Making the Omelas Bargain

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I don’t go into a lot of detail about the philosophical underpinnings of our mindset here at Fortress Peschel. I don’t discuss my religious beliefs; my feelings about the world being greater than what we see around us, that unseen world just around the corner that you can never quite reach. The world, that is, on the other side of the mirror, here and yet not here, a world that has to be taken on faith.

More and more, as I get older, I want less and less. I don’t feel the need to backpack across the Himalayas. I don’t want to own multiple houses. I don’t want to jet across the country. I don’t want to see quaint, indigenous native peoples displayed for my entertainment like zoo animals. They have their lives to lead and they don’t need to be stared at, any more than I want to be stared at.

I like a simpler life, one with less aggravation. I want less, I use less, I need less.

In the immortal words of John Michael Greer, otherwise known as the Archdruid: LESS. Less energy, less stuff, and less stimulation.

Having LESS means I can pay more attention to what matters around me, to enjoy what I already have rather than wanting desperately to have more than I need.

Supposedly, one of the secrets of happiness is to learn to be happy with what you already have and what you can conceivably achieve.

That is to say, if I can’t be happy unless I’m batting clean-up for the Yankees, then I will never be happy. Batting clean-up for the Yankees, like being a prima ballerina, an astronaut, or an opera star, will never happen for me. Those things aren’t physically possible. If I insist on having things that I can’t have or do, as being vital for my happiness, then I am going to be very unhappy, and I’ll be doing it to myself. I won’t make the people around me very happy either, as I pine and carry on, wishing for the moon.

On the other hand, if I can be happy with my quiet life of gardening, sewing, writing, and living in my small town with my family, then I have a very good shot at being happy.

A great deal of our economy is based on us, as citizens and consumers, being unhappy with what we have so that we buy more stuff, consume more services, and throw away perfectly good items. Our system of growth is predicated on dissatisfaction, because if you’re satisfied with what you have, you won’t go out and buy replacements.

Before you send me nasty notes, I’m talking about most of us, with our comfortable lives. Yes, if you’re living underneath the overpass, self-medicating your mental illnesses, this is easy, facile advice. Most of us aren’t like that. Most of us have a roof over our heads and a house jammed full of stuff, stuff that overwhelms us in an ongoing tsunami flooding our homes and our lives.

All of that stuff takes energy. It takes energy to make, energy to ship, energy to buy, energy to work to earn the money to buy that stuff, energy to use it, store it, maintain it, and finally, the energy to say, on holding up that old fashioned out-dated cell phone (the one that doesn’t allow you to talk to people on Mars), “I need a new one but what will I do with this one?”

The old cell phone, which still works by the way, gets tossed in a drawer, where it occupies physical and psychic space. It still works. What do you do with this object? No-one around here wants it, as it is no longer cutting-edge. Recycle it? Sure, why not. Drop it off at the recycling center when they do electronics day and forget about it.

But where does it go? This object that was once so new, that is made of dozens if not hundreds of tiny parts, can’t be repaired, and can’t be easily disassembled.

This object, like so many other objects in our lives, was made by slave labor in China, under the filthiest of conditions, polluting the local area in a way that would never be acceptable in the good old US of A. It’s made of complex materials, many of them rare earths that were mined with pick and shovel and heavily laced with the blood of the miners, devastating the environment where they live for generations to come.

Garments are the same. If I talk about sewing a lot, it’s because it’s something I do and am very familiar with. Clothing used to be valuable, expensive, carefully repaired and passed along. Now, we throw it away, unworn, with the tags still on it.

Why is clothing so cheap? Because it’s made essentially by slave labor. I know damn well how long it takes to make a button-up, long-sleeved, collared shirt. Hours, that’s how long. Sewing six or seven buttons on the placket, plus the collar and the cuffs takes me a good half hour all by itself.

How can a shirt like this cost less than $25? I just looked them up on Amazon and the price range is all over the place. Some of that is better quality fabric and thread and buttons and construction. Some of that is a name brand. Some of that difference is just random.

If I were to make that shirt, including the time to cut out the pattern pieces from fabric, it would take me four or five hours. If I did this on a regular basis, I’d get faster at piecing the sections together and attaching the collar, cuffs, and placket, but not that much faster.

