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Culture Change

Question realty
Private property's not what it's cracked up to be

by Jan Lundberg

"Property is theft," say anarchists.  Rather, property was theft.  Anarchistic folk are often happy today to buy a piece of property and not feel they are stealing anything.  What happened a few generations ago to the native Americans is mostly dust under our petroleum-soled shoes.  That holocaust was against peoples who, significantly, did not relate to "owning" the land.  

Are we not to own any land because it had been stolen?  If that is someone's ethic today, that's beautiful.  But whether or not we are entering a new age and new culture, owning land and buildings is what the dominant culture dictates we need forever.  This is unworkable, when the usable and accessible land is already owned--"It's all been fenced or paved," goes the song.

I was way yuppie
I have been a property owner numerous times.  The most recent house was nice and the value was going up, but I sold it because the community was not enough of a community.  I left and returned, and am just as happy (or as unhappy) to live nearby as a non-owner.  I have no "real property."

I am all for the masses owning land, as in land reform for peasants.  In the U.S., a large segment of the population owns land by virtue of mortgage.  But the need for land reform is lost on the average alienated American who imagines that oil and cash are all s/he needs.  Food comes from the land, not supermarket shelves and freezers or Iraq.

I have been a lucky consumer, you could say.  But my experience is that it is questionable to seek happiness by attempting to find it in owning a nice house and yard in a "safe" neighborhood, even in one of the best towns to live in the U.S.  You may understand, but still ask, "To be realistic, how do we live alternatively today?" 

Some don't have a choice, for they are lacking shelter.  Homeless--or sometimes more accurately houseless--people are despised by the housed.  It is inconceivable to those satisfied with their boxes to allow people anywhere nearby to enjoy sleeping under the stars.  So police come and move 'em out.  Fear of strangers and the poor is understandable.  Just the same, due to restrictive laws and enforcement, protests in Arcata (our small anti-Patriot Act town in northern California) have valid slogans such as "Sleeping is not a Crime" and "Legalize Living."  Sitting on the sidewalk is illegal.

Nomads of modern urban culture should be welcome as cultural diversity.  Their fashion is usually adopted, eventually.  Sometimes the content-to-be-homeless young nomads are envied, as they can leave the privatized fortresses known as cities, and reach open land, and have so many towns and countries to experience. 

Another answer is communal living--usually rural--where experimentation is easier.  Or, one can find an alternative culture outside the U.S.  Living on a boat provides even in the U.S. a more community-oriented and at the same time more self-sufficient way of living.  However, the material aspect of boating is critical and can't be ignored.  Regardless, this essay is not about unusual living arrangements.  I focus on common myths we can see in the U.S., so the usual property-owning experience on land is at issue.  That is where and how the daily habits and decisions are being made to participate in destroying the world as we knew it.

It has been said in national and international publications that I enjoyed material wealth while serving the oil industry and government agencies.  I have owned two sailing yachts.  My corporate/entrepreneurial "success" was not worth the damage I was a part of.  It was not an adventure, nor was I putting much into healing the Earth.  I was so glad to discover that the people I met, the things I've done and the way I feel are worth my not being rich in the conventional sense.

Today I visited a public organic farm that hauls the veggies to farmers markets with bike carts.  Wonderful nomadic world citizens pay visits and are bred there via educational programs.  What was odd today was the absence of any citizens interested in the wonderful bounty growing; instead almost every resident of the town had gone to a building served by fossil fuels and obtained food that is transported harmfully and unsustainably.  Nevertheless, some local shoppers and gardeners are aware that nomadic people are often inclined to visit and work at small organic farms.  Could these travelers and their supporters be more aware than the "working population" of sensible land use and a measure of social justice (i.e., sharing the land)?  

A global group called EcoNomads spreads the word of sustainable living, sharing and love.  "Intentional communities" are part of this movement, and that explains why nomadic and homeless people are a lot like the formerly wealthy and the spiritual and idealistic crowd: for them, no more private property as conventionally practiced.

Back to the main point: we can possess material wealth, but the "need" to do that is often based on the inexperience people have in their limited consumer culture.  We are taught to have rather than to do or be.  Some of us find security is not in money but in having supportive people close to us, skilled in working harmoniously with the Earth.  As Ivan Illich said, the conviviality of a unique culture's traditions offer the members of a community the chance to keep learning crafts and thus find fulfillment amidst mutual respect.

Recognizing the shortcomings of stressful modern culture, a choice arises that at first seems scary.  If the pursuits of learning, enjoying friends, art and community/global activism are what we mainly want to do--along with enjoying other pastimes of a more hedonistic or spiritual nature--then one must strive for such success without material wealth.  It is therefore a matter of survival for some of us to deal with the material aspects of living in a minimalist way.  It isn't only artists among us who burn inside with the imperative do what we really want to do.

