The real change we need
The next time you hear about a corporation outsourcing jobs to specialized workers in India, don’t criticize them. They learned this behavior from you.
You are an expert outsourcer. Don’t believe me? Make a list of all the things you don’t know how to do for yourself. It will look something like this: food production, preservation and safety; raising and butchering animals; clothing manufacture; home building and repair; education; furniture building; tool production; childrearing (daycare); health care; decision-making (self-help gurus, life coaches); fuel production and delivery; communication; water delivery; waste removal; recycling; transportation; toy making; storytelling (TV); governance; funerals; the making of medicine, cosmetics and cleaning products; music making; giving birth/ helping a partner give birth; lactation (infant formula); self-defense; dispensing justice in your community. The food you eat, the clothing you wear, the heat that keeps you warm in the winter — it’s all provided by strangers, some of whom live on the other side of the world, in exchange for that coarsest and most impersonal of commodities: money.
From a certain perspective this makes sense. Modern health care has cost lives, but it has also saved them. Having police on hand to enforce laws, and a justice system that determines the fate of those who break them, maintains a certain kind of order.
Besides, who has time these days to master midwifery, farming, sewing, canning, steel working, plumbing, carpentry, parenting, construction, animal husbandry, teaching, research, self-government and minstrelsy? Modern technology is so complex and modern life so fast-paced and complicated that it’s much easier to leave these tasks to those who are experts.
Economy is, after all, a function of time. It’s about how you choose to use your time. Human history has been a long march toward gaining mastery of time in a way that enables us to control our environment, enhance efficiency, coordinate supply with demand, decrease the amount of labor needed to stay alive, and have more time for leisure. When I was in school, success in meeting these goals was called “progress.”
But progress has come at a price. Forests have been felled. Species are extinct. Rivers and oceans, air and soil are polluted. Communities are fragmented. Elders who grew their own food and built their own homes watch their knowledge become increasingly irrelevant in a mechanized, specialized world and find themselves herded into retirement communities and nursing homes. Economies teeter while the gap between rich and poor widens. Personal and national freedom has given way to personal and international codependency. And the environment we sought to control is about to school us in what happens when you mess with Mother Nature.
Many believe that relocalization and reskilling are the best, most viable solution to this set of serious — indeed, lifethreatening — challenges. An international movement that got its start in the United Kingdom, relocalization, or the transition movement, is about regaining lost knowledge and bringing production back to the local community.
“Reskilling first of all gives us an experience of reclaiming our power and losing that sense of powerlessness and helplessness,” says Michael Brownlee, co-founder of Boulder-based Transition Colorado. “We reclaim those fundamental life skills that our grandparents and great grandparents took for granted but which we didn’t inherit. Even things like basic home repair — we call somebody up to come and fix that stuff.”
Starting with learning to grow one’s own food, reskilling is a process that people find invigorating and inspiring, Brownlee says.
“It was very delightful to me to discover the favorite reskilling class in the U.K. was sock darning,” he says. “Here in the U.S. when we get a hole in our socks, we toss them. But in the future we won’t do that. We will be darning our socks. Fortunately, there are a few people left who know how to darn socks, and we’re going to have to learn.”
Transition Colorado has hosted more than 7,500 people hours of reskilling events, Brownlee says.
“There’s such demand for it,” he says.
“People say, ‘I want to raise chickens in my backyard, but I have no idea how to go about it.’ So we find somebody who knows, and we organize a class. We’ve done that kind of thing over and over and over again.”
Relocalization advocates say reskilling empowers people to take control over essential aspects of their lives, saving them money and making them less dependent on the Wall Street economy. But it also rebuilds community by turning strangers into neighbors and making elders relevant again as people come together to master skills their parents couldn’t teach them.
If the resurgence of interest in backyard gardening and farmers’ markets is any indicator, people are hungry not just for food, but also the sense of safety that comes from knowing who produced your food and how. And, indeed, food growing and preservation is at the heart of reskilling, Brownlee says. But not just for the obvious reasons.
“It is in beginning to rebuild our capacity to produce our own food locally — that’s the primary way we rediscover community,” he says. “Because of the way that economic globalization has gone and how we’ve lost all our local capacities to meet our own needs, we have lost our connection to the land. We’ve lost the connection to the people who grow our food, even the people who prepare our food. Those basic connections of a community have been cut, so most of us have not grown up in a place where those connections exist. It means we really haven’t experienced community. When people start getting into this food thing — they go to the farmers’ markets, they meet the farmers, they join a CSA — they start rebuilding those connections that are very ancient, and it is a profound discovery. It gives people a sense of hope and positivity that’s been missing.”
Hope. Positive change. Local control. But the heart of it is true community, Brownlee says.
Community is certainly a word one hears often in Boulder. Do we really know what it means?