I had a great discussion with a friend about David Orr’s essay, “Loving Children: a Design Problem“. She concluded that the breakdown of education is one of the many results of an unfettered capitalistic economic system. It sounded like the end of our conversation, because, you know, The Economy: what can I do about that?

I almost accepted it as such, but then I said that what Orr and others like him want to bring home most of all is that “an unfettered capitalistic economic system” is not something out there, but something in us. It’s not something that happens to us, but something that we make happen, almost constantly every day, all day long. When we buy something, or watch television, when we turn on the lights in rooms we don’t occupy, dive our cars, etc. We are that economy. And if it is “unfettered”, it is so because we are unfettered: out of control and loving it, thinking we can go on like this for ever and with impunity.

I added that all of this pervades our children’s lives as well. In Orr’s article it shows in the landscape, in our non-sense of place. I added that this “unfettered economy” becomes natural to our children, with dire consequences for child and world.

My friend agreed that indeed our environments have become toxic physically, spiritually, intellectually. But she disagreed that as individuals we can peaceably radically alter the system. That history tells us that blood is usually spilled in such attempts, and human greed corrupts the results.

I said that we cannot peaceably and radically alter the system as a whole. But we can banish it from our home and our children’s environment(s). Not totally, of course (although some people I know are getting close, off the grid and all that). We can at least banish its most corrupting influences, like television and advertisement, the plethora of toys, the plastic throwaways.

And we can model a more wholesome way of life by not wasting food or energy, by showing them, with a little garden perhaps, where food actually comes from and the hard work that went into it. By showing them (right at home) the value of hard work. By not wasting paper towels, by sending less stuff to the landfill…

There are so many things we can do, quite easily, and without bloodshed. It might not change the world, but it will change the child.

But first you have to let go of that nice delusion, that “The Economy is not us.”

Related posts:

A Gift of Self-Sufficiency

She’s My Little Sample

Home Made Christmas

Off the Market: Freecycling


Yesterday one of the headlines in Google was “Economy Contracts as Consumers Retreat“. There is a nice rhythm to that phrase, don’t you think? And, also like a good line of poetry, it says a lot in the most subtle of ways. The bellicosity of this phrase reveals what we all really know about consumption in a more-is-more, me-firs, “free” market: it’s a battlefield.

Who are these consumers at war with on this field, and to whom are they losing the upper hand? And where can they retreat to, to which safe haven?

Since beginning the Riot 4 Austerity I have had some conversations with friends and family members about reducing one’s footprint. I’ve noticed a couple of things. First, that invariably the first two questions from family members  are: (1) Are you in financial trouble? (2) Isn’t 64 F (17 C) too cold? No to both. That was easy.

But friends have more complicated, diverse reactions. They run the gamut of (1) a smile (you-goofy/silly-people-now-on-to-a-different-topic) to (2) “why on earth would you deprive yourself of Coke and cable”, to (3) “I really admire that but we just can’t do it like you”. So far I am ashamed to say that I haven’t made any convert, but then again I’m so non-confrontational I am probably the lamest activist you’ve ever met!

But here’s the thing: I get the sense that none of my friends are happy in their role as consumers, to which they choose, nevertheless, to cling. I have the feeling that they all long for something different than a life on the battlefield/market. I have heard them talk of their need for something spiritual, a different kind of riches. For a return to daily rituals of comfort and belonging, like they remember from their childhood perhaps (because most children, if you let them, are so naturally at home with themselves). And for time: time to be at home with oneself and one’s family, time to reflect on something beautiful, to read a book, time for friendship. Time that is not hurried, not stuffed up with stuff, but calm and warm and ample.

They want these intangibles (a nice way of avoiding calling them “things”), but they seem to deny  that the only way to get them back is by taking them back from the mass  marketplace. Because in my honest opinion, that’s where we have traded them in, our time most of all, for stuff, for plastics, for vapid “entertainment,” for glossy magazines and a glossier, paper thin life.

The mass marketplace where we are at war. The “economy shrinks” as we “retreat” from a battlefield: what does that mean? The newspapers and politicians and Wall Street investors would have us believe that it means that we are losing jobs, so money, so stuff, so happiness. They would have us believe that the only way to win it back is to ratchet up our consumption again, to “have confidence in the market”. They want us to believe that the enemy is the Chinese toymaker, the Euro, the Japanese car manufacturer and the Indian telemarketer. And they want it to be taken for granted that our retreat can only be temporary and that a victorious recovery just around the corner. That there is no other place to be.

