Yesterday Anna and I went to a showing at the Big Sky Film Festival here in Missoula. It was the last day of the festival and I wish we had gone to more, but I’m glad we got out to see at least one thing. What we ended up seeing was five short videos on a variety of subjects. The each sparked a lot of feels and thoughts so I decided to get them down on paper to sort out my own views. I don’t remember the names of the five shorts so I am just going to refer to them by their subject matter.
Japanese Farming Couple: The first short was 30 minutes long (which was probably about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be) and followed some of the day-to-day activities of a retired couple in Japan who live on a farm. After finishing up a career in business they moved to the mountain and decided to just live off the land. All of their buildings, fields, and gardens were made by hand. It wasn’t clear if they eat solely what they grow but what the farm produced certainly contributed to it.This wasn’t a complete escape from society though, they had a cell phone and computer with the internet and had family and friends visit for dinners. It was a simple life but one that seemed to satisfy them, and to be honest it is really appealing to me.
I think we too often create this false dichotomy between a rural, “return to nature” life and a more suburban/urban technologically advanced life. I see no reason why you can’t live on the land, grow and create, have a minimalist life AND keep the internet, mass communication, and have access to the world’s knowledge. You can have farming without the drought, famine, and isolation. You can reject consumerism but keep the technological advancements that minimize your chance of injury, harm, and death. A small farm that grows food and raises chickens with solar panels, modern water filtration, and access to the internet would allow for leisure, contemplation, and artistic creation. It sounds perfect for me.
Gulf Fisherman: The second film was really short and was about a fishing family who was severely impacted by the BP Gulf Oil spill. The father was unable to bring in crabs and shrimp for his family, and because he owed money on his boat still it put them in a bad position. I’ll talk about environmental stuff in a minute because it was relevant in the 3rd film as well, but there was another issue at work in this film. The children in the family all wanted to grow up and be like their dad, they wanted to be fishermen and keep that tradition alive. I think that is a dangerous mindset for people to have in this day and age. Computers and technology are going to increasingly limit the amount of labor jobs available to humans. It will be possible to farm (or fish) for leisure, but not as a career. This transition is going to be a painful one for many families, particularly in conservative areas where life hasn’t changed too much in the last several generations. The era of “my daddy was a crabber, and his daddy was a crabber, and I’m going to be a crabber” is coming to an end. This transitionary phase is why I support a Basic Income Guarantee and an increase in education (though not necessarily schooling as we see it today)… but those are two subjects for another blog post.
Indian Coal Mines: The third film was about Rat Hole Coal mining in a region of India. In my opinion this was the best film that showed the complexities of most human endeavors. There were no “good” decisions that could realistically be made. Basically there were three groups involved: the tribal people living on the river, the workers and immigrants, and the coal mine owners. Coal Mining in the region was considered a “cottage industry” and existed without any regulation. Mine owners could hire whomever they wanted and pollute the local water supply without facing any backlash. The polluted water destroyed the river life that provided the tribal people with life and sustenance. In order to correct this the government banned the coal mines, which left thousands of the already nearly impoverished mine workers without work. Meanwhile, the mine owners (who were highly politically connected) continued a luxurious life while their workers, who were primarily immigrants with no way to return home, were left starving in the street.
Allowing the mines to be stay open would destroy the river and the lives of the tribal people. Closing the mines would lead to starvation and poverty for the mine workers and their families who have become dependent on the company. The pure libertarian position would be to keep regulation down but first there needs to be a way to internalize externalities*. The mine company (and BP in the previous movie) needs to be held fully responsible for the harm they cause to other people and the environment. Ideally the market would produce those results, but realistically the state (as long as they aren’t bought by the businessmen) seems to be the best institution to do that. But of course, you will deal with regulatory capture** and all the problems we currently face in the US where businesses basically write legislation to protect themselves from competition, all while saying they are protecting the consumer and/or environment.
So what’s the answer? I don’t fucking know. The anarchist and libertarian solutions aren’t practical, and their immediate implementation could be devastating. After thinking about this video I realize everything is terrible and I want a beer.
Alaskan Abuse and Alcoholism: The fourth video was the most difficult for me to watch. Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault, rape, and spousal abuse in the country, particularly in native tribes. Alcohol seems to play a key role in the cycle of abuse. The film primarily follows a woman who started a shelter in one of the tribal areas to provide women with a safe place to stay with their kids. Unfortunately the state stopped providing financial support for the shelter so they are kind of on their own now. It makes me wonder how much money Alaska spends on things like arresting marijuana smokers and if that money would be better used providing care and support for it’s citizens in need. I don’t know what the solution is but, as a local police officer pointed out, incarceration of offenders doesn’t seem to be anything but a band-aid. Banning alcohol wouldn’t be practical (or appropriate). Education and economic opportunities could save the next generation but that may mean abandoning the traditional way of life that many of the indigenous people take pride in. Again, lots of questions and thoughts but not many realistic answers.
Syrian Refugees: The final film, and the best one in my opinion, was about a family who escaped from Syria into Jordan in 2011. The characters were engaging and their optimism that they would someday return home was incredibly encouraging. Despite (or maybe because) of their optimism they created a new life in the refugee camp complete with homes, businesses, and new families and friends. The movie did bring to mind an interesting phenomenon though. As an anarchist I support the elimination of political borders, but in this case these people were saved by a border. The Syrian government had no problem lobbing bombs at civilians as long as they were on the Syrian side of the border, but as soon as individuals reached Jordan they were safe. A line in the sand saved lives. I think overall borders and destructive and prevent peace but in this case there was a benefit.
Overall, the films really showed me some of the complexities of the world and helped subdue some of my more extremists views. It was easy to say that the world would be better off without the government when I sat in a classroom or some DC-based think tank, but as I got into the real world and have broadened my horizons I realize the solution isn’t that simple. A theoretical thought experiment may create the best outcome overall but in the process could harm and kill very real people. So, like most things, I don’t know really where I stand. I think we should celebrate the better lives that are forming around the world thanks to markets and technology, be skeptical of those who wield economic or political power, and try to live our lives filled with simplicity and love. We need to look out for each other.
*Externalities is an economic term that describes something that effects a third party who didn’t have any say in the original act. Pollution is a common example. When you buy a car and drive it you pollute the air and harm the environment (and maybe other people). In order to internalize externalities you find a way to hold the original person (ie: car owner) responsible. This could be through increased taxation whose funds go to cleaning the air or something similar.
** Regulatory capture is a form of political corruption when an agency assigned to regulate and control an industry becomes an advocate for that company or industry. I think this is unavoidable and terrible. As one example, Ken Salazar was a politician who was a huge supporter of the oil industry and voted against ending tax breaks or any new regulation, but he was put in charge of the Department of the Interior who is supposed to monitor off shore drilling. Salazar was praised by the mining industry as well for his support of them. This happens all the time, you see it in any industry the government is responsible for overseeing whether it is banking, agriculture, mining, etc.