The Paradox of Our Time

Our whole existence in industrialized regions of the world can be reduced to a simple paradox: the conditions of our lives are destroying the conditions for life.

The way we eat, the way we travel, the way we drink, smoke, “stay connected,” entertain, and care for ourselves and others is all dependent upon a fossil fuel economy whose single imperative is to grow.

Here the word “grow” means to accumulate money-value, an imaginary construction that is ultimately backed by the threat of force – if you don’t have money, you’re kicked out of your house, deprived of what you need, and more likely to be thrown in jail.

Again: the conditions of our lives are destroying the conditions for life. Said another way: we need to work for money to live, and yet it is all the work for money that is going on that is destroying the conditions for life. Coal miners, frackers, loggers, and GMO farmers aren’t evil people: they are working people, i.e., people who depend upon a wage to meet their needs.

But just like we can no longer accept the excuse that a soldier was “just following orders” when he or she commits a warcrime, it is too late in the game to accept that one is “just doing their job” when that job is in an industry profiting from the destruction of the planet. The ground is already prepared for this kind of ethical shift, one in which we all take individual responsibility for our contributions to ecological destruction.

And yet, self-preservation is prior to ethical life. No one can be morally condemned as an individual for meeting their own needs and the needs of their families. An ethical paradox follows from the one stated above: those who are most directly responsible, whose muscles and thoughts are generating ecocide, themselves cannot be held responsible, because they’re caught in something bigger than them, a system, that compels their compliance.

We need a way out, but we lack a strategy that actually points the way. Our knowledge of what we are doing is deeper than our knowledge of what we can do. So we feel paralyzed, resigned, unhappy in the comfort we do experience. We imagine one day it will all collapse, perhaps with secret anticipation, perhaps with dread, but unable to chart a course that would create for us the power to actually create a different world.

We’re living in a contradiction between our knowledge and our lives, and we march on together, powerless before the cliff that our own power has dug out in front of us.

What can we do?

The Subsistence Perspective

We think the way out of these paradoxes requires a change of perspective on how we reproduce our lives, and we find that change in what is called a “subsistence perspective.” The term comes from theorists and activists Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholt-Thomsen, whose 2000 book The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalized Economy defines subsistence production in contrast to the commodity production that dominates within capitalism:

Subsistence production or production of life includes all work that is expended in the creation, re-creation and maintenance of immediate life and which has no other purpose. Subsistence production therefore stands in contrast to commodity and surplus value production. For subsistence production the aim is ‘life’, for commodity production it is ‘money’, which ‘produces’ ever more money, or the accumulation of capital. (Mies, 20)

Subsistence production is the orientation of work toward the direct production of the conditions for life. It stands in contrast, therefore, to wage labor, in which people sell their labor-power in exchange for money, which then allows them to buy their conditions for life (food, shelter, etc.). The ecocidal society we are caught in lives and grows on the fact that we are trapped in wage labor, since the wage creates indifference toward the consequences of our actions – we don’t ask where the goods we’re selling or the raw materials we’re manufacturing come from. We’re at work for a wage, not to ask questions that might produce uncomfortable answers and threaten the business we depend on.

Adopting a subsistence perspective means cutting out the middle-man of money, and looking clearly at how our lives are sustained. It also means engaging in projects that attempt to expand our capacity to reproduce our lives in a way that is mutually beneficial with the non-human species that we depend on. The subsistence perspective points us toward self-sufficiency on the most intimate scales we can create: households, neighborhoods, cities, watersheds, bioregions. It is about reclaiming these sites as commons, to be responsibly cultivated for the sole sake of producing our lives.

By “life,” we of course do not mean mere life. We mean both the “basics” and the pleasures. We mean the creativity and indulgences along with the practical and the routine. Subsistence isn’t dour scraping by, its about connecting our ends and our means.

Subsistence is not just about developing an ecological society, but also about developing a just one. The injustices and structural oppressions of this society are inseparable from the money economy that forges millions of dependencies between people who are ignorant of what goes on in between. We eat beef raised in Brazil, grazed on a clearcut rainforest and packaged by displaced indiginous workers made dependent on a wage, shipped on container ships guzzling fuel extracted from the ground in a country run by a dictatorship supported by the U.S. government. The global economy is a moral hazard, one which separates actors to such an extent that no one can possibly know whose blood is on their hands. Subsistence production condenses the sphere of human action, and makes the injustices that may be involved in it more easy to see – and thus more easy to confront.

Subsistence is about creating the material and social conditions for regional autonomy. Regional autonomy means that local communities, because they are capable of providing for themselves, cannot be coerced by larger governmental or corporate entities into a path of development that conflicts with their own vision of the good life.

The Subsistence Research Center

Our lives are enmeshed in an ecocidal global economy, and we are no where near the creation of a regional subsistence. The only way subsistence could become a reality is through projects and research that attempt to make it so. The Subsistence Research Center is what we call the dedicated pursuit of the investigation into and creation of the conditions for subsistence in our region, Southern Illinois.

The Subsistence Research Center is not a place, but a set of practices and projects that are investigating what it would mean to create relationships between people and non-humans that tend toward the direct production of life. Though we have attempted to clarify the concept of subsistence above, we recognize that the actual world is messy, full of contradictions and limitations and surprises. We aren’t interested in purity of doctrine, we’re interested in building for a future that the current system has told us is not possible, and to the extent that we can, creating it in the present.

Throughout Southern Illinois, people have been working on creating subsistence relations for decades. We see the network of local organic farms, intentional communities, gift and barter practices, foraging, canning, wine and beer brewing, local music, and so many more practices as, if not already engaged in subsistence work, pointing us in that direction. The Subsistence Research Center is interested in encouraging and studying such practices and relations, and reflecting on how they could contribute toward the creation a regional autonomy.

Nick Smaligo