|When I was a kid in Winnipeg, it was something special to be allowed, during the oppressive summer nights (no air conditioning back then) to sleep in the basement. It was pretty spartan, because every couple of years after a heavy summer rain the sewers couldn’t handle the volume of water and basements would flood, so you didn’t put anything in the basement that you couldn’t afford to lose. Our basement had that cheap patterned “wood” paneling on the walls, and the floors had ‘indoor-outdoor’ carpeting (which we called ‘astroturf’) laid right on the concrete, which was cracked and uneven due to winter frost heave. The furniture included two somewhat ratty sofas that folded out into beds (‘chesterfields’), and the Zenith TV, black and white, which in the late fifties was a novelty, but not respectable enough to put upstairs.
You got the English and French CBC channels, and later the CTV private network, and a few years later again if you adjusted the rabbit ears just right you got a very grainy station from Pembina, North Dakota. I used to race home at lunchtime to watch Concentration, moderated by Hugh Downs, on that channel, where you had to match up squares from memory and if you did, they were taken off the board to reveal part of a rebus puzzle that you had to solve to win the prizes you’d matched up. It was followed by the original (black and white) Camouflage game, hosted by Don Morrow (this was 1961, and I was nine) where if you answered questions correctly part part of a jumble of lines disguising an outline picture of some everyday object was removed, and you had the chance to trace the object correctly in 10 seconds to win. I saved up for the ‘home game’ versions of both shows.
The wood paneling separated the room from the laundry room and the workshop where all my Dad’s tools were kept, and which later housed our first shower. The ‘basement room’ was curtained off from the stucco wall, and behind the curtain was storage. But just in front of the curtain lay my favourite toy — a linoleum mat printed with streets and houses that became the village where my imagination ran wild, and which was home to my prized collection of Matchbox Toys (miniature cars made in England of, I believe, solid lead, which probably accounts for at least part of my madness). I used to make up games by sectioning off the ‘roads’ on the lino with crayon, and have different cars race (controlled by a dice roll) to be first complete a designated route (with required stops e.g. ‘to deliver milk’). This was how my creative spark first found vent, and I am still enthralled with the much more sophisticated Playmobil and other ‘village’ sets to this day — as long as there is a playing surface with roads and houses of course.
I was a pretty sociable kid until adolescence hit, and we used to play a lot of games and sports outdoors (even at -40), but my basement time was solo — just me and my ideas. My brother used to take the other fold-out sofa on the hot summer nights, but he was four years younger than I was, and moved in different circles. But at night we used to talk, or rather, I’d think out loud and he’d play along until he got bored or fell asleep. With cardboard and coloured pencils I had created a ‘dashboard’ for a space ship and tacked it up beside my pillow, so these night-time conversations were mostly role-plays in space, with each of us taking multiple roles (“now I’m the pilot and you’re the engineer”). At first, my dashboards got more sophisticated so I could control the ‘ship’ without moving, but later I simplified it, reasoning “Why have a whole bunch of buttons when you just need one very smart one”. This was in the days before computers. I was of course delighted years later when Star Trek (to which I quickly became addicted) introduced the ‘replicator’ that did just what my one-button bedside dashboard did.
By the standards of the day we weren’t poor, and my ambitions for life were modest. I wanted to travel, all over the world and into space, but I never had material aspirations and if there was any jealousy or envy over possessions among our circle, I wasn’t aware of it. I had no intention of marrying, since that would “tie me down”, and I remember when the series Run for your Life came out five years later (when I was fourteen), featuring Ben Gazzara as a man who discovers he only has a few months to live and spends it traveling all over the planet and enchanting every woman he meets with his bravado and charm, this became my role model. By then I was suffering the anguish of early teenage years, my naive self-esteem shattered by the strange new rituals of my peers, my face ravaged by acne, and my ego and social stature further ruined by my horrendous lack of coordination (an inability to learn how to swim, dance, or properly play a musical instrument). Although I longed for popularity, I never longed for fame or fortune (the game Careers was a hit in those days, and in it you were required to gather a minimum of fame, fortune and happiness by pursuing various careers, but the game seemed kind of silly to me — if you only wanted happiness, why bother pursuing a career at all?)