In garment factories, there are specialized cutters and machine operators who each do one part and only one part. They’re very fast. They get paid about 39 cents an hour. Here in the US of A, we like to make at least minimum wage, say seven or eight bucks an hour. More is better.

We like to get bathroom breaks. We like to get a lunch break. We like to work on a factory floor that isn’t a dangerous health hazard. We like to get a sick day or two, even a vacation day. We like to have a clean factory area, one that doesn’t poison the surrounding area.

But we’ve decided that it’s too expensive to manufacture clothing under those conditions in the good old US of A, to pay people a living wage and offer reasonably safe working conditions, so we export those jobs overseas and we get back clothing, electronics, and all kinds of other stuff, for way, way less than it would cost to make here.

Isn’t that just wonderful for all of us! We spend so little that we can fill our houses and our lives with stuff and never count the cost. After all, nobody wants to ever pay more than the rock-bottom minimum.

I learned this thirty years ago when I worked in the drapery department at Boscov’s department store. We had gorgeous embroidered panels at two price ranges. One was very expensive. One was astonishingly cheap for the labor involved. This was back in the early 1980s. I would routinely have customers ask me about the embroidered panels. They would balk at the price. They would ask for cheaper ones. Then they would ask which ones were made in the USA.

It was the more expensive ones, of course, the ones where the workers had clean, safe working conditions and were paid a living wage. The other ones, just as pretty and one third the cost, were made by Chinese prison labor. I and the other sales staff always told the customers this.

What we discovered was that no matter what people said they wanted, about preserving jobs in the USA and buying American-made, when they stood at the cash register, they bought the Chinese prison labor panels. They chose the short-term goal of lower cost for themselves over the potential health, job security, and happiness of workers who they did not know. They made their Omelas bargain.

Don’t get me wrong. I like nice things. I like having clean clothes, living in a house that keeps the winter winds outside and summer heat at bay. I like being able to drive someplace in twenty minutes that would take hours to walk. I like being able to eat food that other people have grown, with sweat and effort, then shipped across the country, whether in refrigerated trucks or in cans.

Those are all very, very nice things. I’m currently reading Ruth Goodman’s book “How to be a Tudor” and the amount of work those people did just to eat on a daily basis is astounding. I don’t want to live like that. I like many, many things about our modern lives.

But I try very hard to not ignore the underpinnings that support our lives of comfort and plenty.

This is where the Omelas bargain comes in. I had never heard of this Ursula K. LeGuin story until a few weeks back when it got mentioned in the Archdruid’s Report. I like the Archdruid’s site very much. It’s challenging to read as he is a historian of the first water. He can be very, very conservative; conservative in the old sense of the word when you need to have a good, clear reason for changing what you’re doing since something new and shiny and untested may have bad consequences that come along with it.

Traditionally, peasant cultures were very conservative. When you have very little margin for error, and every year brings with it the risk of famine over and above the routine starving in early spring, you want to be careful about changing things that you know work pretty well. If you guess wrong, you starve.

I spent some time looking for Omelas in his columns and it turns out that it has been mentioned in the past in the comments, but it never caught my attention. This time, it did.

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” has a nice summary on Wikipedia. Essentially, the narrative is about the citizens of the shining, perfect, beautiful city on the hill and the bargain they make to keep their wonderful, easy lives. In exchange for this perfection, one chosen child is tormented almost to death on a daily basis, a child that begs for release, cries out for mercy from its captors and receives none.

All the citizens of Omelas know about this and they, most of them, are okay with one child’s misery paying for the happiness of everyone else. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, right? Not everyone can swallow this bargain and those are the people who walk away, to someplace else.

The interesting part about this is the citizens who walk away, to someplace else, don’t actually do anything to change the situation of the miserable child, not even a little bit. They just walk away.

You could say they fly away in their little blue box, like Doctor Who so often does, thus allowing other people to clean up the mess, and in fact, there is a Doctor Who episode that parallels the Omelas story. It is ‘The Beast Below’, episode 2 of season five, with Matt Smith as the good Doctor. The Doctor, however, comes up with a solution to the problem which the residents of Omelas never do.

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Spoilers!

What do you do when your two choices are to embrace the bargain wholeheartedly or leave to someplace else?

There is no way out of the Omelas bargain in our culture. We’re surrounded by the fruits of other people’s labor made under dreadful conditions but since they take place far, far away, we don’t see them.

I think there might be a third way, and we’ll talk about that next week.