Dear Folks, Wow! So much to tell you!
It’s Saturday morning, the day of the fall equinox. I’m alone in the house. Chrissie, Scot, and Marcia have gone off to sewing-machine school. As a wedding present Chrissie got a professional-model, turbo-charged Bernina, which, she tells us, can almost pick out the pattern, cut out the dress, and iron it when it’s done. It takes training to operate this machine, so they’ve gone off to Portsmouth for the day.
It RAINED yesterday! A whole inch and an eighth! (We keep a rain gauge on our garden fence. Every Saturday this anxious summer we’ve been writing down its meager weekly accumulation. There have been 6 weeks of zero, many weeks of 1/10 or 1/8 inch dribbles, and only three weeks since May that topped an inch, including this one.) Tonight the clouds are due to clear out and open us to a killing frost, which, if it comes, will be right on schedule. We’re ready for it. The tomatoes, infested with fusarium, gave up the ghost weeks ago, but not before we got about 60 quarts put away in the root cellar. We’re sick of cucumbers and summer squash. The dry beans haven’t all matured, but the kitchen is overrun at the moment with the ones that have. They’re the jewels of the garden — red kidneys, pink-and-purple Vermont cranberries, brown Kentucky wonders, yellow-and-white Maine yelloweyes, black beans, pink-and-white king-of-the-earlies, and yellow Marfax. Shucking them is as much fun as hunting Easter eggs. We’ll have great bean soups all winter.
The green beans are still coming on strong, and the flowers, and the squash. We’ll be sorry to lose them to frost. But I’ll go pick as many as possible this afternoon.
We hold our breath waiting for the first frost, after which the long list of fall chores really kicks in. We drew up the list this week. Clean the chicken house, wash windows and put up storms, stack firewood, pick apples, plant bulbs, make potting soil, take down the greenhouse, cover over the coldframes, harvest potatoes and carrots and turnips and squash. The list always looks daunting, but Scot and Chrissie and I have gone through it together before, and we find these tasks cheery, at a gorgeous time of year. The Virginia creeper is already bright red. The sumac and red maples are turning. The slopes of Mount Ascutney across the valley are gold and orange. Soon we’ll be immersed in glory.
So much to tell! Balaton! and THE WEDDING!
I wonder every year how to tell you about Balaton. It is getting to be a reproducible phenomenon — this is our 14th global meeting, plus regional meetings — and it still is the case that people who have heard me tell about Balaton and who finally attend always say, “oh, NOW I see!” Telling about Balaton does not work. I can describe the people, the little hotel by the big lake, the presentations and workshops, the songs, the walks, the weather, the hugs, and I still won’t have told you about Balaton.
I guess it is mainly a state of mind — one we wish characterized more of the world more of the time, one we enter into effortlessly just by being with each other, though about a third of the group is new each year. People coming for the first time are surprised by the warmth, the absence of posturing, the eagerness to learn across cultures and disciplines. It’s a group that leans forward during presentations, drinking information in. We leave the afternoons open for people to organize little workshops on any subject, and the message board is jammed with announcements, ranging from the role of spirituality in science to the testing of a new climate-change game to the planning of a meeting on peoples’ participation in resource management in Africa.
Balaton is one of the few places where I feel permitted to raise the deepest, hardest questions, admitting that I haven’t a clue about the answers. (Or as one of our Danish members said cheerfully during his presentation, to a new Chilean who was pressing him to define his terms more precisely, “Wait a minute, you don’t understand. The Balaton style is to be a little confused.”) With Balaton members I can be unguarded and truthful. I can be passionately concerned, mad at the world, in love with my colleagues, intellectually on fire, and challenged to my soul — all at the same time.
Maybe just one unimportant incident can illustrate what I mean. Our Danish colleague Niels Meyer was giving a presentation in which he asked what we thought could break the strong positive feedback loops that drive the globalization, commodification, centralization, and alienation of the world economy. Somewhat facetiously he gave us choices such as:
– a burst of rationality,
– a burst of moral enlightenment,
– a stronger U.N.,
– a series of catastrophes,
– the Balaton Group,
– a new political movement.
The largest vote went to catastrophes, and that bothered me.
