issue 160 - June 1986
It's easy to ignore the links between life in the West and the Third World. But we must change. Amanda Root reports.
Photo: Peter Stalker
THE whole of the Old Testament seems to be about Jews repeatedly straying from the plain-living and high-minded life-style asked of them, and repeatedly being brought back.
When God spoke to Noah and asked him to build the ark, for example, the Lord accused the Israelites of leading wild and dissolute lives. But such criticisms were omitted from the written records on the instructions of the original publishers. Here, printed for the first time, is a transcript of that conversation:
God: I want you to take two cedar-wood trees and build an ark 60 cubits by 12...
Noah: But Lord I can't do anything on that scale. To fit a boat that size in my backyard, I'd have to knock down the jacuzzi I'm building for my wife's 64th birthday.
God: You won't be able to finish the jacuzzi, my son. A massive flood is about to cover the earth to sweep away all its wickedness.
Noah: Have mercy! I know I'm a sinner: I haven't let my servant-girl join a union - and I'm paying her in manna whose 'eat-by' date has long since passed. But I'll reform. I'll tell Mrs Noah to give her tomorrow off. ...
God: Noah, you and your servants are the least of my worries. What is really unforgivable is way all you Israelites carry on as if you owned the world. The other day I found that some of your people had recruited cheap Egyptian labour to do the landscaping round the Ark of the Covenant. But your kinsmen didn't stop there - they got the Egyptian navvies to cut down all the forests in a 200-mile radius of the Dead Sea. And I had specifically told them not to chop down those unique Cedars of Lebanon, as I knew their disappearance would upset a delicate ecological balance. But you Israelites didn't listen. Some of your people even had the cheek to turn round and say that there were plenty of hardwood forests left, so I wouldn't miss a cedar or two here and there.
Noah: But Lord, that's the Gomorrheans for you. All they ever think about is sex'n'drugs and rock'n'roll. They think Mrs Noah and myself have got a screw missing because we keep telling them that we care about what happens to the environment. They're just laughing in our faces because we've been lecturing them about their maltreatment of animals and plants for nigh on 40 years, and nothing's happened.
God: Well, that's all going to change. Forget about the jacuzzi and build an ark. And don't rely on the Gomorrheans to supply the boat with futons, bird seed or canned beer. They're always late with deliveries and there's no time to spare. Now, get a piece of paper and note down my requirements.
The rest, as they say, is history. And we haven't, it seems, learnt very much since then. The convenience-filled Good Life lulls us into complacency about the long-term consequences of our actions.
Photo: Peter Stalker
You don't have to look very far to find more up-to-date examples of irresponsibility. By exporting its individualistic lifestyles, the West has played a massive confidence trick on the Third World. Modernization that seemed to offer happiness and freedom has often had the opposite effect. The Bari of Colombia, for example, had been living for at least 400 years in a society which hadn't got any class divisions, nor did they have a Western concept of land ownership. Men and women played equal roles in their residential groups, sharing child-care and other household tasks. Each adult was absolutely independent of all others: obeying no-one unless he or she chose to do so. The only mechanisms of group control were social pressure and public opinion.
One early missionary to the Bari found that the men he designated as leaders did not feel able to give orders. These 'chiefs' ended up doing everything themselves, because they didn't have the power, or the inclination, to make others share their responsibilities. They became the servants of the other residents.1
Although the Bari resisted westernization between the 1700s and the early part of this century, they finally agreed to a truce in 1964, when most of them fell under missionary influence. They started growing food to sell, and they stopped farming and fishing communally. The men took dominant roles, and women's loss of power could be seen in the fact that they ceased to play important parts in Bari medicine, ceremonial cantos (a ritual of singing, sharing and communication between residential groups) and fishing. Men, women and children starting fighting over such resources as cloth, soap and money, which previously had been shared without question. A once egalitarian and harmonious way of life had been destroyed.
In Ladakh, northern India, Helena Norberg-Hodge found an isolated community, cut off from the twentieth century as recently as ten years ago.2 The Ladakhis were, however, happy when they were isolated. They worked just as hard as they needed to in order to be able to live comfortably, and devoted the rest of the time to collective festivities - such as storytelling or playing with the children. Their diets and life-styles were healthy, and illnesses were rare. Aggression and crime were unknown.
