Tag Archives: green living

The endless, futile yet imperative quest for Utopia

My dad always told me “There is no utopia.” I now live on a tropical beach yet lack the mountains. Italy seems like heaven, yet I’ve been told living there can be quite the headache. Does any one place or country have it all?

I just returned from a beautiful paradisaical island, one of the most scenic and culturally rich places I have ever been. Yet the people are imprisoned; unable to leave and forced to live in poverty under a government that controls many aspects of their lives. There is none to minimal internet access and very limited opportunities.

In the United States we enjoy a world of comfort and convenience; luxuries like continual hot water, air conditioning and 24/7 access to shelves upon shelves of food, products, and anything we could possibly desire are so commonplace they are totally taken for granted. However, the streets seem dead in comparison, and our depression and stress rates are sky-high.

The people in Cuba live very rich lives, but in a very different sense of the word ‘rich.’ There, the streets are vibrant and alive with humanity. People interact in the plazas and shelter together under trees in the rain.  Neighbors are lifelong friends. Children play soccer — with a ball that looks like it has been in use for half a century — in the street. They don’t have much, but they have each other, and they disfruta la vida.

Because they are so poor, many grown adults — in their forties — live with their parents. Here, this situation carries an enormous stigma, and of course is widely seen is undesirable. But their family ties are so naturally close that it comes across as rather pleasant. One night, the 60-something senora I was staying with celebrated her birthday. Her 45-year-old daughter bought her a new dress, and together, with several elderly ladies from the neighborhood, danced to Latin music in their tiny entryway, door open to the street, until 3 am. I can’t picture that scenario happening often here in the USA, where most major cities are characterized by strangers shuttling around in their vehicles between big box stores.

World travels and several articles have made me ponder what an ideal lifestyle, and ideal society, looks like. I don’t think it’s utterly capitalist or utterly socialist, but perhaps somewhere in-between; it features a return to a more primitive lifestyle, yet incorporates the best modern advances.

Ayn Rand had a point. Innovators make life better for all of us. Yet at the same time, the linear trajectory of endless growth, consumption and development obviously cannot be sustained without huge cost to the environment. If maximum material wealth and profit is our ultimate goal, we will fulfill the American Indian prophecy that Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

American Indians, like many indigenous societies, lived within a circular paradigm. They did not seek material wealth but to enjoy quality of life and freedom while living in harmony with the natural world. They used what they needed and were not overly attached to material objects.

Many leading thinkers agree that we must reform and re-imagine our current culture if we want to save the earth from ecological catastrophe, and thus ourselves. A recent Aljazeera.com article “The Trouble With Discounting Tomorrow” talks about how nations need to cooperate to achieve a sustainable future. In the latest Discover Magazine, Geoffrey West, an eminent theoretical physicist, remarks:

“We need to seriously rethink our socioeconomic framework. It will be a huge social and political challenge, but we have to move to an economy based on no growth or limited growth. And we need to bring together economists, scientists, and politicians to devise a strategy for what has to be done. I think there is a way out of this, but I’m afraid we might not have time to find it … even though innovations [such as creating new energy sources] reset the clock, from the work that I’ve done, I think all they do is delay collapse.”

Another book, Abundance: The Future is Brighter Than You Think argues the opposite stance, that technological innovations will create a world where all nine plus billion of us will live robust lives characterized by artificial intelligence, genetically modified food and cellphones and laptops for all.

It’s interesting to think outside of the box, to consider what your ideal world looks like: Is it urban, rural or a mix? Do you require a mansion, a fleet of cars, and tons of the latest gadgets, clothes etc. to be happy? Or would you be content in a small, eco-conscious cottage, with access to pure water, food, air, and all that nature has to offer? How much does community, family, and an active and interactive daily life factor into this equation? The question of what constitutes utopia has been on the mind of many a critical thinker unhappy with the status quo, from Thomas More to Jonathon Swift to John Winthrop.

