Winning the Omelas Bargain (part 2)

Suburban Stockade Banner self-sufficiency

new-suburban-stockade-introLast week, we talked about the Omelas bargain, how 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. Faced with the knowledge that many of our possessions are made under sweatshop conditions or worse in Asia and Africa, should we embrace the bargain, or leave?

I think there’s a third way: to use less. Less energy, less stuff, and less stimulation.

The third way is to question why I should be mindlessly buying. The third way is to stop wasting the resources I do use. The third way is to give of my time and my resources so others can share in the wealth of the good old US of A. The third way is to garden extensively so that I provide a habitat for as many of my fellow critters as I can, on my one-quarter acre city lot. The third way is to shop locally, so my money stays in my community. The third way is to try and buy locally produced items, so those jobs stay in my community.

Does it mean I buy less? Yes, it does. Do I avoid many of the aspects of our consumer culture? Yep, do that too. It helps not having a television hooked up to the outside world.

In my household, we get as much use out of our things as we can.

Does this contribute to our goal of financial independence? It surely does, as spending less of our income means more money can be earmarked to other, more important things.

Does using less make the environment around me just a touch better? I think it does. If my one car is sitting in my driveway rather than being used for random errands, I’m not polluting the air with its emissions, I’m not clogging the roads, and I’m not burning precious fossil fuels.

Does this help? I’d like to think so. It’s like that story about throwing starfish back into the ocean after the storm. You can’t save them all, but you can save the ones within reach. Certainly, I’ve provided habitat for the critters in my area, habitat that otherwise wouldn’t exist in the sea of mown grass around my property.

Does this moral stance make things worse for sweatshop workers in the third world? I don’t know. I know that huge demand for disposable fashion doesn’t translate into money for the seamstresses. I know it wastes huge amounts of resources. I’m sure it’s better to be chained to a sewing machine than to be chained to a bed in the sex trade.

omelas bargainWhenever you hold something in your hand that was made outside of the first world, you can bet the conditions under which it was made were horrendous. They are conditions no American citizens would tolerate.

Which is not to say we don’t have Third World conditions in the USA. They’re out in the fields, picking those strawberries, picking those tomatoes, harvesting that fresh spring mix. Agricultural work is hard, repetitive and doesn’t pay well. To get those amazingly cheap prices you see down at the Giant for fresh produce, you have to use plantation labor. If you’re old enough, you may remember Cesar Chavez and his grape boycotts. I don’t believe he would be impressed by the improvements in working conditions.

Your local farmer’s market is less likely to have those issues than the giant mega-farms that supply supermarkets. At least you can ask about it and when you buy from the farmer, you put more money in his pocket so he can pay his pickers a bit more.

That unending race to the bottom, to pay the least possible amount, drives wages down. Unending population growth drives wages down as more people compete for fewer jobs. Automation drives wages down as more people compete for still-fewer jobs. Off-shoring factories drive wages down as the jobs get still fewer for the people left behind who want and need them.

It’s not a good idea for a country to have a growing population at the same time that jobs get fewer and fewer. This fact is why I refuse to use self-checkouts. I go into the bank and use a teller. I use the call lines rather than the internet when I have a question or a problem with a company.

Every time you use a self-serve line, you are sending a message to corporate headquarters to get rid of another job.

I understand that things cost a lot. I understand, boy do I!, about pinching every penny. But if I need less, then I can spend that much more to buy my paint at the local paint store instead of at the big-box hardware store.

The Omelas bargain never ends. How much of your life has to be supported on the misery of unseen others? There is no good answer.

I suppose this is where we, as a culture, decide that we want what we use to be long-lasting and repairable. The problem with that decision is that less money changes hands. If I buy one toaster that lasts me for twenty years, then I’m not buying another and another and another.

But if everything is made to be long-lasting and repairable, even if it costs more up front, it saves money and resources downstream. If we choose to use less, to not replace our dishes on a regular basis, then we need to spend less money over the long haul.

If we rework our tax law to reward businesses for hiring people and punish them for automating jobs out of existence, then we would have more jobs. That would certainly be a good thing as people need to work and have a purpose in life.

Sitting on your ass on the dole doesn’t turn many of its recipients into musicians, artists, and poets. Some people do use it that way, but not many. Think about trust fund babies. You sure read about a lot of dissipation, drug use, and therapy among those heirs who never have to work a day in their lives. The scions of the rich don’t seem to turn out very many musicians, artists, and poets and these people get better educations and better opportunities.

Would all of us spending much less money on products because they last a long time and can be repaired change the economy? Oh, boy, would it.

As I mentioned earlier, our economy is built on dissatisfaction. Why else would you replace your dishes? A set of china should last barring breakage until the next ice age! Dishes don’t go bad. They don’t wear out. You make enough new sets of china to accommodate population growth. After that, why do you replace your dishes? Because you’re tired of your old ones.

I did replace my dishes many years ago, and I wrote about it in a section of Fortress Peschel about organization. I replaced my old miss-matched dishes with a single set. I took advantage of the fact that my dear husband had a set that his mother had given him. Do I like the pattern on these dishes? I do not. But we had them and so I got plenty more secondhand ones from Replacements Limited. They’re the biggest china match service in the world, or so they advertise, and having visited them once in Greensboro, N.C., I can believe it.

omelas bargain dishes

Notice that I did not go out and buy new dishes. I bought old ones. The pattern had stopped production in about 1969 or so. Secondhand was the only way to go, and so that’s what I did.

I do have a second set of china, that I bought when Bill and I got married. We use it on special occasions. I wouldn’t do this again. They just take up space.

I think that a sustainable economy would be very, very different. I think that we should employ people and not machines. Automation should be used just enough to make the job safer and less back-breaking, but after that, why are we using robots when people need jobs? Robots don’t need jobs. They don’t have to be built in the first place.

Robots and automation are a choice our corporate masters make so they don’t have to accommodate the needs of actual human beings.

And maybe, if we all did this, there would be more jobs for people to have, the things that got made would last longer, the wages would rise a bit higher, and those seamstresses in China getting 39 cents an hour would get 49 cents an hour, a 25 percent increase in pay. They might even be given cleaner factories and get a sick day now and then.

I can’t save the world, but I can make my little part of it better and greener, and I can try hard to use my share more sensibly without making it worse for someone else.

What I can’t do is pretend that my choices are consequence-free and cause no damage to someone else. I can’t pretend that my green life is green, when the pollution that is generated at the long-lasting battery factory is out of sight half a world away in China. That pollution is still there, and it will be there for a long, long time. The people who live and work there get to suffer for me, so I can have a nicer life.

All I can do is to use less and to use what I have more responsibly.