Well, if you;re still reading, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all this. Here’s my point: In my own case, my ambitions in life were set pretty early, and they were (space exploration plans notwithstanding) pretty modest. At various times in my life I have achieved some measure of fame and financial success, but I was always a bit apologetic about them, because I didn’t aspire to them and they never seemed to come to those who wanted them most. I only wanted to be happy, and to learn everything that could be learned. Those personal values have never really changed.
Richard Douthwaite, in his wonderful layman’s book on progressive economics The Growth Illusion, cites a 1970s British survey ranking what participants said were the things that represent and increase quality of life and happiness. Here’s the list in order of ranking:
Respondents were able to check as many answers as they wanted, so there is no ‘vote splitting’ to bias these results. My guess is that thirty years later the answers wouldn’t have changed much, and that for most of us our personal ranking hasn’t changed much since childhood either. We can only guess at why respondents gave such different scores to #2 and #17, and to #4 and #16, but it seems clear that for most people the key to happiness is social rather than economic. Why then do so many of us devote so much of our lives to achieving economic goals? Is it because most of us think we’ve already achieved the social goals? Or is because we’ve deluded ourselves into believing we have more control over the economic goals, and that our social goals will (or won’t) be achieved regardless of our investment in reaching them? Or is it because we have a nagging fear that if we don’t devote most of our waking hours to achieving economic goals (even though we don’t think they’re that important in and of themselves), we will become economic failures, and that economic failure will jeopardize our achievement of our social goals as well?
I suspect, and perhaps I’m guilty of judging other people by myself here, that most of us look at what our peers and our role models have done and what our parents have done and then do what we do because we really don’t know what else to do, how to live any differently. The harried, hierarchical, partly-fulfilling and partly-anxious way we go about our lives is the only way we know to live. We don’t see any credible alternative models presented in schools, or on television. So although there is some fear involved (just look at the face of anyone who has just passed a homeless person if you don’t believe me), I think most of us do what we do, haplessly contributing to our ruinous and unsustainable economy, largely because no one has shown us any alternatives. We have unwittingly come to believe that there is no choice, and as a result our culture has become monolithic. Our instinctive rankling at being told this is what we must do, this is how we must live, is discharged by the vendors of consumer products who give us astonishing choice when it comes to things that (if you believe the above list) don’t really matter. We are seduced by this comforting deception, and before we know it we are part of the machine, we are addicted to consumption and to the debt that allows us to finance yet more consumption.
The list itself is rigged, ‘framed’, semantically aligned with the objectives of passivity and enslavement of economic man in pursuit of perpetual growth. Family and home are a respite, a refuge from the daily grind, the prison of our jobs. The word ‘community’ is not even mentioned in the survey. Housing and health are the carrots we are perpetually chasing and never quite catching — we work long, hard hours because without toil we can not be sure, even in this world of staggering abundance, that we won’t suddenly be without housing, health, and other necessities of life. No one has ever taught us, or showed us, that there is, or was once and could and should be again a way to achieve all of the above ‘quality of life’ ends (except #4 and #16), and many other important ends not listed in the survey, without participating in our growth-and-consumption-and-debt economy. This is why we need to create Model Intentional Communities.
Give yourself this self-test of your definition of quality of life, and of your personal values:
Of course the final step is to ask yourself what changes you need to make to improve your self-scores. And, more importantly, what changes we need to make, all of us, together, to improve everyone’s scores. I’m guessing that a lot of those changes will be impossible in the current economy, but that if we built a new economy, focused on sustainability and egalitarianism and well-being, not only would they be possible, they’d be easy, even inevitable.
I’ll share my answers to the above self-test in a couple of days. I’d be delighted to hear your answers, and especially to see the factors you added in step 3. Who knows, we might be on a road to building a new, collective value system for the next human culture.
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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