“Intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium.”
—John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, 1927
It’s that time of year when once or twice a week my spouse mentions that he’s hungry and I say, “There’s borscht,” and he says, “That’s not food.” Not to say he won’t ever eat borscht but not nearly every day throughout July and August like, ahem, some of us.
To me, borscht is lovely and filling and vibrant like the shimmering of sunlight on top of lake water, but to my spouse, it is not what one would call sustenance. (I feel that way about scones that aren’t homemade and have raisins in them.) This borscht exchange is a yearly reminder to me that everything about our interactions in the world is given its edges and shape by our perception.
I recently started reading Nick Hayes’s The Book of Trespass, which I had to put down shortly after beginning it because I felt short of breath. Hayes is upfront and passionate about his purpose in writing the book: to upend the way readers think about land ownership in England, the rights of owners, and how an unjust system that carves up the earth to create scarcity for most and luxury for a few came into being in the first place. It’s what I wish Simon Winchester’s Land had been, and wasn’t. (One of my many gripes with Land, top of which is how he talked about Native and indigenous people worldwide as passive bystanders to outright theft rather than informed people who fought against an injustice they came to understand perfectly well, is how widely he steered clear of discussing the destructive system of land ownership itself and how so much of the world came to accept it as not just inevitable but beneficial.)
The Book of Trespass opens with a quote from Henry George’s Progress & Poverty (hi there, kindred spirit!). It’s worth remembering that George’s ideas about land ownership were incredibly popular over 100 years ago. His recommended systems of land being community owned and taxed separate from privately owned improvements on it almost won the day in the U.S. It was defeated by those who stood to lose much of the power and wealth they’d won in the taking of the commons.
Ownership bequeaths power, and it’s hard to upend, no matter how much it trespasses into everyone else’s right to survival.
The other day I took my kid to the orthodontist, and as we were checking out the unmasked customer in front of us at the counter stated that, “it’s communism,” referring to mask-wearing (case numbers have been climbing here, and it’s interesting to note how quickly many people and establishments took to masks again, including the orthodontist’s office). One of the receptionists behind the counter, who was wearing her mask loosely and below the nose (honestly, why bother?) nodded vigorously and said they should go in the back and have a long conversation.
I wanted to say so many things, top of which was what communism is and isn’t and what do masks have to do with a collectivist economic system? But also a reminder that it’s hardly an infringement on one’s liberties to have a minor inconvenience that protects others from harm. And that our county’s vaccination rate is still around 38% and unlikely to budge (it’s over 70% for ages 70+, but drops steeply below that), and I have an unvaccinated kid at home, and Delta is rampant and Lambda is probably coming, and my friend who works in the local hospital’s Covid unit is tired and my heart keeps breaking for everyone who works in the service industry in this popular tourist town and everyone is so freaking tired and can we just please work together for a common cause whose positive outcome would harm nobody?
But I didn’t say anything. Bringing up counterpoints to someone I have no relationship with just serves to perpetuate other-sides-ism and mistrust, and she was clearly ready to have an argument. I’ve tried to have enough conversations with people I do have relationships with to know opening the topic with a stranger would probably be counterproductive.
It did make me think again about private property, though, and how in the end worship of absolute private property rights almost necessitate science denial and even reality denial. Because no matter how much we view property as ours to do with as we please, the effects of that doing will never stay within property’s confines. To keep practicing many activities requires denying that they cause harm, or much harm, or enough harm to offset the benefit of profit.
Is the trade-off of, say, pollution for profit and products that much different than the trade-off of putting people’s lives at risk by refusing to succumb to a minor inconvenience? One’s answer depends on perception, even if reality doesn’t.
Bonus photo: the photo above is of a wildfire smoke plume I drove through a couple weeks ago. I stopped at a rest area to take a picture; this is the same spot looking the other direction, into the smoke-filled valley. I thought it was from the 30,000-acre-plus Trail Creek fire, but suspect I was in the wrong location for that.
Some stuff to read, listen to, or watch:
Author of Prosperity without Growth Tim Jackson on the Frontiers of Commoning podcast talking about, well, prosperity without growth. I’d love to hear another conversation with him that addresses what seems to be an intractable belief that we need growing GDP metrics to thrive.
Zachary D. Carter writing in The New Republic makes the case that the days of economic policies dictated by Milton Friedman’s absolute free market ideology is over: “The new consensus on Friedman’s work among economists has essentially reversed Summers’s verdict from 2006. ‘Almost nothing remains of his intellectual legacy,’ according to Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs. ‘It has proven to be a disastrous misdirection for the world’s economies.’” I don’t know whether that bit about his intellectual legacy is true or not, but I hesitate to likewise declare “The End of Friedmanomics” when its beliefs about the ultimate good of individualism and self-interest have been so absorbed by the populace and many, many members of Congress.
Subscriber Patrick found a series of interviews with Eric Hoffer, author of The True Believer, and I know how I’m going to spend some of these smoke-filled shut-in days. Here’s Part I.
Hoffer’s comments in that video on the importance of manual labor to his writing are something I sympathize with, and reminded me of this 11-minute video with a welder who worked in a Glasgow shipyard during the day and wrote poetry at night. (I’ve shared it before but it’s just such a nice thing to watch now and then.)
Sacha Golob’s essay in Psyche about stupidity doesn’t let down its title, “Why some of the smartest people can be so very stupid.” “Stupidity will often arise in cases like this, when an outdated conceptual framework is forced into service, mangling the user’s grip on some new phenomenon. It is important to distinguish this from mere error. We make mistakes for all kinds of reasons. Stupidity is rather one specific and stubborn cause of error.”
A great interview in Governing with urban planner Jeff Speck on the 10th anniversary of his book Walkable City (which I highly recommend if you’re interested in walkability and how to achieve it): “What makes a highway safe is absence of potential for conflict, absence of friction. That’s the opposite of what makes a street safe. That’s not stubbornness, it’s just a misunderstanding that hasn’t yet been corrected. . . . There’s very powerful economic reasons why roadway expansion is still seen as a solution to congestion even though it never works.”
Nityanand Jayaraman published a wonderful essay on the environmental harms caused by many pro-climate activities (such as thousand-acre huge solar panel complexes in former grasslands), using the Indian city of Chennai’s long history of environmental degradation as a case in point, in e-flux: “Well before fossil fuel became the villain of the climate movement, frontline communities in India of indigenous people, dalits, fishers, and other subordinate classes were already fighting solitary battles against mining, hydrocarbon extraction, air pollution from industries and automobiles, and the mindless destruction caused by the over-consumptive modern economy. They did this not because oil and coal damaged the climate, but because it harmed the land they lived with.”
Amanda Mull’s piece in The Atlantic, “American Shoppers Are a Nightmare,” was spot on. It was fascinating to read about how consumerism as a way to make middle-class Americans think well themselves because they were being waited on was developed in the mid-1900s. Coincidentally, I was talking with some friends—almost all of whom worked in the service industry—on a camping trip recently about what a hellish job it’s been the last year, and took to wondering how much damage has been done by teaching all of us that “the customer is always right.”