A Mother’s Day Meditation on Complacency & Responsibility

My mother keeps a book of quotes, brief passages and pithy lines from various books she’s read, augmented by her own Tayaisms. She lent me the book this week so I could copy down a passage from Wendell Berry; though after reading it I realized only the first sentence belonged to the esteemed farmer-poet-essayist from Kentucky. The five lines that followed were my mother’s addition. She might wish to argue with me on this point, saying no, no, it was all his, but I recognize her prose.

Mr. Berry wrote, “One’s responsibility is to act responsibly within the place history has put us.” My mother added: “Which acknowledges our own responsibility to act within the bounds of what’s possible for us within that place. This philosophy encompasses more than the time and place of where we find ourselves so as to include all the human relationships afforded us—blood ties and otherwise.”

My mother had marked the page with a large paperclip and I took the liberty of flipping to the other side of the paper-clip and found this: “The sermon I’d like to write and deliver at Leaf’s church: Complacency serves well as the Devil’s handmaiden.”

Since it is Mother’s Day, I offered my mother a chance at the pulpit yet she declined. But since this is perhaps the last sermon of mine she will hear, at least in this beloved place, I wish to attempt the sermon my mother envisioned crafting. And as is my wont, I will endeavor to draw the connection between Mr. Berry’s assertion and my mother’s.

So on the one hand we have this notion that our “responsibility is to act responsibly within the place history has put us” and in the other hand, “Complacency serves well as the Devil’s handmaiden.”

Complacency denotes a smug self-satisfaction with oneself or one’s actions though often it connotes an inactivity born of either smug self-satisfaction or disinterest. I suppose if one is smugly self-satisfied one no longer believes there is anything left to do; but more often than not, the complacency I observe and experience has more to do with feeling detached from a situation.

The recent collapse of a building in Bangladesh resulting in the death of a thousand garment workers may have jostled our complacency around abundantly cheap clothes produced by people no different than us except that they labor in obviously unsafe conditions for thirty-seven dollars a month. But the fire in a Bangladeshi factory six months earlier that killed a hundred and twelve people apparently lacked the oomph to do so. Yet I noticed in the New York Times an ad for “Fresh Threads All Under $50” on the same page as an article about the Bangladeshi woman found alive under the rubble after seventeen days.

If we reflect on Wendell Berry’s aphorism that our “responsibility is to act responsibly within the place history has put us,” we might ask what place is that?

History situates us in a place no longer limited to the geographic confines of foot travel or even travel by automobile. A hundred years ago, New York City housed the garment industry that supplied Americans with clothes. Tailors, seamstresses, milliners plied their trade. Men like my maternal great-grandfather and paternal grandfather sold the clothes other fairly recent European and Russian immigrants made. Today, clothes are largely manufactured overseas and even China with sophisticated equipment and an enormous labor pool faces stiff competition from Bangladesh where multinational companies press for even lower prices through lower wages for workers.

What can we do over here about horrendous working conditions eight thousand miles away? Look at the labels in our clothes. Decide whether it makes more sense or better ethics to buy second-hand clothes, or buy clothes manufactured by people fairly paid and protected from unsafe conditions. We can employ local people to make clothes for us or buy through worker-owned cooperatives.

Justice Clothing is a worker-owned cooperative selling union-made T-shirts, underwear, outerwear, and men’s and women’s clothing manufactured in the US and Canada. No Sweat Apparel sells clothing produced by union workers from Canada, Indonesia, Nicaragua, and the US, and Just Garments sells khakis and T-shirts made in an El Salvador union factory.

Another way to find sweatshop-free clothing is to look for [a] union label…a much better indicator of fair labor conditions than the “Made in the USA” label. [T]here are many illegal sweatshops operating within the US and in US territories; also, it’s likely that a non-union “US-made” garment was produced overseas and only had the finishing touches, like buttons or embroidery, applied in the US.[1]

But there is more we can do. We can connect the dots. Globalization has made local economies seem archaic but Wendell Berry in numerous essays underscores their importance. He writes in “The Idea of a Local Economy,”[2]

 

What has happened is that most people in our country, and apparently most people in the “developed” world, have given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food, clothing, and shelter. Moreover, they are rapidly giving proxies to

corporations or governments to provide entertainment, education, child care, care of the sick and the elderly, and many other kinds of “service” that once were carried on

informally and inexpensively by individuals or households or communities. Our major

economic practice, in short, is to delegate the practice to others.

