The Year of Hope


I’m not really sure if this is a tale of resistance or one of persistence. I can’t claim to have done much to resist the western development model and the inequities, intolerance, and insanity that seem to be inherent in the way the United States views and pursues development within its own borders and across the global landscape. There is nothing miraculous or unusual about my story. It’s a simple story of unlearning. Perhaps it might inspire other ordinary people like me to resist or persist, whatever the case may be, so that we can unlearn the problems and uncover the solutions to whatever is ailing our society.

As a young girl growing up in a life of relative ease, I learned to believe in fairy tales. It seemed that all I would have to do is be nice to everyone, sing with the birds, be a friend of all of the forest creatures, create beauty around me and someday a knight in shining armor, a strong and courageous Prince Charming, would show up on his beautiful white steed, and off we would ride to the happily ever after. Everything was simple and clean. Good guys wore white. Bad guys wore black. Good triumphed over evil. There was no question of faith. I had no reason to doubt. It was all ready and waiting for me. Life will be a fairy tale, full of beauty and love, peace and tranquility, and inevitable happy endings. This was the essence of my worldview.

In 1974, I was ten years old. We lived in San Antonio, Texas, in the basic American suburban home in the standard American suburban neighborhood. We had shag carpet and all the major appliances, including a color T.V. We would watch family shows like the Dukes of Hazard, Hee-haw and the Wonderful World of Disney, especially on the weekends, on our color T.V. The Disney shows with their fairytale scenes were the best for me of course, though I always felt a tad insecure because our two dogs weren’t capable of the kind of feats that Lassie always managed to pull off. But I had faith in the images. People are destined to live happily ever after. It’s obvious from the T.V. shows. It’s obvious from the commercials.

It’s the 1970’s in America. The world is opening up for women. "I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never ever let you forget you’re a man, ‘cause I’m woman, Enjoli." Oh yeah, it’s the seventies now and women don’t have to wait for Prince Charming. They can get jobs, take birth control pills and live happily ever after. Of course, Prince Charming will be smitten with the modern woman if she is astute enough to purchase the right fragrance for this modern lifestyle. "I can’t forget you, you’re Windsong stays on my mind." And, if it doesn’t work out quite like the fairy tale, "I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair," the right shampoo will do the trick. The television was teaching me how to be a success in life, while my life at school reinforced the message by teaching me to be afraid of failure.

In school, success was measured with numbers. A high grade was good. A low grade was bad. Having a large number of friends was good. Having few was bad. Being first was good. Being last was bad. Being liked and admired by many people was good. Being liked by few was bad. This seemed simple enough at the time. The high grades were easily within my grasp, so I never really questioned this measure of success. But having large numbers of friends and being popular was a little bit tougher for me. I attributed this all to the fact that my family didn’t have quite enough money to purchase the sort of things that would make me more popular, like ultra cool clothes and a fancy car, as seen on T.V. I figured that if I wanted to have lots of friends and a good life, it would be up to me to start making lots of money when I was an adult, so as to be able to purchase the right perfume to attract the right man and so on.

One of the few challenges to my T.V. fantasies occurred one routine day when truth in advertising revealed itself to me. There’s a public service message. A Native American with strong features and long dark hair is standing on the shore of Lake Erie or some other body of water I’ve never seen. Trash and dead fish are floating in greasy, brown water with swirling, greyish foam. And this noble-looking man, all clad in traditional dress and looking like a strong warrior, is standing on the shore of this fowl and polluted body of water with a tear streaming down his chiseled face. The proud warrior was making his plea to the color T.V. watchers of suburban America to stop polluting our streams, rivers and lakes. When I saw this commercial, I felt a sharp pang of sadness. I wasn’t really sure why the commercial made me so sad. I didn’t know yet that the fish were dying from the by-products of my culture’s carefully manufactured industrial fantasy. I didn’t understand yet that the magical shampoo was also washing the life right out of the streams. But, I knew there was something real and powerful in that message. Perhaps I was even starting to sense some of the contradictions that were being played out before my captivated eyes with Technicolor wizardry.