But I believe that we are really at war in that field with our worst enemy: ourselves. We have been pitched against ourselves. No wonder no one can win. And even if the market recovers, “victory” is only Pyrrhic. Pyrrhus after winning one of many battles said that one more such victory would utterly undo him. It’s the same with us, only worse. I’m saying that we have already been completely undone.

I’m not just talking about global warming, peak oil, and all those “obstacles” to economic growth and ultimately, of course, our self-preservation. I am talking also of our loss of our “spiritual needs.” Yes, let’s name them: love, home, kindness, peace, and time. I believe that’s what my friends have been saying, suffering. Not the loss of stuff, but of soul.

And no marketplace is going to return these to us.

There are many other ways to recovering  happiness. By avoiding the mall and the box store, and saving the money for something more permanent and less polluting to the body and the mind (a woodburning stove, in our case), or for a sense of security at least. By coming together every evening in the kitchen, cooking together and then sharing the meal at the dinner table. By congregating in the living room, telling stories and listening to music or discussing a book,  and playing board games or making art together. By staying home, going for a walk in the woods and listening to the birds.  By counting what we consume in energy and goods  and how much we trash our planet, and reducing those. By planning our garden, our self-sufficiency.

By knowing where we stand, as a family, on that marketplace: more and more on the sideline, less and less at war with ourselves.

Have you seen the small CNN documentary video about the Dervaes Urban Homesteaders (of Path to Freedom fame)?

If you’ve followed the Urban Homesteaders, it won’t show you much that is new, except for that toilet/sin (approx. 2/3 into the video)!

Gaiam’s sink/toilet

The lid of the toilet water tank has been converted into a small sink. You wash your hands with new water and it drains into the water tank. It’s perfect!

Theirs seems to be a Gaiam system (picture above), but for the do-it-yourselfers I found a quick hack here. A more elaborate system that stores the drainwater under the usual sink and diverts it to the toilet can be found here and here.

No need to flush perfectly good drinking water down the toilet!

We were on the phone with my parents-in-law and I or DH made a passing reference to watching movies on a big screen tv when at our friends’ place in New York. Amie had been eating her O’s peacefully (more or less), but when she heard that, she piped up:

“We’re gonna need a big screen tv at some point.”

Me: “Where did you get that idea?!”

Baba: “Good girl.”


The place with the big screen tv also had a three-and-a-half-year-old who received a set of beads for Christmas. Amie with her attention and occasional reverence for what the bigger kids do, was immediately into it.

Amie Beading December 2007 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten


I got her the same set today and she has the patience for stringing about 15 beads. I am so amazed at her little fingers working like busy bees, the intense concentration on her face!

Amie Beading jANUARY 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

There is something about this picture… I feel I get a glimpse here of what she might look like in a few years time, maybe even in a decade or two…

Anyway, Amie doesn’t however get the point. All the beads need to be taken off the string and be returned to the box at the end. It’s a relief actually: that one box will last a long time!

masthead “Dimming the Sun” on NOVA / PBS

  • Complacency 

I probably shouldn’t have watched “Dimming the Sun” on NOVA/PBS yesterday. Did you see it?  I stumbled upon the last half hour of the program by accident and by the time it was over, all the old feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and inadequacy made their comeback. And of course, whenever they do that, they are worse than before, because I was yet again lulled into a false sense of security, yet again complacent.

When I went to bed, there was my Amie, sleeping so soundly and sweetly, with not a care in the world. I lay down next to her and wept, whispering empty”sorries”. I couldn’t bring myself to saying: “I’ll make it all better.”

  • Dimming the Sun

So what was the program about?

It turns out that, since the seventies and eighties, when air polution in Europe and Northern America went virtually unchecked, said air polution  has been “dimming” the sun, that is, reflecting the sunlight back, in effect cooling the earth . Another contributor to this are contrails: the vapor trails left behind by high-flying aircraft.

