Fence 37 is filled with works by poets and prose writers ready and willing and able to name past and present conditions, problematize them formally, and propose complex futures.
One condition we have is human over-production, over-consumption, and waste: a big problem which negatively impacts our viability as a species. I can identify myself and my part in this condition and, in response to the problem it poses, make simple decisions.
One bittersweet hindsight response: If I had been awake to the gravity and magnitude of human1-caused threats to earth—to overgrowth, the mass extinction of species,2 human monoculture—20 years ago, I believe I would not have chosen to contribute biologically to human population. I honor the lives of my children and the lives that are being created right now but I don’t believe that with an awareness of conditions I would have chosen to create any.
My angry mind tends toward sloganism. SOHO GIVES ME HIVES; LUXURY IS FOR LOSERS are two which bookend a thirty-five year participatory observation of gentrification3 processes in Manhattan and Hudson, New York. In 2014, when I planted a literal garden and incidentally woke up to what’s going on, as Marvin Gaye named it forever in 1971, I thought of a new, less catchy slogan:
BIODIVERSITY = THE GREATEST GOOD
In naming a supremacy I am looking to confront the source of my despair and focus my response: a literal displacement of human supremacy. I’m putting it on a Fence t-shirt and mailing it to members.
Right now it’s early 2021, and I am in the second year of my two-year term as alderperson in the city of Hudson, New York, where I am the minority leader on the Common Council because I am registered with the Working Families Party (since 1999) and the other nine members are all Democrats.
I have done a lot of work since I took office. I was instrumental in the
unanimous passing of legislation that regulates the Short Term Rental industry in Hudson, to prevent further speculative real estate development from removing more housing from our plundered inventory. I spearheaded and co-wrote a successful one million dollar grant for Anti-Displacement measures. This grant will make it possible for our understaffed and under-resourced city, which relies on tourism and hypergentrification for tax revenue, to hire a Housing Justice Manager who will among other things execute the development of a Housing Trust Fund so that the city can continue to fight to maintain affordability for low-income residents of color.4
Someday maybe soon I’ll write an essay about My Gentrification; it will go into the book about all the self-immolating ironies that persists in producing what I might call my aesthetic purview. Irony is what produces me. There is no irony in government.
I respond to the needs, the ones I can perceive. Fence is a response to the need for a positive space—anti-negative space—amongst the social reifications of avantgardism and the individualist annihilations of the mainstream poetry industry. To help people, collectively and individually, feel like they can write.
I have struggled, really struggled for a long time, with the question of why it is so easy for me to respond, when for so many—multitudes, possibly a majority—it seems to be so difficult. Let’s take Amazon, as an example. Many people understand how penetratingly destructive Amazon is, and yet many people continue to order items from Amazon. I don’t. Let’s take sugar. When I was about 19 years old I dropped out of college and got a job at a health food store. There I was positioned in the Nutrition aisle, where part of my job was to tend the small rack of books and pamphlets on subjects such as Bach Flower Remedies and colon cleansing. There was a book there called Sugar Blues (1975), which detailed the deleterious effects on our socio-economy and our health of the over-production and over-consumption of refined sugar. This is one of countless texts which have exposed, analyzed, and instructed us on serious detrimental effects of materials which exist. Silent Spring (1962) is another, and is why I eat food grown without pesticides. And then there’s Diet for a Small Planet (1971). What it says about factory farming and agribusiness is all anyone ever needed to know. When I read Sugar Blues (haltingly during the slow times in the Nutrition aisle) I absorbed this information and I stopped eating refined sugar, and I did not eat it again for a couple years, and then I ate it only moderately for a couple decades, and then I stopped again entirely. If you, as I do, experience any kinds of mood disorders or issues with your body’s systems, I recommend you try not eating sugar. It’s literally poison5, even while it tastes sweet and bears with it cultural and familial associations of sweetness. Additionally, cigarette smoking is widely understood to be the voluntary inhalation of toxic, inhibiting substances into the deepest caverns of the human body, the parts whose purpose is to help circulate oxygen around the body.
My pursuit, which I hope will steer this note off its repellent path toward what a friend calls Cotton Mather-ing—the Puritanical roots are substantive—is for an understanding of what is it that keeps many people—most people even—from making that leap: from the facts they are presented with to actions which respond positively to those facts.