I recently ordered a book from Amazon.com: The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World. I was drawn to it because I sense that the way humans have been living in the past century is not really the way they were designed to live, nor is it close to how they have lived for thousands upon thousands of years. Many people instantaneously consider ancient cultures to have hard, short, and disease-ridden lives, but this is not necessarily the case. The native peoples of the Americas were noted as being strikingly healthy, sound and beautiful, and many studies have shown (such as The China Study) that native societies were often very healthy — with minimal chronic disease, perfect teeth, happy minds, etc — until introduced to a more modern, processed diet and lifestyle. They also enjoyed a healthy balance of equality, individual freedom and community. Many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer are actually far more common now, due to sedentary living, nutritionally devoid food and countless environmental factors.

There are people today who are seeking a more ‘primal lifestyle.’ Mark Sisson (check out Marksdailyapple.com) discusses the question of hunter-gatherer longevity here. He espouses sunbathing, walking barefoot, eating natural, staying active — lots of common sense things that a lot of us in the first world have to make an effort to do. David Wolfe is another nutritionist who espouses a more eco-conscious, enlightened lifestyle. This type of thinking looks backwards as well as forwards; it is progressive, alternative and visionary while cherishing ancient wisdom and common sense.

I think my personal utopia would constitute a blend. It would be closely in tune with nature and do as little harm to the earth and its creatures as possible. It would feature composting and gardening. Yet I would also want access to the internet and the world’s knowledge. I would like proximity to people whom I care about, a family and community that supports one another, yet I would want solitude and total freedom. I would like to retain the ability to travel and to experience diverse cultures, Latin, European and beyond. I’m not sure if this personal utopia is possible; according to my dad, it isn’t. Yet you can’t stop the human spirit from striving.


Paying for what once was free

“I fear that he who walks over these fields a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man, there are many pleasures which he will not know!… And the end of it all will be that we shall be compelled to look for our apples in a barrel.” — Henry  David Thoreau

The other day as I was walking along the beach watching fisherman cast their lines into the waves, a thought struck me. I thought about food and the world’s resources, and how they used to be available to anyone with a little bit of ingenuity and energy. How fish were plentiful, uncontaminated, and didn’t require a license; how native peoples freely hunted and gathered what they required, and how so many people used to have everything they needed outside their front door. Instead of going to work to earn money to buy food and shelter and clothing, they worked to grow their food, build and maintain their shelter, and produce their clothing.

Recently, the state of Oregon criminalized the collection of rain water, which is a key component of what is called permaculture. Permaculture is about sustainability and self-sufficiency; about producing what you need without relying on others or big government, while living in an eco-conscious and harmonious way with the world around you.

Similar situations include:

• California has declared war on small, local fresh milk farmers and distributors

• Michigan has criminalized small, local ranchers and animal operations.

• A city in Michigan has also tried to criminalize home gardens.

• The city of Tulsa, Oklahoma sent out a “destruction crew” to chop down a woman’s edible landscaping garden of over 100 varieties of foods and medicinal herbs.

Beyond these incidents, it is undeniable that we are living in a world that is becoming increasingly privatized. Henry David Thoreau once wrote:

“The era of the Wild Apple will soon be past. It is a fruit which will probably become extinct in New England…. Since the temperance reform and the general introduction of grafted fruit, no native apple trees, such as I see everywhere in deserted pastures, and where the woods have grown up around them, are set out. I fear that he who walks over these fields a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man, there are many pleasures which he will not know!… Now that they have grafted trees, and pay a price for them, they collect them into a play by their houses, and fence them in,—and the end of it all will be that we shall be compelled to look for our apples in a barrel.”

Poor man indeed. Not only are we bereft of being able to knock down wild apples as we please, but most wild, organically grown (organic as used in the original sense) plant life has been decimated, with multinational corporations like Monsanto replacing them with industrialized, genetically modified, nutritionally deficient, pesticide-laden monocultures.

If you have the means and all the permits, you can start your own organic farm and produce at home. But the vast majority of Americans are at the complete mercy of the food industry. If prices go up, we have to pay them. If they refuse to label GMOs, we have to eat them.

