Posted tagged ‘safety’

Stuff versus systems: the tension in the USA

July 7, 2015

Who knew it was possible to get competitive about minimalism? There’s the challenge where you try to go three months with only 33 things to wear. There’s the woman who tried living with only 72 things. The man with only 72 things. The man who really ups the ante and only has 15 things.

It’s not-owning-things as a competitive sport. But when you look a little closer, these extravagant claims mostly rest on stretchy definitions of not-owning things.

I count my things as resellable items I would be pissed if someone took. Coffee cup? No. Jacket? Yes. iPhone and headphones? One thing.

I suppose it’s nice that he’s so relaxed about people wandering off with his coffee cups, but that’s not really a definition of owning stuff that I’ve ever heard outside the world of competitive minimalism.

I have over 30 jars of spices in my kitchen. They’re arranged on two spice racks. In other words, a small part of my kitchen contains nearly 35 things, which is nearly half of the total possessions of the two people who claim only to own 72 things. Compared to them I am a hoarder, a compulsive accumulator of things, a stuff-glutton.

But the thing is, all those spices have been used in the past year. Most of them have been used in the past six months. Should I jettison them in the cause of minimalism and then cook bland food for the rest of my life? Or should I cleverly declare that 30+ spices plus two spice racks actually counts as “one thing”, just like an iPhone and headphones? Or maybe I should claim I don’t really own the spices, because they’re not resellable. But the thing is…what would I actually gain from any of this? Real question: what do the people who do this gain from it?

Obviously, minimalists will talk about simplicity and about rejecting consumerism and about streamlining their lives to focus on what’s truly important. But minimalism is aspirational not just because it represents these choices, but because it correlates with privilege.

Tupperwolf said it better than I ever could:

When rich people present the idea that they’ve learned to live lightly as a paradoxical insight, they have the idea of wealth backwards. You can only have that kind of lightness through wealth.

It’s really worth reading the whole thing. I linked to it in my post about the hidden baggage of people who are always travelling, and I’ll make the same point again that I made there: we need to stop using visuals to assess what impact someone’s life is having. If your living space is constantly immaculate and empty-looking, are you being responsible in how you get rid of things? Do you go the extra mile to work out what the council will recycle? Do you try to repair broken things? Do you ever store items for friends? Do you allow those friends to crash on your sofa?

See, I suspect not. I suspect the life of the competitive minimalist is environmentally destructive and emotionally cold, involving a lot of hopping on planes, eating restaurant and takeaway food, generating rubbish, never settling for long enough to become part of any community. Sorry, I mean “pursuing your world-traveling ambitions while still young enough to make a lot of mistakes and bounce back from them more or less intact’”.

But that’s not even my actual point here. My point here is that that kind of “lightness” and “independence” is heavily dependent on existing structures and networks. It’s dependent on civilisation. Your passport, your Oyster card, your credit card: all light objects that depend on strong invisible networks to be of any use whatsoever. It’s great that something fitting in your jeans pocket can (literally) open doors for you. Just don’t forget that when you blip a turnstile open with your Oyster card, you are benefiting from the ideas and hard work and goodwill of thousands of other people.

When we talk about complex supply chains, it’s often in the context of terrible hidden costs for things like iPhones. But making use of things that wouldn’t exist without complex systems isn’t necessarily bad. It can be morally neutral or morally the better choice. It’s just part of signing up for human civilisation. And the more you strive for possession-free simplicity in your own life, the more dependent you become on that civilisation.

The decision to have no permanent address depends on the existence of hotels, other people’s homes, B&Bs. It depends on you having money. It depends on people’s willingness to accept that money in exchange for accommodation. Likewise the decision to have no cooking utensils, or whatever.

I rummaged through the debris scattered around the cabin floor and the surrounding land, finding remnants of life in the cabin before the siege. I picked things up – cardboard boxes containing some empty spice bottles her mother used to keep, Elisheba’s baby chair.

“What are you doing?” said Rachel. “It’s just a bunch of junk.” She laughed. “All the things that used to be important to us were junk to other people,” she said. “The books and stuff. Now it’s junk to me and important to you.”