Several years later, I found myself walking into an unfamiliar classroom in an unfamiliar school in an unfamiliar town (Brownsville, Texas2) that seemed very far removed from my life in the suburbs of San Antonio. Everything became suddenly very different. Almost overnight, my family loaded up all of our belongings and headed south to our new life.  We went from sedated suburban seclusion to the culture clash of a forgotten border region. I guess my father knew it might be a hard transition for us, so before moving south he asked my sister and I if we would like to attend the private school. We balked at the idea of uncomfortable uniforms and nuns slapping our hands with rulers. So we enrolled in public school.

My choice to go to public school affected my learning more than I might have guessed. I had no idea that school curriculum would be so absurdly easy and socialization would be so incredibly difficult. At my new school, I again struggled with fitting in. But the rules had changed a little. Learning the new rules became the key to fitting in.

Academically, my school was a joke. Frustrated or apathetic teachers and inept administrators seemed to be acting some tragic comedy. I learned a few things anyway. I learned that there was an interesting disparity in the kind of education you’ll get, depending upon cash flow and geography. I learned that it is easy to beat the system4 if you have an edge.  I learned a little bit about how it feels to be in the cultural minority. I learned how to forge my mother’s signature on my excuse notes, so that I could spend afternoons smoking pot at the beach when I should’ve been in school. I learned that as long as I was getting good marks on my report card, no one really questioned what I was doing. I learned that people you help in school might show their gratitude by supplying you with drugs. I learned that a job at the mall would help earn the money I needed to buy cool clothes. I learned that wearing the right clothes and having the right drugs could make you quite popular.

Regardless of the seeming inattention to education in my Brownsville surroundings, knowledge and education were held in high regard in my family. My parents were completing their MBAs while running their own construction business in Brownsville. I think my parents knew that my schooling in Brownsville wasn’t challenging me, and they encouraged me to graduate early so I could go on to college quickly. I was just glad that I had something to look forward to. I was looking forward to getting away from my own boredom and apathy. I was looking forward to having opportunities. I didn’t have a real clear plan for my future, but I knew that I didn’t want to be a clerk in a Hallmark store or a waitress at a bar on South Padre Island for the rest of my life. I knew that if I went to college I could get a good job and make good money. And of course, if you make good money, you’ll have good life, right?

All that time on the beach during high school wasn’t a complete waste. I took a marine science class during my senior year and became fascinated with the ocean and coastal environments. I found peace and solace on the beach. In school, the marine science class was really the only thing of interest to me. So, my choice of colleges was mainly based on proximity to the ocean and affordability. I enrolled in a dual-degree program that would give me an education in marine biology and prepare me for a career at sea in the merchant marine. The marine biology part was my dream. The merchant marine program was just an added bonus that would ensure that I could find a high-paying job after graduation. When I arrived at the aesthetically uninviting campus of Texas A&M University in Galveston, Texas, I was 16. I was ecstatic with my escape from high school and somewhat unprepared for college life. My high school miseducation soon caught up with me. I was wholly unprepared for the rigorous academics of the dual program, and realizing this, I quickly opted for the path that offered me the best potential for academic success & good money.

My college life was exciting. The maritime school attracted an interesting assortment of classmates with a litany of wild reasons for pursuing a life on the sea. Summers and vacations were spent traveling aboard the school’s training ship, aboard merchant ships, or in cars with my somewhat exotic new group of friends. I was sure that I was on my way to escaping mediocrity. My travels to foreign countries were broadening my worldview, but I was a little too caught up in my new fairytale adventures to fully see the hidden realities. All of this travel was to have an impact on my own learning process, though it would be years before I would fully grasp the inter-related nature of my life and the lives of all of the people in other countries that I was to encounter along the way.

