Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Father of Counter-Globalization Experiments

It's funny how some books lead you to other books. Earlier this summer I read Wendell Berry's Long-Legged House and Susan Maushart's Winter of our Disconnect--both of which referred to Henry David Thoreau (left) and his famous living experiment on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachussetts. So I decided to follow the lead of these other authors and read Walden (published in 1854 and based on Thoreau's experiences between 1845 to 1847).

Having never read all of Walden, I was able to fill a gap in my education and discover that Thoreau could easily be credited with inventing a genre of non-fiction that has exploded in recent years: the counter-globalization-living-experiment-turned-into-a-book.

One of my Advent 2010 posts listed several examples of these books, with Sara Bongiorni's A Year Without "Made in China" serving as a typical model. A new and notable model of the alternative living genre, though, is Susan Maushart's experiment, aptly described by the lengthy subtitle of her book: "How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale."

Maushart is the first author I've encountered in this genre who openly turns to Thoreau for inspiration--an appropriate move, since Thoreau is famous for his experiment move to the woods on Walden Pond, which even then was not exactly in the wilderness. But the turn to Thoreau is also appropriate because he has an eye on global economic trends (among other things).

The reader expecting a simple chronological account of Thoreau's two years in his little cabin will be surprised to discover that he opens the book with a lengthy and digressive chapter entitled "Economy," in which he points out that modern people depend heavily on others for transportation, clothing, and shelter. In the name of economy and efficiency, the division of labor supposedly frees us. But Thoreau believes that such dependence on others actually enslaves us. And he even shows us his financial accounts, to prove that his simple way of living is actually cost-effective.

Furthermore, contends Thoreau, the desire to connect disparate parts of the globe through technology often goes unexamined, and questions about the purposes of such connections go unasked. As he puts it,
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already too easy to arrive at . . . . We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has a whooping cough. ("Economy," Everyman's Library edition, p. 46)
All this global media technology provides instantaneous updates to everyone all over the world, all at once. And we await important newsflashes . . . about Lady Gaga's outfits or Lindsey Lohan's misdeeds or George Clooney's new movie. We have iPhones, iPads, Twitter and Facebook, but do we communicate any better now than we do sitting face to face? Or is all this noise and distraction making it harder to communicate about important matters? Thoreau would have us ask such questions.

One benefit of living a simpler life, says Thoreau, was that
life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes and without end. ("Sounds," p. 100)
News Flash: Simple reality can often be more engaging than the diverting dramas on television.

In his chapter, "Sounds," Thoreau muses about railroads (a symbol of the creeping modernization and industrialization and globalization that Thoreau was resisting). One particular point echoes the introduction to chapter 1 of my book about railroad time:
The startings and arrivals of the [railroad] cars are now the epochs of the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office? . . . To do things "railroad fashion" is now the by-word; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track. ("Sounds,"p. 105)
In the second half of the book, Thoreau closely observes nature in and around Walden Pond. Even the earth itself, he says, is
not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit--not a fossil earth, but a living earth . . . . ("Spring," p. 273)
It is this section of the book that Wendell Berry clearly echoes in The Long-Legged House, with his evocative descriptions of the landscapes on his family's land near the Kentucky River. Attachment and attention to a particular place is a powerful and healthy antidote to the placeless landscape of globalization.

It should have come as no surprise, then, that a whole generation of people worried about the unsettling processes of globalization have consciously or unconsciously emulated Thoreau's desire to "live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life" and "live deep and suck all the marrow of life" ("Where I Lived," pp. 80-81).

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