Friday, March 26, 2010

My dreams are dumb...

Not long ago I had an idea that I wanted to retire to southern Illinois some day. Not the ”somewhre south of I-80” thing that most Chicagoans call “southern Illinois”. Real southern Illinois. Little Egypt, full of hills and forests and rivers, which I'd seen running the River to River Relay.

It is a great place to go running. But that wasn't the main reason I wanted to go. I was very worried about the problems of technological growth and whether it could be sustained. And I had an idealized version in my mind of Little Egypt where these problems didn't exist. Where people lived right, and were rewarded for it. In a place where people generally live right there's no need to set one's self in opposition to major trends in society. That appealed to me. Because setting one's self in opposition is tiring, and I'm not very good at it anyway.

Of course, it turns out southern Illinois is not quite so ideal; no place is. By the time I ran the Relay for the fifth time I was noticing major cracks in the vision. Boarded-up shops. A seeming decline in population and enthusiasm. Even the Old Fishskins didn't seem to play as well as they used to. And, of course, the most troubling effects of technological progress are hardly confined to the city. People everywhere use manufactured goods made of plastic shipped halfway across the world. Because somehow it's the cheapest. Even the initial form of my dream seemed to acknowledge this, in retrospect. I wanted to live my productive life some place I could be productive. I'm a computer programmer, so that's going to be an urban area. And then I wanted to go down and consume the relaxed atmosphere of this idealized rural place in my old age. I wanted to run from the reality of what I would really create. It was ultimately a dumb dream, fueled by my desire to believe that somewhere things are right.

I got thinking along these lines after reading Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals. I've read various books about factory farming and meat production and I really recommend his because it's so different. He's a novelist and a better writer than most of the dry philosophers and non-fiction specialists that have tackled the subject in the past, so it's a fast-paced and compelling read. And rather than break new ground in ethics or expose undiscovered facts about the industry, he lays out the cases for eating meat or not that correspond to the ones people really have. He probably comes closer to expressing my views on the subject than I ever have.

One thing that becomes very clear after reading is how people want to believe that a part of their world is right. That there are powerful social and emotional forces tied in with this that compel people to eat meat. He really lays bare the difference between rhetoric and reality in modern agriculture. He may not expose any new facts, but he exposes this social truth I had never quite grasped: that while defenders of meat eating have accused vegetarians and vegans of sentimentalism for ages, the proper accusation is in the other direction.

A few years after running River to River for the fifth time I took a bike ride along the Mississippi river, on the Illinois side, from south of the St. Louis suburbs to Shawnee National Forest. I saw a totally different side of southern Illinois. Some places are growing, with exurban-style additions tacked onto little old towns. Some places are in severe decline — whole towns completely shuttered and even parks indefinitely closed. Kaskaskia, Illinois' first capitol, a near ghost town, devastated by repeated floods and cut off from the state by the new course of the river. Just across from there is a large state penitentiary; it makes its mark on the nearby town of Chester in so many ways I could see even in my brief ride-through. I had originally planned to ride all the way to Cairo but ended up not — I didn't know about a lot of what I would see on the ride, but I had read a lot about Cairo. Once its location on at the confluence of two great rivers made the town an economic powerhouse. Now, with no major employers and no exports, the town consists of those that haven't yet left. One day it may be another Kaskaskia.

There is no escape, so there can be no escapism. Every place is subject to the economic forces of the day. I live in the small-ish town of Cody, WY. It's growing like Chicago, in nostalgically-named cul-de-sacs, physically-bounded subdivisions, and continual futile escapes to the country. Sometimes things are dulled farther off the grid. But even Meeteetse, if it could not export cattle and oil, could not drive up to Cody for groceries. Which is why Wyoming has plenty of ghost towns itself. I haven't witnessed a near-ghost town like Kaskaskia or an economic ghost town like Cairo here, but I've only traveled a small part of the state.

As meat-eating goes, there is similarly no escape. Designations like “organic” and “free range”, in the context of nationally-available brands, are almost completely meaningless. The environmental damage, both local and global, caused by intensive agriculture, is real, massive in scale, several times more so for meat production, and can't be avoided by buying packages with green labels. That's no conspiracy theory. It doesn't take a conspiracy — in fact a conspiracy could never create our situation, only competition is so powerful. If you don't believe me (and why should you?) read the book.

1 comment:

Danielle said...

I hadn't read this post before our e-mail conversation.

I'll have to check out the book. I eat meat now, but I feel guilt about it from a sustainability standpoint and I know I probably should go back to being vegetarian again... I still don't eat all that much, so I justify it a little in my head that way!