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the diary thing 
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06.24.01
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 luddite
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Hh - hatTHERE WAS A TIME, not long ago, when I proudly called myself a luddite, regardless of whether it was true or not. This was the time before the computer; my laptop, expensive (for me) and obsolete before I even bought it, was the sign I took to stop my cavalierly throwing the word luddite around. From that moment on, I began to let go of any cherished pretense that my life was a revolt against the contemporary.

As a "luddite", I tried to pare the modern world -- so sloppy and garish and badly made -- from my life. I had the luxury of a bit of money, so I hit the antique stores and got myself a tailor. I wore hats and suits; shirts with buttons and shoes with laces. My phone had a dial and my music wasn't made through electronics, even if it came on CDs. I bought a fifty-year old tv and despaired that it didn't pick up "Playhouse 90" and Edward R. Murrow, so I fitted it with a VCR and a collection of old shows. I collected vintage phonographs, and immersed myself in a world that even my parents, born before WW1, would have considered retrograde. It was a time of luxurious, pointless anachronism.

A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, the environmental columnist at the free weekly where I work -- a Greenpeace founder and renowned eco-activist -- wrote another one of his unhappy jeremiads about the fate of the world. "Blinded by our guilt" ran the headline, above an article that bemoaned our collective guilt in the imminent decimation of the planet. Singled out for approbation were "Canadian and American drivers, frequent flyers, truckers, SUV owners, all-terrain vehicle operators, skidooers, Sea-Dooers, people with leaf-blowers, snow blowers, power mowers, motorcycles, outboards, inboards -- everyone who adds the greenhouse gas load." 

I read over the list and discovered that, unique perhaps among friends, neighbours, family, employers and acquaintances, I was entirely guiltless of the unhappy columnist's accusations. No part of the problem, I was, indeed, part of the solution, baby. I have never known how to drive, and therefore never owned a car. I've used public transit my whole life, and poverty has kept me from ever being a "frequent flyer". I'm standing outside your glass house, right now, with a handful of stones.

This is more than the columnist himself can say; in past columns, he's admitted an addiction to his car, and a home in far-flung suburbia prevents him from taking advantage of the city's buses and subways. Columns like his accusatory attack on needless consumption tend to alternate with abashed mea culpas, explaining that his Boomer upbringing made him an auto junkie; how the need for speed makes public transit an alternative he's simply unable to take. It's not his fault, you see -- blame it on Ike, and GM, and the Beach Boys singing "I Get Around". In addition, the environmental movement, like the multinationals it opposes, is a global business. I can only imagine his tally of air miles.

As a renter, I have no need of lawn mower, leaf or snow blower. Our landlord takes care of the scant lawn with a push mower, and in the winter the tenants take turns shoveling the short paths to our brief stretch of sidewalk. A minority among my countrymen, I hate winter sports; ergo no ski-doo. When, once or twice a summer, we visit our friend's cottage on Georgian Bay, I harbour dark fantasies involving chains and wires and mines strung across narrow channels as vapid sunburned youths buzz the islands in their Sea-Doos. 

(Perhaps I should insist that our friends decline the use of the power boat when they ferry us from Parry Sound to their island, in favour of an updated slave galley, but that would mean that a day of our scant, two-and-a-half day weekends would be spent hauling the oars to the drum's pounding as powerboats threaten to capsize us.)

We've insisted on a compost bin in the backyard this year -- we'll buy it if the landlord provides us with a spot in the back, and he's agreed, grateful for the mulch. In one move, our kitchen waste will be cut at least in half. The self-righteousness only continues.

When K. and I travel, we prefer the train if it's at all possible. Without a car or truck, mower, blower, ski- or Sea-doo, SUV or ATV, our lifestyle isn't technologically different than our grandparents, if you just squint and avoid the TV or computer. Our blender, toaster and stand mixer are antiques, bought from vintage dealers; we make our own jam and preserves; we buy used; we recycle. My halo shines brightly.

I feel qualified to stand up to the environmental columnist and ask just how columns like his are supposed to do more than share his own mid-life doom crisis with the rest of us. I wonder whether his column, run in a free weekly read by club kids, college students, lefties and cranks, will do more than turn up the volume on the apathy he so deplores. Most of them are far from being the heedless energy hogs he deplores, at least for now. Perhaps in a few years, earnings improved, they'll join the army of pink, human locusts gnawing the planet down to the stalk. In any case, if the columnist's work gives them any sense of self-righteousness, it'll be forgotten, much as a previous generation went from green to greedy in a decade.

I'm sorry, I'm just so tired of the old rhetoric, the tired arguments, full of a self-righteousness that even I can trump. It's a crooked poker game, where everyone at the table can produce handfuls of aces. It reminds me of those endless college bitch sessions about them, ranging from Marxist denunciations by onetime private school boys, to emotional laundry lists of male oppression, to sneering dissections of middle-class tackiness, arias of inverted snobbery by youthful aesthetes just beginning their own white-knuckled social climb. 

I've become wary of the left, specifically because of an ideology that tries to use shame and guilt to legislate human desire, a new puritanism as tiresome and tendentious as the old one. It's a world where a vote for a "left-leaning" candidate can be outdone by avid recycling or organic shopping, which can be trumped again by vegetarianism, then veganism, in a spiral of principled asceticism that eventually comes to view the whole of the world as "fallen". It's a mindset that ignore the basic truth that most people -- especially those in the poorest parts of the world -- want more, not less. More food, more clothes, more leisure time, more money to spend on entertainment. Class -- a slippery concept -- will be articulated not only by having more money, but by demanding -- and getting -- measurably better food, better clothes, better leisure time and entertainment. 

Perhaps a "right-on" regime could shame part, or most, of the populace into asking for less, or worse; this was pretty much the only real social project of the Soviet regime. If the end of the last century has taught us anything, it's that people don't want less or worse and, moreover, won't stand for anyone who tells them that's precisely what they should want. Clearly, even the environmentalist won't stand, personally, for less -- less car, less mileage, less access to travel -- but the shame remains and, clearly, has to be shared.


 
"All go free when multitudes offend."
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- Lucan
Pharsalia

 
A rant. That's really all this is. Really. Forgive me.

By the way, Toronto readers might want to pick up this month's issue (July 2001) of Toronto Life magazine, which includes my essay on the neighbourhood where I grew up. More on it later, but I feel happy to make this plug, since I really did go on about it when I was writing the thing, a few months ago.

I'M BEING HARD ON THE environmentalist -- a perfectly nice guy, from what I understand, with an admirable concern for the future of the planet. Still, I don't think he's doing himself, or his movement, any service by playing the Cassandra, especially in an age when world leaders treat environmental accords like telephone numbers scrawled on a cocktail napkin, souvenirs of a misspent evening, best thrown away before the wife finds them.

I don't want to sound cynical. I wish there was a way to satisfy the demand for more, without turning the world into an ashtray. Perhaps that's the idea the environmental columnist should be exploring, instead of pouring on the guilt and shame, an accusing finger sweeping the horizon, making villains not only out of the villainous, rapacious "them", but the conrite and well-intentioned "us". In any case, the language is getting old, and defenses against it -- like my own lifestyle, with its residual luddism -- are well-developed. The fact remains that people will want more, and convincing them otherwise is about as practical as me, struggling with my vintage picture tube, trying to pretend it isn't the turn of the 21st century. 

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writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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