Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Indoor School Is Prison for Kids

Children are prisoners. We are holding them in cells through half of their days, 180 out of 365 each year. During these days they are permitted to be outdoors for 40 or 50 minutes total (“recess”, though we might just as well call it “yard”) to see the sky, feel the breeze, watch leaves shimmering on a maple tree.

Then, to further enslave them, we give them additional work that they have to do at home at night. Some parents require children to complete their homework before they can play, so whatever might have been left of the light of day is further lost. We pride ourselves on being past the days of child labor, but we’ve only shortened the work week a little bit.

Children who become resistant to this imprisonment, who cannot sit still, or cannot stop looking longingly out the window, are labeled “troublemaker”, ”learning impaired,” or “bad apple.” I know a boy who, half way through elementary school, took up leaving his classroom and hiding in the bathroom for an hour at a time. When questioned on it, he would say he had an upset stomach. After two or three months of daily escapes by him, his parents were called in to talk with school personnel. At the meeting, the boy’s parents asked, “Is it possible that school just isn’t the right place for him?” The teacher and the school psychologist peered at the parents with baffled, uncomprehending expressions. Every child belongs in school, no? The psychologist went so far as to say, “It’s okay if he’s unhappy at school.”

Her statement speaks volumes about our view of children. How could it possibly be okay for a child to be unhappy five days out of the week? I’ll tell you the answer: It’s okay because we have decided that children – that childhood itself , in fact – can be sacrificed so that we may live our “modern lifestyle,” a technologized life which requires children to be indoctrinated and drilled into the information and habits that accompany an indoor life, divorced from nature and drowning in plastic possessions.

Children in the wild spent much of their days playing with friends, and the rest working with other community members on the tasks that kept everyone fed and warm. They carried water, they ran races, they prepared for festivals. And they were almost always outside, except in the most bitterly cold weather. They were around the people they loved all the time, and always had access to other children.

We don’t notice children’s incarceration because we have become inured to our own. During our work week, most of us barely see the daytime sky. (As a headline in The Onion reports, “Autumn Colors Appreciated On Walk To Car.”) Underlying our superficial acceptance of this reality we carry a submerged, heartbreaking sadness at the loss of the world that we have been plucked out of, the Mother we have been kidnapped away from. Adults and children share similar fates.

School teachers are in no way to blame for this situation. The best of them are giving children love and helping them feel excited about what they are learning. Thank heaven for them. But the essential problem remains.

At this point in history, we wouldn’t know how to free the children. Where would they go all day long? Who would look after them? Their parents, after all, have to be working all day for bosses, mostly indoors, far from the children’s home and friends.

However, it is our job – the job of the adult world, that is – to find the solution; there’s no excuse for keeping children locked away from our beloved world for most of their childhoods; what “lifestyle” could possibly be worth it, what conveniences could possible justify it?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Lost Tribe

I feel that I was born in the wrong era. I don’t want to sleep on a bed that is sitting on wood high above the earth; I belong on a mat that touches the ground. I don’t want to spend the great majority of each day, and for that matter of each week and month, far from the people I love the most. I don’t want to spend a half hour out of each day outdoors, and the rest inside away from the sky and natural light and the wind and the sounds. I was meant to live in a tribe, putting our heads together often to strategize and solve problems, watching out for each other’s well-being, accompanied most of the time, alone only by choice and not by default.

An unspoken assumption exists in the modern world that our current way of living benefits people, and that there are only a few people who don’t like it. People who dislike technology are characterized as “afraid of change,” or “old-fashioned,” or “technophobes.” Yet almost everything about how we now live is based on technologies that pollute, and that disconnect us from nature, including the entirety of electronic technology and the entirety of fossil-fuel driven technology. The so-called “clean technologies,” such as the computer industry, are among the most toxic ever; if you would like to read a blow-by-blow about what the electronics world is doing to the natural environment and public health, I encourage you to read In the Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander.

So I need to be perfectly clear: It isn’t that I fear technology, it’s that I hate it. Or, to be even more precise, my fear is not the fear of the unknown; it is the fear of something that has proven itself to be horrifically destructive to the quality of life, and to consciousness, and to all the plants and animals that we share the planet with.

I long for life in the wild, living as an animal, the way human beings have lived through the vast reaches of our history. Civilization, which has been disastrous, is a phenomenon of the quite recent past, meaning three or four thousand years at most (depending on what part of the world we’re talking about). On this continent, most people were still living in the wild just 250 years ago, a tiny blip in the hundred thousand years or so that our species has existed.

So I am writing today less from a political perspective and more from a personal one. My heart burns for the tribe I lost – for the tribe that was destroyed – two dozen or more generations ago back along my family tree. I have come to believe that we all carry with us this heartbreak of what happened when our particular tribes were destroyed, and this bottomless-seeming grief has been passed down to us through the generations. We are all feeling broken hearted without realizing it. We all need to grieve the tribes we once lost.

And then somehow we need to find a new tribe to which we can belong, living in love with this beautiful world.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Small Changes Aren't Going to Do It

It's great to switch to compact flourescents. It's terrific to turn our computers off at night. It's valuable to drive a car that gets better gas mileage.

And none of these things comes close to giving us a chance at a livable future. We are going to have to make a sea change in how we live, and it will have to happen quickly. If we cannot accept upheaval in our lives now, by our own choice, then nature is going to impose that upheaval upon us, and we will have very little choice in how it plays out.

