Yeah, I know some of you who have commented on how much work we've been doing around here lately might be thinking, "Huh? What's easy?" Well, I've been thinking on this subject for quite some time with all the blog memes about what one would be willing or not willing to give up, and I'll tell you exactly what's "easy" about how I do things: my tools. And not all of those tools are manual. Many of them are electric, for which I am very grateful.
I work hard every single day, often from dawn to dusk it seems and even into the night as I try to catch up on the indoor work that needs to be done. As hard as I try to conserve water, electricity, gasoline, etc. and reduce our impact on this earth, there are lots of areas where I'm just not willing to cut back further at this point in time. Not, that is, until I have a few more pairs of hands other than my own helping me out with what needs doing in a day.
What folks often forget or simply don't know when they wax nostalgic about life before electricity and cheap oil is that even the lower classes had domestic help. All but the poorest of families often had some kind of labor, either day labor or live in, for help with all the work that needed to get done. Indentured servants, apprentices, extended family, itinerant workers, and, unfortunately, slaves all served the purpose of providing extra hands for the household. Those families that didn't have one of the above had their children, and those children weren't given the choice whether to help out.
I know, too, that there are people who feel rather nostalgic about children's responsibility as well, thinking that kids these days ought to be made to feel that same kind of responsibility—often packaged with a "sense of pride in helping out"—that kids did prior to the child-centered culture of today. This is not a sentiment that I share.
I don't think it's possible in the midst of our current culture to recapture that sense of pride in contribution because it's plainly arbitrary and enforced. No matter how noble our intentions of going back, to borrow Kunstler's title, to a world made by hand, the truth of the matter is that just next door the world is still made of electricity and oil, and little Johnny or Jenny knows that. There is no real or tangible sense that their forced manual labor contributes either to the family's survival or to the earth's health. The first is bogus and the second is far too abstract for any of us to really know for sure, even those of us choosing to power down.
But I digress....
... and in an effort to wrench this post away from rant and back towards my point, let me just quickly say that I don't require my kids to pitch in any more than they're comfortable and happy to because the principles I live by are just that: my principles. My kids are free to choose their own, just as Jim is free to choose his own principles, and honestly, they don't always include living as if it's the 17th century. This homesteading path we're on is one that I've lead them down, so I try to be mindful of that fact and not foist my choices on them any more than necessary. Luckily, they're a pretty amenable bunch.
All of this is, let's face it, a long-winded way of justifying my own continued reliance on certain tools. I'm the first to admit that I'm no purist.
Sure, I could make bread by hand, but that would require time, taking me away from other tasks that also need (knead?) my attention. Having a bread machine lets me take 5 minutes, tops, to make dough each day, after which I can simply turn on the oven and bake delicious bread at home. Having a stand mixer means I can make baked goods in a fraction of the time it would take to complete the same task with only a wire whisk and my own two hands. I'd be lost without my stand mixer and my oven, and at the moment, I'm no where close to willing to give those up.
Could I live without them? Sure I could, but that doesn't mean I should. There are plenty of things that I've foregone for the sake of conservation, but there are certain economies that come into play that don't simply involve energy—they also involve health, quality of life, and time. Being able to cut certain corners frees me to do other things like read and play with my kids, arguably important activities for a homeschooling mom.
More than that, there are some things, like my milk machine, that save my body. This machine means the difference between waking up multiple times at night with significant pain versus a good night's sleep that keeps me healthy, happy, and relatively pleasant to be around. That's worth running the machine for about 15 minutes a day to me. There are other tasks that don't have the same impact, so I choose to reduce on those terms.
Doing everything by hand takes a significant physical toll. I know because I do most things by hand, including my gardening, carrying feed bags and hauling water to my animals. I'd venture to guess that most Americans don't know what it's like to do a day's worth of manual labor. We're so used to using machines or paying others to do such tasks that we've lost touch with the bodily impact of hard work. (Heck, half the time Americans aren't even willing to take on this kind of work, so we turn to immigrants, legal or otherwise, to do it for us.) That's one reason life expectancies were so much lower—people simply worked themselves into the ground. There's a fine line between physical work that keeps one healthy and strong and so much work that it grinds a body down.
Machines replace human labor, and the two big questions when moving away from machines are how many people it will take to perform the same amount of work and how much time.
Too often in discussions of the energy crisis I notice a kind of draconian split between the Luddites, who want to return to a pastoral age blissfully free of noisy machines, on the one hand, and the "alternative technologies will save us" folks on the other. I have to admit that I'm kinda on the fence of that little dichotomy. My ears certainly long for the peace and quiet of the first, but my practical side remains firmly rooted in the reality that I like a little help now and then, and I'm not too keen on moving back to the slave economy that supported Western life before the cotton gin, steam engine, and the decades it took for American culture to let go of the direct exploitation and ownership of human beings.
Folks need to start considering what it would take to move away from industrial agriculture. Those big ol' tractors and machines perform the work of 100 people in a fraction of the time. In large part, the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution enabled the move away from a culture of slavery, though that certainly didn't happen instantly or cleanly or even quickly, as opportunists double-dipped into both systems for greatest profit, increasing slave trade during the transition.
Ultimately, however, by transferring our work load from human bodies to machines, Americans stepped into the modern age with the noble delusion of freedom firmly rooted in industrialism and capitalism. The question becomes then, in my mind, not so much whether we're either slaveholders of people or slaves to our machines, which so many modern critics have claimed, but rather what is the balance point between manual and machine labor?
Or maybe not even a balance point at all, but a completely different way of relating to the world and labor, a different kind of lifestyle that is more self-reliant, thus eliminating the blind dependence on either the labor of others or the labor of machines. Is there a space where we can move outside of a capitalist or industrial paradigm that looks outside ourselves for subsistence and, instead, turns inward, looking towards the self as responsible for its own subsistence? Isn't this a more honest definition of freedom and liberty? Self-Reliance, or preferable to Emerson's privileged self, perhaps Thoreau's vision of deliberate living in the woods but with certain well-chosen tools. (Though let's face it, even he was dependent on Emerson's money and privilege, which doesn't always come through when reading his idealistic treatise.)
Or does this hope entail yet another privileged, Romantic version of life that seeks to erase or at least hide our messy dependence upon the exploitation of machine, people, animals, land, etc. Is it even possible for humans to live on this earth in a way that doesn't depend upon exploitation? Can we come to a place of symbiosis and what would that look like? Can we even begin to imagine it from this place where we now stand?
Those are some pretty tough questions, and I certainly don't claim to have all the answers. I have some thoughts, the beginnings of some ponderings though. I think the path forward is one that looks a bit like Thoreau's Walden but with a full and humbled acknowledgment of our privileged dependence. Perhaps it is through recognizing and taking responsibility for the paradoxical dependence on others to enable our own self-reliance that we achieve freedom without delusion, that we enter into autonomous rather than exploitative relations. Maybe.
Me? I'm going out to milk my cow with a machine, both of which I'm damn grateful to have.