Sunday, March 14, 2010

On Opting-Out

“don’t we know that our minds are just made out of strings to be pulled” –Modest Mouse

I don’t know exactly what Isaac Brock was writing about here in his song called ‘Lives,’ which meaning of the word ‘Lives’ he is referring to, whether we are intended to know, or whether he even knows. (Sometimes I think critic and commentator types read into art too much in order to find a message that the artist might never have intended to convey.) But Brock wrote the song, so he probably had something in mind.

I was thinking about that line and the idea of ‘opting out.’ In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan writes about people and movements (though movements are just people, right?) who have chosen, for one reason or another, to opt out of the conventional industrial food chain of the United States. These people have in common the conviction that the principles of industry, including specialization, assembly-line-style production, homogenization, speed and efficiency, and of course an insatiable thirst for petroleum products, should be separated from the way that we grow and eat our food.

Those who have opted out include proponents of organic agriculture, or at least the original proponents and those who still abide by its founding principles. In several key ways the organic industrial farm of today is very closely related to its ugly conventional industrial cousin. Monoculture, the treatment of a farm like a factory, and a reliance on fossil fuels (for everything but fertilizers and pesticides) are the most obvious similarities.

Other people who have opted out are the founder, Will Allen, and the workers that make up Growing Power, the 2-acre integrated urban farm ‘system’ in Milwaukee that produces 100,000 pounds of organic and sustainable produce annually. (Isn’t organic necessarily sustainable you say? Sorry, but no.) It is fascinating and very important stuff that they are doing, and I based my organic urban agriculture modeling project last semester partly on his work. Describing why he did not bother to seek the USDA’s certified organic label, Allen says “We would all much rather be in the fields than filling out lots of paper work for the government.” (Hmm, that quote was either from the Growing Power website or one of the articles I read, I’ll get back to you on that source.)

There are other opt-outers who, like Growing Power, are staying far away from federal organic certification.

Alternative farming, Beyond Organic, biodynamic, local, natural systems agriculture, Grass Farming, etc...there are probably more that exist. How about Permaculture? It’s a system of design principles with the goal of creating permanent and sustainable agriculture in harmony with human culture that incorporates natural processes in every way possible. They start with organic agriculture and its reliance on (and governance by) the cycle of life, move beyond that, and then turn those principles around on your occupation, your dwelling choice, every aspect of your life. Leave it to two ecologists from Australia to come up with something that makes so much sense. See here for more details

The point is there are lots of ways of opting out, some more extreme than others. But I think everyone who is opting out in some way or another, whether they realize it or not, is tired of feeling like a puppet, of having the strings of their mind pulled in so many different ways. How about we pull our own strings for a change?

As one small example, lets take someone who thinks they have no time to cook and no money to buy good food to cook with. So they live on a diet of frozen microwave meals and pizzas, ramen noodles, and all manner of other processed and packaged foods because it is convenient and relatively cheap.

But one day our model twiggy (or twig) pulls back the wool from her eyes and realizes several things: She is spending only a small fraction of her energy, measured in terms of money and time involved in preparation and consumption, on something as fundamental and potentially-delicious as her source of nourishment and life, her food. She also realizes that the small percentage of her income going towards food is spent on unhealthy and highly processed food that resembles a factory product (lots of packaging and ingredients, chemicals, claims about its purpose and merits, instructions, etc.) more than an item of food.

As soon as our model twiggy realizes the error of her ways and decides to make some changes to the way that she procures, prepares, and eats her food, as soon as she decides to become more invested in her food and its inherent connections with her home, the earth, then she has opted out in her own little way. Not only is she benefitting herself, her personal health especially, but she is benefitting all of us in a roundabout yet very important way.

There are lots of ways to opt out, and the industrial food system is just one of many that people are opting out of. Consider for a moment music and the state of popular music today. There are literally factories for churning out attractive and vapid pop stars who will dominate the charts with their formulaic take on, well, besides how cute their boyfriend/girlfriend is/how much he/she has hurt her/how much he/she loves them… on nothing really. Micky mouse club is a waste of everyone’s time! (Though it pains me to say this, a certain L--- G--- might, might, just might be considered possibly an exception to this, because I think that there is a slight chance that she is consciously manipulating the general pop music audience for personal profit and relishing the ease at which she is able to do so, especially with songs whose words are half-gibberish. Either that or she is just as empty and worthless as the rest of them.)

Take the genre of alternative rock music as an example. The very name, which implies some kind of opting out from the mainstream, has become decidedly mainstream. For example, it would be inaccurate to lump two groups such as Bomb the Music Industry! and Nickleback (gasp) into the same genre of music, despite the fact that both are alternatives to mainstream rock n’ roll. I think to make such a generalization would also be highly offensive to the former (whereas the latter would have no idea who the former is). Or, the former would laugh at the irony of your generalization, twitch his glasses, sip his tall boy, stroke his moustache, etc.

Indie music is another such genre whose name has come to mean very little as a descriptor for the type of music it labels.

BTMI! is the best example I have of a group that has opted out from the music industry; it is clearly obvious from their name how they feel about the corporate influence that dominates music today. According to my brother Allan, they are classified as D.I.Y. punk rock music, do-it-yourselfers who record and distribute their own music (and encourage its dissemination free of charge; all their albums are available on their website), provide stencils and paint at shows for fans to make their own t-shirts, and in many other ways provide a true alternative to mainstream music. (Is this all accurate Allan?) I am listening to one of their albums, Get Warmer, as we speak; it is one of my favorites.

It seems that as an idea or movement expands in size and scope over time it inevitably loses something. In one sense this is an example of the law of entropy at work, which dictates that an organized system always tends towards disorder, like ice melting in your drink, without an input of more energy. There is energy embodied in any form of organization, a building, a government, a hot bowl of soup, and that energy will inevitably dissipate. The more complex a system is the more energy it represents; thus this system inevitably has higher costs to maintain that degree of order. But the next time your noodle soup is rapidly cooling do not fret, because that energy is going somewhere. I guarantee it and so do the laws of thermodynamics.

I was thinking about when a movement or vein of culture, often an ‘alternative’ to something, becomes so big that it loses sight of its original ideals or values. As ideas grow and disseminate they often seem to lose something, that spark that made them so special and appealing to begin with. Is this process inevitable, as entropy would tell us? This phenomenon accelerates with the loss of a founder, or a person whose ideals and energy are so important to something that it would not be the same thing without them.

Camp Rotary is imbued with the spirit and enthusiasm and commitment of Rich Cowdell, and it would not be the same place for me without him. He did not found the place, but I’m not sure I would recognize the camp before his time began there. Similarly the CCCL here in Rabat would not be the same without its director and co-founder Farah, for her friendliness and dedication, and the way she makes whoever she is talking to at that moment feel like the most important person, are visible in every one of its programs and staff members. But when Rich and Farah move on, and pass the torch to someone else as they inevitably will, is it the same camp or center?

Yes and no, for their energy will live on and continue to excite and inspire people who pass through these two places even though Rich’s handshake and smile, and Farah’s dedication and warm attentiveness, will not greet them.

-this is something ive been working on for a little while, and I apppreciate any comments.

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