Let’s take possibly the largest or most consequential fact I can think of right now, which is that airplane travel produces quantities of emissions that are so large per flight, per capita, as to be prohibitive, if we want to reduce emissions substantially so that we can maintain human life on the planet in a way that resembles something like what we have enjoyed—endured, obfuscated, adorned, suffered—these past aeons. We must cease non-emergency flying in airplanes because airplanes produce too much emissions per capita. Emergency might be understood as: a situation in which one’s own critical welfare or the welfare of others can be weighed tolerably against the emissions’ effect upon the greater good. This simplistic equation is only too simple if we—or I should say “ you”—continue to disavow your individual and collective power to resist, deny, and otherwise refuse yourselves the substances, habits, and products with which you are plied.6
It is substances I wish to speak of: Material Literacy. Here is an anecdote, which may cast me in a cold light. A few years ago I indulged myself in an old desire.
I had always wanted a sectional sofa, ever since I was a teenager and visited a friend’s apartment after school, a loft where her father, an architect, had arranged sections such that it—or they—had no end, went all the way around, a square, equilateral, and in the middle was an ottoman so that my friend and I were ensconced for hours because we had gotten high and put on some music and because we were INSIDE the sofa, or sofas. It or they surrounded us on all sides in a matrix of softness and containment, walls we could see over and rest against, lounge, within. I saw and felt that with a sectional one could endlessly arrange and rearrange the parts so that one could be contained or released at will. It occurs to me now, recounting this, that my fantasy of sectionality was related to another persistent childhood ideation in which I bounced and bounded upon the objects of my living room, never touching the ground but only launching myself with gravitational puissance from chair to couch to chair like a javelin.
Because I am aware of the vastness of our overproduction and overconsumption of not just goods and services but also raw materials, whenever a second-hand product is available I do not buy a new product. GDP = the enemy—this is not a mystery. I went on Craigs List and saw a lot of sofas. I saw one sectional that appeared beautiful, was affordable, and was described as being upholstered in suede. “So, this is suede?” I wrote to the seller. “ Yes,” he wrote back, “it’s suede.” Cool, I said, I’ll take it. I paid a person with a pick-up to pick it up for me. I could tell right away, before it even came off the back of the truck, that the fabric this beautiful mushroomy-dove grey sectional sofa was upholstered in was not suede, but microfiber which had been organized to resemble suede. I wrote to the seller and asked for some kind of rebate on the cost, which he refused. He also refused to take the sofa back. I told him that I would take him to small claims court, and I did. In court I showed the judge our email exchange and he asked the seller, a man no more than 25 years old, why he had told me the couch was suede. The young man asserted that it was a fabric called microsuede, a synthetic fiber. Essentially, the young man visibly did not know the word suede, or know that it had any specific meaning. I felt really bad for him but I also accepted the judge’s finding in my favor and collected a large portion of my money back from him.
What is sugar, the substance, and what does it do? It goes inside your body. It makes you sick. What are emissions? They go into the air and change the atmosphere. What is nicotine. What is oxygen. What are our lungs. What is suede, what is material. If we do not know materials—we refuse to know them, like a snob making a snub in a novel—then we do not know how to live.
As a species we are de-skilled, illiterated, learning more and more helplessness, alienation from materials that we must know in order to orient ourselves properly toward them and toward the conditions into which we consign ourselves. In the increasingly de-materialized economies and habits in which we are producing ourselves, aided by algorithmic fractures and all the blah blahs of digitally enhanced banality—the circumscription of our effectless living in which the majority of our actions are not visible in the material world and/or are only construable as meaningful if they are reproduced (by ourselves) digitally—we make a world for ourselves where the actions and relationships we may have upon or with substances and materials—sugar, ether, suede, cotton, wood—feel less and less knowable because they are less and less reproducible. A microseude sectional looks just like a suede sectional when you take a picture of it with your phone. The quality of suede as having once been the breathing skin of an alive or dead cow does not need to be understood in order to understand the way the fibres change their sheen when brushed all this way in one direction, or that way.
As a child I could occupy myself for a nice long while by brushing fibers one way with my hand, observing the sheen, and then brushing them the other way, observing the dull. Now I am an adult and I know the important difference between microsuede and suede, which is that one of them introduces irreducible microplastics into the waste stream and one does not. When my cat has pissed on the sectional one too many times, and scratched it till the flimsy fabric splits and the stuffing bleeds, I will be the one to make that introduction.
This productive literalism—produced perhaps by literacy—in which I do what I know I should do, arises most availably in situations in which I perceive that there is a gain to be made for what seems to me to be a greater good—a shared agenda for positive space. In the gutted period following the 2016 presidential election, when it was floated by the body politic that it would be beneficial for progressives to run for local office, I did so, as a person with capacity to do so, but only if I set aside other pursuits, which I did. This was, to me, a no-brainer—it did not require me to analyze conditions and materials in order to reach the conclusion to do it.
