Sunday, August 27, 2006

Help, I Need a Cobbler!


Sometimes I have rather...apocalyptic thoughts.

Like, what if we really do hit peak oil, and we can't get food shipped from God knows where, and we have to revert to some kind of agrarian/subsistence culture? What would really happen?

Part of me thinks gleefully, all those years of playing Little House on the Prairie will finally pay off! All I have to do is whip out Farmer Boy and we'll have it made! (That book was set in Malone, which is way way farther upstate New York than we are, so things should be even easier here, right?)

That family raised their own meat, dairy products, fresh and storage vegetables, maple sugar, grains...plus they had time left over to raise prized Morgan horses and make soap and clothes from their own sheeps’ wool.

Then I start to think, uh, where did they get their tools? They must have had a blacksmith in town. Oh yeah, and a mill to grind all that grain. And, I remember the cobbler came every year to make their shoes, they didn't do that themselves either....

Then I think about what I know of the Amish/Mennonites, who are sort of like Farmer Boy 2006. The image of the barn raising comes to mind. Sure, they know how to create shelters, but they don't do it alone. Each person knows how to do many things, and they help each other do them. And yet, one person is the best furniture maker, one is the best harness maker, one makes the best blueberry pie.

So maybe it's better that there are some specialists. The work is distributed among more people, expertise can be applied more efficiently, and social interdependence is reinforced.


Then I think, what do I know how to do that is practical? I come up with a very short list:

1. knit
2. crochet
3. wool felting
4. sew (by hand and machine)
5. cook
6. um, copy edit
7. um, basic HTML????

These items aren't really that helpful (well, except for clothing and warm hats) when you think about actual self-sufficiency. I could probably figure out how to grow some vegetables (Where would I get the seeds? When is the right time to plant? How do you can or preserve them for winter?) And I bet I could at least take care of fairly independent animals like chickens and goats (What kind of shelter do they need? How much land is required for forage? How are they butchered for meat?)…OK maybe I would still need some help here.

Sometimes I wonder how much more powerful and capable I would feel if I knew how to do more practical things. In a sense it's as if we are trapped in a materialistic culture, but yet don't know how any of our material things are produced. Rudolf Steiner talks about this in a lecture about education:

It is actually the case today that most people, especially those who grow up in towns, have no idea how things, paper for instance, are made.... Think of how many people there are who drink beer and have no idea how the beer is made.... I would dearly like to have a shoemaker as a teacher in the Waldorf School, if this were possible...in order that the children might really learn to make shoes, and to know, not theoretically but through their own work, what this entails...

The Kingdom of Childhood, Lecture 7
This lecture occurred in 1924; how much farther are we from practical knowledge of our surroundings today? How many of us could explain to a child how our houses are built, how our food is produced, how our clothes are made? Not to mention the glasses on my face, or the computer screen they help me see!

I think this form of interdependence (being dependent on others in an infantile way because we can't possibly understand how to make something) isn't beneficial. It's almost as if we've surrendered our will to others, to allow them to create our surroundings for us.

There are economies of scale, like with a blacksmith, miller, or wagon maker, where the level of knowledge, required tools, and materials make it reasonable to depend on experts. But sometimes the fact that I couldn't tell you how to even keep chickens or make a pair of shoes makes me a bit depressed.

5 comments:

Papa Bradstein said...

I don't believe that we'd be able to have so many people if we didn't have such an efficient and productive agriculture industry, which we likely couldn't have without having so many people to support it. I believe that the ag industry and technology came about as a result of the desire of large numbers of people to not be malnourished, in spite of raising their own food. Sure everything is more complex than that, including this, but I think that this goes to the heart of the matter: how many things can a person really be expert at, and can everyone be an expert at sustaining their own life? Not to limit our potential, but I honestly believe that most people can be expert at a limited number of tasks at any one time, and that just as not everyone is capable of being a brilliant painter, not everyone is capable of being a productive farmer. Further, if we returned to the world you envision, we would have no painters, no musicians, no writers--they would all be out in the fields. I'm with Heinlein--as bad as it may seem, I always want to go forward, into the future; it's not as bad as we worry that it is, and it's much better than the past. Besides, do you really want to learn how to dig an outhouse too? Or how about learning to live with crippling and deadly diseases like polio or the plague, since there won't be any medical industry either, after the lights go out? Nostalgia is a lens that obscures as much of the past as it reveals.

Henitsirk said...

Good points. Malnourishment is a big concern, as is modern medicine. I didn't mention it in the post, but I would have big problems in this kind of scenario: who's going to make my glasses for me? I'm worse than useless without them.

Part of why I wrote this post is that I realized that I was clouding things with nostalgia. That kind of life would be incredibly hard. Laura Ingalls almost starved to death in her teens, her sister was blinded by disease, her husband suffered a stroke while convalescing from diphtheria, etc.

I agree that we have achieved efficiency and productivity to allow not only good nutrition but also leisure time for the arts. However, I have my doubts about the true health effects of some of our "food" these days...but that's another post.

I'm certainly not saying that modern life in intrinsically worse than the past. Modern culture just feels unbalanced to me, at least in my experience of it.

zygote daddy said...

Although I often have romantic, idealistic fantasies about a return to localized agricultural communities, I must say I agree with PB that it would be a sad world indeed without artists, scientists, philosophers, and doctors. But that doesn't mean that we as individuals can't make the choice to grow our own food or sew our own clothing. It may take more work and diligence, but I prefer not to sign away my capability for self-reliance.

And I must say, I'd be toast without my glasses, and d.w. would have died either from the scarlet fever she had as a child (I know, how Little House on the Prairie is THAT?) or from not having a thyroid. So I just don't feel right advocating a total anarchic utopia.

MaGreen said...

i have at least 6 moments a month in which i find myself freaked out about how i rely so much on modern technologies. what about people who get sex changes and take hormones...what will they do if something happens and drugs aren't always so available? that's been the question of this month as i just watched transamerica.

i always want to be knowing more practical things. i find myself making them up.

some things are better because of modern technologies...but i feel sad about how much knowledge my grandmother had, for example, that i don't. housewifey things, and folk remedies. i'm reading all these late 20th century novels, and those women just whip up cakes. i don't want to do that all the time, but i wish i could relaxedly be chilling out with my friends and whipping up a cake at the same time.

anyway, i like this post a lot. i've also added you to our blogroll.

Henitsirk said...

PB, ZD and Grizzlybird, you are helping me think about this in new ways...I think I've decided (for this minute at least) that I'll follow the Buddha and try for the middle way.

Without modern tech, how could we blog for each other? But, I also love the homemade chicken soup simmering on my stove, and that I know what herbs are good for wasp stings and bruises.

I too have decided being housewifely 24/7 is not for me, but I have deep respect for those tasks and their role in family culture. Looking at the possibility of working full time again has made Papa and I both consider how helpful it is to have a heart at the center of our home.