May the Work I’ve Done Speak for Me

Who would guess that a small Episcopal church tucked into an unremarkable residential neighborhood could become such a hopeful example of community building here in Los Angeles? Kelly and I attended a tearful sendoff yesterday for Father Peter Rood whose leadership at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church is an example we should all consider emulating. Fr. Peter is taking a job in Oak Harbor, Washington and LA’s loss is Washington’s gain.

Holy Nativity is in Westchester, a 1950s era suburb of Los Angeles bumped up against LAX, the second busiest airport in the U.S. I grew up in adjacent Culver City, where we used to refer to Westchester as “Deadchester” for it’s unremarkableness, though it’s hard to see how one could consider Culver City to be any more exciting. Like many LA suburbs, Westchester lacks non-commercial gathering spaces. Fr. Peter saw this as an opportunity. He always referred to Holy Nativity as a “community center that just happened to have a church attached to it.”

Over the years he collaborated with Joanne Poyourow of Environmental Changemakers to transform a large unused area of lawn into a community garden. Part of the parking lot became a community bread oven. When the city couldn’t find a location for a child’s playground he offered another large part of the church’s property for that project. He taught regular yoga classes, hosted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, provided space for music and dance groups and home schoolers, and built a meditation space open to anyone who wanted to use it. Along with Joanne, he generously hosted several book promotion events for us, including lectures, a beer making party and pickling and bread classes. He nurtured deep relationships with other faith traditions and hosted ecumenical lectures and events.

Peter is of the “ask forgiveness not permission” style of leadership. In keeping with this he says “yes” where others might hem and haw and wait to check with the higher ups or fret about insurance. He speaks often of addressing the “low hanging fruit” in our communities, things like planting a garden, mulch and compost. Many years ago he banished paper and plastic plates from the church’s kitchen, installing a commercial dishwasher and accumulating a supply of ceramic and metal utensils. Along with Kelly, he’s also the survivor of a harrowing aortic dissection.

There are a number of lessons to take from Fr. Peter’s example. Faith communities should consider opening their doors to the community and find ways to collaborate especially since many sit empty during the week. It should also be noted that Joanne was never a member of the church and that didn’t matter. Another lesson is for community members: don’t be afraid to approach faith communities with an idea as Joanne did. Some might say no, but many will be happy to help. I’m willing to bet that most won’t proselytize or ask for anything in return. Schools, of course, are another place where this sort of collaboration can happen but faith communities can be more nimble and often have a leadership continuity that stretches back hundreds or even thousands of years. In our time of ecological crisis we might just need to lean on institutions that have this sort of long range perspective.

Rumor has it that the folks in St. Stephens in Oak Harbor are already talking about a community bread oven. If you’re reading this and live in Washington please give Fr. Peter a hug for us. We sure will miss him down here.

For more detail, I recommend listening to this lecture by Fr. Peter explaining the history and approach he took to Holy Nativity’s community collaborations.

Urban Homesteading: What Went Wrong

As I cast a critical eye towards the sustainability movement of the 1960s and 70s, in a previous blog post, I think it’s only fair to take a look at the movement we played a role in, the “urban homesteading” of the late aughts. In a series of future posts I’d like to look back at the ideas in our two books The Urban Homestead and Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World. I’ll consider both the broader ideas in the books as well as what might have changed in terms of specific methods in subjects such as gardening and beekeeping.

First let me peel back the curtain for those of you have have never written a book and describe how awkward and weird it can be to read your own writing after the passage of ten years. That said, after a casual glace this morning though the introduction to The Urban Homestead and Making It, I still think they are mostly solid. What I’m more concerned about are things I may have said in book appearances, blog posts and press interviews after the books came out, specifically that the changes we need to make to avert crises such as climate change and healthy food systems are all about personal choice. While I never said we could save the planet by learning to make jam, my studious avoidance of political controversy may have left that impression.

Along that line, I’m concerned with our brief promotion of stoicism though a series of blog posts and an essay in a book published in 2014, Stoicism Today: Selected Writings. While I think everyone should be familiar with the stoics and even read the very readable Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, G.K. Chesterton takes down the musings of these two Roman billionaires in just two sentences. Chesterton says, “Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land.”(1)

Stopping the games at the amphitheatre and giving the English people back their land are both messy problems that involve working with disagreeable people, attending boring public meetings and, worse, the chance of getting nailed to a tree. For a writer it involves staking out controversial positions and taking a stand on thorny issues. For the past ten years I’ve studiously avoided controversy in favor of making jam and attempting to grow arugula.

But what if we made jam, grew arugula and worked to stop those games at the amphitheatre? I don’t think it’s an either-or proposition. This integration of domestic artistry and politics is why I’ve been so obsessed with William Morris in the past year. He spent many long, frustrating years working for the rights of working class people. His art was not a distraction from this political work but was instead an integral part of his attempt to make the world a better place and to warn of the horrors that were to come.