The $7.25 hourly federal minimum wage has not increased since 2009 and represents less, when adjusted for inflation, than minimum-wage workers earned in 1968. Our hard-earned dollars have less and less purchasing power as the years go by, and if oil prices continue to rise, this could become a serious problem. This is one of the reasons I hope to someday live off-the-grid and be totally self-sufficient. It protects you from catastrophes, shortages and exorbitant prices, while ensuring you have a high-quality, pure, nutritionally rich food source. Our agrarian antecedents had to toil for their daily bread, but they never had to worry about commutes or getting laid off (although they did have to worry about other things, such as droughts and long winters).

In such hardships, or if you weren’t able to produce everything you needed yourself, a community that traded and otherwise supported one another would be ideal. I’m not suggesting a reversion to the 19th century, but a fusion of permaculture principles with 21st century knowledge and technologies.

Other fields that have become totally privatized and often financially extort the average citizen are education and health care. Home schooling and natural remedies can often be superior — and far less expensive — than their private counterparts.

Natural News founder Mike Adams expressed his concern thus:

“What’s the pattern here? Total state domination over all resources — land, water, food, medicine and more. This is part of the ongoing effort to crush self reliance in America and turn everybody into a mindless, hopeless slave of the state, living on USDA food stamps and eating corporate-engineered GMO.

“Freedom means being able to speak your mind, capture your rainwater, bask in the sun, grow trees, raise backyard chickens, home school your children, say NO to vaccines, defend your life and property against looters and violent crime. Freedom is what once made America great, and it is the crushing of freedom which is now destroying America.

“In Oregon, California, Michigan, Washington D.C. and everywhere around the world where evil bureaucrats seek total power over all of humanity, our natural, divine rights are being viciously stripped away. Our money supply is being eroded at an accelerating rate. Our right to due process has been nullified by our own President. Our right to free speech is being increasingly censored and stifled. Our right to grow our own home gardens is under constant assault. (http://www.naturalnews.com/036234_edible_landscaping_medicinal_plants…)

“The common cause behind all these attacks on freedom is “collectivism” — the idea that individuals have no value and that only the state can provide life, food and an economy. This is accomplished through endless permit requirements that now make running something like an organic farm a paperwork nightmare.Similarly, the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act late last year will absolutely devastate small, local farms once it fully kicks in.

“With every new regulation, inspection, permit and government burden placed upon farms and land owners, we are increasingly destroying our own futures by placing more power in the hands of tyrannical government. We are all becoming indentured servants to the state.“Think you OWN your land? Try not paying property tax for a year. You’ll find out very quickly that you don’t own anything. The state owns it. You are just paying rent.”

While perhaps rather dramatic and extreme, he does make some good points! Similarly, people used to be able to move freely throughout the country. Now you have to pay to camp in state and national parks and get permits to raft down rivers, as Christopher McCandless finds out in Into the Wild.

Not everything is owned by private industry or government, but it is drastically more so than it was a century ago, and the trend is continuing in that direction; most people predict that all water sources will soon be privately held and companies will charge citizens whatever they decide to drink what once they were able to freely enjoy.



What can we do?

Occupy Wall Street has made it. It’s popular. Talked about. A big hit.

I’ve been following it since the first people got arrested on September 17, back when no one had heard about it and no one knew where it would go. The people in Zuccotti Park and in public spaces all over the world should be commended for their willingness to camp out, to get out there and risk arrest. You can follow their progress here and admire their official declaration of demands here.

So where does that leave those of us who are lame enough to still be sitting comfortably at home, indulging in hot showers and dutifully showing up to work every day (like me)?

Well, you can find a protest nearby at occupytogether.org and participate in the big march on October 29th called for at adbusters.org. But you can also do something just as fundamental and far-reaching — take a critical look at your daily life and how you could be perpetuating the problems we face.

Of course, none of us are to blame for the major economic and environmental crises. But perhaps we can reevaluate the way we spend and consume, the corporations we feed (are they environmentally responsible? Where do they get their labor and products? Where do they dump their waste?). We can consider not patronizing the big-name financial institutions that may be, in part, culpable. We can be more conscious of how the proliferation of advertising (the average American is exposed to approximately 3000 ads a day) is affecting the way we spend our lives.

