RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Summer Reading, 2003

Ah, yes, it's that time of year. Time to leave the den, move to the porch with a big glass of water and, yes, you remember, read a book. Newspapers give you little sips of what you need to know. Periodicals and magazines provide a gulp, but a book with informed perspective lets you guzzle enough information to analyze what's happening.

And there's a lot happening. On every front -- agriculture, environment, business, politics, spiritual life. As my neighbor, Dale, a straitlaced fellow with a successful business, said, "This War has made me question everything." He's lost the luxury of taking things for granted.

Mostly, for Americans, we're questioning our lifestyle. The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need by Juliet Schor frames the debate. Explaining the advertising game, peer pressure, and "competitive spending," Schor also details the decisions of "downshifters" who have chosen to earn less and buy less. Downshifters conserve energy, don't buy on credit, repair broken stuff and take walks rather than joining the gym. If you are swayed by intellectual arguments, this book may move you to new choices.

If you prefer passion over intellect, spend a day with How Wal-Mart is Destroying America (and the world) And What You Can Do About It by Bill Quinn. Quinn's anger is palpable, and the shocking stories match our own experience. We've all known merchants who can't buy wholesale at the prices Wal-Mart sells retail. We've noticed that foreign-made products get more shelf space than US products. We've seen downtowns crumble when Wal-Mart comes to town. Quinn devotes a chapter to what you can do, and his tips can be adapted to any political action -- write letters to the editor, gather petitions, talk to the media, get involved in your community planning commission, run for office.

Invested in the Common Good by Susan Meeker-Lowry suggests edgier solutions. An unabashed environmentalist, some of her "I-love-Gaia" sentiments might seem out of place with her practical suggestions of investing locally, using barter instead of cash, joining a credit union, and boycotting corporations with bad practices. But she argues that these practical solutions reduce America's dependency on faraway lands and peoples and support the local community. If we buy local, we use less transportation, oil, highways, warehouses and all the infrastructure of the industrial world.

Now that you're tuned in, read Arianna Huffington's How to Overthrow the Government for a joyful reminder that we have the tools to change things, but we need to teach ourselves how to use them. We can reform campaign finance laws, or, failing that, make campaign money irrelevant by rejecting media hype, researching candidates ourselves, and fighting for issues we care about. Huffington's major argument is that instead of studying the issues, we let the media distract us with dramatic stories that are often untrue. Her study of the War on Drugs vs. the Drug Industry's War on Us is a classic.

While Huffington (usually) maintains a sense of humor, Dan Briody is grim in his description of the "vast interlocking global network" of the Carlyle Group. The Iron Triangle details the 15-year history of this greed-driven defense contractor. The Carlyle Group is so powerful in politics and industry that we have to wish the sometimes brilliant players had turned their talents and assets to something positive. What if they had committed themselves to solving problems in housing, education, alternative energy and health care? Instead, they decided to build the world's most indomitable military, then terrify us into thinking it's necessary.

One book like The Iron Triangle is enough to send us hunting for an alternative. So, to add a sunny, kinda wacky, collection to the book bag, pick up Coming Home to Eat by Gary Paul Nabhan, a brilliantly tasteful essayist who challenges himself and his family to a year of eating only foods from 250 miles around his Arizona home. He discovers local farmers and CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture farms) where members can pick up fresh produce every week in the growing season. And he forages on the desert for cactus, birds and caterpillars. In the process, Nabhan re-connects with the land and all the people who have survived on it.

All these books have focused on American thought, but what do other cultures think about our more-more-more lifestyle? Subverting Greed: Religious Perspectives on the Global Economy, edited by Paul F. Knitter and Chandra Muzaffar acknowledges that the world's religious traditions don't say much about economics, but they all have a lot to say about greed. Extrapolating from there, essays by Igbo (African), Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim writers suggest there are two models for the future -- the market model with its consumer society and the interdependent social model that depends toward sustainability and justice. Guess which one they pick.


Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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