Sunday, April 10, 2011

The People's Socialism

I don't know about you, but I am rapidly losing faith in our government to do anything at all, much less cope with the impending social, economic and environmental crises looming large in our future. I've been thinking and talking about privilege and equity a lot this semester with the awesome students in my Gender and Geography class. We often arrive at a point where we see capitalism and the monetary exchange of everything as the source of a lot of inequities. We get stuck here and feel helpless, so one day I asked them (and me) to do an exercise where we do one of three things: 1) undermine capitalism, 2) undo privilege or 3) create something new.

This challenge stumped all of us, and required us to generate possibilities for things that don't yet exist. I liken this process to the end scene of the Truman show, where Truman sails his boat through the bubble he has lived in all his life. The mast of his ship breaks the skin of the "sky" and the light of another possible world breaks though and floods onto him. (Another example of this is Plato's Allegory of The Cave. Check it out.) We remain in a paralyzed state because the things we need to live better and more fairly don't exist anymore. We need to find them and remake them through shifting our ontology--which just means we have to dream, envision and create the groundwork for a future that doesn't exist right now.

In the case of my students and myself, everywhere we turned we had to buy something. It was virtually impossible to undermine capitalism--even by bartering or home-based crafts. One student observed that she felt as though the exercise required her to give away some of her privilege--and this includes the privilege to buy whatever we need. We discussed this at length. How did we acquire privilege? How much do we actually have? How do we continue to accrue it? In most cases, capitalism and our physical and social locations afford us the lion's share of our privilege. But how would we give it away? Or stop it from accruing? These are thorny, epistemological problems that require the overhaul of entire systems.

Evening the playing field and redistributing wealth (one kind of privilege) is one of the basic premises of socialism, or at least one of its functions. Even if we wanted a socialist democracy, like those in Norway or Sweden, we are going to have to wait a long durn time for it in the United States. I, for one, am not holding my breath. I am, however, trying to think about how I can redistribute resources without having to create an entire political-economic system. What if I just used less water, less energy? In some ways this is making a socialist system possible already--voluntarily and without a lot of bureaucratic waste of time and money. As Utah Phillips famously says, "if you want something done, don't come to me to do it for you. You got to get together and figure out how to do it yourselves".

The Global North (that's us) is only about 6% of the world's population, but uses almost half of its resources. There are two scenarios that are likely to evolve from this precarious situation: The first is that the other 94% of the world is eventually going to cut off our heads, a la Roman, French, Russian, etc, revolutions. Extreme inequality doesn't usually find a bloodless resolution, and I'm pretty sure this is already underway. The other possibility (already underway) is that the rest of the world is going to want to live like us. We don't have enough Earths for that. (Take the Ecological Footprint quiz to see how you stack up: See China eclipse the U.S. as the largest emitter of CO2. See everyone in the Indian middle class buy a car. See world food prices rise as more people start eating meat.

See Amy install solar panels. And rain barrels, insulating blinds and a clothesline.

I assigned the ecological footprint to my students in my lower-division class, and the average number of planets we need for everyone to live like us is about 5 planets. I retook the quiz, changing the parameters, until I could get it below 1 earth. This involved installing the above amendments to my house, reducing the miles I drive by taking the bus, biking etc; *never* flying ever again, purchasing carbon offsets (and/or doing it myself by planting trees) and going local and vegetarian (although there is no option for grass-fed vegetarian, so I'm sticking to that for now). These are tall orders, and it will take some time, money and patience to get there. I started thinking about this by examining my daily water and energy consumption in my house--easy enough to do by looking at your bill.

I currently use 377KwH/month or about 13 KwH/day. There is a fair bit of math involved with figuring out what that means in terms of solar panels, but I'll keep you posted! I also currently use about 82 gallons of water/day. My first goal is to reduce these numbers and see how low I can comfortably go--washing clothes 2x month, drying clothes outside, keeping the AC to a minimum, taking bucket showers...hmmmmmmmm. This seems a lot like life in India last summer on the farm. I survived. And thrived. You will too.

Examine your power bill. Think about your privilege. Have a breakthrough. Get together and do it yourselves.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Amy,
    I stumbled across this and am so glad I did. The biggest thing I took from my time at the UGA geography department was the essence of this posting. It's easy to not think about the origins and implications of our lifestyles, but crazy when you do - as you know. As you showed me!
    In a month I'm leaving for Ethiopia with the Peace Corps and I'm sure I'll have some more "I can't believe I thought I needed all that crap" moments. Isn't that in the Peace Corps contract? Anyways, thanks for giving me more to think about.
    Best wishes,