So what might the urban homesteading movement contribute to politics? I think that as people who are engaged with work with our hands we have a more grounded, realistic view of the world, particularly when it comes to the issue of climate change. What tangible ideas could we contribute to the formulation of the Green New Deal, for instance? Certainly, we’re going to have to work together, not as disconnected individuals. This collectivism is another thing that I think I could have done a better job of expressing.

Next up I’ll take a look at some of the specifics in our books such as, ugh, double digging.

Los Angeles: A New Beginning

From now on when I get triggered by a panel discussion featuring our mayor’s underlings, rather than run home and report on it I’m just going to make up what I’d have rather heard. This little imagined scenario was inspired by hearing the mayor’s current and former sustainability director spend an hour discussing pie in the sky notions that, in my cranky opinion, will never materialize. The mayor and his people seem to think that self flying vehicles are the solution to our current crisis. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to gift a LA River crayfish dinner in ten years time to the folks that prove my more down to earth climate change solutions notions wrong. So instead of waiting for that flying Uber, let’s trim the sails and plot a course for a different utopia . . .

Los Angeles, 2025
Enveloped in the white arc of a exploding battery, the mayor’s self driving electric limo careened off the road and ground to a halt along side of a mini mall convenience store at the corner of Temple and Alvarado. Who knew that the limo’s algorithms favored raccoons over human passengers?

Three hours later an autonomous ambulance pulled up.

“I’m Siri the paramedic,” said a disembodied voice emanating from a speaker next to a dirty and stained touch screen. “Are you okay?”

“Ugh. I think so,” said the mayor. “But I can’t see.”

“An Uber is being dispatched,” said the screen.

Later that evening, after a long and painful Uber ride, Garcetti awoke at KFC General Hospital. He would have many hours to reflect on his record as LA’s longest serving mayor while enjoying the ever popular Cheeto Chicken Sandwich™ that replaced the bland hospital fare of his youth. At his side was Lauren his sustainability minister.

The mayor put down his sandwich and began to stammer, “Bi, biiiiii bi biiiiii”

“What are you trying to say?” asked Lauren.

“Biiii, biii, biiii, biiiiiiiiii, biiiiicyyyyy . . .  bicycle,” said the mayor.

It was the first time in his many years as mayor that anyone had ever heard the mayor say the word.

“You mean those things kids use?” said Lauren.

“Maybe we could have protected lanes for them,” said the mayor. “That way you’d be safe and you wouldn’t get stuck in all the self driving car jams. Maybe more people would use them.”

“That’s insane. It will never happen,” replied Lauren. “I mean, it’s over 120º for most of the summer here now thanks to climate change.”

“Maybe that’s why we need ttttttt . . . trrrrrrr . . . trrreeeees . . . trees,” replied the mayor.

“What’s a tree?” asked Lauren.

“I think it’s some kind of self growing thing that makes oxygen and shade,” replied the mayor.

“Won’t they block the solar panels?” asked Lauren.

“Ba, ba, bu, buuuuuu . . . bus,” said the mayor.

“Huh? Mr. Mayor are you okay?” said Lauren.

“It’s . . . it’s like a car but carries over 100 people,” said the mayor.

“We’ll have to run that past minister Musk,” said Lauren as she gazed out the window.

“We could have lanes dedicated to buses,” blurted the mayor. “Maybe there could be affordable housing too?”

“With trees and bicycles? That’s impossible!” said Lauren. “How will we keep the coders employed?”

“Wait, who’s this minister Musk?” asked the mayor. “Is he that guy who accused a diver of being a ‘pedo’ so that he could buy some more time to make his own boy sized mini-submarine?”

“Really? He said that?” exclaimed Lauren.

“Yeah, I think that’s him,” replied the mayor. “Why the hell did I trust him so much?”

“Are you okay? Can I get you more Cheetos?” asked Lauren.

But all the Cheetos in the world wouldn’t bring the mayor back to his former self. Fredric Jameson once said, “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” But that’s just what the mayor began to imagine thanks to the unlikely conjunction of an algorithm and a raccoon.

He realized it was well past time to learn to dig not learn to code. It was time to build sea walls instead of apps, bus lanes instead of battery packs, affordable housing instead of Olympic villages. With all the freeways gone he was able to make room for gardens and orchards.

It was a new start. The people of LA were no longer consumers in a climate change crisis but, instead, neighbors working hard to assure their children’s bright future.

Cybernetics: A Fatal Flaw

Still from Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Last week I wrote about an archive of 1970s appropriate technology publications called Rain. I still contend that there is much to be reclaimed from this movement but it’s also healthy to look at what went wrong. A provocative and controversial book I just finished, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet makes note of what may have been the fatal flaw in the movement: cybernetics, the dream of self organizing systems as an alternative to the messiness of politics. As the author of Surveillance Valley, Yasha Levine, puts it,

Back in the 1960s, many of [Stewart] Brand’s New Communalists built micro-communites based on cybernetic ideas believing that flat hierarchies, social transparency, and radical interconnectedness between individuals would abolish exploitation, hierarchy, and power. In the end, the attempt to replace politics with technology was the fatal flaw: without organized protection for the weak, these would-be utopias devolved into cults controlled by charismatic and dominant leaders who ruled their fiefdoms though bullying and intimidation.