Just 10 years ago a motorway was built to link their community with Kashmir. The change has been dramatic. The Ladakhis suddenly realized that - by comparison with those living elsewhere - they were poor. So they have stopped putting energy into communal activities and, instead, started working to make money to be spent on Western consumerist trappings. Ladakh may now bloom with a thousand TV aerials, but the majority of its people are miserable: their co-operative and storytelling skills are becoming extinct as they plug into Dallas or B-movies. Helena Norberg-Hodge overheard a young friend telling a tourist: 'Oh, if only you could help us Ladakhis. We are so poor'. She wrote 'The tragedy is that ten years ago, when asked to indicate the poorest house in the village, he would have said "We don't have any poor houses".'
But if Western life-styles disrupt Third World cultures, what are they doing to those of us who live in the West? We don't seem too happy either. Suicide rates continue to rise, with the world's richest countries - like Sweden and the US - producing the highest proportion of those who kill themselves.3 Three out of five women at home all day with small children are taking tranquillisers like Valium.4 And seven out of 10 of those who are unemployed describe themselves as depressed.5
In our own backyards, we have, in the last few years, watched North America's great lakes change into acidified cocktails of phosphates, assorted fertilizers and industrial wastes. Similarly, the incidence of leukemia and vicious forms of anaemia often quadruples in children living near the nuclear-power stations - while 1986 double-speak continues to proclaim that there can be no connection between such generators and disease.6
Mark Ellidge / Camera Press
But I don't suppose that anyone reading this will be unaware of these - or similar - statistics, nor do I believe that you don't care. I am also convinced that you can see that there are links - even causal connections - between the ways in which we live and the horrors that stalk our world. I also expect that - like me - you are prepared to do your bit of grubbing around with the potato-peelings to make a compost, or spend the odd Saturday morning on a stall promoting nuclear disarmament. The problem is that, as our time is limited and our energies finite, our commitments tend to falter. (The days are, after all, only 24 hours long and we've got to take time off to enjoy ourselves, cultivate our gardens and our personal lives and creatively waste time.)
There are many good reasons why it's hard to keep plugging away, doing your bit of lifestyle politicking. One of the biggest stumbling-blocks is that lifestyles are big business. You may think you're an 'Alternative Type', and that you live in a 'muesli-belt' neighbourhood7, where good taste consists of owning things that are authentic and untouched by the deadly hand of commerce. You may possess stripped-pine furniture, hand-knitted sweaters and a small estate car, but your lifestyle is indelibly stamped with ad men's marketing ploys and the sort of one-up-personship admirably described in a cartoon I once saw. A small girl is surrounded by empty yogurt-cartons, paints, glue and the other pieces of equipment that the modern parent is exhorted to consider essential for 'free play'. Her proud mother is saying to a visitor; 'Isn't it wonderful, Samantha came top in her non-competitiveness class today'.
The moral of this story is that even the 'Alternative Life-Style' is overlaid with the pressures to conform - if not to succeed - and acquiring status within it involves consumerism and being able to afford expensive leisure activities(such as ski-ing, surfing or scuba-diving). The high-tech leisure industry dwarfs our humble attempts at developing lifestyles that are ecologically responsible or fair to Third World peoples. It's not easy to summon up enthusiasm for low-cost, frumpy and unfashionable clothing when everyone else seems to dress as if they've just stepped off a cat-walk.
But even supposing we've summoned our energies, decided on our principles and resolved to opt for 'voluntary simplicity'5 - cutting down on unnecessary expenditure, giving a sizable and regular amount of our income to charity and eating frugally (or a modified version of it) - then we're still likely to be beset by problems and doubts.
John Blau / Camera Press
We might feel that everything we do is worthless because we're acting out of guilt. Guilt, in our culture, is associated with powerlessness. Because few like to admit to feeling guilty (the strong are supposed to act without qualms) it's easier to do nothing than to act and listen to that droning inner voice that describes all our best efforts as knee-jerk reactions to guilt. The way out of this dilemma is to see guilt in political terms, as something that tries to make us feel responsible for things over which we have no control. It's important to laugh at it and at the ways in which we try to save the world single-handedly. But the final cure for guilt is the acknowledgement that there is a small amount we can do: that we are not completely powerless.