Fast forward to 1989. I’m standing on the bridge of a ship as we’re making the turn to pick up our pilot in Port Angeles. Times have changed a bit. In college, I had envisioned myself on a freighter carrying exotic cargoes to distant ports. But, perhaps it was Reaganomics or globalization that sent most U.S. shipping jobs the way of cheaper foreign labor. So I found myself working for a major oil company making a fat paycheck for transporting the precious lifeblood of the American economy. By now, I’m bringing home the bacon, though I’d really prefer being a vegetarian. As hard as I try, the shampoo doesn’t seem to wash away the broken relationships. The fragrance doesn’t mask the scent of petroleum that seems to permeate every part of me. There’s no one waiting at home for the bacon. I’m surrounded by men all of the time, but still no Prince Charming.

As soon as the pilot came aboard the ship he blurted out the news, "Turns out they’ve really botched things up good in Prince William Sound. Some poor bastard’s put a ship on the rocks. Exxon ship. The Valdez. Did you know the Captain? No one knows the details yet, but he’s in a hell of a spot. Damn environmentalists around here are going nuts. Exxon used to be a hell of a company to work for. One of our best guys used to be an Exxon man. Prince William Sound, too. It’s a damn shame it happened up there. You know there’s going to be a big bru-ha-ha over this."

As the conversation drones on and more of the story unfolds, I drift away. I think about the Native American warrior in the commercial. I want to cry, but I hold it in. Don’t want anyone to think me unprofessional. I think about the Southern Californian and the four-car family adamantly opposing drilling for oil offshore from their pristine breast-enhanced beaches. I think about my first time in Prince William Sound and the surreal deep blue-green of the sea, so unreal it reminded me of Disneyland. I think about the poor bastard who’s put in years of service in a treacherous trade delivering precious crude oil to be refined for the Southern Californian four-car family, dumped by Exxon at the flip of a tiddly- wink.10  I imagine this Captain standing on his lonely shore shedding a tear as he looks over this new tragedy and wondering, "How did I get here?" Did he buy a promise? Exchange his trinkets of time and energy for the lure of good money only to see his dream dashed on the rocks with one simple, but mistaken decision? I feel my own vulnerability in this mess of contradictions. I think about my own indiscretions. I think about the oil in the vast tanks below me, so many thousand barrels of lubricant and fuel for the American dream machine.

Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? There is no black and white. The colors are all mixed up and the lines don’t make any sense. Everybody’s pointing fingers. It’s the great American blame game. Someone else is always responsible. Let the courts decide. It will all come out in the wash. Or at least get washed over by the waves of misinformation that are carefully constructed for people to keep them from drawing the real conclusions. But, the saddest truth I discover is that, in the midst of the emotional outcry over oiled birds and sea lions, no one is asking the right questions. The courts might decide who is to blame and who must pay the price, but what is the outcome of their decision? Are they to indict an entire nation for the crime of filling their gas tanks at the local station? Are they to question the supply and demand that keeps the oil flowing at such astonishing rates that one little burp in the system can cause such extensive environmental damage? Are they to judge the might of our nation’s richest and most powerful corporation?

It’s a hard, cold lesson for me. Not because lessons aren’t available anywhere you look, but this one really touches me. Am I any different from the poor bastard who made the wrong decision? All this energy wasted in an insane effort to deliver the precious cargo that we all depend on to get to our pointless jobs so we can make our pointless pay and fill our pointless lives with fancy stuff? Is this all worth it to me?

Eight years later I’m in another world. I’m sitting in my boss’s office on the third floor of a state office building in downtown Austin, Texas. 11  In the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, my job with Texaco disappeared right from under me.12  And somehow, in the midst of the mess surrounding the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, I decided that I wanted to be on the side of the damn environmentalists. I wanted to join the cause. I wanted to really make a difference. So I went to work for the government. I became a regulator, an inspector, an auditor, an enforcer. My job was to make sure that the dirty polluters are kept in check. Make sure they are prepared for that next catastrophic oil spill. Make sure they have the latest greatest equipment and lots of trained people to tackle the inevitable. Make sure they know their worst-case scenario. Make sure they make plans and practice and prepare.13  Make sure we have got enough evidence to hand down some impressive fines when they mess up. Because they will mess up. We know this. It’s inevitable. Our nation’s thirst for oil ensures it.