Jon Ronson’s book THEM sets up a tension between two American ways of living. Maybe it’s reasonable, educated people versus paranoid, racist gun nuts. Maybe it’s a secretive global elite versus courageous ordinary people. You could see the division as being about class, religion, level of education, politics. But maybe it’s also about stuff.

The backstory to that quote above: when Rachel was a child, her family lived in a mountain cabin, which ended up being the location of a siege in which her mother, brother and dog were killed.

There were US marshals and FBI snipers in gas masks and face paint and camouflage, local police, state police, the BATF, the Internal Revenue Service, the US Border Patrol, Highway Patrol from four states, City Police and the Forestry Service. They had tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

If all those supposedly separate authorities ganged up to collude in the senseless murder of your family members, how much would you believe in the power of networks, communication, goodwill, civilisation generally, to keep you safe? If you’d spent eight days trapped inside your home, would you be relaxed about relying on takeaways and meals out, or would you stock up on food? If the authorities had tricked your father into committing a crime and then tried to kill him, would you rely on the police for help in emergencies or would you buy a gun?

If you don’t believe you can rely on the things that many of us take for granted, you will stock up on food and water. You’ll ramp up the security of your home, maybe with cameras and alarms, maybe with a guard dog or weapons. You’ll drive a car instead of using public transport, and probably choose the kind of car that can be driven off-road. And you won’t throw out useful things just because they’re not useful to you right now – you’ll keep them just in case.

There’s a deep tension in American culture, and it’s being expressed through stuff. And the government knows it. Having over seven days’ worth of food in your home could make you a terrorist suspect. Buying flashlights could make you a terrorist suspect. So could owning guns and owning too much gold and silver.

In other words, being prepared for the worst makes you the threat. Opting for stuff over systems makes you the threat. Why? My only guess right now is that this civilisation we all depend on is a fragile thing, and it depends on the majority of people buying in to it. The same with respect for the authorities. So the US government wants to discourage people from behaving as if they can’t trust the state or their neighbours, in case it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Safety is an anti-gift.

But of course, in reality, only certain people will ever be prosecuted under the “too many groceries” law or the “well, flashlights are always useful in a power cut, let’s get some” law. We’re back to privilege again.


Stopping for horses

February 24, 2015

“[Wh]en I go on my bike and I hear cars coming they don’t slow down even though there is not much room. I usually stop and get off my bike and stand on the grass verge but they still don’t slow down. Cars sometimes slow down for a horse, I think it is because the horse is higher up and they think it is more important to slow down.”

If you cycle a lot in the country, you’ll have noticed the same thing that 10-year-old Alexander observes: drivers who will slow down or stop for horses will not slow down for you. Some of it is a cultural thing: slowing for horses is considered good behaviour in a way that slowing for cyclists is not. That’s why you get bumper stickers boasting that the driver slows down for horses. It’s a badge of belonging, a sign that you’re a responsible member of the rural community.

Alternative theory: ignoring/endangering cyclists while respecting/fearing horses means you’re following the rules of the lizard brain.

Cars and wheelchairs

July 2, 2014

I’m thinking today about cars and wheelchairs. One of these devices empowers the user by boosting mobility. The other is ostensibly about mobility but actually marks people out as part of a certain group and has a disempowering effect. Can you guess which is which?

Disability activists are working hard to educate people away from using the language of disempowerment about wheelchairs; the idea that people are “stuck in” them, “confined” to them, “forced to” use them. And quite rightly, because this kind of talk is horseshit. A wheelchair isn’t a prison. It isn’t something you’re forced to use. It’s a mobility device, and people use them because it improves their mobility.

Cars, on the other hand, disempower everybody. Yes, a car is by design a mobility device. But in practice, they serve to reduce everybody’s mobility.

There’s a reason why people with a car-centric mindset are nicknamed “cagers”. It’s because they’re trapped by vehicle ownership. We all know them. They’re the people who insist on driving to a place that’s easily reached in other ways, then spend ages trying to find a parking space. They’re the people who sit in the pub, or at parties, not drinking because they’re driving, not able to relax because they’re not drinking. Their car simply can’t be left at home; it has to go everywhere and its needs must be met.

If you have the cager mindset, your car will prevent you from walking to the shops for a pint of milk – because “why make life hard for yourself?” Your car will prevent you from ever trying to cycle on the roads. It’ll prevent you from walking to the pub or taking a bus to a friend’s house. It’ll make you tense and uptight. You’ll never wonder whether there’s an easier way of getting from A to B. You’ll just take the car and then whine because you couldn’t find a parking space.

