Put a frog in a cold pot of water, turn on the heat and the frog will sit in the pot until it boils to death. When it comes to the effects of our changing climate humans appear to be sitting in a cold pot of water and thinking there’s no need to jump out! If we are so smart, why aren’t we smart enough to see what is happening and act? Why don’t we act before the storms, floods, and wildfires threaten us?
Human history has seen great advancement. The development of agriculture led to human population expansion and urbanization. Urbanization led to the industrial revolution; intensive exploitation of resources due to the invention of machines powered by fossil fuels. The age of reason led to the age of science. Science, technology, and the multitude of follow on technical inventions led from the industrial revolution to the computer and information revolution. And here we are…rapidly developing self-driving cars, artificial intelligent machines, the network connected world of things, and cyber warfare. Will humanity survive the challenges we face? Can we survive the current era of extinction?
I think the reason people are unwilling to change their lifestyle to counter climate change is because of an inability to recognize our dependence on the culture we’ve created. Like an anteater that evolved a specialized nose making them totally dependent on eating ants (thus as the ants go so goes the anteater), humans have become adept at using and depending on fossil fuels and technology. Humans are increasingly moving into urban centers, dependent on importation of food, energy, and all the other resources needed for survival. We depend on jobs to acquire money to buy goods and services.
We are totally dependent on the culture we’ve created, and our culture is totally dependent on the technology and cheap energy that maintains it. We in the West, the humans who consume the most carbon, have lost the ability to make or fix the homes in which we live. We live in buildings that are climate controlled, drive about in climate controlled automobiles, and buy the food and supplies in climate controlled stores (or increasingly shop on line). Our lifestyle is supported by a system of which we have little understanding. Our culture and technology are making us less resilient, less able to recover from the disasters we are increasingly experiencing.
The problem is that we are losing touch with the natural world we depend upon and the dangers we face from climate change. We don’t understand how our food production system works, how food is grown, processed, and shipped from distant places. We don’t understand the connection between soil, water, organic matter, microbes, and long term food production. We don’t understand the connection between the food we eat and our health problems. We don’t understand how our furnace and air conditioner work. We don’t understand how or where the energy comes from to run our furnace or air conditioner. We have very little understanding of the limits in the resources our lives depend upon.
We don’t pay attention to how our political choices affect the government we get, one that is increasingly hostile to the less fortunate, the elderly, the sick, the displaced and downtrodden. Some of the people whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Harvey, moved to Texas after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their home. We are losing the ability and the desire to communicate across the political and economic chasms that divide us one from each other; the powerful vs powerless, the rich vs poor, black vs white, man vs woman, etc.
Science and technology has spawned an information industry that is profiting by selling us a constant barrage of electronic mental stimulus. We spend most of our time connected to others through electronic media that makes us less thoughtful and more reactionary. The information technology is collecting vast amounts of information about us in order to facilitate consumerism, while stripping away the very meaning of privacy. We are in danger of losing what it means to be humane.
Perhaps like the anteater our evolutionary path has led us down a dead end. Our neural networks, imagination, and need for social connections have turned into the path of hyper electronic connectivity, imaginary worlds, and fake or titillating news that will keep us enthralled and addicted 24/7 and unable to see the bus before it runs us over. Perhaps its time we change, before we face the wind that consumes us.
Humans haven’t always been ignorant of how our world and our civilization worked. I was intrigued by this image of a church in Houston Texas recently flooded during Hurricane Harvey. The picture above is of the old First Baptist Church of Orange, Texas completed and dedicated on September 14, 1915. The architect is not known. The First Baptist congregation has built newer buildings in the years since and the current building may be sold to the city and demolished to make way for new development. What I found striking about this picture was the main floor was well above the flooding from Hurricane Harvey because it was built well above flood levels.
Perhaps the people of Houston built this church in response to the Great Galveston Hurricane, known regionally as the Great Storm of 1900, a Category 4 storm that made landfall in Galveston on September 8, 1900. A storm surge of 15 ft (4.6 m) washed over the long, flat island-city, which was only 8 ft (2.4 m) above sea level, knocking buildings off their foundations and destroying over 3,600 homes. The disaster ended the Golden Era of Galveston, as the hurricane alarmed potential investors, who turned to Houston instead. The whole island of Galveston was subsequently raised by 17 ft (5.2 m) and a 10 mi (16 km) seawall erected. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1900_Galveston_hurricane]
On September 17, 1947, a Category 4 hurricane struck southeast Florida, generating an 11-foot storm surge at Palm Beach. The seawater at Palm Beach on that date reached the highest recorded level, even topping a 9.8-foot storm tide generated by the “Lake Okeechobee Hurricane” of 1928. Both of these storms generated high enough storm surges to inflict substantial damage along the coast.
Hurricane damage at the Seacrest Hotel – Delray Beach, Florida. 1947. Black & white photoprint, 8 x 10 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/38352>, accessed 8 September 2017.
The beach in the photo above is damaged severely, but the building looks intact. Why is there so little observable damage to the building? Why are the trees still standing with palm fronds intact? Could it be that the walls of the building were built thick enough and strong enough to resist the wind; that the palm trees growing in sand instead of surrounded by concrete sidewalks had better root support?
It is so easy to find information about the past, old ways of building that may be more resilient than newer ways. Permaculture, shorthand for permanent culture, teaches sustainable ways of producing food, building homes and communities, ways to conserve and reclaim land from desert, replant forests. We do have ideas. Humans are very good at surviving climate change. Think of how many ice ages our ancestors survived! We simply need to remember what we have forgotten…that life is a hard won endeavor not an entitlement.