Friday, August 21, 2009

The White Elephant Exception

The Beacon is prolific this year, and we’re losing a lot of apples because we can’t keep up. Barbara and I pick them and gather windfalls, with -- say -- six person hours going to gathering and sorting maybe five bushels. Thursday night I had a serious juicing session, cutting apples, tossing spoiled pieces, and running pieces, mostly quarters, through the Champion juicer. Three hours yielded a little less than two gallons.

It was discouraging to see what value the apples put on my labor. Sometime in the future, I’ll network with other urban apple growers, and use larger equipment, saving time. Better planning may shorten the time we spend gathering by getting me up in the tree early, and avoiding windfalls, which are more likely to spoil, and require more time spent sorting. I may get ahead of the curve this year with the grapes and the Haralson, whose apples are supposed to be better after a light frost.

But what is labor worth? A former career had me driving and dispatching interstate buses. With a motor coach, you can take forty-five people and their luggage one mile for less than a dollar, assuming four-buck diesel. Let’s have the bus break down a mile from the terminal, and walk the passengers and their luggage in at two miles per hour. Let’s be generous, and say the fuel cost a whole dollar. Split the dollar forty-five ways. That’s about four point forty-four cents per hour.

The comparison is absurd, because no one could live in this economy on four cents an hour, but there are people, some in desparate circumstances, some in non-cash economies, who live on less. The poorest Americans are richer than two thirds of the world’s people, and increasingly that two thirds is are aware of how well we live. Saying that many of them are indignant would probably not be putting it too strongly. (No comment on class issues within the US, beyond a prediction that the reality I just described will reduce wealth unevenly.)

The US amounts to five percent of the world’s population, and we use something like a quarter of its wealth, sometimes frivolously, often carelessly. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’d like to beg an indulgence from the people whose share of the world’s goods helps keep me in the pleasant style to which I have become accustomed.

We’ve built an infrastructure that demands a disproportionate share of the Earth’s wealth. If we live, henceforth, with utmost rectitude and thrift, individuals will still have the cost of operating within this extravagant playground. Give us a generation or two to learn to live well and change our way of life. Some of us have a vision of how all human beings can live harmonious and becoming lives into the distant future.

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