I’m on a rant. "The problem is that people just don’t make the connection between the crude oil that gets spilled on the beach and the gasoline they put in their tanks. This is how people can get so riled up about the ‘evil polluters’ out there and not recognize or take responsibility for their own part in it," I declare. My boss’s Administrative Assistant replies, "What is the connection?" And she’s not joking. She makes a two-hour commute to work everyday in her private car from San Antonio to Austin and back again. I want to scream, but I hold it in because I don’t want them to think me unprofessional. Instead, I calmly explain the connection. How did I get here, I ask myself. Crossed the line, hoped to make a difference. Found it’s no different on the other side of the line. In fact there is no line. Just this endless continuum of people trying to live their lives, raise their families, and perhaps, if they’re lucky, even make their dreams come true. Unconsciously following the patterns, obeying the advertisements. Go to school. Get a good job. A job with good pay so you can buy many pretty things. A job with benefits and health insurance, so you can afford the health care you’ll need to counter your unhealthy lifestyle. Be nice to everyone. Don’t tell them what you really think. Never cry or yell in front of anyone. Don’t admit the truth...

At this point, my life is a shambles. Prince charming still hasn’t arrived, or if he did, he couldn’t tear down the walls I’ve constructed to keep all of those unacceptable feelings from escaping. I drink too much at night, but nobody seems to mind because I’m not at the helm of a ship full of crude oil.14  I’m just another thirty-something office worker with a good job and great health benefits who’s blowing off a little steam.

Everything is empty and the fairy tale is tainted. No one but me seems to notice that there’s anything wrong with the picture. I go to therapy. I talk about my obsessions and my addictions. I decide that I’m just a flawed person. I’ve got a good job, a nice house, and lots of pretty things. I take adventurous vacations and spend lots of time in nature. I’m beautiful and smart and have lots of friends and a loving family. It must be that I’m just the kind of person who isn’t meant to be happy. I cry all the time. I sink into depression. I disappear. I disconnect. I’m on the sidelines watching my life and hating everything and seeing ugliness all around me. But, I know deep inside that if I just try a little harder, everything will be O.K. If I just get a little smarter, try a different angle, my fairytale dream will unfold. After all, this is America, the land of the free, where everyone’s dreams can come true. Right? So, I quit my job and escaped into graduate school, where I was sure I’d find some kind of answer.

When my professor started talking about GMO’s in our sustainable development seminar, I mustered the courage to ask the question. What’s a GMO?15  Oh yes, I’ve have heard of this. Genetically altered plants that are supposed to be the key to the new Green Revolution.16  I’m intrigued by the discussion. It’s not just that we’re talking about the issues. We’re getting beyond who is to blame or what new regulation will put a bandage on this or that problem. We are talking about sustainable living and long term solutions to the challenges of our industrialized society. I decide to research the GMO question, not knowing how much this decision will alter the course of my learning.17  I dive headlong into the problem. I stay up into the wee hours of the morning gathering data, reading articles, trying to sort through the overwhelming volumes of information and misinformation. I am obsessed with what I am learning.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on. But, it took me a while. Perhaps I’m a slow learner or perhaps I had just been too well schooled in the American dream. At this point, I’m realizing that it is just a dream. A fantasy carefully crafted for me by the patriarchs of my society. It penetrates every aspect of the American reality. As I study the GMO question, I begin to see the tack my government takes. I begin to see how deep the lies can penetrate. Monsanto and other agro-chemical industries are selling a bogus dream of feeding the worlds’ burgeoning population with genetically modified crops that are engineered specifically to work more productively with herbicides and other chemicals that are sold by the company. Masked behind the carefully marketed misconceptions, the CEO-popes and politician-priests lead their shareholder flock to worship. Don’t worry they plead, salvation lies in our most holy and noble convictions. We are the blessed who, with our slick new genetic technology, will save the world from pestilence and hunger. Never mind that there is already enough food to feed the world several times over. Never mind that the hungry have no means to access expensive new technology. Never mind that the new technology may wipe out tried and true indigenous ways of knowing what the earth needs to feed its people. Never mind all of the other contradictions. I could go on and on. So, this is how I came to learn what I already knew.18  But, what is a bewildered Disney-fairy-tale-American-dream-girl to do?

