Archive for January, 2005

Simple Living

I found a simple living site by philosophy professor Bob Corbett: http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/simple.html. A larger site is Unconventional Ideas by John Andersen (no relation).

It’s hard to find anything wrong with simple living. Practicing it improves any situation.

A few years back I was involved with a Simple Living discussion group and I retain ambivalent feelings about it. It was nice to find other people with the same urge to simplify, yet I quickly discovered that I was on a different wavelength.

There were two points of contention. First, the members were middle American in outlook, politically unsophisticated and vulnerable to the crackerbarrel fascists. I realized how effectively a few vocal rightists can take over an online group, bringing up welfare fraud, Hilary Clinton, etc. (I wonder if there’s a plot among pajama-clad right-wingers to disrupt liberal discussion groups?)

Secondly, I had a problem with the standard textbook for modern Simple Living, Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez, Vicki Robin. Basically it’s a Ten-Step program for curing oneself of materialism and achieving financial independence. It’s a tremendously effective strategy and a laudable one.

What drove me crazy was the chapter on investments, which said in effect: “Don’t worry your pretty little heads about investments; they are too complicated and no one can win. Just put everything in long-term US bonds.” Well, it’s more complicated than that and I spent many hours trying to explain why.

I may have been right, I may have been wrong, but when the situation is not working it’s better to be quiet or leave. Charging into battle again and again is not the only option; one would think I would have learned that by now!

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Speaking of “charging into battle again and again”…

I’ve been reading the Marxism mailing list at http://www.marxmail.org/. Although I’m not an expert on Marxist sects, the list has a strong flavor of Trotskyism. Fierce, argumentative, dogmatic, intelligent, sectarian, critical of just about everything (but especially critical of potential allies). The target of the most venemous attacks is “ABB” — those who wanted anybody but Bush. Ultra-left nonsense, in my opinion.

Nonetheless, marxmail moderator Louis Proyect tries to keep the sectarianism and ad hominem attacks to a minimum. (Proyect also writes essays and good movie reviews which he self-publishes on the web.)

I had wondered whether any Marxists had come to terms with environmental issues such as global warming and Peak Oil. Searching through the marxmail archives, I found a few Marxists who wrote interesting pieces (see Eco-marxist links). Not surprisingly, many of the pieces were published in Monthly Review, a non-sectarian socialist magazine, probably the finest publication that American Marxism has ever produced.

On the down side, even the best of the pieces don’t have much new to say about the environment. It turns out that Marx incorporated insights from the chemist and soil scientist Liebig into his analysis of the contradiction between city and country. In brief, farmers deprive their land of the nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous contained in the produce they ship to the city. The nutrients are excreted by the city population and cause pollution. Somehow, the nutrients should be returned to the land in which the crops are grown. A very important insight, but one that subsequent Marxism did not develop.

Other articles, like those by Stan Goff, incorporate the ideas of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Interesting, but no real advance over Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen who first introduced this line of thought.

A barrier to most people is the Marxist jargon in which the pieces are written. Terms like “means of production,” “dialectic,” “contradictions” mean nothing unless you’ve fallen under the spell of Das Kapital at some point in your life. I actually enjoy the jargon, just as I like using computer jargon, but I realize that it is a poor way to communicate to a large audience. Not to mention the fact that anything Marxist is taboo in American intellectual discourse, outside of a few inbred groups.

I accept the thesis of John Bellamy Foster that Marx and Engels had some thoughts relevant to environmentalism. But in general, if one wants to learn about ecology and the environment, one has to look elsewhere than Marxism.

If economic turmoil comes, Marxism will probably return to influence and the eco-Marxists may be seen as the beginnings of a red-green synthesis.

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