I simmered for awhile, and, this being Balaton, I finally let the energy out with a befuddled outburst, chastising myself, my friends, and the whole environmental movement for our commonly perceived fascination with, perhaps even longing for, catastrophe. (As an author of Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits I am more than a little sensitive on this point!) Nothing good comes out of catastrophe, I said. It creates chaos, fear, and retribution. Look at the Soviet Union — its collapse has opened the way for Mafias and fascists. Let’s have faith in something better than catastrophe, let’s do everything we can to avoid catastrophe, above all let’s not regard it as an ally or give out the slightest hint that we might in any way welcome it.
That outburst took place just before lunch, and this being Balaton, my friends clustered around immediately to find out what was really going on with me. Vicki Robin said, don’t you believe that the real growth points in life are the times of difficulty and desperation, when learning just has to happen? I do believe that, from my own deepest experience. And reflecting on what Vicki said, I realized the difference between individual learning and social learning. Every individual learns profound lessons from adversity. But, as another of the morning’s presenters, Michael Thompson, had made clear, different individuals, with different life experiences and worldviews, learn different and inconsistent things. The world is still arguing about the lessons of Chernobyl, of Vietnam, of Hiroshima. We all learned lessons from those disasters, but not the same ones. The nuclear industry thought that Three-Mile Island proved that nuclear power is safe!
I saw that I have infinite faith in personal learning, hardly any in societal learning. That was interesting. I never had made that distinction before.
One of our new young members disrespectfully declared an afternoon seminar as a result of this discussion and disrespectfully called it The End of the World. That pushed me deeper into my own reaction to the idea of catastrophe. I had to admit that one of the prime driving factors of my professional life has been terror. Not fear, terror. The belief that not only I will die, but that my whole world could die — culture, history, the farm, Mozart, libraries, purple finches, parades, picnics, clean-running streams and a world full of different kinds of peoples. I’m no longer much afraid of dying; but I’m perfectly terrified of my world dying, which is what the word “catastrophe” means to me. I have careful, computer-calculated scenarios that convince me that such catastrophe is possible. Terror motivates me to dedicate my life to preventing that outcome. Consciously or unconsciously I try to sow terror in others, so they will help. “Wake up and share my terror” is a message I (and many others) put out, not overtly, but nonetheless powerfully.
Is it any wonder that some people recoil? No thanks, keep your terror to yourself.
We ecofreaks also put out, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, a certain glee when small-scale catastrophes show up. It’s the irresistable “see, I told you so” syndrome, the smug, superior delight in being right.. I feel it, mixed with terror, every time I see news of a toxic waste spill or the global temperature going up. “Look you guys! When will you wise up and start believing me?” I never say that, but I’m sure people hear it from me, because it’s there. It’s there in other environmentalists; I can hear it.
I shared all this with my friends at Balaton and asked, how can we be up-front with our terror or self-righteousness, not denying, but also not centering ourselves in it. How can we center ourselves not in negativity, but in vision and love? Not everyone was able or willing to address that question, but a lot were. In fact one of the surprises of this meeting for me was how many Balaton folks, most of whom are trained as physicists, engineers, chemists, geologists, were willing and even eager to talk about matters of psyche, spirit, and soul — as long as we didn’t get too “touchy-feely” about it.
We had to delve in that direction, because our plenary topic was sustainable consumption. The South tells the North, “you are 20 percent of the world’s people responsible for 80 percent of the world’s environmental devastation, why don’t you stop using so much STUFF? Why don’t you learn, as we have had to learn, that stuff is not what makes happiness?” It’s easy to say that. It’s not easy for anyone, North or South, to say what to do about it. There are powerful reasons why we use all that stuff. It’s no simple matter, even for those who get the message, to live differently. There’s a huge system, evolved over 200 years, that encourages and even requires the consumption of stuff. Single individuals can’t just turn around and start living in a way that’s inconsistent with the social structure around them. How can that structure be turned around?
Hard question! One of the most important questions in the whole sustainability arena! We didn’t get it answered in our four days of plenary. But I think we covered more ground than I’ve done before on this subject, all the way from the inner emptiness upon which the consumer culture preys to the mandates of the capitalist system, which drives the financial markets, which drive the corporations, which drive the advertising agencies and media, which drive the poor, confused, addicted individuals.