The GMO study leads me to see many problems with our food supply that belie a simple solution. Like so many things in our culture, the American agricultural system is suffering from a cancer. And the cure lies in addressing the root cause of the sickness, not just the symptoms. The sickness is easy enough to diagnose. We have developed into a myopic culture that praises money above all else. Our most powerful institutions exist for no other reason than to make short term profits, regardless of future negative ramifications

In my graduate classes, we talk about the radical shifts that need to happen in the way we are living. We talk about the western development model. I feel guilty as I begin to see with so much greater clarity how I have been duped into believing the myth of the American dream. We are locked in a war with the planet and its people so that we can prop up our meaningless lives with conspicuous consumption. We empty our souls as we set out to the great malls of America to fill our shopping bags. The American dream is tearing Americans hearts, minds, bodies and souls to pieces, and we’re trying to take the rest of the world with us. And to make matters worse, our glossy advertising sells our schizophrenic dream to so many hapless believers the world over. Never mind that you don’t have safe drinking water. A pair of NIKES will keep you jumping. We are caught in a grand maelstrom of false images and lies. Shew! No wonder I’ve been depressed. Perhaps I’m not so crazy after all.

So, it came to be after so many years of living and learning without really questioning, I began my own process of unlearning. Fueled by a newfound passion for developing a simpler and more mindful way of living, I went off to an organic farm in Northern Illinois to learn the secrets of the soil and ponder my plans for the future. Hours spent in classrooms and behind computers hashing out the academic perceptions of sustainable development give way to hours in the fields soaking up the realities of trying to make sustainability happen in a culture hell-bent on planetary destruction. This is where I really started learning. Hope prevailed on the farm. I saw it the eyes of the shareholders of the farm, whose rewards are not counted in dollars and dividends, but in the fresh organically grown vegetables they serve up for their families every week. They are not investing in the fat bank accounts and million dollar mansions of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. They are investing in the earth, in the soil, in the watershed, in themselves. And their pride shows in their eyes and in their smiles when they thank us for the work we do.

I see hope also in the other interns at Angelic Organics, who have learned much earlier in their lives than I that there is no future in following a path of destruction. We all have faith that the sun will rise and shine on us and that the soil, with lots of coaxing from us, will usher forth our daily bread. But, our faith in our institutions, in our government, in the dominant worldview of our fellow citizens is failing us or has been abandoned completely. In joy and frustration, over long hours of wrenching sustenance from the rich, Midwestern soil we talk, laugh, cry, plan, scheme and curse, in an effort to make some sense of a future for ourselves that makes some sense. The farm, though brutal in its need for constant attention, is inspiring, uplifting and beautiful.

One sunny, September morning, we are combing the fields for a ripe Delicata squash. Farmer John comes out to where we are working with news that disrupts our flowing rhythm. At first, I think he’s joking. Then, I find myself completely unable to grasp the story. The story unfolds in the following weeks and the T.V. stations, newspapers and radio stations bombard us with information of the "Attack on America." I watch what is happening on the television and all around me in dismay. New York seems as far away to me as El Salvador or Korea. Try as I might, I feel no real connection to the events going on there. It could be Somalia or Russia. Just another socio-political drama playing itself out on my T.V. screen.

Not until the country has been whipped into a patriotic fervor the likes of which have not been seen here in my lifetime, do I begin to feel the fear. Not necessarily my own fear, but the collective fear of a country whose citizens know intuitively that we are vulnerable, that our ship could be heading for the rocks if someone makes the wrong decision.