As an example he cites a New Mexico-based commune, known as The Family, that went particularly bad.

The Family quickly transformed into a rigid hierarchy, with men addressed with titles like “sir” and “Lord,” and women forced to wear skirts and assigned conservative gender-based work: cooking, child care, and washing. A founding member who called himself Lord Byron presided over the group and reserved the right to have sex with any woman in the commune . . . “There was constantly a background of fear in the house–like a virus running in the background. Like spyware. You know it’s there, but you don’t know how to get rid of it.”

Levine contends that this type of “cybernetic utopia gone bad,” birthed in the idealistic pages of the Whole Earth Catalog, is how we ended up with Google and Facebook’s spyware based business model. Think for a second about how absurd it is that Mark Zuckerberg seems to believe that algorithms can parse the subtleties of all the world’s languages and flag the sort of hate speech that leads to deaths in countries like Myanmar and India.

Still from Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Levine also cites one of my favorite documentaries, Adam Curtis’ three part All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Part II is about the problems of cybernetics, the failure of communes and the mistaken belief in a “balance of nature.” You can watch it here. I also recommend parts I and III.

Unfortunately it seems that what we got out of the idealistic ecotopian movements of the 1970s was cybernetics not composting toilets. Counterintuitively, I think that instead of abandoning idealism and utopian thinking, we actually need to walk away from the dystopian stories we’ve been telling each other for so many post-Mad Max years and begin to tell utopian stories again, just different utopian stories than the last round. I’ll have to develop this idea further in future posts, but in the meantime, do yourself a favor and spend an evening with Adam Curtis and let me know what you think.

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

Image an economy in which you were paid to do the things you like to read about on this blog: gardening, beer brewing, jam making, beekeeping etc. Or how about a world in which teachers, nurses and caregivers made more money than tech CEOs? Sadly, we don’t live in that utopia. Instead we have an economy that often rewards people who either do nothing all day or whose work degrades our lives.

Anthropologist David Graeber takes up these questions in his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Judging from the many months I waited for the library’s copy of Bullshit Jobs, Graeber hit a nerve. In fact, the original essay version of this book, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant” went viral.

Graeber’s bullshit job research began with a casual question in Twitter asking if people felt their jobs were worthless or unnecessary. He got a torrent of responses. Typical is the experience of this receptionist for a Dutch publishing company:

The phone rang maybe once a day, so I was given a couple of other tasks:

  • Keep candy dish full of mints. (Mints were supplied by someone else at the company; I just had to take a handful out of a drawer next to the candy dish and put them in the candy dish.)
  • Once a week, I would go to a conference room and wind a grandfather clock. (I found this task stressful, actually, because they told me that if I forgot or waited too long, all of the weights would fall, and I would be left with the onerous task of grandfather clock repair.)
  • The task that took the most time was managing another receptionist’s Avon sales.

In the book Graeber develops a taxonomy of Bullshit jobs and estimates that at least 50% of jobs could vanish and no one would notice. And, no, we’re not just talking about government jobs. It turns out that capitalism produces prodigious amounts of useless jobs despite those who claim that the alleged efficiency of markets makes this impossible.

While many of the examples in the book, such as the Dutch receptionist, are amusing behind them lies a lot of human misery. It turns out that being paid well to look like you’re busy when you’re not can crush the human soul. Worse are jobs such as telemarketers who, in order to get by, have do something deceptive or destructive.

Sadly, in our economy, with a few exceptions, the more useful your job is the more likely you are to not be paid well. On Thursday, here in Los Angeles, public school teachers are set to go on strike for better wages and to prevent creeping privatization by charter school companies. It’s very expensive to live here and a teacher’s salary amounts to a lower middle class wage. You probably won’t starve but you’ll never be able to afford to buy a house. Instead our economy rewards finance sector employees who have no idea what they were hired for and who spend their work days pretending to do something while they are actually just looking at Facebook. Worse, Graeber shows how those in power foster resentment between those in bullshit jobs and useful workers such as teachers and utility workers.

Much of this inequity falls on women, who are more likely to occupy low paid but useful jobs taking care of other people. Lost in the tedious debate over the percentage of female Google engineers is why we pay hospice nurses less than the people who figure out how to serve ads for outdoor grills while we search for porn.

Graeber goes on to describe the history of our attitudes towards work from the medieval guild system to the bloated bureaucracies of the present. Along the way he delves into the theology of why we think terrible jobs are good for us. He concludes with an argument for universal basic income that had me (a skeptic of UBI) partly convinced.

If you’ve read this book or experienced a bullshit job leave a comment!