One of the most striking days to me was the one where we heard the world speak about the arrival of the consumer culture. We started with a display of Thai TV ads, recorded in Bangkok by Chirapol Sintunawa’s students. They were the ads we see every day — Kentucky Fried Chicken, Coke, computers, cosmetics, cars. But they were in Thai, so we ignored the words and saw only the symbolism — the selling not just of products, but of speed, youth, joy, love, excitement, glitter, power, sex. It was so obscene I could hardly stand it, and I don’t mean the sex, I mean the cultural imperialism. Thailand was never colonized by any foreign power. It held onto its culture, its Buddhism, its soul, for centuries. And now here are Thai actors, eagerly undermining the Thai culture in 30-second spots with powerful psychological engineering on behalf of foreign firms.
After that opener we heard from Malaysia, India, Latvia, the Czech republic, Egypt, Kenya, all with the same story. This thing is sweeping over us, enchanting our children, demeaning our traditions, enslaving and impoverishing us, they said. Help!
I never hated capitalism before, but listening to my colleagues that morning, I did. It is a powerful, brutal, self-destructive system. For those of you who may be recoiling at those words, hating capitalism does not mean loving communism, another powerful, brutal, self-destructive system. Surely we can do better than either of these. (Subject for future Balaton meetings!)
The North-South solidarity on this subject was a surprise to me. I had thought that consumerism was a problem of the North, which we should discuss in a North regional meeting, leaving our members from the South to talk about development. It was our Southern members on the steering committee who told me I was wrong. Now I see why. They are worried not only about our consumption, but about theirs, as our culture sweeps over them.
One of the most heartening moments (and one that pointed to What To Do) came after Vicki Robin had presented the work of the New Road Map Foundation and the other movements in the United States for voluntary simplicity, joyful frugality, living within your means, living as if the earth matters. (Any reader of this newsletter who hasn’t yet read Your Money or Your Life, go out right now and get it! As Vicki would say, don’t buy it, borrow it from your local library.) Vicki told about the hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. who are responding to this message, because it’s not a negative one of guilt, but a positive one of regaining control of your own time and life. Bishan Singh of Malaysia, who has been involved in grass-roots consumer movements in Asia, rose and said that was the most hopeful message he had ever heard from the North. He could hardly wait to get home and tell Malaysians that Americans are learning to practice mindful frugality, he said. The North’s image of how to live is followed by the whole rest of the world. Nothing could have a greater effect on us, he said, than if you would give us an image of sane consumption, instead of frantic over-consumption.
I can’t begin to capture the richness of the whole discussion here. I’m trying to get my 60-or-so pages of notes into the fall Balaton Bulletin, which I’ll be glad to send to any of you who want it. As usual, it will take a long time for me to process the meeting and discover not only my own direction coming out of it, but the directions that others in the group will take. One thing you will surely hear more about as it develops is the North American network on consumption that Betsy Taylor, Vicki Robin, Alan Durning, and other people are facilitating — the one that started with Betsy’s U.S. consumption conference last spring.
I stayed two more days at Lake Balaton after the meeting was over, because several of our members wanted an in-depth session on GATT and the new World Trade Organization. The purpose of Balaton is to try to serve the members, and this topic is not only crucial for us to understand, it is also the perfect logical follow-on from a meeting on consumption. How does the emerging global trade regime work? What does the GATT agreement actually say? What does it mean for farmers, workers, consumers, North and South? What does it mean for environmental sustainability?
So I arranged for twelve of us to stay on for that discussion, plus two experts we brought in — Kristin Dawkins of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Konrad von Moltke, one of my colleagues at Dartmouth. Again, there’s too much to include in this newsletter, and again, I have to write it up as thoroughly as I can for the Bulletin. We learned a tremendous amount and came out even more horrified by GATT than we had been going in. Aside from its basic structure, which couldn’t be better designed to ravage low-income people and the environment, its process is so anti-democratic, so secretive, so authoritarian that if people understood it, they would never stand for it. It’s as if, on top of the emerging democracies all over the world, a new global monarchy is being established. The nobles and kings of this monarchy are corporations and banks. They are about as open to the voices and will of the people as nobles and kings of any era. It’s so ironic that people believe that the Cold War was won by democracy! It was won by corporations and speculators!
One of the great ideas that came out of this session was to make a GATT game, so people can experience how the new trade system works and how it could be changed to work right. (We’re not against trade, we’re just against monarchy!)
Well, it was a heady trip. Often I arrive home from Balaton exhausted and sick, because I have pushed myself too hard, talked too much, slept too little. For some reason that didn’t happen this time, though I wasn’t conscious of being any easier on myself. Somehow I was participating full out from “the calm place within,” as my Ayurvedic doctor calls it, and so I felt better and stronger and clearer as the week went on. By the time I got home I felt full of ideas, strength, love and energy. I was ready for a wedding.