Be financially savvy
Being houseless and free is not for everyone, but if you can do without being bound to a box, homelessness has its benefits.  When oil prices go through the roof, not having a secure home will become more real as social upheaval hits.  Being too rooted will get uncomfortable in unprepared U.S. "communities."  Travel is a great way of life and need not mean living out of a suitcase or consuming maximum fossil fuels.  Don't question reality; question realty!

As to possessing a major amount of cash or other liquid assets, it could be argued that it's irresponsible to (1) waste money by not using it for something worthwhile and useful today, and (2) allow it to be wasted for you by a crash in the stock market, or by the greater economy as in hyperinflation.  Be financially savvy!  Get rid of it before it gets rid of you?  

It feels so nice to have a big wad of cash available, but what did you have to do to get that wad of cash?  Suppose your life was going to be over with on Day X, and you didn't know X was almost upon you, and you wasted your life.  One typical way of wasting it is in institutional learning (corporate training?), called "education," which can take 20 years out of our first 25 years of life.  This is imprisonment dressed up as slaving away for a chance at future success (i.e., attaining basic needs that are human rights).  Think of all those years when children are deprived of their parents and vice versa!

A more obvious way we waste our lives in the "land of the free" is by commuting 80% of our days to a questionable destination--say on a frequently gridlocked freeway to a job at a polluter organization.  Shee-it, such people are to be pitied; I mean that sincerely.  Some point a finger at such people by saying they are just as much the problem as the big polluting/money boys in costly suits.  True, you can hand any of them, "rich" or "poor," a great book or take them to a fine conference on sustainable living, but rather than change they'd almost all rather wait 'til the oil runs out someday (runs out for their children or grandchildren, they erroneously imagine).

Alternative to my Mercedes
The entropy box on wheels, the car, is another big So What?, for me anyway.  I've owned a sports car and had a company perk of a Mercedes.  My last car was the biggest and most luxurious station wagon Detroit made in the mid '80s, and its car phone was rare at the time.  Ah, the prestige of being able to work late in North Hollywood (yechh at any time of day or night), and frequently flying down the freeway to a shiatsu massage in Little Tokyo.  That was a major part of my life in "SmelL.A".--putting in my time learning and spinning my wheels for my future service to humanity and nature.  I canned my Buick Behemoth in 1989.

I was biking home once last year and I passed a walker in bare feet on the wide foot/bike path near our own Redwood Coast freeway.  And I had to apologize for my clatter in the bike box (from some dairy in Seattle): a tin cup, and an empty bottle (ready for a refill of something from the co-op).  As I pulled away and down the block I let two motor vehicles pass coming the other way.  I spit audibly and I thought, that's a gross sound for someone to hear. But at the same time the huge noise of tons of pollution was hurtling by the poor pedestrian, clattering over rusting railroad tracks.  I realized that she would have been only too happy to trade the noise I made to the terror(?) she endured.  I have brought up the touchy subject of cars for this reason: the two car drivers are considered successful; the biker and walker not.

I must admit that it's nice to have plenty of money for the co-op check-out line.  But almost everyone I know finds it is so much sweeter to trade, barter, give, and receive.  I've taken my own fresh-cut organic greens from the garden down to the farmers market and gave away those for fresh food and a rose bush.  I got more than my money's worth, from strangers, because they wanted to engage in something real with me.  It's more satisfying to do that than to load up a vehicle with the fanciest stuffs that the corporate co-op ships in from thousands of miles away.

I have countless times exited my box of a house where I'd felt cooped up, walked outside for some nature and community, and come up empty.  Oh joy, we can walk on pavement somewhere to buy something to consume!  Sit in a hemmed-in park.  The dreariness of the modern world, all about money and material comforts, is an outrage that grates on dreamers, artists and activists. There is another way, but where and when is it?  Being a houseless nomad is not so easy when spaces are denied and stolen by the greedy, the clever and the fearful. When nomads get sick or old, do we just wish them luck?

The property owners find themselves in a materialistic illusion of desire that is somewhat fulfilled by pursuing something that has very little future.  In contrast, there are even those who look forward to the end of all the false affluence. Some want that out of a sense of justice, but most want it for Mamma Earth.  Some are ready to maximize the kind of slower, smaller economics that can be sustainable.  People have a lot of money and energy-fuels for now.  Who's to say when it's best to be a minimum consumer: "prematurely," or when the the economy collapses followed by the infrastructure's and the whole society's collapse?  For now, give me conviviality, efficiency, diversity, and good local products--toward living in harmony with nature as the whole planet's population did until a moment ago in our evolution.


- Community Supported Agriculture, pedal power delivered to farmers market: Arcata Educational Farm
EcoNomads can be reached at
- Depaver Jan will perform "Humane D.A." Aug. 22 at the Mateel Community Center, Redway, California, at an evening of music in support of the Humboldt County district attorney's suit against corporate timber fraud. 
- The Depavers' song 408 is what is quoted in 2nd paragraph of above essay.
- Feedback is wanted for our letters page.
- See the Fall of Petroleum Civilization.
- Take the Pledge for Climate Protection.

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