Thursday, July 9, 2009

some questions about our economy / DIY / "natural" stuff

This morning a really big question occurred to me.

But first, the caveats: I'm not a historian. I'm just beginning to process this. I haven't done any research. But I'm hoping a conversation might help us along.

Here is my question: with much of the recent "go-green" movement, the call is back to a simpler, less fuel-guzzling, chemically-altered way of daily living. Reduce your carbon footprint: ditch the car when you can, and the gas lawn mower, and the dryer. Lose the creepy cleaning products, the funky solvents and so forth. Abandon overprocessed food products and "convenience" items with ingredients you can't pronounce and flavors manufactured in plants along the New Jersey Turnpike. Do as much as you can to buy local. Garden, too, even on your windowsills or fire escape! ( has picked up on several of these trends recently, including canning and urban gardening.)

Now, for the sake of full disclosure: Josh and I have a pitiful garden on our back "deck." I feel wonderful when I'm scrubbing something with baking soda instead of a weird and powerful chemical. I've given up buying cheap frozen pizzas, regardless of their extraordinary grad school convenience and thrift value. I make my own granola, or gobble up my friend Annie's. I walk all over the place. And I don't microwave plastic.

But what occurred to me this morning was that all these things take much more time. Cooking from scratch takes time (serious time). Scrubbing something with elbow grease takes time (washing a floor with diluted vinegar, too, especially since its acidity doesn't pack the same punch as a bottle of Mr Clean, as far as I can tell). Walking or taking a bus takes more time than driving the car. Sweeping takes more time than using an electric vacuum.

And then it occurred to me that many of these inventions have come about within the last century, and that one major shift that they allowed for was the decline of domestic help in middle class families and the rise of two-income homes. Back in the day (by which I really do mean just 100 years ago), many solidly middle class families employed "help," because cleaning and cooking and laundry were tasks that really did take up full days of work. And families that did not employ help typically had one individual (read: the man) out at some work and one individual (read: the woman) working full time at home to keep the house running. Children tended to help in those instances, especially girl children.

In that system, it was human energy that powered all those household tasks: scouring and chopping and cooking, preserving, dusting, laundering, etc. With the development of technologies that ran on other forms of energy (electric, gas, etc.) to speed up the process, and with the production of strong chemicals that meant perhaps weekly rather than daily cleaning, and with the movement of food (and clothing) manufacturing out of the home and into factories to a much greater degree, people had freed up time, less need of servants, and so forth. All of this probably contributed a great deal to the mid-century movement of women into the public "workforce" (let's be honest: they have always been part of the work force).

But here's the rub: now that we're realizing that a lot of those technologies and chemicals and outsourced food/clothing processes are bad for us, and bad for the environment, and bad for our children's futures, and also ethically suspect in other ways (which I haven't even really gotten into) -- now that we're moving back toward a more handmade, simplified way of living, or at least we're trying to -- how can we do it all? Where is all this human time supposed to come from?

That is my question. What do you think? And what threads of history am I missing?


  1. Thanks for putting that thought out there. It's funny... I was just in a brainstorm meeting for Healthy Choice (the frozen food brand) yesterday, and we were talking about the same thing.

    They have a new All Naturals line that ditched all the artificial ingredients, so we were just wondering if people would be open to seeing Healthy Choice as a brand that understands your desire to live responsibly AND your need for more time.

    But it seems just as likely that people who are committed to healthy living the way you described are the same people who would never be caught in the frozen food aisle to begin with. They would be in the produce aisle or at the local farmer's market.

    Anyway, what you're talking about is definitely an unmet need. Do you think that the same industrial thinking we've applied to living bigger and grander lives could now be refocused on making green living something manageable and convenient?

  2. Sorry, posted on wrong entry.

    Some things different 100 years ago, (more like 150): most people farmed, had large families, no TV, worked 14 to 16 hrs per days, (or dawn to dusk), expected children to have work chores, worked 6 days per week, died young, paid no taxes, had little or no credit (unsecured debt), had tiny houses, had no refrigeration ( read no left-overs), had no electricity, no in-door plumbing, read few newspapers, books, or magazines, no phone, no internet, no paid vacations or sick pay, no insurance, no car, ect. They worked alot and many never made it past 6th grade. Many died of diseases that are easily treated today. I think most were happier than we are today, but I am not sure. I think they worried less and had lower expectations in life and so were less often disappointed, depressed, and frustrated, but short of finding diaries or letters we will never know thanks to the proliferation of revisionist history. Many of us try to recapture this simpler way of life on vacation (camping), gardening (recreational), and making homeade things (cooking and crafts), but this is by choice, not of necessity. You can't turn back time. It is what it is.

    Tuesday, 14 July, 2009

  3. I've thought about this a lot. In fact this topic has always been at the forefront of my arguments when I discuss these things ... because it is so pivotal.

    Think back when we started the industrial revolution. We weren't thinking about efficiency of our technology. We were thinking of the efficiency of the humans doing the work. Everyone wanted to not work outside. We wanted to pass off on the manual labor and cash in on our brainpower.

    We called it a revolution, and it was, but think of it more as humans trying to evolve our way of life. The problem with this analogy is that when you talk about evolution, you talk about time. Extraordinary amounts of time. And there has to be a common driving force: typically we talk about reproduction as this driving force (which is really another analogy for sustainability, when you think about it). But in our case, there was no time, and there was (read: is) no natural driving force. We focused on the easy way to exploit the physics and the chemistry of the world around us: reverse-engineering what's taken nature thousands/millions of years to create to reap the benefits of breaking covalent bonds, changing matter and harnessing some of the energy in the process, and ignoring the byproducts we created, because there was simply no natural driving force to make it otherwise. We've done very well to alienate ourselves from our own planet and by choice no less. Our use/concern of/for technology starts and ends with us

    What if we had focused more on biologically sustainable means of providing energy? We're only just starting to harness bacteria to produce energy. Imagine where we'd have been if we started this green movement 100 years ago? What about 100 years from now? Certainly our capabilities are much more advanced now, but is our social agenda headed in the right direction to foster the right growth?

    We focus a lot on 'global warming' ... I have come to use that term with disdain lately, because I honestly don't feel as though it conveys the correct agenda, nor the whole facts of our dilemma. We know a great deal about our environment, but when it comes down to it, we're throwing out guesses left and right, hoping to be proven wrong. This is where I think a lot of the controversy over global warming comes from: Scientists can't agree because we're too quickly jumping to conclusions about the outcome of our influence on the planet.

    I don't see our problems as technological ones, I see them to be social problems: the long-term effects of the human condition, as it were.

    On the other hand, our galaxy is on a collision course with the Andromeda galaxy, and given a long enough timeline, everyone's life expectancy becomes 0 ... so why not go out with a bang, right? It's like a race to be first, but at what?