Column by George Sibley
Modern Life – April 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine
IS THE FUTURE going to be any fun? Exploring that question last month, I basically ran out of space thinking about what viable alternatives there are for a consumer culture whose “lifestyles” are primarily based on the profligate consumption of finite resources.
I won’t bore and depress you again with the factual arguments laying out why I am trying to imagine this; at this point, you either believe that the closing vise of major climate change on one hand and Hubbert’s peak and decline in petroleum production on the other means major changes in the way we live, or you don’t believe it.
But if you do believe that these two elephants in the room are probably going to reshape civilized life in the 21st century, then you too are probably trying to imagine what viable alternatives there are for a consumer society in its “life after shopping.” Is it going to just be a long downhill trudge through mandatory conservation, the gradual surrender of all our expensive pleasures in exchange for planting and eating homegrown potatoes 24/7/12? What will we do for fun if we can’t drive or fly off to our choice of entertainments? What will make life worth living if we can’t accumulate stuff?
Martha thinks I am a “pessimist” for bringing these things up (March, 2007, edition); I, of course, just think I am a “realist.” But whatever you want to call it, my real goal here is optimistic — to try, in the Old West way, to find the lemonade spring (where the bluebird sings) at the end of this emerging lemon. What is there to look forward to?
Last month, I suggested there might be some hope lurking in Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Communal Joy. This is a study of pre-industrial, pre-consumer culture around the world — a time known in Western Civ as “the Dark Ages” and pictured in civilized history books as a time of grinding feudal poverty and oppression. But Ehrenreich makes the well-researched case that — until the Christian, Muslim and capitalist fundamentalists suppressed it as potentially revolutionary — people everywhere actually spent a lot of their lives just celebrating their lives. On average in those Dark Ages, according to Ehrenreich, one day in four was spent honoring — with dancing and drinking and feasting as well as praying — this or that saint or religious occasion, most of which celebrations were pasted over pagan rites and rituals that predated the all-conquering desert monotheisms.
This would probably not so resonate with me, were it not for the fact that, forty years ago this winter, I stumbled into a community in Central Colorado that was, at the time, in a “Dark Ages” of its own — and a community that had pretty strong and direct roots in that old medieval village culture of Europe. That was Crested Butte: then a town of coal miners that had lost its coal mines, and was in transition to something else. The winter I got there, a struggling ski area on one nearby mountain was just emerging from a “financial reorganization,” and on another a hardrock mine was — perpetually, it seemed — somewhere between production (mining a vein) and R&D (looking for the vein again).
At that time — the mid-60s — the town had a relative handful of people like myself who were there mostly because it wasn’t mainstream America mired in its first oil war. But most of the population was first and second generation immigrants, mostly from Central and Southern Europe, who had stayed when the coal mines left in the 1950s. They or their parents had made the long journey to “the land of milk and honey” where they found themselves fed into the bottom-loading coal-fired pressure cooker we call “the melting pot.” They had survived the coal mines, some ascending into Rooseveltian retirement, and some escaping through “family capitalism” as part of big families with lots of sons all pitching their paychecks into the sugarbowl until the family could finally buy a bar or store and leave the mines.
VISUALLY AND STATISTICALLY it was a poor town by American standards — like most coal towns, more wood than brick, shaky foundations and not a lot of paint. Aside from a couple of struggling new artisan/gift shops, the “shopping district” consisted of a barebones general store with a gas pump out front and an old-style grocery store where, if you wanted meat, Tony Stefanic hauled part of a cow out from the back room and asked “how thick.” The rest of the business district was four bars — three of them with restaurants that were usually open. Once you dropped down off the moraine on the edge of town, there was no television or radio.
But this suited me fine because I was poor too — my car had thrown a rod and died the day I moved there from Denver with my entire net worth in the trunk and back seat; all I really had was a job at a ski area that had almost died the previous year.
But what I gradually learned there was that you can have a reasonably rich life without needing a lot of money or things to buy with it. I mostly learned this from the “natives” who had survived the melting pot of American industrial capitalism, only to have it abandon them as they were struggling up toward the middle-class surface.
What had kept them going through their years in the melting pot, and then those lean transition years, was what they remembered from their old “Dark Ages” European culture — grow a big garden (lots of root crops), pen a piglet in the spring and butcher the hog in the fall, keep chickens to convert bugs into eggs, make good use of your share of the railroad car of grapes that arrived in town every fall (right through Prohibition), and above all, enjoy the company, stay in touch over coffee and beer, and dance a lot, dance whenever you had the chance.
I don’t want to over-romanticize it. They had lived hard lives with small returns — the men in paleoindustrial coal mines and the women cooking and washing for a dozen on primitive coal ranges. And it was not some prelapsarian “simple life.” I also learned there — where just getting to work up on the mountain without a car required daily organization — what a simple life we civilized people live today, throwing fossil-fuel energy and its short-term riches at every inconvenience and complexity. Take away the cheap gas and the cheap electricity and the things they engender that we are spending so profligately, and life is going to get a lot more complex.
BUT IF IT WASN’T SIMPLE, it was fun. I probably drank too much coffee and beer (it takes a while to learn to pace yourself in a café society), and I was kind of a barbarian on the dance floor until Gal Starika told me she had to teach me to do it right or kick me out of Starika’s Bar, but that’s where I began to learn how even rugged American individualists have better and more interesting lives if they consent to community.
Crested Butte has changed a lot since then — a spiffier town, more people and more money, and plenty of shopping. More of the simplifications of money. But the biggest change is the attrition over the years of those old post-medieval neo-pagan villagers whose lives suggested that dancing will get you through times of no shopping better than shopping will get you through times of no dancing.
And the first weekend in April, we’ll dance there again at the 39th “Flauschink” celebration, the town’s end-of-winter welcome-spring festival that grew out of those years. There’ll be some mainstream American barbarians on the floor, but we’ll move around them, move some of them in, and raise a glass to the spirit of those who understand the once and future complex soul of the human community. We can learn to enjoy life again without having to pillage the planet to do it.
George Sibley writes from Gunnison, where he also teaches and holds a minor public office.