I didn’t actually go home, I went to Ruth’s next door. She was away, and our house was jammed with Chrissie’s and Scot’s family and friends, so Marcia and I house-sat for Ruth and released space for guests and escaped a bit from the fray. I got back the night before the wedding and went over early the next morning to see if I could be useful. I found Scot’s mother in the garden picking basketfuls of flowers. Marcia was ironing tablecloths. Chrissie’s sister Debbie was trying to devise a scheme to keep the dogs (of which there were three, because Chrissie’s friend, another Debbie, brought hers along) away from the wedding cake. Cam and Kinari were setting up speakers at the window to broadcast music outside (assuming it wouldn’t rain, which it did). Jan was carving up four roasted legs of lamb (our lamb, of course). I decided just to wash dirty dishes as they were generated, an activity that kept me happy and busy all morning.
The scene was an incredibly cheerful chaos, as our farm got transformed into a fairyland to which 50 guests could come for a sit-down dinner (which spread from the screened-in back porch to my big study). Virtually all those guests were already there in the morning, each with an assignment. Walk the dogs. Mind the babies. Set up the grill on the lawn. Sweep the floor. Set the tables. Pick the beans. Decorate the cake.
Coming from a consumption conference, I might have found it a wrench to walk into one of the prime consumption ceremonies of modern life — a wedding. But this one had, in perfect harmony with Chrissie’s and Scot’s lives and beliefs, been stripped of its consumptiveness and returned to its central purpose, the statement of beautiful, solemn vows before a community of beloved people, followed by a great party. Presents were discouraged. Chrissie made her dress using lace from a tablecloth bought at a yard sale. The flowers and most of the food came from the farm. Scot’s father brought from Vancouver Island a huge salmon caught by one of his dental patients. Scot even worked a barter with the minister (a good friend of ours) — a free ceremony in exchange for Scot giving a talk about the environment at his church a week later.
Well, it rained. Just half an inch, but right in time for the outdoor ceremony. So we rejoiced in the rain — because we so badly needed it — and moved from the garden at St. Gauden’s National Park (a few miles from the farm) to the loggia covered with grapevines. It worked fine. It was a sweet, simple ceremony, and then we had a sweet, simple celebration. I wish you could have been there! Little white lights were twinkling in all the trees. There were flowers and balloons everywhere. Lovely music was playing out of speakers hidden all over (Scot and Cam had done quite a wiring job!). The rain stopped and people scattered over the green lawn. Several times I was near Scot when he caught a glimpse of Chrissie, walking by in her white dress, with flowers in her hair, laughing with friends, and he caught his breath and murmured, “She’s so pretty! She’s so pretty!”
Well over the next few days the party wound down. The newlyweds drove off to Prince Edward Island. The remains of Chrissie’s family stuck around and helped us clean up, can tomatoes, and freeze sweet corn. (Chrissie has two sisters who are as terrific as she is. One of the great things about this wedding was the chance for Marcia and me to get to know both of these families.)
Things are pretty much back to normal now. We just took Emmett to his last puppy class, and he is marginally less of a terror than before. Classes started at Dartmouth this week. I am teaching environmental ethics and Scot is assisting in an ecology lab, so we’ll both be busy till Christmas. Marcia spent a weekend volunteering at a huge conference on Body and Spirit in Boston, and now she is heading up a committee to take in and settle a refugee family from Bosnia. I have journeys, conferences, obligations scheduled virtually every weekend all fall. I wish that hadn’t happened, but, you know, they were all great things to do, planned by wonderful people, I couldn’t say no. It will be a franctic fall.
But not today, not this glorious Saturday, alone on the farm, waiting for the first killing frost. I just walked Emmett the half-mile to the post office to get the mail. On the way we stopped to give grain to the ducks, geese, and rams in the pasture. On the way back we picked an armload of wild asters, goldenrod, and Queen Anne’s lace for bouquets. Clouds were scudding across the clearing sky, the air was crystal clear, the wind was blowing down swirls of leaves, which Emmett likes to chase. Exciting, stirring, promising day! I came up the hill, loaded with mail and flowers, tugged by a 50-pound puppy, singing the great St. Cecilia mass at the top of my lungs — Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus! Sanctus, Sanctus, Dei Sabaoth! Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua! Hosanna in excelsis!
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts! Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory! Hosanna in the highest! What a day!