We can choose to walk and bike rather than drive everywhere; to buy local; to choose physical activity, activism, arts and culture over passively watching a screen. We can choose to recycle and to educate ourselves. And to do more than we are now; to do as much as we can.

Navigating the modern terrain

It is so frustratingly — and dangerously — difficult to bike in many modern American cities. Bike-friendly cities do exist, but most U.S. cities are designed for cars. Including Miami. And if you attempt to ride a bike, you run the risk of getting hit and mauled.

Walking too, is an interesting experience. You walk through parking lots of big box stores, across busy intersections, breathing heavy fumes. And besides the beach, you are hardpressed to find anywhere you can go barefoot.

Here is a New York Times article explaining how shoes are unnatural and hurt our feet and how walking barefoot is beneficial, and another Care2 article discussing grounding.

It is sad that we have so few opportunities to connect with the earth through our feet and to get anywhere without getting in a gas-guzzling, carbon-monoxide-producing, impersonal vehicle.

In non-U.S. cities, the streets are full of life. Yes, they may be not as clean, shiny and new. Getting what you want may not be quite as sterile, 24-7, predictable and convenient. But the experience is rich; sensory; satisfying; stimulating; real. You meet and kiss the cheek of a stranger. Stop for afternoon tea in an outdoor cafe. Stumble upon interesting, locally owned shops full of unique and rare finds. Admire old-world architecture. A sudden soccer game erupts in a plaza as old men watch from a bench. Outdoor markets are bursting with dynamism and interaction. Music plays, couples dance. You breathe fresh air, feel the seasonal elements, and at the end of the day, you eat and you sleep well.

When I came back from Buenos Aires, this was striking: how our standard of living was technically much higher, but the quality was much lower. The streets were wide, but dead. The stores are all the same. You never interact with anyone, because everyone is in their house or in their car.

Give me the second or third world any day, if it means I can actually be one with my surroundings, surroundings that may be raw but are beautiful and authentically real.

Oh — and the billboards are disgusting! There was one displaying fungus-infected toes! And Target, Old Navy, Ross, Whole Foods, Borders, Olive Garden … why must I have to see the same exact places in every town I go to? It’s so boring, so unappealing, so deadening. I’m so sick of highways, strip malls, parking lots, buildings, big box stores and billboards.

No more car

Most people can’t imagine living without their car, which is exactly how the auto and oil industries like it. Of course, cars are not inherently bad — they give us the ability to go great distances, they are fast and sexy, they take us on road trips and provide the perfect place for teenage makeout sessions. But they can also be giant money drains, dangerous and detrimental.

My car was the perfect car for Miami: red with a tan drop-top, a fast, sleek sports car. Alas, it was the victim of scam artist mechanics and is now fit for the junkyard — but only after dumping thousands into repairs.

I now have to get around via foot, bike and scooter, and it’s a little challenging, but really not so bad. It’s healthier and a helluva lot more economical. I don’t need to pay for insanely expensive gas or insurance, worry about cops and exorbitant traffic and parking tickets, have panic attacks over insane Miami drivers, feel like I spend most of my life on my ass or contribute to local smog pollution and large-scale global warming.

Cars cost a lot, and they kill a lot — over 30,000 people a year. Not that I’m now immune to death (riding a bike around Miami is no picnic) but somehow, I feel safer being off the road. Ideally I would live in a bike-friendly city, a pedestrian paradise, like the European capitals, or somewhere with a mass transit system.

I wonder if modern cities were deliberately constructed so people NEED cars. I do think the huge amount of commercials and advertising make people think they need new cars, expensive cars, multiple cars.

There is another, better way. If you have a family, you might need one. But you could use it a lot less. It feels good to bike and to walk, especially if you’re nowhere near a road. Feel yourself decompress. Breath some fresh air. No blaring radio or angry honks. The way things used — and maybe should — be.