Friday, August 2, 2013

Paying for Someone Else to Care

"Equality is never a final state, democracy never a stable equilibrium: they are processes, they are struggles. Our task now is to recognize that that struggle is ours."
– Chris Hayes, Twilight of the Elites

I have a few minutes to think as I walk. I carry two reusable bags of empty plastic jugs, glass bottles and junk mail past the garbage dumpster outside my apartment to the far-side of the complex where the lone recycling dumpster resides. I wonder how much that extra 3-4 minutes of walking really cost me. I certainly benefited from the exercise, but I still experience an underlying urgency and a sense of guilt for "wasting time."

Buying Time
Consumerism for the last 60+ years has promised to save us all kinds of time with all that modern conveniences can offer. At what costs do we acquire so much "free" time? Don't we just work more to buy more to save us even more time? Aren't we so exhausted from that continuous consumption wheel that we barely pay any attention to what's happening in our surroundings? Don't we relegate our responsibilities and stewardship to third-parties instead?

I ask myself: What do I do with all this new found time? Professionally, I was often so overworked that I couldn't be concerned about anything else, especially not my relationships, my community or my environment. The only thing that I could do, burned-out after work, was veg-out in front of the TV. I had no capacity for reading, engaging or caring.

Outsourcing Concern
Society in general, democracy in particular, only functions when its people are actively engaged and involved. Participation isn't simply a visit to the polls on Election Day. Participation is about responsibility to each other; starting with those closest to us outside our door. Interdependence, in a highly functioning and self-sustaining society, is so integrated into everyday life that it occurs naturally; it requires no special thought or extra energy.

We used to be a tight-knit society that cared about each other. Then, we became busy. Crunched for time, chasing wealth, peace and prosperity, we thought caring was someone else's problem, someone else's duty, someone else's responsibility, not ours. At the very least, we thought we could pay for someone else to care. When we let go of the reins, we collectively assumed other groups would (or should) act in our stead. Others did — large corporations and centralized government bodies far removed from our everyday realities.

We pay dearly for someone else to care: with our security and self-sufficiency, with our health and the health of our environment, with our social equity and sense of togetherness and with our own resiliency. We were once empathetic and flexible; now we are callous and rigid. We are so dependent upon groups and resources outside our communities that we have lost our most vital resource: the shared knowledge of how to survive and thrive together. Even among millions, we live in lonely, precarious places.

Restoring Balance
Living through the Recession has been a rude-awakening for us in realizing just how dependent we have become on far-removed factors, forces and influences. The negatives of Capitalism are easy to ignore as long as everyone works — making a living wage — to buy all the necessities of life. But, when the economy crashes, companies only offer part-time low-wage positions (if any at all), and the federal government cuts social safety net programs when they are needed most, the failures of our current system become painfully obvious. We have been operating out of balance for a long time.

What if the stalled recovery, now in its fifth year, is our new normal? According to data published this week in The Huffington Post: "Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream." Causes for the trend include: "an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs."

If this is our bleak reality and increasingly bleak future, then we adapt. We redefine our normal, reclaim our circumstances, relearn to care for ourselves and rebuild community interdependence to meet our own needs. This revitalization is beginning to happen in rural communities, individual neighborhoods within urban centers and boroughs just outside of city limits; areas impacted most by the recession and aftermath.

Rebuilding Resiliency
The Great Depression influenced the outlook and values of the "Greatest Generation" for the rest of their lives. Similarly, the Great Recession seems to be influencing our generation's search for meaning, security, connection and fulfillment. As the largest up-and-coming cohort, we have the potential to be another great generation.

Our solution to the crises we face is to re-establish the social fabric of small, vibrant communities with engaged members: who possess diverse, practical skills; who contribute to mutual good in balance with their environment; and who directly influence local policy with their service, their resources and their voices.

Growing our own food and buying local is just the beginning.

Recommended Reading
The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More by Barry Schwartz
Farm Together Now by Amy Franseschini
Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors and Why They Matter by David Buchanan
The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food by Janisse Ray
The Zero-Waste Lifestyle by Amy Korst

Stephanie Rexroth is a serious reader, a seasonal writer and an aspiring permaculturalist in Pittsburgh, PA. You can follow her reading lists on Goodreads, read more articles on her Blog and follow the progress of her #EdibleBalcony2013 on Twitter.