There is extraordinarily significant and materially effective power in literally controlling literal agendas and in literally participating in literal governance, and progressive persons who are even halfway alert and capable should step up and do so. The material of governance has been made so abstract for us as citizens—our representational democracy seeming a shadow play, the doings and purview of our local decision-makers shrouded largely in . . . a shroud of bureaucracy and complexity and seeming insignificance—as to be immaterial.
And yet the materials of the town or city council chamber, the code enforcement office, the community board, are the complex determinations that make the difference between an equitable and an inequitable civilization.
I would not at this stage in our material world’s distress counsel any of you against following my example.7 I realize, and understand, that for many people this counsel will seem absurd, idealistic, ridiculous, childish, or objectionable. I do not believe that it materially is. It is actually what you should do given material conditions. And I believe that you should do what you should do.
I really enjoyed reading and thinking about this nearly repellant and puritanical letter, lol.
In my read, you’re hilariously aware of how close you skate to being some kind of white lady with a reusable Starbucks mug and strong opinions about both city planning priorities and the fibers used to make her couch—a NIMBY-er. You took a young man to small claims court! I loved that story. I think you pull this off well, and I think it’s an effective gesture that grounds your central question about the barriers for action that some people experience.
I think there are a scant few places where a hasty reader might not pick up on that careful awareness, and will “semi-cancel” you for being righteous, right? I’d see it as reproducing the “If only they knew” pattern, which Julie Guthman described in white foodies8 talking about people who didn’t buy organic. It’s a slippery slope that goes sort of like this—
If only they knew! If they knew they would certainly buy organic!
How can’t they know, with all the evidence?
They must not want to know—or they must not care enough!
How gross that they treat their bodies like a dump—
A shame, if they knew better, they wouldn’t have diabetes.
But, they should know better, so it’s their shame.
Of course, as you are supposing here, “knowing” isn’t the real issue with why most people buy what they buy. But there’s other material than literal material. Like planned economic abandonment and food apartheid in cities, mixed with global agri-business consolidation, ongoing corporate colonization, and land grab-bing around the world that pumps people’s bodies full of cheap corn sugar. Black and Brown people die by sugar disproportionately. I go into this more below.
Alternatively, hasty others might nod and say “Mm, I too avoid sugar and buy local. I am a good white person.” And those people should not necessarily be encouraged to run for city offices, not without some real gut checking. Because we need people to run for office who are radically capable of humanizing, loving, investing in, and following the leadership of poor people, unemployed people, sick people, and people with cabinets full of cheap sugary food. Plenty of white folks with strict consumer politics don’t know how to follow Black and working-class leadership.
I don’t think you’d need to make any major edits to address these flags, but I’ll point out some places where I noticed it, where even a half sentence addition would strengthen and clarify who you are talking about, when you ask why some folks can’t act.
One condition we have is our over-production, over-consumption, and waste: a big problem which negatively impacts our viability as a species. I can identify myself and my part in this condition and, in response to the problem it poses, make a decision.
Sentences like this first one are only one half of the explanation of the problem, and the absence of the second half is consequential (though I see you nod to it in your first footnote). The problem is that over-consumption/production impacts our viability as a species, and that the causes and effects of the process are unevenly made, unevenly experienced. Because a vast majority of living humans are not causing climate change. Rather, it’s the small number of humans who have inten-tionally plundered our precious few decades to respond, and it’s the sycophants and sociopaths who enabled them (and their ancestors before).
It’s not human supremacy, it’s capitalism, which is of course derived from a particularly Christian and European doctrine of Man’s dominion over nature. Most humans don’t have that particular ideological pedigree. Many are expert ecolo-gists, horticulturalists, and conservationists, kicked off their homelands by my ancestors’ lords.
The problem with only mentioning our viability as a species is that it makes ecological destruction seem like a great equalizer of sorts, something that should concern us all. And even though it is deadly true that we’re in a mass extinction and lots of species are about to be non-viable, I think one narrative that Americans and white people and land owners need to lead with, is that the experience of this risk will be, already is, uneven in brutal and racialized ways.
The second half of the problem statement—the unevenness, if it’s included— contains information and perspective that should impact who we look to for lead-ership, whose solutions are imagined as viable, whose deaths must be stopped. If it’s absent, it leaves open the idea that some deaths are tolerable, they are not yet “ the event” we must stave off.
