The Hard Way, Part 1

(been working on this post for a while, look forward to Part 2 in the next few days!)

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” (Walt Kelly)

Everyone loves to talk about tough economic times, like the economy is a nebulous, undefined malignant force- like it’s not our fault or something that just came upon us.  Our economy is the product of what we have chosen, and what “the economy” does reflects the choices we have made.  For the bulk of the industrial revolution (including now), “the economy” has responded to “the market” which responds to “price signals.”  “Price signals” are based on what we buy; we create them (the price signals), we send them based on the choices that we make.  In a perverse twist of fate, “the market” has responded to an attitude that says “cheaper is better, easier is better, faster is better”- that attitude is our own.  Remember that the market is only responding to price signals that we sent, and thus, we ourselves have chosen to place a priority on faster, cheaper, and easier.  We as a people have failed to stand up for quality, we have failed to pay the true cost of the lives that we lead.  We have chosen not to take the hard way or do the hard work, and as a result we have a world that is buried in debt, smothered in pollution, and anchored in a feeling of helplessness.

My life has been different- when I learned to play music the biggest lesson was that good performance was the result of slow, deliberate, diligent practice.  In climbing, achievement has been the result of regular training and slow incremental progress.  Somehow when I look at our economic history I can’t help but notice that the “market signal” of cheaper, easier, faster has pushed us into a situation where the systems we have built will no longer sustain us.  Our food is engineered to be tasty, manufactured to be cheap, and retains the false appearance of being available and abundant.  “In 1950, 70% of food consumed in Montana was grown within the state… by 1989 it was 34%.”  Why?  Because cheap transportation costs and global competition made it easier and cheaper to buy imported food.  Now, as energy prices and health problems rise, the easy way has suddenly made it impossible to feed ourselves.

I work in designing and building houses, and every day I see houses that are built with a goal of turning a quick profit rather than providing a safe, durable, energy-efficient place for a family to make a home.  I feel fortunate to be working on these projects because the folks I work for understand building science, and usually get called in to fix other people’s mistakes.  Somehow, Americans came to believe that making a profit in the housing market was a given, and we are determined to preserve that fallacy.  A house can be a cheap shack, but a home involves science, time, investment, and care- these homes are rare, and I feel fortunate to get to be a part of them.  Somehow in our society real abundance isn’t very abundant at all.

Do we have the political will and cultural discipline to chose harder options?  Even if the Keystone XL pipeline provides 100 more years of oil, what’s the world going to look like in 2111?  I believe that if our society is to survive, it will have to learn to choose the harder way.  The easy choices were easy in the short term and disastrous in the long term.  How can we cultivate our society to think and consider a longer term vision?  We are not victims of what is available, we are victims of our own choices.  With everything that I’ve ever done in my life, I’ve found that real value is only the result of hard work and consistent long term investment.  This is a lesson that somehow I think much of America has missed.  The experiences playing music and climbing remind me that taking the hard road is worth it.

Make your choices count.
Consider where you spend every last dollar.
The only real boundaries or barriers to affecting system-wide change are the ones we create in our own minds.

“There are no shortcuts for hard work.”  (Mark Twight)

3 thoughts on “The Hard Way, Part 1

  1. Soren

    You didn’t directly indicate whether the choices were personal or societal, but I think there’s a couple of structural problems in the market that will require collective action to address.

    The first is that environmental and social externalities are barely included in prices, let alone correctly included for any real definition of “sustainable” (i.e. long-term). Within the U.S., we’ve made good progress since (say) the ’50s in terms of water and air pollution, but it has been mostly by regulation instead of market forces. Meanwhile, we’ve also found new ways to live outside of our means and these will eventually cause us to demand action (hopefully without requiring major metropolitan rivers to again catch fire :).

    I believe that conscious consumers wish for more information so that they are able to make better purchasing decisions. I also believe that great labeling (hah!) can influence “don’t care” and budget-constrained customers. Right now, the market only reliably provides us two pieces of information: price and country of origin. Food comes with a few extra bits of data, but hardly enough to overcome some of our biggest environmental problems. Whole Foods is successful in part because they, overall, carry products with better labels and have a reputation for high-quality products. But most people aren’t going to shop there.

    The question in my mind is whether Walmart (or more-pleasant Target) will move beyond making money from efficiency to actually eco-label their products (was that the same year carbon costs were actually in Congress?). The ultimate goal (which IMO Patagonia hasn’t achieved either) would be to help a customer understand why a $[1?]40 pair of jeans might last longer and do less damage than a $20 pair. The Secret Life of Sliced Turkey (and many others!) are way too rosy, but at least Walmart is starting to ask some of the right questions and acknowledge some of the systemic problems. We should all keep an eye on their latest (IMO, weak but still significant) steps in the right direction. Where are my labels? 🙂

    Nice Patagonia article.


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