Scientists are telling us to move rapidly -- that the next ten years are critical to avoid going past the tipping point.

We are fossil fuel addicted, and as is true with addicts, it isn't going to work for use to "reduce" how much we use; we are going to have to get off the sauce altogether. We have to:

* stop laying down any new pavement at all
* stop cutting down any trees except to make way for other plantings (especially food production for local consumption)
* stop constructing any new buildings, and work only with remodeling or adding floors to existing footprints, because we cannot block off any more access to the earth by rainwater; the earth is our filtration system to have clean and healthful water
* stop using the private car for transportation, period

These are not "extreme" proposals -- though some steps are being proposed by some people that are indeed extreme. But the steps I've listed are simply the minimum we have to do, in line with the broad scientific consensus that has formed, to keep the planet livable for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And we can't take the action we need to take unless we start speaking bluntly, and operating in reality, about what those steps are.

And on the other hand, if we get real about what has to be done, we just might be able to do it.

(I will have more to say soon about these points, including specific suggestions at how you can get involved in bringing these changes about.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Myth of Progress (Continued)


"Technological advances have brought us greater comfort, leisure, health, and happiness – what we call our “modern lifestyle” – and have liberated us from mind-numbing, repetitive, boring work."


You’ve got to be kidding.

We have to begin this discussion by looking at who exactly we are talking about when we say “we.” The march of industrialization, centrally controlled technologies, and pollution – in other words, the vast majority of what is termed "progress" – has had a sharply different effect for the world’s small, privileged elites than it has on everybody else.

The great majority of the world’s people have been forced by “progress” into longer and longer work hours at increasingly boring work compared to what their ancestors did, with less and less control over their work day, and with less and less right or ability to make decisions or use their creativity. Work has become more severely hierarchically controlled, and people are hired and fired at the whim of their employers. In addition, the general trend is for the world’s people to be forced to spend the bulk of their lives indoors or underground (in mines or basements). The human animal is left longing for the sky, the wind, the fields and hills, the air, that had been our surroundings most of the time through our hundreds of thousands of years of history.

So almost any celebration of what technology has supposedly done for “us” is misleading, because "us" refers to a tiny percentage of the world's population that has escaped the effects of "progress" that I've just described.

“Progress” has meant, above all, the forcing of people away from their land-based and communal ways of life, and into employment for a boss. In the process, we have also lost our extended networks of love, support, and companionship from relatives and community members -- our tribe. This is the essence of the change that has taken place over the past few thousand years, but most sharply over the past 500 years, and then more sharply again over the past 150 years, in how the human race lives.

I will not, for now, try to review further the global suffering that is, overwhelmingly, the primary impact that “progress” has had. Books and books have been written on the subject for those who can face the details of what has been wreaked in recent centuries. I will name just a few, for people who would be interested in places to begin: The West and the Rest of Us by Chinweizu (get it through your library -- it's out of print); In the Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander; Solar Storms by Linda Hogan (a novel, but in many ways brings the points home more effectively than pieces of non-fiction); The End of Nature by Bill McKibben.

But even for the more privileged…

Technology hasn’t really done for anyone what its promoters claim it does.

We are busier and more pressured than ever, and it is technology that creates this pace of life, so the claim of increased leisure is the opposite of the truth.

We do not spend less of our time in boring, repetitive activities – we sit for hours in chairs pointing and clicking, even on our non-work hours, and it’s making us all a little crazy. We spend parts of each day, sometimes many hours, literally strapped to our seats, like prisoners, as we sit in cars and airplanes. (I am strapped to my seat as I write this, and wishing I could get up to go the bathroom, but I’m putting off making the people next to me get up from their cramped, crowded seats and squeeze into the aisle.) We spend our days staring at screens. Life is getting more and more homogenized and repetitive, as more and more millions of our race spend our days doing the same thing – working at computer screens, and the screens of our cell phones and Blackberries.

We don’t have greater health. Besides the epidemic of cancer and heart disease, we have an increasing flood of mysterious complaints – fatigue, dizziness, aches and pains, that are hard to discover the origins of, because we are being exposed to so many substances and so many kinds of radiation (“waves”) that we have no way to know what’s causing what.

We – the privileged “we” – do have greater comfort, in the sense of less cold, less heat (for now), soft comfortable clean clothes, great mattresses. But new discomforts are taking the place of these, including chronic back and joint problems that result from our”lifestyle”, the health complaints I just mentioned, and intense restlessness from having to sit or stand in one place so much.

And anyhow, comfort isn’t everything. On the list of the factors that lead to a satisfying, meaningful, happy experience of life, comfort – except for the avoidance of severe discomfort – plays a pretty small role.

Which leads directly to the last failure of technology and progress: They haven’t made us any happier. In fact, there are numerous indications that the more industrialized and technologized the world gets, the less happy people become. But progress works like any other addiction, in that as it makes us more and more miserable, it also makes us more and more afraid to be without it. This is virtually the definition of how an addiction works, is it not?

What are the key factors that make human beings happy?

This is, in a sense, the most important – yet probably least asked and discussed – question of our times. So I will speak to it in detail in my next entry. The failure to look closely at this question is part of what makes it possible for technology to get away with marching forward, even when it is destroying our health, our land, and our communities.

The transition we have to make in the decades ahead will be, in many respects, a painful one, but it also has the potential, ironically, to be a transition back to a happiness, a subject to which I will soon return.