This has veiled the actual degree of global warming, which, if we take the dimming into account, now seems much more advanced than we thought. Since the 1990s, Europe and Northern America have been cutting down on polution, which sounds like a good thing, for health reasons, obviously, but it is a double-edged sword: it opens the door to more global warming. And, as James Hansen put it:

In a way, it is unfortunate that the small particles were in the atmosphere because we would have realized much earlier that the…how strong the greenhouse effect is, and would have had more time to make the adjustments that are going to be necessary to slow down and eventually stop the growth of greenhouse gases.

  • Ethiopia, 1984

The most gripping example of this dimming for me was the footage of the great draught and famine in the Sahel: Ethiopia, 1984.

For decades, the seasonal monsoons, which had kept the Sahel going – hanging on by its fingernails – stayed away. No one know why, but it now seems that it was due to that same polution by Europe and Northern America – which satellite pictures revealed reached deeply into the Sahel. These particles blocked the sun’s yearly warm-up of the oceans north of the equator. This in turn blocked the ocean from drawing the tropical rainbelt around the equator up north for a while. That meant that the land at that longitude was no longer getting its much needed monsoon.

The images of all those starving and dead children… They gripped us in the 80’s, and we all contributed to Aid. But I wonder: had we known, had it been pointed out to us, that it was we who were directly repsonsible for this, would we have changed our lifestyles?

  • The End of the Trees and the Soil

The Sahel was an example of the consequences of dimming the sun in the past. The program of course also looked into the future. Today’s climate models predict a maximum warming of 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, but this young climate scientist, Peter Cox, thinks it could very well rise by as much as 10 degrees Celsius, or 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

Within a matter of years, many plants would die. Also the trees. The soil would simply blow away… Just writing this down makes my head feel top-heavy! If you missed the show, see if they will rerun it in your region, or read the transcript: even without the images, it brings the message home.

  • Children

The program ended with children – because they’re the future, you know. The climatologist, Peter Cox, was shown playing on a beach with his young son. But it wasn’t sentimental tear-jerking. When Cox took the last word, it sounded like an understatement (and this from the most pessimistic of global-warming scientists, and the father of a child who will live to see his predications come true):

One of the real driving forces is that you leave an environment that is comfortable for your children. And if we carry on going the way we’re going, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to leave an environment that’s much worse than the environment we lived in, and it will be down to what we did when we were using that environment, and that would be, tragic, really, if that happened.

It already is tragic, in my eyes. As you know, I am one of the pessimists about what will change – Hansen says we have a decade before we reach the point of no return.

That’s why I say “sorry” to Amie, but not “I’ll make it all better”. I’ll do my best, and every little bit counts, makes it a little bit better, I know, but in the end, I often despair whether it will be enough.

I don’t want to promise what I can’t deliver.

Image of Trailer for Blokken

I don’t know what to think of these (scroll down on the page to the 3 YouTube videos). 

They are trailers for a program on Belgian television called “Blocks,” a popular trivia and tretris combination game for adults. The message at the end translates to: “Life without blocks is not worth living”.

The channel they were made for in the end declined to broadcast the trailers because they were too confrontational. However, they won the Silver award at the prestigious Promax/BDA-festival in New York.

They made me cry (I couldn’t even watch the third one), but I also couldn’t help laughing. They’re like watching bloopers but with (even) more guilt, because the kids are made to cry, for a commercial purpose no less. Still, they’re irresistable…

What do you think? What does it do to you?

Photograph of tv dumped in desert, by Pablo Gonzalez Vargas (at Morguefile.com)

(Thanks to a lead from Aaron at Powering Down)

  • 90% of 2-year-olds watch 1.5 hours of television daily

Frederick Zimmerman and colleagues Christakis and Meltzoff did a telephone survey of 1009 parents (in Minnesota and Washington) of children aged 2 to 24 months. And they found some disturbing facts:

By 3 months of age, about 40% of children regularly watched television, DVDs, or videos. By 24 months, this proportion rose to 90%. The median age at which regular media exposure was introduced was 9 months. Among those who watched, the average viewing time per day rose from 1 hour per day for children younger than 12 months to more than 1.5 hours per day by 24 months. Parents watched with their children more than half of the time. Parents gave education, entertainment, and babysitting as major reasons for media exposure in their children younger than 2 years. [“Television and DVD/Video Viewing in Children Younger Than 2 Years,” published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, May 2007]

What’s so disturbing about this?

  • Academic performance?

