One of the benefits of blogging is the opportunity to make friends all over the world who invite you to stay with them if you ever visit their country.
Not only is this economical, it’s a wonderful way to discover how other people really live their lives, and to learn and experience their ‘stories’.
I was privileged to have the opportunity, on only a couple of days’ notice, and on impulse, to spend last week visiting Belize, the home of essayist, journalist and storyteller extraordinaire Joe Bageant, author of the moving and brilliantly satirical Deer Hunting with Jesus.
Joe has largely walked away from civilization (a lovely home in Virginia) and now lives much of the year in a tiny cottage by the Caribbean Sea in the village of Hopkins. Whatever he earns from his writing he shares with the Garifuna family on which his cottage, and the 600 s.f. cottage where his hosts, Len and Marie* and their six children (and three dogs) live. A third cottage (the raised bungalow in the picture above), which Joe helped build and finance, now provides rental income for the family, and an affordable home for a hardworking immigrant family from Guatemala. I bunked in with our hosts in return for paying for groceries for the family during my three day stay (very inexpensive by our standards, a lot by theirs) and a few gifts I bought for the youngsters.
Their home is quite affluent by Belizean standards. They have a small TV, a stereo, and a compact (mostly empty) refrigerator. All the lights in the homes here are compact fluorescents, which gives the place an eerie pale glow at night. Len brings home leftovers for the dogs from the tourist resort where he works. As a result, their dogs are well fed compared to most, a lot of which are strays. (All the dogs seem to be the same medium size and similar black and brown mixed colouring — I guess for evolutionary reasons.) The minute I showed our hosts’ dogs affection, however, they began to push each other away, vying for my attention (it’s not in the culture of the people there to play with or pat their dogs). From that point on they followed me relentlessly, though I never fed them. Just like humans, it seems, relationships and attention and love are more important than any other sustenance. Just like my daughter on her recent trip to Costa Rica, I wanted to adopt and ‘save’ (and neuter) all the dogs I saw in Belize, most of which were emaciated (and some near death).
We in the world’s affluent nations have ruined the Belizean economy. The fisheries that once sustained them have been ruined by overfishing and industrial pollution. So the locally-grown rice and beans, and hand-made tortillas, are the staples on which they live (despite the huge groves of citrus trees, there was not that much local fruit — the citrus is almost all squeezed and concentrated for export). These are supplemented with many expensive, imported, packaged foods. Other than staple foods and wood, as one local citizen I spoke to put it, “everything we buy in this country is imported”. Imports are too expensive for most residents, and most of the packaged imported foods (Coke, candy bars and chips) are the same addictive, empty calories people all over the world are addicted to.
Non-food imported goods are mostly Chinese crap (just like everywhere else). Because of their poor quality, and the fatalism of a people who know that a hurricane could easily destroy everything they own in a heartbeat, there is not much motivation to maintain or repair anything. Global warming will not be kind to Belize, though this danger is almost unknown to its people.
Because of this dysfunctional economy, the country is an enormous irony: Against a backdrop of bountiful provenance and staggering natural beauty (Cousteau has made both their rainforest and their offshore cays internationally famous) almost everything man-made in this country is in disrepair. Construction projects sit unfinished, most wood buildings are sadly weather-beaten and dilapidated, rusty metal scrap is piled by roadsides, plastic garbage blown from everywhere litters the beach and yards (except for those scrupulously maintained by their owners, like our hosts). It is simply too expensive to maintain buildings and infrastructure. Part of the modest tax revenue of the country is misspent, to be sure, but even if it weren’t there wouldn’t be enough.
Just as in affluent nations, the people of Belize work too long and too hard (often at multiple jobs), get exploited by the rich, and do whatever they can, day and night, to make ends meet for their families. They have neither the time nor the money to maintain and repair things. So just as in affluent nations, infrastructure is crumbling — roads, bridges, sewers, water pipes left unfixed and unreplaced long after their intended useful lives. Road and other projects are started just before elections and then abandoned.
We are all, rich and poor, living beyond our means, living unsustainably. While affluent nations borrow more and more to consume more and more, and then throw away more and more, struggling nations borrow more and more (from the usurious IMF) to compensate for what has been stolen from the people by the complicity of greedy affluent corporations and corrupt local officials, to try to provide for their oversized (seven children is average) families. The combination of affluent nations’ overconsumption and struggling nations’ overpopulation is destroying our planet. None of us can hope to repay the debts (to creditors, to future generations, and to nature) we have so recklessly piled up.
