I remember watching the birth of a calf.
Two hooves came first. The cow was standing, its tail raised and contorted. What shocked me was how passive she looked. Despite what was going on at one end, the other end looked calm, resigned to her fate. Soon, a head emerged. I was concerned that the baby would pitch forward and fall headfirst into the hay and injure itself. Still, no one else seemed concerned, so I continued to watch. It was gooey and quick. The cow cleaned the calf, aided by the hoses and gentle words of the students and rancher. The calf then rose to its shaky feet and within a few minutes, it had gotten the hang of walking.
And I thought, “That’s it? One minute you’re waiting to be born, the next you’re on your shaky legs and about the business of living?”
I also realised that this animal, this circle of life, this complex change of birth and renewal, was being performed in that barn on that very afternoon so that one day that little calf would be grown, and just as unceremoniously and quickly, upon those very same not-so-shaky legs, it would be led away.
And I’d get to eat steak.
That realisation didn’t make a vegetarian out of me, not by a long shot. We sow seeds and husband animals toward that same inevitable end on our dinner tables. But bearing witness to this birth made me think about the role I occupy as a servant of the bigger picture.
And I thought that even though I would never literally end up on anyone’s dinner plate, there’s more than one way to end up being a consumable by-product of people who believe that they are your betters.
It makes me wonder whose cow I am.
Like a wobbly-legged newborn quadruped, a newly fawned critter, I took a short-lived tentative stand into the world of politics. I attempted to gather the 800 signatures necessary to appear on the ballot as a third party candidate for the New Jersey seat in the U.S. Senate. I did it without a hope of victory, but I did it nevertheless because I felt that someone had to. Along the way, people began to speak of the things that mattered to them.
“You know what’s wrong with living in this place?” The conversation would inevitably begin. People spoke mostly of the difficulties making ends meet. It wasn’t fair, they said. If they failed, they lost their homes. If banks failed, the government taxes individuals, rich and poor, and we end up paying, quite literally, for their mistakes and inflated salaries.
People living contentedly in the woods are chased off because of zoning laws, and their children are taken from them. You can be fined if your lawn does not conform to certain standards of height, and in some communities, you are not permitted to collect water runoff from your own roof.
From what I’ve been seeing in the news, the situation is not much better in Bangladesh.
“You know what’s wrong with living in this place?” My friends email me from Bangladesh. Then, comes a litany of complaints. These range from the political struggles of the ruling families to unfair labour practices, from the troubles with the Grameen Bank to the dangerous traffic and the state of the cricket team to the treatment of minorities.
In all the noise, we forget that the most basic human right is to be left alone.
People may struggle to find shelter, water, warmth and food, but we’ve been struggling with those issues for millions of years. In many places, people have thrived off the land without any money at all. They have been allowed to sustain themselves, and to educate their children in the secrets of this sustenance. This type of education is often superior to that which they may receive in a school somewhere, because it lifts a child into the highest levels of a moneyless society.
Of course, there are people who are destitute, who are dying of hunger, and who cannot navigate their environment due to inadequate education. Many people who are thriving from simply living off the land may fall prey to diseases against which they could be inoculated. I’m not talking about those people. I’m talking about people who, in their own environment, are living without income, without modern amenities; yet their knowledge and background makes them the oligarchs in their own environment.
Last year, I attended a talk given by Professor Anu Mohammad, a well-known professor at Jahangirnagar University, who was visiting my university. He spoke about how micro loans had created a consumerist need in places previously independent of money. Their “local economies” were environmentally balanced, and their resources were shared. It was the need to pay off a loan that threw off that balance.
In other words, in attempting to lift people out of poverty, the micro loan system destroyed a moneyless system in favour of one that depended on surplus and sale. And in such a system, the moneyless oligarchs of the previous system now became the lowest women on the financial totem pole.
Arguably, the woman who has a single Taka to her name is infinitely more wealthy than those who possess nothing at all. On the other hand, not everyone who is penniless has any awareness of being poor. That woman with one Taka is now only wealthy insofar as she chooses to leverage that wealth to create more wealth, more surplus, and the only way she can do that is to convince others that they need something that she sells. In other words, in order to achieve happiness, she needs to convince others that they are unhappy with the status quo.
She needs to convince happy people that they are miserable enough to buy something from her that will alleviate this misery.
It’s called advertising.
When they speak of Bangladesh, the world headlines speak of how the garment industry is giving poor women more economic power.
Economic power to do what?
To work in dangerous factories, to become strangers to their children, to make those children a generation that will be raised by popular culture and state propaganda? And to what end? What is the garment industry doing to the environment? Bangladesh is one of the most fragile ecosystems on earth, and the dyes that are being dumped into the water system are poisoning people.
All this, so that people on my side of the world can declare: “I bought this at WalMart, whose motto is, “Save money. Live better.”
Better is the concept that keeps us poor, makes us the cows on the plates of the oligarchs. Better pollutes our rivers and collapses buildings.
Those who are already happy with the way that they’re living should not have to sacrifice their lifestyle because the big bully downstream is polluting the water. Those families who are already living better under the old system shouldn’t be marketed to by well-meaning NGOs who think any job is necessarily an improvement over sustenance farming.
As we pollute and populate this planet, we decrease the ability of any individual to find a clean spot of land, some good drinking water, and to live by his wit and industry. Those corporate purveyors of the better life are stealing from us our right to choose our own way of life. We have no choice but to urbanize and become subservient to the machine in which we are the cow on the plate.
The societal structure grows more complex, and people keep moving to the city. The oligarchy plays its games to maintain power, often times at the expense of programs that could help promote independence and protect the environment. Our rulers make a show of being concerned, of advancing the country, but one fact of life persists that every sustenance farmer both here and in Bangladesh knows:
The higher up the food chain you climb, the less useful you become.
I have known many people who live off the land. All they ever ask is to be left alone. When I visit them, they are likely to show off a beautiful spider web sun-spangled in morning dew or invite me for an invigorating swim in a creek. And despite their near-penniless condition, they are the oligarchs of the backwoods.
So far, I have never heard any of them say, “You know what’s wrong with living in this place?”
…there was that one time…
..with the skunks…