A second, related doubt also will urge us not to bother with cutting down our consumption and investing more time and money in other people because individual self-sacrifice is a complete waste of time. Real change, this spook will assure us, will only result from a completely new economic system. So, the argument goes, we might as well not bother changing our lifestyles as nothing we can do will make an iota of difference to the Third World.
This argument is both factually wrong and misleading. It is factually inaccurate because individual decisions do have effects in the Third World. Westerners' decisions not to buy hardwood furniture from manufacturers who haven't bought their supplies from sustainable forests, for example, will, cumulatively, allow more tropical rain-forests to survive.9 The fact that people in the US have reduced the amount of red meat they've eaten in the past year has meant that an estimated 100,000 hectares of Amazonian jungle, which would have been cleared to provide pasture for beef-cattle, has been spared the axe.
Similarly, by lessening demand for goods or foods that are produced by exploiting vulnerable Third World workers (or their land and resources) we prevent these people from being absorbed into a set of trading relationships over which they - as the powerless partners - have little or no control. One of the less palatable laws of economics states that any exchange relationship between unequal partners increases inequality. In other words, the Third World can only be harmed by trade that is carried out on the existing - unequal - terms. The alternative is to try to buy our goods from organizations that try to pay Third World workers fair rates for their work. Traidcraft in the UK, Jubilee Crafts in the US and Bridgehead Trading in Canada operate on this principle.
William Augustine / Camera Press
But the most important reason for active participation in life-styles politics has been provided by a tiny man called Antonio Gramsci, who was imprisoned by the fascists just before World War Two in Italy. Whilst in jail Gramsci spent his time thinking about Mussolini's appeal and analysing why the great Marxist dream - of a world-wide working-class revolution - had not happened. Gramsci kept a notebook, writing in a highly coded form that could not be properly understood by the prison censors. He realized that the Marxists of his day were wrongly assuming that a country's politics were affected by, and dependent on, its economy alone.
Gramsci understood, for the first time, the important role that culture plays in shaping politics. He saw how popular culture - for example, films or escapist literature - indirectly contributes to certain types of government winning popular support. He used the term 'hegemony' to describe this process.10 Gramsci wrote detailed descriptions of the ways in which hegemony can be secured by those in power, and showed that the 'common sense that seems to underlie our everyday lives is often based on such authority structures. His notebooks make it possible to see how inequalities and hardships are made to seem just, inevitable or natural.
Awkward, non-conformist life-styles are valuable because they challenge such power structures. Non-conformist lifestyles show that we do not agree with what is done in our names by multinationals and by governments around the world. Only by continually securing and re-securing their control can the powerful carry on winning our consent to their rule. Alternative lifestyles disrupt the winning of consent and provide a continuing source of inspiration to those who are trying to create a fairer world. Choosing a political lifestyle also shows up inequalities and unfairnesses for what they are: humanly manufactured woes and not aspects of 'human nature' that cannot be changed.
But, you might cry, aren't radical lifestyles just a passing fashion? Aren't they like so many leaves in the wind, here today and dust tomorrow? The last word on this topic must be left to Gertrude Stein, an endearing old dyke who hung around Paris in the 1920s, wrote that a rose was a rose was a rose, knew her onions and made some terribly smart remarks about fashion. She said: 'It is always in the great moments when everything changes that fashions are important, because they make something go up in the air, or go down, or go around'. In other words, it's the small things that count.
1 Ettienne, M. and Leacock. E. Women and Colonisation Praegar, 1980.
2 Norberg-Hodge, H. Resurgence No.110. 1985.
3 World Health Organisation, World Health Statistics, Geneva, 1983 .
4 Bristol Women's Studies Group, Half the Sky. Virago, 1979.
5 Willis, P. Youth Unemployment in Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton Council, 1985.
6 Friends of the Earth, Information Pack on Nuclear Energy, 1985.
7 Stott, M. Spilling the Beans: A Style Guide to the New Age, Fontana, Sept. 1986.
8 Elgin, D. Voluntary Simplicity, Guill. 1981.
9 Secrett, C. Rainforest, Friends of the Earth, UK 1985.
10 Gramsci, A. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart, 1978.
This special report appeared in the radical lifestyles - you are what you eat; families in communes issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.