Returning to Texas after my farm stint in Illinois, with the bright lights of the expansive suburban sprawl of Dallas, Texas, shining my way, a white suburban-urban vehicle (SUV) aggressively speeds past me. On its rear windshield in huge white letters are written the words "NUKE AFGHANISTAN". I scream. I start to cry. I feel angry and sad and helpless and hopeless. Could the driver of this vehicle be so scared of losing his way of life or even dying that he could wish the same happen to a whole nation of people? How can anyone not recognize the contradiction in this way of thinking? With all of our slick technology, it seems to me we have not progressed beyond using our collective limbic brain for human interactions. Fight or flight, which will it be? Everywhere I see and feel the fear. It is oozing from the pores of our cities and moving in great masses along our freeways. We’re trapped in a techno-hell of our own making, just to protect a lifestyle barely worth living.19 

The price of our slick world is taking its toll. We are paying for it not only with the millions of dollars that change hands every day, as we purchase little trinkets designed to make our lives better. We are paying for it with the ancient soil that is stripped of all its nutrients. We are paying for it with the waterways that are drowning in pollution. We are paying for it with the very skin of the atmosphere that protects us from the harsh rays of the sun. We are paying for it with the lives of so many people who have been bought, sold, fought, promised and cajoled into buying the American dream. And we can’t see our way out of our own prison because we’re too busy trying to keep intact the crumbling fortress walls around us.

Back at home in San Marcos, Texas, with my graduate studies drawing to a close, I am forced to think about how I will live my life outside the shelter of academia. Professors, classmates and friends all want to know what I’ll be doing. The expected progression is to graduate and get a better job, with better pay. A job commensurate with your new higher level of knowledge. A new rung on the ladder to let the world know that you are one of the educated elite. One of the people who can play the game, make the grade, buy the shampoo, bring home the bacon, ignore the consequences of their actions and live the American dream.

My friends and colleagues might be astonished, disappointed or intrigued by my answers. I’m not getting an impressive new job. No fancy new business cards for me. No new cubicle. No new SUV. No new home theatre system with DVD. I know that I cannot enter the madness of mainstream life again without losing myself in it. I know that if I don’t start living my ideals, I won’t be able stand myself. I have notions of living a sane and non-violent lifestyle. I have notions of shedding my carefully crafted consumerism. I have notions of living lightly on the land. I have notions of growing food for people. I have notions of being connected to people. I have notions of a peaceful life in a peaceful world with clean air and clean water and healthful food for everyone. Call me an idealist. Call me an optimist. I have notions of living an alternative American dream.

Eight days into my new year of hope (2002), I set off in my overburdened truck on a journey of unlearning. I’m going to visit the people and the places that represent my dream of living sustainably. I’m going to visit places where people have been working to create communities, where people like me, who have chosen to see beyond the surface, can live and work in harmony with our ideals. My ideal community is an open, loving and tolerant group of people living and working together without violence, without racism, without sexism and without dogmatic religion. My ideal community grows and eats organic food, uses renewable energy, preserves wild space, promotes creativity, promotes healthy lifestyles and lives lightly on the land. My ideal community is not a fictional Shangri-la or Utopia, but a place that exists in the present, in real life. It is not Disney World or some glossy ideal of perfection that can never be attained.

My ideal community is a group of people living together, connected to each other, and helping each other to live in ways that value and respect humans and the planet above monetary gain. And it doesn’t matter how I got to this point or how long it took. What matters is the road ahead and all of the amazing people that I have met and will meet on it who will teach me what they have already unlearned.

