About ten days ago I penned a blog post here entitled Living Beyond Off-Grid as a Sci-fi Writer, and it seemed to resonate with a lot of people because it got some attention and was shared around the Internets quite a bit. It also raised a substantial number of questions, and since I’ve received so many Qs via email I figured I would talk some more about how we live and “how we do stuff.” Maybe I’ll make this a series and in each episode I’ll take on a few categories or topics.
In that article I handled most of the standard questions and objections. Like… “can someone really be ‘off-grid’ if they are using Facebook or writing a blog?” And, “Aren’t the Amish really anti-technology?”
As I mentioned in that blog post (and dozens of interviews over the last few years,) the crux of the issue is really something that is universal to all of us, and particularly fundamental to all good Science Fiction. That issue is the tension between the simplicity of our most basic human needs in contrast to the constant march of technology and the promises it makes to better our lives. The tension can be boiled down to a question… “Were people happy before any of this cool stuff was invented (or harnessed and controlled, like with electricity)? And, as a corollary, are we happier now?” Of course this is not just a societal or cultural question. It is also an individual one. Usually, due to the ubiquity of the arms and tendrils of the techno-society and the technocracy it engenders, for most people these tensions are subconscious. They don’t even know they are there. They may never actively think upon or ponder them, but the tensions are there nonetheless. The questions “Is this X a need, or really just a want,” and, “Am I happier with X than without it,” are always there.
The mega-super-famous author Anne Rice recently touched on the topic when she shared on Facebook a History.org article about living history farms that are storehouses for a lot of generally abandoned skills and survival techniques.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate Anne Rice’s curiosity. It’s awesome that someone even cares to think about these things. A friend of mine called on me in that thread to engage in the conversation there, but like many of the Amish (when called to discuss with or explain things to ‘outsiders’) I refrained from doing so after I read a lot of the comments.
Sometimes when called on to explain how we do things (or why,) the profound ignorance (I don’t mean this as a pejorative. Ignorance just means a lack of knowledge or information) of the audience makes it too much. In fact, that is exactly what we say… “It is too much.” It is not that the “English” (Non-Amish) are stupid, it is just that we operate from a separate set of principles and accepted maxims. We value different things. In fact, we have a differing worldview.
I also say, it’s not something, it’s everything.
It is easy for an actor or employee at a living history farm or museum to say, “They used a bedpan at night because it was cold and dark outside and they didn’t want to go outside to the outhouse or the privy.” Visitors and tourists understand that. They translate it in their heads as, “they didn’t have an indoor flush toilet, so I get it. They had to live this way.” What they would have a terrible time understanding is why anyone would choose not to have a flush toilet now that such luxuries are inexpensive and readily available. Of course a whole book could be written on why having a flush toilet, while it is kind of cool, and maybe necessary in a big city, overall it can be a pretty bad idea. But in many ways that term “bad” is subjective. It depends on the values and goals of the beholder.
Some off-the-top-of-my-head reasons not to have a flush toilet: Wasting 2 to 8 gallons of clean water to get rid of your waste. Getting rid of a natural product that can have many extremely valuable uses, not the least of which is building (or rebuilding) soil. Not to mention the expensive, unsound, and unsustainable systems that have to be in place in order to provide the comfort of knowing that once you are done depositing your waste in clean water — water that much of the world doesn’t have access to — you can push a button and make it someone else’s problem. Like I said, there are books that could be written on the subject.
I’m not pushing my opinion on you, I’m saying that whether we consider something “good” or “bad” is often based on preconceived and cultural notions of how life should be lived. There is a cultural assumption and bias at the root of every worldview. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So when we discuss the why of someone rejecting flush toilets, we’re now not just explaining or instructing others on a quaint historical asterisk or an interesting anecdote about how people lived. We’re being asked to define the foundation of a totally different worldview, all in just a few sentences. It’s just too much. And by nature, humans are very, very defensive. Especially people who have accepted a presuppositional maxim that is now being questioned. I’ve learned this from many years of experience. People get angry when you have an opinion different than the prevailing cultural opinion of the day, especially when that opinion seems to them to condemn their own. And when we differ over the fundamental definition of what is “good” or “bad,” it is inevitable that there will be conflict if the party of the minority opinion speaks above a whisper. We live in an age when the tolerance crowd has actually become the most intolerant, but that’s a topic for another day.
So when someone innocently asks a question about things like “how did people smoke meat?” or “how do you grow enough food to feed your family and all your animals,” or “how do you keep food from spoiling if you don’t have refrigeration,” often the people that know the most about these topics will say the least. I guess this is true with just about everything, but it is especially true with Plain people. Especially when it comes to explaining historical skills and techniques to people with little or no frame of reference with which to appropriate or judge the information.
