Friendly Exchanges, Part Two -- Macro
One morning a few weeks ago we got an early call from a couple of Hadley Mill Road neighbors who said they were coming over with coffee and bacon (they raise pigs) and that another pair of neighbors (the ones in last week's column with the home-built house and the Apple IIc) had already been invited and were on their way. My in-laws took this news in stride, rolling their eyes a bit as if to say, "You just never know..." and breaking out the eggs and toast.
Soon a lively, well-caffeinated brunch was underway. There was a Kitchen-Wide-Web of cross-conversational currents. One dealt exhaustively with our boy Eli, his new crawling skills and the incredible cuteness of everything he does. Another ranged over farm economics, the virtues of various methods of feeding animals and whether to buy or mow one's hay. Another considered the subtleties of craft-selling, comparing thoughts about packaging and venues. But careening over all the rest was a dialogue between Chris (my home-builder friend) and myself. It was about something that seemed, perhaps, even a little deeper than mere political economy.
It became know as the "chicken debate" because the whole thing started with a comment about a new strain of harmful bacteria that has been found in store-bought chicken. This germ is, of course, antibiotic-resistant. My father-in-law, who grows and sells hormone- and antibiotic-free lamb, exploded the misconceptions: "People want to buy 'antibiotic-free' meat because they think it's safer. But there's no danger to them when they eat the meat! The danger is in how the antibiotics affect the overall environment -- allowing bacteria like this one to flourish!" So, the only way to solve the problem is to create a mass market for healthily-grown free-range meat. But how can we do that? People buy the concentration-camp chickens because they cost less. Sure, free-range birds taste a little better -- but they cost a lot more! The people who buy them are the people who have more money to spend.
Now I have described, as it were, the precipice from which Chris and I took off on our debate. For he said, "Look, people buy all kinds of silly faddish things. They need to learn the right values that will lead them to spend their money wisely." And I responded, "Sure! Some do that already. You and I do. But not enough people do that to change the underlying trends."
Now Chris is a gentle sort of man. He and his wife Rosemarie make exquisite knotted jewelry for a living. He runs a very nonviolent five miles a day, his grey beard trailing like a scarf, all beneath a bright orange "No Deer Here!" hat during the month of November. But he has strong opinions and expresses them with gusto, and our voices proceeded to majestically (or perhaps annoyingly) overbear the surrounding chatter. "That's because most people are stupid! Most people are not interested in thinking about the meaning of things!"
"Are they? I don't think most people are stupid. I think they're busy trying to make a living."
"Well, so am I! So are you! But I try to understand what's going on around me. It's a pity, but from what I can see, the majority of people want to drink beer and watch football."
We were climbing, now. The breakfast table and coffee pot seemed to shrink, far below.
"Yeah, but precious few people look at the world the way you do, right? They are exceptional. So can we change the society by turning all the average people into exceptional people?"
"No, I don't think so -- and I don't see how anybody can change society, now that you mention it. I tell you, sometimes I get to the point of actually considering arming myself."
"Well, I think society can be changed -- but not by changing individual values. That's a long-range project! I think we can change society by raising wages."
Here, Chris's eyes twinkled; he gunned his rhetorical motor and soared over the clouds. "Ahh, you're one of these people who believe in Natural Law."
"Well, I think there's no such thing. People just want what makes them feel good."
"Yeah! So when people who control all the money and land, that makes them feel good! They aren't going to give it up! It's just human nature."
I lined Chris up in my sights and fired: "But there are natural laws of human nature, like 'people seek to satisfy their desires with the least exertion'. That's always true, isn't it?"
A miss. He swooped back. "Sure! That's why they watch football and drink beer. To change their behavior, you gotta change their attitudes, and I don't know how that can be done!"
"To change their attitudes, you gotta raise their standards of living, and I know how that can be done!"
"It'll never happen!"
"The only attitude we have to change is the one that says it's impossible!"
By this point we were reaching breathless heights, and we were ordered by ground control to bring it in for a landing. It was time for the baby to sleep.
But it had been a good, hard flight, and we were none the worse for our over-revving. The conversation would continue over brunches to come....
November 19, 1997
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