When taking the road less traveled, one can encounter many detour signs. I guess this is my greatest challenge. How do I stay on track? I’ve grown up a fairly privileged person in a very privileged country (relatively speaking anyway). I have never known hunger. I have always been sheltered, clothed and fed more than adequately. I have never been exposed to war, at least not on my own shores. It might be easy to let my convictions slip when I’m not face-to-face with some of these realities. It might be easy to be anesthetized by the comforts available to me. It might be easy to be swayed by pro-consumerism propaganda. It might be easy to forget that my new pair of GAP blue jeans were made by someone in China who doesn’t even earn in one month the amount of money that pair of jeans cost me. It might seem easy to jump back in with the lemmings headed for the sea. It might be easy to forget that the seeds of development that we are now broadcasting will reap whatever variety of outcome we propagate. It’s easy to forget.

Perhaps my parents would like for me to forget. They worry sometimes about me. Perhaps my government would like for me to forget. They would like to forget about people like me. Perhaps the stock market would like for me to forget. It can’t survive with people like me. Perhaps they’d like for me to give up hope of my ideal, to have faith in the advertisements, to worship and seek the almighty dollar. But I have chosen a path of persistence. Perhaps I have even chosen a path of resistance.

Fast forward to the beginning of a new chapter in my life. I’m visiting my brother in French Gulch, CA. His partner, Patty, hands me the book I asked to see. On the cover is a picture of Patty taken nearly thirty years ago, as a young woman with her young husband. The two of them are standing in a freshly plowed field with a scarecrow in between them. Patty is barefoot and pregnant. The name of the book is The New Alternative. The authors report on a few of the first communes that were started in the 1970’s as alternatives to mainstream society.

The book talks about the hope of the communes of the 1970’s. It suggests that the young people who are going off to start new lives and make their way outside of the confines of the dominant society will be the key to social change for the coming years.

Patty was one of those young idealists who wanted to find a better way to live. And herein lies an incredible irony. Patty now lives in a large three-bedroom, two-bath home, with all of the modern conveniences, with my brother and their two dogs. She works long hours as a nurse to support a comfortable lifestyle. She commutes to work in her Land Rover (SUV) and shops at COSCO.20  She often talks about how she wishes she could work fewer hours, but just doesn’t see how she could do it with all of the expenses in her life. She doesn’t seem to be very worried about social change, and she’ll tell you that she doesn’t have the energy to fight the pull of the mainstream anymore.

I have spent the last year visiting several communes that were started in the 1970’s by young idealists (now referred to as "intentional communities") as well as several intentional communities that have been started in the past decade by idealists young and old.21  It has been a journey of unlearning that has brought me full circle to a more complete understanding of why the western development model has such a strong hold on my own and other societies.

It is difficult, as Patty and so many others have learned, to function outside of the norms of any society. Not everyone is well suited to ditch everything they have been socially conditioned to do and learn to live in entirely new ways. As I found, even the people who have stayed with it and committed their lives to developing these intentional communities struggle daily with unlearning the ways of western society.

Patty serves as an example to me, as do many of the people I have met in the last year. Change is slow to happen and requires an intense commitment to an ideal (not a fantasy) that is probably never going to be fully realized. It is very difficult to unlearn the ways of any society. But, as the well-worn saying goes, "Hope springs eternal." And this is my guide for my future. I know that I will continue to follow a path of resistance on some level. I know that I will have to persist to do so. And I have hope that my simple efforts may lead to a brighter future.

1 Enjoli is an inexpensive womens’ fragrance manufactured by Revlon. It has dubbed the first "feminist" perfume. The 1970’s commercial gave the impression of the "woman who has it all" being one who could have a successful, high-paid career and still take care of the cooking and pleasing her man at home. The fragrance is still available today.

 2 Located on the U.S.- Mexico border, Brownsville is the southernmost city in Texas.

 3 The public school that I attended in San Antonio was more academically rigorous than those in Brownsville. I attributed the differences in education to both cultural and economic influences.

 4 I graduated a year early from high school by taking a correspondence course in history and attending summer school for high school credits.

 5 I dropped the Marine Biology and opted out for a degree in Marine Transportation. The singular degree program was not quite as academically taxing. Additionally, the earning potential for pursuing a career in the Merchant Marine was significantly greater than the earning potential for a Marine Biologist with only an undergraduate degree.