 

The danger now is that those who are concerned will believe that the solution … can be merely political … solved by … a few people to whom we will give our proxies ….

people will think they have made a sufficient change if they have altered their “values,” or had a “change of heart,” or experienced a “spiritual awakening,” and that such a change in passive (that is to say complacent) consumers will cause appropriate changes in the public experts, politicians, and corporate executives … (In contrast)

…the idea of a local economy rests upon only two principles: neighborhood and subsistence. In a viable neighborhood, neighbors ask themselves what they can do or provide for one another, and they find answers that they and their place can afford. This, and nothing else, is the practice of neighborhood.… Of course, everything needed locally cannot be produced locally. But a viable neighborhood is a community; and a viable community is made up of neighbors who cherish and protect what they have in common. This is the principle of subsistence. A viable community, like a viable farm, protects its own production capacities. It does not import products that it can produce for itself. And it does not export local products until local needs have been met. The economic products of a viable community are understood either as belonging to the community’s subsistence or as surplus, and only the surplus is considered to be marketable abroad. A community, if it is to be viable, cannot think of producing solely for export, and it cannot permit importers to use cheaper labor and goods from other places to destroy the local capacity to produce goods that are needed locally. In charity, moreover, it must refuse to import goods that are produced at the cost of human or ecological degradation elsewhere. This principle applies not just to localities, but to regions and nations as well.… We are connected by work even to the places where we don’t work, for all places are connected; it is clear by now that we cannot exempt one place from our ruin of another.

 

The top story in yesterday’s (11 May 2013) New York Times: The level of carbon dioxide surpassed the long-feared milestone of 400 parts per million. The chief monitor for NOAA says, “We have failed miserably in tackling this problem.”

Thus, “the place where history has put us” is this world. Which is not to discount the virtue and significance of acting locally, producing locally, trading locally and tending locally to the well-being of the land, water, air and creatures dwelling there. Berry writes often of the importance of knowing one’s place, the names of rivers and trees, the contours of groves and hillocks, the habits of the resident deer and fox. He notes the essence of deep connection with the literal ground of being and community, which he defines as “the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives.”

Ultimately, what connects the two sentences I began with is connection itself. The inescapable relationship that comprises planetary life. According to Mr. Berry,

The name of our proper connection to the earth is “good work,” for good work involves much giving of honor. It honors the source of its materials; it honors the place where it is done; it honors the art by which it is done; it honors the thing that it makes and the user of the made thing. Good work is always modestly scaled, for it cannot ignore either the nature of individual places or the differences between places, and it always involves a sort of religious humility, for not everything is known. Good work can be defined only in particularity, for it must be defined a little differently for every one of the places and every one of the workers on the earth.

 

Complacency denies and defies “good work.” It keeps us from honoring the dignity and like desires of people in Bangladesh—and the skilled crafters rendered a dying breed. Complacency dulls our capacity to notice and in so doing, reduces us to a state of willful ignorance. Environmental complacency will render the earth uninhabitable.

Each day we awaken, we have the choice to honor place and material, maker and what is made. And through we may not be able to detect it from where we are, across the globe people are creating local economies. Worker cooperatives are on the rise. Brazil boasts more than 300; The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives estimates at least 300 here. In South Africa, where micro-enterprises proliferate, there are 17,000. About 350 U.S. communities have food coops and I am proud to be a founding member owner of the new one in Keene. Beyond coops, there is a new worldwide series of localized initiatives known collectively as the Transition Movement. Here’s a description from TransitionUS:

The Transition Movement is comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis… by engaging their communities in home-grown, citizen-led education, action, and multi-stakeholder planning to increase local self reliance and resilience.

Acting locally doesn’t mean ignoring the rest of the world. We are inextricably connected. Our refusal to substantially reduce fossil fuel use imperils the planet. Our consumption of cheap products creates not just clutter but havoc. Our government sells arms to other nations and then we all decry war. Across the globe, sectarian violence rages. Deeply held religious and cultural beliefs form bitter, often deadly divides and alliances. Caring about those caught in the crossfire is part of the good work we are called to as human beings. Understanding our complicity is essential; but so too is humility. The world is not ours to arbitrate.

As Mr. Berry writes, “We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”

We all have much to learn but together we can educate ourselves. And in the meantime we can follow Berry’s simple dictum, sure to end up in my mother’s book of quotes: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”  Amen.

 



[1] http://www.greenamerica.org/livinggreen/nosweatshops.cfm

[2] Wendell Berry, “The Idea of Local Economy,” Orion magazine, 2001