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Life after shopping

Column by George Sibley

Mountain Life – March 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

THIS MONTH I’m following up on last month’s musings on George Santayana’s suggestion that civilization might be taken as a purely descriptive term rather than a eulogistic one which may “simply indicate the possession of instruments, material and social, for accomplishing all sorts of things, whether those things were worth accomplishing or not.”

So here are some relevant items from the Sunday Denver Post, as I write on this day of the XLI celebration of our great agglutinative ritual, the Super Bowl:

Item: A front page headline, “Global call to action,” reporting on responses from 45 nations (not including the U. S., of course) to the newest report on global climate change (to which the U.S. is by far the largest contributor).

Item: A column by Diane Carman, quoting former governor Dick Lamm on that report, in the context of a graduate course on “Building a Sustainable America” he teaches at DU: “The dilemma we’re faced with is that if we present the reality of the future, it’s so depressing. It raises the issue of whether our society can stand as much reality as this report presents us.” Carman quotes one of the students saying she thought the class “needed a therapy session.”

Item: The Post’s “Style” section feature, titled “Audacious ’80s: Why the decade everybody loves to hate is back in fashion again.” The ’80s, which began with Ronald Reagan taking President Carter’s solar panels off the roof of the White House, and ended in an orgy of gas-guzzling — really, “guzzling” of everything. Greed was deemed good.

Item 3 seems to at least partially answer Lamm’s concern in Item 2. If we depend on “media consciousness,” mainstream America is probably going to hear the bad news — then be led farther into deep denial in nostalgically embracing the ’80s and the backward beyond. It’s morning in America again: welcome to the last days of Sodom and Gomorrah.

And all three taken together seem to affirm Santayana’s observations on civilization. No civilization has ever changed from within just because it had to.

But the fact that the scientists are now saying that just to keep things from getting a lot worse in the future, we’ll have to cut carbon emissions at least 60 percent by mid-century (some say 80 percent) — I think this really calls the question on whether this civilization can survive in any recognizable form, even if everyone buys into the necessity and actually changes.

Bring that number home: try to imagine eliminating from your own life two-thirds of the things you do that put carbon into the atmosphere — including the carbon emissions associated with bringing everything from all over the world to your neighborhood shops and Malwarts. Think about it very long, and you’ll either get depressed or you’ll go get drunk — “Enjoy yourself! It’s later than you think!”

IN OTHER WORDS, a more intelligent future for human beings on earth is not going to resemble what we think of as “the American dream,” and we are really facing the fundamental question underlying all human cultures: we know we can grub subsistence out of the earth, cobble together clothes, go back to watching the fire rather than watching television — but what will make it worth all that effort? Will there be an enjoyable life after shopping?

A clue might be found in pre-shopping history — as in Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Communal Joy. Ehrenreich’s thesis is that modern civilized peoples have lost the capacity for getting together at the community level (or any level) and really celebrating their lives in some spiritual way. She steps back from her recent focus on the economic hells of the present (Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch) to look at the human experience through history and back into prehistory, and she discovers that, most of the time, people spent a lot of their time engaged in just celebrating … everything. In the so-called Dark Ages, about one day in every four was a celebration for some saint or another; before there were saints, there were the many global variations of “kachinas,” and the sun and moon and their changes, dance rituals to bring the good hunt and then to give thanks for the good hunt, passages into and through and out of life, et cetera. If nothing else, like shopping, it filled the time — and didn’t consume the resources of the planet.

What happened? “Why,” she asks, “are we left with such wan and infrequent holidays today? The answer, simply put, is that in one historical setting after another, traditional celebrations were deliberately suppressed. The ancient Roman elite slaughtered worshippers of Dionysus with as much zeal as when, in later years, they went after Christians. Reformation Protestants criminalized carnival. Wahhabist Muslims, the ideological antecedents of al-Qaeda, battled ecstatic Sufism….One reason for suppression was a fear that festivities could get out of hand and even lead to revolution.”

Another reason for suppression (my hypothesis, not hers) was the fact that a lot of celebrating interfered with the Protestant accumulation of virtue in the form of material wealth; imagine the organized corporate backlash from the masters of the universe today if it were to be suggested that one-fourth of our lives should be dedicated to coming together outside the workplace — outside the mall — to celebrate our communal lives.

But that pre-shopping aspect of our history might be a clue toward a livable future without shopping, driving, vacationing, building overlarge houses, and all our other civilized rewards.

SO AM I JUST SUGGESTING we all descend into a “last days of Sodom and Gomorrah” party scenario as mentioned above? No. That’s just giving up, dancing on the Titanic. What we’ve lost — and I’m not sure yet that Ehrenreich really definitively establishes this (still reading the book) — is how to create and use “communal joy” to strengthen our communities, rather than weakening and dividing them the way “partial parties” do (college kids in Gunnison, the country club set, etc.), or just plain distracting us from our communities the way television’s “party spectacles” do (Super Bowl, political conventions, etc.).

I wouldn’t be on this track were it not for the fact that, when I stumbled into Central Colorado forty years ago, I found myself in a place where I got intimations about “the community celebrating itself” — and in a situation of general, accepted, material poverty that in some respects might have resembled the future beyond petroleum.

Our publisher likes to quote the Leadville old-timer who liked to say, “People do not move to the little mountain towns because of a love for their fellow man.” Maybe that’s true for some of us, but myself, I moved here because it was about as far as I could get from a civilization I couldn’t love — but not so far I couldn’t still find the “End of the World Bar and Grill” where I could actually enjoy my fellow humans away from most of the frustrations, competitions and diversions of mainstream civilization.

I found more than that, too, in a town that had temporarily fallen out of modern history, somewhat back into the past that Ehrenreich describes. But I’ve used up my space here today, so that’s for next time — to be continued. I can’t think of anything else worth talking about these days, other than how we are going to psychologically negotiate a transition to a saner future — if we are going to at all.

George Sibley writes from Gunnison, where he is about to retire from teaching at Western State College.