Scientists as well as the media reporting on their findings are usually interested in the effects of so much television on intellectual (read academic) performance. For instance, in 2005, Zimmerman and Christakis studied children who before age 3 watched an average of 2.2 hours of television per day, and children who at ages 3 to 5 watched a daily average of 3.3 hours. Their conclusion was that

There are modest adverse effects of television viewing before age 3 years on the subsequent cognitive development of children. These results suggest that greater adherence to the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines that children younger than 2 years not watch television is warranted. [“Children’s Television Viewing and Cognitive Outcomes. A Longitudinal Analysis of National Data,” published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, July 2005]

Mmmm: “modest averse effects”. That won’t persuade the stressed-out parent who relies on television as a babysitter or a soother.

In an interview with Newsweek, Zimmerman is more forceful and reticent at the same time:

It is not clear-cut, but it is very suggestive, that excessive viewing, more than 30 to 60 minutes a day before 3 years of age, is associated with a lot or problems later on, such as obesity, poor cognitive development, poor attention control and aggressive behavior. Much more research needs to be done in these areas, though, before we have a crystal-clear picture of these effects.

  • Advertising

The reasons for this are simple. Intellectual (read, again, academic) performance is “easily” measured. And the traditional media would rather not put the spotlight on certain other effects of television, effects that are beneficial to them. Advertising, for instance.

As Aaron (father of Keaton) writes:

Before our children have even fully functional use of our language, we are giving them over to others, including advertising agencies and their corporate sponsors, to teach them what those people and companies would like them to know.

Spot on!

  • Mindfulness

I have seen this in Amie. She was never the least bit interested in television. We played Baby Einstein for her when she was 6 months old, and after the third time she had lost interest. I was relieved by that, because whatever “attention” she did pay to the program seemed more enforced than enthusiastic. How could she not look at where that horrendous music (Baby Beethoven) was coming from? So I put “attention” between quotes, because it was less awareness than shielding!

I single out Baby Einstein because we tried it and because I detest the musical renditions. But any program that is not, say, Sixty Minutes, is detrimental to real attention. Attention means awareness, or even better: mindfulness. One isn’t mindfull of Friends, or even Seinfeld, one simply undergoes it. As such, people with attention deficit disorder have no trouble paying “attention” for three hours to a fastpaced movie or computergame. And however much the Baby Einstein Company et. al. would like us to believe it, there has been no proof that watching their products enhance  attention, let alone minds. 

  • Noisy ads 

One exception to Amie’s total disregard to television was one particular ad. She couldn’t care less about the Red Sox game, but when that Pepsi ad with Jimmy Fallon came on, she would turn, stare for a second, and dance. Two minutes later it was back to business as usual. 

We catered to her dancing needs much better by putting on cds, and she continued to ignore the tv, until a month ago. I’ve written that she has become a lot more sensitive to sound, especially as the sign of something threatening (a loud machine, a car honking). She still ignores the programs, but the ads have suddenly become a lot more “interesting”.

I don’t precisely know what “interesting” means here. I would like think she is merely checking out the sudden noise (*) as a potential threat. But then she keeps on staring at it. She is sucked in, becomes passive, mindless.

(*) Ads may not be more “voluminous” than other television content objectively, but they are louder subjectively, thanks to the audio technicians tricks that make the track sound fuller, more dynamic. The same goes for the visual density of an ad: the images are sharper, flashier, more colorful. Sooner or later also that aspect will want to kidnap her.

  • Where does the mind go when the eyes watch tv?

You can’t measure “mindful” and “mindless”: it is too big, too wondeful. A child’s mind is so much more than just IQ or reading ability. It is identity, wholesomeness, confidence, autonomy, spirituality, responsibility, kindness and affection.

Children this young are still laboriously and courageously building these qualities. So they are even more defenseless against the assault of television than us adults (who freely and stupidly give up these wonderful things as we accept human characters being blown and beaten to pieces).  In the face of such auditory, visual, and mindless violence, the small seeds of these qualities retreat. What is left is a vacuum easily occupied by corporations and companies.

I can easily entertain the opinion that the kind of television of the last twenty years has influenced the teens and early twentiers who were raised on it, from infancy, and in particular their ability to cope with aggression and aggressive behavior. If the ubiquitous babysitter habitually beats someone up, right in front of the child and with impunity… And if that babysitter cheats on the spouse, drives an SUV, lives in a McMansion and goes shopping for shoes everything she feels depressed…