Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Broken Connections

"We live on the far side of a broken connection" Wendell Berry has written. One of the greatest obstacles resulting from our current circumstance is our inability to make the necessary connections between various "problems," seeing them as discrete and separate and attacking symptoms while not only ignoring, but persisting in deep ignorance, about underlying pathologies.

I was struck anew by how surprising some of these connections can be while listening to a discussion on NPR about the new book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. I think that for many, high use of Meth in various small rural towns throughout America must be a sign of the desperation that comes from the dullness of life in those small places, and is seen as good reason to "escape" if the opportunity presents itself. However, according to author Nick Reding, the high use of Methamphetamines derives (surprisingly) from the industrial consolidation of agriculture and the meat industry.

Reding says that the agricultural industry has consolidated over time, and the working class has had to work harder for less — which has made meth more attractive. As an example, he cites a meatpacking plant that was bought in 1987; the new company cut wages from $18 an hour to $6.20.

"If you're a guy like Roland Jarvis ... you've got to work extra hard to make less than you were yesterday," Reding says. "Meth is often seen as a helpful drug in that instance because you don't have to sleep. You don't even have to go to bed before working your next shift."

Reding explores the effects of a number of these policies that have contributed to the decimation of the small town of Oelwein, Iowa. His counter-intuitive discovery: the use of these drugs are not because of the dull life in small towns, but because of agricultural and industrial policies of the past fifty years. The use of Meth is an effort to compensate for the effects of punishing policies that encourage economic consolidation and "efficiency" - resulting in cheap food that turns out to be very expensive indeed for the people of Oelwien and similar small towns. In describing efforts of police to crack down on the manufacture of the drugs (a bit more aggressive than "just say no"), one is struck by the fact that they are trying to play whack-a-mole against a problem that arises from bad political policies and a bad economy. But, in seeking the to tamp down on Meth manufacturing and use, officials are altogether missing the more profound underlying reasons for its explosion in small towns across America.

When some celebrate America's economic might by pointing to our agricultural productivity and cheap products, they need to begin adding in the costs of the devastation of Oelwein, including the ruined lives that cheap meat has fostered. We need to start adding in a great many costs that we've all too conveniently separated - say, starting with the cost of running and imperial military including three recent wars in the Middle East and Near East that aren't being fought because we believe in "democracy," but because we believe in cheap oil. Until we start an honest accounting of the true costs of our "cheap" food and convenient shopping options, we'll continue to be complicit in the devastation of places like Oelwein, and a bad culture of addiction that replaced a good culture of good work.

(Cross-posted at Front Porch Republic)

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