Tuesday, May 1, 2012

When Reality and Fantasy Converge

I'm teaching a literature class entitled Dystopian Futures in Literature. It's an eight week course for teens, and we're reading a novel a week. There are four "themes" with two books in each thematic group, but what I'm finding as we go along in the course is that there is, often, a lot of overlap among the books, and when it comes to "dystopian" futures, there seems to be some commonality among what authors say.

But it's not just a study of the works, themselves. We do discuss the books, but we're also discussing the books within the context of what's happening in the world at large and how do (or not) world events support the concerns these authors raise regarding where we're going as a species.

These kids, my students (and I use the term lightly, because I really do believe there might be some overlap in the student/teacher relationship), are incredibly smart and intuitive, and they have some amazing insights. We should never dismiss out-of-hand what our children are saying, because they see the world differently than we do, and while their innocence and/or lack of experience may inhibit how well they are able to interpret those things they see, if we hear what they're saying, perhaps their vision coupled with our experience will help us see more clearly where we need to go.

Over the past two sessions, we've been discussing population. It's pretty clear that the world is overpopulated. The estimated carrying capacity of the Earth - without inputs from fossil fuels - is about one billion people. We're six times that now.

We've talked a lot about population control mechanisms - in particular how they don't work, and both the real-life examples of legislation to limit population growth and the fictitious examples we are reading seem to prove pretty clearly that no amount of government control over the number of people born will slow the human population overshoot.

The other thing we've discussed is how populations have been migrating away from rural areas and into urban areas - in search of ways to make money.

The irony is that fewer people in the rural areas means there are fewer people who are growing food, and as one person quipped, "A lot of tightly packed, very hungry people is not going to be a good thing." Very astute.

It continually amazes me to have these conversations - especially with kids, whom our society has deemed as having little or no ability to logically piece together events and see the real inside the illusion. They know, without really knowing, what's happening.

I was watching a YouTube video yesterday entitled Growing Up in the First Great Depression. It was an interview with Rowena Donaldson on PeakMomentTV. Rowena is host Janaia Donaldson's mother. Rowena was six years old when the Stock Market crashed in 1929. I loved her commentary. It was very enligthening, and as Janaia said more than once, her mother's experiences are what a lot of people today will be living in the next decade. We'll all get poorer. We'll all need to know how to do things.

That's another thing one of my students said about the characters in the most recent book we read. He said, "They can't do anything", and his point was that their lives have been so controlled and so dictated that they are unable to make any decisions for themselves. They haven't had to, and so they don't.

I'm concerned that our lives have been similarly controlled. There is so much we simply don't know, and there are so many of us that are all too willing to allow someone else to make those decisions for us. It's easier to sit back, flip on the television and escape for a while, and let someone else do the work of ruining running our lives, and then, to complain when things don't go the way we would have liked. I'm a Trustee on the Board of a local non-profit organization, and we follow Robert's Rules for parliamentary procedure. According to Robert's Rules silence is to be construed as acquiescence. Even if we speak up, things may not go our way, but if we fail to at least say one way or the other what we want or how we feel, we've, inadvertently agreed to whatever they deem is appropriate.

In the interview, Rowena talks about the food they ate, and it was a combination of what they could afford to buy (bread and butter) and what they could find. She describes eating watercress and butter sandwiches, because her mother was able to find watercress growing wild.

How many of us, today, know what's out there for food?

This morning Deus Ex Machina was packing his lunch for the day. He made a couple of wraps, and then ran outside to pick some greens ... not from the garden, because we don't have any growing, yet, but from the "wild." Dandelion greens, plantain,chives, and violet leaves and flowers are in his lunch box for today.

Most people I know would be aghast that he is eating what basically amounts to weeds, but they're edible. People back in the early day knew those things could be eaten. Seems a little arrogant and short-sighted not to accept the gifts nature is offering us.

In the books we're reading, all of the protagonists are faced with difficult decisions. They can choose to support the status quo through their thoughts and actions, or they can buck the system and do what they believe is right. Very few of the main characters in these books are heroes. In fact, in one of the novels we talked about the blatant human-ness of the main character - that is, how fallible he was and how very much like every man were most of his actions. He wasn't making any grandiose gestures or seeking a moral high-ground. That he found himself in his particular situation was more a matter of chance than of his own doing, but he was trying to fix what he had not broken.

I think a lot of us, these days, find ourselves in exactly that situation. I have no desire to be a heroine or a martyr. I just want to live my life, quietly, peacefully and fully.

But neither can I sit back and pretend that I don't see what I see, and I can't pretend not to hear what my students are saying and not work to make things better for them.

Arguably, we are making some of these dystopian futures a reality. Orwell warned us, and rather than alter our course, we headed straight for the cliff he was warning us against, and here we are, today, with the Patriot's Act and surveillance cameras on every corner and a news media that pretends it's giving us news.

One of the lessons in the books we've been reading (and it's not one that we've highlighted quite enough, yet) is that we, humans, are driven by our needs. In particular, when food is in question, there are a lot of things we are willing to do that are perhaps not great choices. In the first novel we read, for instance, the government successfully destroyed the family unit by teaching the children that parents were unable to provide for the family unit, but kids could make sure the family, at least, had enough food (not good food, but food to fill an empty belly).

In the interview on PeakMomentTV, Rowena Donaldson echoes this need for food. In fact, she says food is, pretty much, "the" thing that her family most needed during those hard times. She says shelter is good, but for her, the issue was food - and not having enough of the kinds of foods they wanted to eat.

In my class, we're reading some pretty stark future scenarios. Any one, or all, of them could happen. Something is defintely happening. We can't stop it, but we can stop is our pretending that we have no control.

At very least, perhaps knowing what watercress is and where it grows, is a step in the right direction.


  1. Great post. Enough so that I was hoping you'd share your reading list. I'd like to read along.
    SJ in Vancouver BC

  2. Would you share the eight books and four themes of this class. This seems really interesting, and I would like to know more.

  3. Through reading your blog and book I have become very interested in foraging. When we went camping a few weeks ago we actually found lots of wild garlic (about all I can identify at this point, lol) and cleaned some up to add to our foil dinners. It was sooo good! Really hoping where ever we end up next will have the kinds of classes and such your family has been able to take advantage of.

  4. Hi Wendy,

    Great post. I watched the Rowena Donaldson interview as well, and it was very enlightening. You are so right when you say that some peoples lives are being controlled and then they complain when TSHTF! I believe that people need to start taking accountability for their actions, and begin learn some of the skills required for the future. That said, I do see people all around me wanting to learn the skills of the old ways.

    Do you have a book list that you could post that your students are reading. I think that it would good to include in Ben's reading material

    Keep up the great work.

    Gav x

  5. Interesting. Could you please list the books? I would like to read them (if I haven't already :-)

  6. Interesting points. I just transplanted some volunteer violets from an inconvenient (to me) place, to a more decorative one. I knew that violet leaves were edible, but I've never eaten them. It's good to be reminded that they are in fact food. Not merely decorative. I may have to add a few to a salad tonight, just to say I've tried them.

  7. Any chance you would post you book list for your class? Or maybe the books that were well received? I've been enjoying the books that you have mentioned in posts and on you page's margin. I especially liked Into the Forest. I'm currently reading Pfeffer's Moon series, which is fun, but I'm getting hung up on some of the "mechanics" of life that seems glossed over (for example, the kitchen stove works without electricity). Into the Forest just seemed more realistic, if you can consider living in a hollow log an option.