I respond to the needs, the ones I can perceive. [ . . . ] I have struggled, really struggled for a long time, with the question of why it is so easy for me to know how to respond, when for so many—multitudes, possibly a majority—it seems to be so difficult.
I think you could be more direct about how personal consumer choices are usually made by people who have consumer choice, who are positioned relatively safely along that uneven spectrum of impacts. Whereas, neighborhoods that don’t have a real grocery store, or households with no money and time for cooking food, kids whose school systems can’t afford healthy lunches, etc., are not equipped to make the choices you’re making.
It’s not like you aren’t taking on big structural issues that are accessible to you. And I’m def not asking you to trot out Black and Latinx communities with high rates of dietary disease and slow, painful deaths from these, as some kind of tragic figure in your editorial letter. But I think you could be slightly more direct about the limits, failures of consumer side action—that there are needs you can’ t perceive —that there are people who can’t simply quit eating refined sugar-based foods, because our cities have basically been designed under a geographic paradigm of “make some live, let others die,” because of our culture of racial capitalism.
Of course, you are not wrong, sugar is literally poison, plenty of low income folks and community organizers know this, and know exactly why their neighbor-hoods are the ones without real grocery stores anymore. People are fighting like hell to squat on land and grow gardens. Fast-food workers started the fight for the $15/hr minimum wage. And plenty of organizers also tie those struggles for food justice directly to why climate change will be / already is experienced unevenly, and are doing all kinds of direct action and intervention to tell this story.
White folks need to learn how to follow that leadership more urgently. A focus on the politics of consumption can be an offramp for white folks who want to take action, but aren’t willing—or aren’t challenged and invited!—to cut through to the deeper causes of this unevenness.
So you want to be careful to not imply to your readers that continuing to eat sugar is tantamount to not responding. But more importantly, you need to be careful that readers don’t think quitting sugar or quitting air travel is “ the work.” It’s harm reduction, which is work! And it will make a difference if enough of us do it, I definitely agree with you that it’s gotta be done, and I struggle with people who buy from Amazon all the time. But the impacts are muted if those differences get re-enrolled into a geographically—aka, materially!—entrenched system of segrega-tion and apartheid.
Take, for instance, the effect of people who nobly want to be able to bike to work, but also, oops, they’re tech workers, and they drove up housing prices and advocated for bike lanes in their neighborhoods.
. . . why it is so easy for me to know how to respond, when for so many—multitudes, possibly a majority—it seems to be so difficult.
Again—the composition of the multitudes isn’t even, isn’t homogenous. Who are you talking to, really?
This simplistic equation is only too simple if we—or I should say “ you”—continue to disavow your individual and collective power to resist, deny, and otherwise refuse yourselves the substances, habits, and products with which you are plied.**
So here’s who you’re talking to—the “ you.” Though the “ you” mentioned are framed as consumers and not producers. Your readers probably skew more toward consumers of stuff other people made, rather than producers of the foundational material matter. Bespoke furniture designers, perhaps. Brick makers, less likely. BUT if the “ you” were more on the producer-side of things, they may have another lever to collectively and individually realize and leverage: refusing to work. Work stoppage and general striking are meaningfully distinct from refusing to buy, but only because there’s so much social class segregation, and people who labor differently often struggle to like, intimately trust each other enough to go out on a limb together, to strike! Our different relationships to labor and production really matter to the question you’re opening—why don’t some people act?
The meditation you invoke next is on materials. And this makes sense, because the, like, hallmark condition of American gentrifiers is that we are alienated from actual production (work on laptop all day in a coffee shop), unless we fetishize it as our brand (bespoke furniture designer).
If we do not know materials—we refuse to know them, like a snob making a snub in a parlor novel—then we do not know how to live.
As a species we are de-skilled, illiterated, learning more and more helplessness, alienation from materials that we need to know about in order to orient ourselves properly toward them and toward the conditions into which we consign ourselves. In the increasingly de-materialized economies and habits in which we are producing ourselves, aided by algorithmic fractures and all the blah blahs of digitally enhanced banality—the circumscription of our effectless living in which the majority of our actions are not visible in the material world and/or are only construable as meaningful if they are reproduced (by ourselves) digitally.
Again, hell yeah! But it is not as meaningful to name this at the species level, without zooming into the unevenness in how we’re manifesting it. Some people are more materially alienated and loving it than others! Some are actively consigning others to real suffering.
It’s okay and important to talk specifically to your people, my people, the lap-top people. The laptop people perceive their own living as effectless, only because the effects are dislocated. But someone else can see them, because it’s killing them first. You don’t want to flatten those different experiences into an assumed shared experience, because it’s quite stratified!