The people of Belize (all the different cultures I saw there) are strikingly attractive. They spend more on beauty aids and hair care than on clothes, which seems to me a wise sense of priority. And just like us in affluent nations, they live by Pollard’s Law: They do what they must, then they do what’s easy, and then they do what’s fun. (Or perhaps, being more physically fit than us, they do what’s fun before they do what’s easy.) Like us, they have no time or energy or resources left for what is merely important, for what should be done or would be nice to do.
One of my reasons for visiting was to learn what it is like to live in a real community. With such large families, many of the people of villages like Hopkins are related, and immediate family size (8-10 people) and extended (3-4 generation) family size (40-80 people) are very close to the optimal community sizes I wrote about in my recent post. Poor as they are, these communities appear to be peaceful, loving, happy, and relatively crime-free.
They are not, however, intentional communities, and I had an interesting debate with Joe about whether intentional communities (whose members self-select and agree to be bound by shared principles and ‘intentions’) could ever work as well as these accidental communities bound by simple common ancestry. I continue to believe that intentional communities (hard as they may be to establish and find members for) should ideally work better than struggling nations’ accidental communities. I would acknowledge, however, that both likely work better than the anonymous, transient, accidental communities of affluent nations (suburbs and urban condos), built for the profit of developers and whose members have nothing in common except proximity to workplace. More about accidental vs. intentional communities later this week.
It’s very easy to understand the explosive growth of the cities in struggling nations once you’ve spent a few days with a family who lives in one of them. Once the seven or more children in the family finish school (in their mid teens) they really have no other choice but to migrate to the cities to find work. College is unaffordable for almost all families, and parents are only in their mid-thirties when children reach majority, so there’s no room for them at home or work in their home villages. Only one (usually oldest male) child will likely inherit the family home (and often the father’s livelihood). The rest end up in the cities. The fisheries are in decline, and the farms are mostly run by conglomerates with no need for more labour.
No surprise, then, that cities are rife with desperation, alcoholism, drugs, theft and other crime and chronic, hopeless unemployment. If you’re a young woman, even a good school record is not enough (unless you’re wealthy or land a rare scholarship) to expand your life choices beyond early marriage (and young motherhood) or low-paying domestic work, or both. The same population growth that offers some security in old age, eyes to watch over your possessions, and built-in baby-sitting and role models for younger children, also feeds this cycle of urban explosion and despair.
In Belize, the Internet is the white man’s addiction and the Internet Cafe is the white man’s hangout. To young Belizeans it’s just a vehicle for downloading music. These Cafes are otherworldly not only because of the colour and accents of their denizens, but because these denizens’ average age is at least three times the Belizean average. A few rich Belizeans have cellphones with texting and MP3 players, but most get their music fix from bootleg CDs, radio and dance clubs. Reggae still rules in Belize, though rap and (in the Garifuna South, anyway) local Punta music are also popular. My beloved Soca is “only for the old and the tourists”.
It’s really hard to gauge the influence that religion plays in Belizean life and culture. The Catholic Church runs most of the schools (with some government subsidies) and among parents you’ll find some fervour for spiritualism (among the Garifuna, it seems, it is one’s ancestors, more than god(s), who provide both guidance and punishment for one’s sins). But religion doesn’t seem to be a big factor in family size, belief systems or behaviour.
Why, I kept asking, do young women keep having so many children when birth control is available, accepted and necessary to get out of poverty? Large, unplanned families are, for them, what urban/suburban living is for us affluent nation city dwellers — the only life they know. There are simply no models of a different, more viable, sustainable way to live for them, anymore than there are models of self-sufficient, sustainable, responsible, loving, community-based living for us to follow.
There is much we could learn from them, and much that they could learn from us. But much of our ignorance, our inability to imagine possibilities and conceive of better ways to live, are, it seems, universals. We cannot follow whenthere is no working model to show us where to go and what to do.
Tomorrow: Part Two, and more on Intentional vs. Accidental Community.
* The real names of the family members have been changed to protect their privacy.
Category: Why Civilization is Unsustainable
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