The Most Radical Thing You Can Do

LONG AGO the poet and bioregionalist Gary Snyder said, “The most radical thing you can do is stay home,” a phrase that has itself stayed with me for the many years since I first heard it. Some or all of its meaning was present then, in the bioregional 1970s, when going back to the land and consuming less was how the task was framed. The task has only become more urgent as climate change in particular underscores that we need to consume a lot less. It’s curious, in the chaos of conversations about what we ought to do to save the world, how seldom sheer modesty comes up — living smaller, staying closer, having less — especially for us in the ranks of the privileged. Not just having a fuel-efficient car, but maybe leaving it parked and taking the bus, or living a lot closer to work in the first place, or not having a car at all. A third of carbon-dioxide emissions nationwide are from the restless movements of goods and people.

We are going to have to stay home a lot more in the future. For us that’s about giving things up. But the situation looks quite different from the other side of all our divides. The indigenous central Mexicans who are driven by poverty to migrate have begun to insist that among the human rights that matter is the right to stay home. So reports David Bacon, who through photographs and words has become one of the great chroniclers of the plight of migrant labor in our time. “Today the right to travel to seek work is a matter of survival,” he writes. “But this June in Juxtlahuaca, in the heart of Oaxaca’s Mixteca region, dozens of farmers left their fields, and women weavers their looms, to talk about another right, the right to stay home. . . . In Spanish, Mixteco, and Triqui, people repeated one phrase over and over: the derecho de no migrar — the right to not migrate. Asserting this right challenges not just inequality and exploitation facing migrants, but the very reasons why people have to migrate to begin with.” Seldom mentioned in all the furor over undocumented immigrants in this country is the fact that most of these indigenous and mestizo people would be quite happy not to emigrate if they could earn a decent living at home; many of them are just working until they earn enough to lay the foundations for a decent life in their place of origin, or to support the rest of a family that remains behind.

From outer space, the privileged of this world must look like ants in an anthill that’s been stirred with a stick: everyone constantly rushing around in cars and planes for work and pleasure, for meetings, jobs, conferences, vacations, and more. This is bad for the planet, but it’s not so good for us either. Most of the people I know regard with bemusement or even chagrin the harried, scattered lives they lead. Last summer I found myself having the same conversation with many different people, about our craving for a life with daily rites; with a sense of time like a well-appointed landscape with its landmarks and harmonies; and with a sense of measure and proportion, as opposed to a formless and unending scramble to go places and get things and do more. I think of my mother’s lower-middle-class childhood vacations, which consisted of going to a lake somewhere not far from Queens and sitting still for a few weeks — a lot different from jetting off to heli-ski in the great unknown and all the other models of hectic and exotic travel urged upon us now.

For the privileged, the pleasure of staying home means being reunited with, or finally getting to know, or finally settling down to make the beloved place that home can and should be, and it means getting out of the limbo of nowheres that transnational corporate products and their natural habitats — malls, chains, airports, asphalt wastelands — occupy. It means reclaiming home as a rhythmic, coherent kind of time. Which seems to be what Bacon’s Oaxacans want as well, although their version of being uprooted and out of place is much grimmer than ours.

At some point last summer I started to feel as if the future had arrived, the future I’ve always expected, the one where conventional expectations start to crack and fall apart — kind of like arctic ice nowadays, maybe — and we rush toward an uncertain, unstable world. Of course the old vision of the future was of all hell breaking loose, but what’s breaking loose now is a strange mix of blessings and hardships. Petroleum prices have begun doing what climate-change alarms haven’t: pushing Americans to alter their habits. For people in the Northeast who heat with oil, the crisis had already arrived a few years back, but for a lot of Americans across the country, it wasn’t until filling up the tank cost three times as much as it had less than a decade ago that all the rushing around began to seem questionable, unaffordable, and maybe unnecessary. Petroleum consumption actually went down 4 percent in the first quarter of the year, and miles driven nationally also declined for the first time in decades. These were small things in themselves, but they are a sign of big changes coming. The strange postwar bubble of affluence with its frenzy of building, destroying, shipping, and traveling seems to be deflating at last. The price of petroleum even put a dent in globalization; a piece headlined “Shipping Costs Start to Crimp Globalization” in the New York Times mentioned several manufacturers who decided that cheaper labor no longer outweighed long-distance shipping rates. The localized world, the one we need to embrace to survive, seems to be on the horizon.

But a localized world must address the unwilling and exploited emigrés as well as the joy riders and their gratuitously mobile goods. For the Oaxacans, the right to stay home will involve social and economic change in Mexico. Other factors pushing them to migrate come from our side of the border, though — notably the cheap corn emigrating south to bankrupt farm families and communities. The changing petroleum economy could reduce the economic advantage to midwestern corporate farmers growing corn and maybe make shipping it more expensive too. What’s really needed, of course, is a change of the policy that makes Mexico a dumping ground for this stuff, whether that means canceling NAFTA or some other insurrection against “free trade.” Another thing rarely mentioned in the conversations about immigration is what American agriculture would look like without below-minimum-wage immigrant workers, because we have gotten used to food whose cheapness comes in part from appalling labor conditions. It is because we have broken out of the frame of our own civility that undocumented immigrants are forced out of theirs.

Will the world reorganize for the better? Will Oaxaca’s farmers get to stay home and practice their traditional agriculture and culture? Will we stay home and grow more of our own food with dignity, humanity, a little sweat off our own brows, and far fewer container ships and refrigerated trucks zooming across the planet? Will we recover a more stately, settled, secure way of living as the logic of ricocheting like free electrons withers in the shifting climate? Some of these changes must come out of the necessity to reduce carbon emissions, the unaffordability of endlessly moving people and things around. But some of it will have to come by choice. To choose it we will have to desire it — desire to stay home, own less, do less getting and spending, to see a richness that lies not in goods and powers but in the depth of connections. The Oaxacans are ahead of us in this regard. They know what is gained by staying home, and most of them have deeper roots in home to begin with. And they know what to do outside the global economy, how to return to a local realm that is extraordinarily rich in food and agriculture and culture.

The word radical comes from the Latin word for root. Perhaps the most radical thing you can do in our time is to start turning over the soil, loosening it up for the crops to settle in, and then stay home to tend them.

Rebecca Solnit is a writer, historian, and activist. Her books include As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art (2001), River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003), A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006) and Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2006). She is a columnist for Orion, and a regular contributor to the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch daily newsgram.