 6 The bridge of a ship is the center where navigation and shiphandling are conducted. The ship pilot is a person with extensive knowledge of local waterways who advises the ship’s Captain on maneuvering in inland waterways. Port Angeles, WA, is where the pilot boards ships to guide them through the Straights of Juan de Fuca and into the ports of Seattle, Tacoma, Anacortes and others in the area.

 7 When I graduated from Texas A&M in 1985, U.S. merchant marine jobs were at hard to come by, with the majority of the jobs being available only on vessels conducting commerce in U.S. waters, where jobs were protected by U.S. laws.

 8 I was employed by Texaco Marine Services and worked as a Third Mate initially. The Texaco ships carried petroleum products for Texaco and other oil companies. At that point in time, I had been with the company for several years and had spent a good deal of time working tankers on the west coast of the United States.

 9 It was customary for ship pilots to bring news of the outside world to the ship, especially news of this nature. On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef while transiting Prince William Sound with a load of crude oil. Owing to the size of the vessel and the nature of the damage to the ship, more than 200,000 barrels (11 million gallons) of crude oil was released into a very pristine but harsh environment. The resulting damage from the spill was extensive and the effect of the incident on the U.S. maritime industry was far reaching. For more information on this topic, see Tankers Full of Trouble by Eric Nadler.

 10 The Captain of the Exxon Valdez (Joe Hazelwood) was fired by Exxon on March 31, 1989, in reaction to reports from the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board that Hazelwood was under the influence of alcohol when the ship went aground. Hazelwood had been with the company for twenty years.

 11 I was working in the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Division of the Texas General Land Office. This division was charged with protecting the Texas coastline from oil spills.

 12 The Exxon Valdez incident triggered a wave of regulatory action that had far reaching effects on shipping companies. Increased liability for environmental damage from oil spills spurred many of the major oil companies to hire independent carriers to help reduce their potential liability. The U.S. flag fleet operated by Texaco Marine Services became defunct about five years after the Exxon Valdez incident.

 13 Ironically, my job with the Texas General Land Office was created as a direct result of legislation that was passed in Texas in response to the renewed concerns about major oil spills after the Valdez incident.

 14 The Captain of the Exxon Valdez was vilified by the media over allegations that he was drunk at the time the ship went aground.

 15 GMO stands for genetically modified organism. Genetic modification in plants differs from traditional breeding techniques in that cross species (transgenic) manipulations can be made by inserting genes from one species into the DNA of another species.

 16 The Green Revolution is that most recent period in the United States agricultural history (beginning shortly after the end of the Second World War) when marked advancements in productivity and yield were accomplished through the introduction of new plant varieties, controlled irrigation, and most importantly, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. While the first Green Revolution did provide short-term gains in quantity of food produced, the industrialization of food production systems has left us with a multitude of side effects including chemical pollution of food and water supplies, erosion of topsoil, depletion of aquifers, loss of biodiversity, and others.

 17 When I first enrolled in the master’s program, I had intended to pursue a focus on water resources issues.

 18 I believe that I intuitively understood all along that our approach to how humans interact with each other and the environment was way off course, but I couldn’t quite get to the point of visualizing a framework for how to improve things. Sustainable development, as a concept, gave me format for understanding how we can live in ways that nourish respect for the earth and all living beings.

 19 I believe that the "trap" is an endless struggle to make enough money to purchase the latest stuff. This keeps us all in a cycle of work-consume-work-consume that reminds me very much of mice on a treadmill. It seems that we must work harder and harder to purchase more and better things: things which we are often too tired or spiritually depleted to enjoy.

 20 COSCO is a discount store after the same model as Wal-mart. In most alternative-minded circles, these corporate mega stores are considered to be destructive to locally owned businesses and local economies in a multitude of ways. To me, they are the epitome of industrialized consumerism.

 21 For a listing of intentional communities in the United States and abroad, see Communities Directory, published by the Fellowship for Intentional Community.