Of course, it’s not the car itself preventing you from doing all these things. It’s the cager mindset, and it’s difficult to escape. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Free bus passes for pensioners are a great example of a cultural “nudge” that changes long-established habits. But many of us go our entire working lives without seriously considering alternatives to those habits.

Meanwhile, other people’s choices are restricted too. Bus services don’t get axed because nobody’s going that way any more; they get axed because most of the people going that way are choosing to use a car. Cars make it less pleasant and more dangerous to walk or cycle; they increase rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease; they increase social isolation; they restrict children’s freedom to play outside.

And wheelchair users? Of course wheelchair users have needs as well. But the difference is that a wheelchair improves the user’s life. It improves the user’s mobility. It’s just a tool, being used in the correct way. So why don’t we think enough about the “correct” way to use cars? Why don’t we explore alternatives? The problem is car culture.

Body armour is offputting

February 18, 2014

“Once you see somebody wearing body armour, even if there’s no shooting, you think ‘Christ I’m not going down there if they’re wearing body armour to go down that street.’ It scares people off.”

Chris Boardman understands about the anti-gift of safety.

Safety: the anti-gift

February 16, 2014

The more we talk about safety, the less safe we feel. Because talking about safety is talking about the things that threaten our safety. It means talking about what we should do to handle those threats to our safety, or talking about how powerless we are in reality.

Visible security measures make us feel less safe. Think about how safe you feel walking into a pub on a summer’s evening. Now imagine a security guy standing at the door of that pub, slightly blocking your entrance, wearing his yellow tabard-y thing that might as well have “I WISH I WAS A REAL POLICEMAN” printed on the back. Do you feel more or less safe because he’s there?

The book Ground Control by Anna Minton is great on how security paraphernalia makes people feel less safe: CCTV cameras, gated communities. Of course you have to consider what’s cause and what’s effect; sometimes a building has metal shutters on the windows for a damn good reason, and it’s that damn good reason that’s making you feel afraid rather than the shutters themselves. But in my mind, there are two kinds of safety.

There’s the kind of safety that’s about logically-calculated risk, and reasonable steps to reduce that risk.  And there’s the kind of safety which is a state of mind, and a fragile state of mind at that. Often we think we’re talking about one when we’re really talking about the other. We say things like “The stupid woman should have been wearing a cycle helmet,” when what we really mean is: “That wasn’t my daughter, but it could have been my daughter, and I need a reason why it couldn’t possibly have been my daughter, because I can’t stand the thought that it could have been.”

Humans are shit at making reasonable calculations of risk, and that would be kind of OK if we were good at trusting the people who make these calculations properly on our behalf. But because safety is an emotional issue, and because our media and education system doesn’t train us to think about this stuff properly, we often don’t trust the right people or do the right things. We ignore Richard Doll and listen to Andrew Wakefield. We victim-blame to reassure ourselves that bad stuff could never happen to us. We buy oversensitive alarm systems that teach bystanders to ignore alarms.

What I’m trying to say is: safety is an anti-gift. It’s something that’s much easier to take away than to give.

You probably feel at your safest when you’re not thinking about safety or doing anything about safety. Going to a fire safety workshop and learning about how to reduce your home’s fire risk is a great idea – but afterwards, you will feel more worried than you were before. You’ll feel less safe, even though you’ve just reduced your chances of a house fire.

That’s because the two kinds of safety, logical and emotional, don’t fit together too well. Rational steps to reducing risk can make us more frightened and anxious than before. But psychological stuff like othering, victim-blaming, distraction and obsessive-compulsive rituals can make us feel safer even if they don’t do a damn thing to protect us.

My only advice, which I don’t always take, is to respect both aspects of safety. Yes, definitely do examine statistics, try to put incidents in context, look at the science, get advice from professionals, ignore the Daily Mail. But don’t ignore or deny the part of you that just feels afraid, whether or not that’s rational. Don’t feel silly about acknowledging what makes you feel uneasy and taking steps to make yourself feel safer. Sometimes your instincts can save you. But emotions don’t have to be of any practical use to be respected.