Thursday, October 2, 2014

Neo-Luddites, Bread, Cheese, and Relish

I've been thinking a lot these days about material wealth. I don't need or desire it, but sometimes find myself feeling a bit blue for lack of it anyway. I consider myself a Neo-Luddite, which, if you're unfamiliar with the term, indicates -- at least to me -- a lifestyle that embraces anti-consumerism along with a healthy dose of skepticism about the use of technology. I'm not totally anti-technology (I'm obviously on a computer!), and although a lot of it appears benign some of it is downright scary, and I think there needs to be a more serious discussion on the role it plays in our society. 

Ned Ludd was the "leader" of the original anti-technology movement, although whether he was an actual person is somewhat unknown. He was purported to be a textile worker who smashed two stocking frames in 1779. The textile artisans of the early 19th century who protested that the new labor-saving machinery of the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace them with less-skilled, lower wage workers -- thus leaving them without work -- adopted the name Luddite, after Ned Ludd, as they attacked factories and smashed machinery in protest. The anti-technology movement spread from textile workers to agricultural workers to miners and others as the harsh economic climate of England at that time gave rise to difficult working conditions.

In the end, the Luddite movement was suppressed as the British government handed out severe punishments to those caught, including penal transportation and execution. The term came back into public consciousness, beginning in the 1970s, when people once again began questioning where technology was heading. The original Luddites were aggressive in their attacks, physically smashing machinery, while the majority of Neo-Luddites today are not violent. My view of the Neo-Luddite movement is probably colored by the fact that I was introduced to the term through my Quaker meeting, though. The Second Luddite Congress met in 1996, put together by a group of conservative Quakers and held at a Quaker meetinghouse in Barnesville, Ohio. They drew up a manifesto that stated Neo-Luddism is "a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age." Since Quakers are pacifists, the idea of violence to achieve change was never part of my understanding of what it meant to be a Neo-Luddite. Instead, I read books by environmentalists Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and Gene Logsdon. I admire the Amish, who live a simple lifestyle and carefully analyze new technologies before they allow any to be adopted into their lifestyle. (The idea that the Amish reject all modern technology is a fallacy. Practices vary among all the many Amish groups as to what is allowed and what isn't, but each group carefully evaluates and then comes to a consensus on whether a particular technology should be adopted by their particular church district. Their guideline on whether to adopt new technology is based on how it effects family and community.)

A huge surprise was that on almost every online search I found about the Neo-Luddites was mention of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who felt that violent methods were the only solution to the problem of our industrial civilization. I suppose every movement has extremists, and maybe Ted Kaczynski can more accurately be called a Luddite since the original Luddites also tried to change things through violent action. There are other organizations that also advocate vandalism and more aggressive behavior in order to stop or change current technological advances and/or exploitation of the environment but without also killing people, as Ted Kaczynski seemed to have no problem doing. Violence shouldn't be necessary, isn't necessary. What is necessary is for everyone to realize this planet we're living on needs our help and attention. 

Anyhow, the reason I've been thinking so much about material wealth is that, despite my convictions and all common sense, I often have to detox mentally after I visit folks whose homes are so much bigger than mine and/or look like they belong in House Beautiful, as just happened after a recent visit to a friend's house. I have an internal war between wanting to spend money on fancy rugs and marble counters and tile ceilings and techno-gadgets (none of which I have) and accepting my house as it is: simple, comfortable, functional, outdated, small, and a bit cluttered. Often people visit and remark that our house is a home. I'm always pleased when I hear that; it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. But just as often I get remarks about how well I manage to cook in such a small space, indicating my kitchen is cramped and tiny, although I always thought of it as fairly spacious. Or how we'd never be able to sell the house because it needs so much work and updating. Or my mother-in-law tells us she had wanted to give us a new backdoor as an anniversary present, which makes me look critically at the backdoor and cringe. Or we agonize and finally splurge on a $75 rug for the livingroom to hide the tiles that have seen their day and we visit someone's house who spent (literally) ten times that, with no qualms, on a much much smaller rug that went in the foyer by their front door. I always come home from these visits and look around and sigh. There's some part of me that struggles with the thought that we failed somehow. I know it's not rational, but why does the thought pop up? How has our society managed to ingrain the need for stuff into our mentality, so that we buy things we want instead of only what we need? That the American dream equates to wealth and status? Do I really need more space or pricier appliances to cook good food? Does my ugly backdoor really need to be replaced? I know over-consumption is hurting the environment as we use up finite resources and constantly throw away stuff in order to buy more and newer stuff. And yet . . .

fresh-baked bread, habanero relish, feta cheese draining
Whenever I start to feel bad about what we don't have or what we can't afford, though, all I really need to do is look around and see abundance. We have absolutely no debt, we have shelter, we're happy, and we have food. The sun streams in our many windows, and everywhere you look you see something meaningful: music being played, art being created, sauerkraut fermenting, tea for kombucha brewing, feta cheese draining, habanero relish being canned, fresh bread just out of the oven making the house smell awesome. All of it made by hand. All of it simple but wholesome. All of it made with love. And isn't that what it's all about? 

What We Need Is Here

by Wendell Berry

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

Update 10/5/14: Rick just forwarded this link to me; an article in the New Republic, titled The New Luddites: Why Former Digital Prophets Are Turning Against Tech. It's an interesting read and delves deeper into Neo-Luddism and the problems with technology than I did. I also recommend reading Jaron Lanier's book, You Are Not a Gadget.