That we only use industrial or commercial “technology” sparingly and deliberately is a quaint and sometimes entertaining notion. Why we do so, well… them’s fightin’ words. So because of this phenomenon (the people who know the most usually remaining silent and minding their own business,) the people who are teaching and talking the most about these issues… well, usually they know a few things but their fundamental presuppositions may be questionable. You may not be getting the best advice or answers to your questions from someone who’s already started out with a worldview the same or similar to your own.
You see, there are people who have a smoker they bought at Home Depot, or people who have had suburban (or rural) gardens that are watered with city or county water, or people who use canning to preserve fruit and vegetables from that garden every year, or people who butcher their own deer on their hunting lease every year using a reciprocating saw and a cooler with ice from their RV… there are all these people who sincerely think they are experts at “living off-grid” or “old timey ways” or “country living” or “survival techniques.” They don’t realize the systemic and fundamental errors in their logic when their ideas or solutions are examined in the context of the way the issue was originally framed.
For example, using ice in a cooler to refrigerate meat until you can either consume it or further process it is perfectly reasonable in the right context. There is no moral judgment for or against it as a technique when examined for what it is (keeping meat cold,) without any situational context. However, if you are saying (or implying) that somehow this is a valid or sustainable long-term technique when there is no electricity, or that this is a viable survival technique in the event of a substantial systemic collapse of the modern just-in-time system of delivery of goods and services… if you really think that this is a survival technique at all, then you are just incorrect. There is a huge logic flaw in the reasoning, and it infects most humans today because of the fact that they have been raised and immersed in what amounts to an artificial life-support system their whole lives. That’s not a condemnation of that system. It’s merely me stating that it exists and it has real effects. Real consequences.
And there is a double standard, as there always is when a particular worldview reigns and another is considered weird, aberrant, quaint, or antiquated.
For example, when a discussion of these topics erupts in social media or on a blog somewhere, there inevitably will be a comment from someone (or many someones) that comes off something like this:
“You can HAVE all that “off the grid” nonsense. Get with the times. We’ve advanced past all of that HARDSHIP and POVERTY. Move on, or stay back in the old days if you want, but I love me some air-conditioning and a gas powered self-propelling lawn mower and ice in my mojito. Give me a microwave and a vacuum and you can go toil over a wood-burning stove and scrub floors on your hands and knees if you want to. LOL. HAHAHA.”
Something like that. Sometimes not quite this abrasively, but sometimes more so.
But the Plain people do not chafe at this. No Amish man or woman cares what someone’s opinion is. I mean, they usually aren’t going to see these comments on the Internet anyway, but if they live in a place where their are tourists, or if they go to town to shop in stores, or if they interact at all with the English, they hear these things all the time. People are rude, but the Amish just don’t care. They aren’t offended. They understand why you feel that way and they are satisfied to leave you to your ways and hope you’ll leave them to theirs. These opinions are not a question of technology, per se, they are an effect of a profound worldview difference.
BUT… If a Plain person (me for example) were to opine in a similar manner. Even a more polite manner. If a Plain person were to say:
“Well, we avoid many of those tools and technologies because we think the negatives outweigh the positives. We think many of those things are loud, toxic, unsafe, damaging to our senses, and hazardous to us and our soil. We think they destroy community and promote selfishness. We think they make us soft, unsustainable, dependent, pliable, compliant to wicked authority, and subject to the whims of whoever controls the means of production. We find value in some invigorating and vivifying discomfort, hard work, community reliance, sweat, independence, sustainability, a lack of pollutants on viable land, healthier food, stronger bodies, and curious and questioning minds that don’t always assume that whatever the masses accept is good, is really good in the long run.”
Well… look who just stirred up a shit storm! There is a double standard. Although both sides are merely saying what they believe based on their worldview, one opinion is culturally acceptable right now, and the other, while applauded by some, deeply insults many others.
This is all to say that usually we just shut up, because it is too much.
But (and you knew there’d be one,) I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to do a series of posts on How We Do Stuff. Some of it will involve “why” too. I’m not going to post things daily. I’ll just do it when I get around to it, and when I receive email questions or inquiries. There will be other posts interspersed here and there too, so I’ll try to gather all of these into a single topic link on the left hand side of this blog entitled HOW WE DO STUFF.
I’m doing this as a community service, and in order to share with those who are curious. I won’t tolerate a flame war, bigotry, or insensitive comments. Those will be deleted. Feel free to leave questions or comments on each blog post, and while I may not answer all of them, I will get to as many as I can.
Alright! So… Giddy. Up.