The lap of luxury

Before Christmas I received an email from someone who seemed to be quite angry with my whole “new agrarian” idea. I won’t embarrass him by quoting extensively (it wasn’t a particularly nice email), but he made this point:

All the agrarians I know… became agrarian so that they could get away from “luxuries”.

Apparently he believes, based on various things I’ve said around here, that I indulge in too many luxuries and am therefore not worthy of the term “agrarian.”

Wednesday night a windstorm knocked our power out, and I got to thinking: What’s a luxury? Electric light, when suddenly it bathed the house after a winter night’s absence, seemed luxurious. But our oil lamp, which uses a mantle to throw the light of a 60-Watt incandescent bulb, would have been a nearly miraculous luxury to anyone living before 1900. The dimmer light of our simple paraffin-oil lamps would have been a luxury to most people before that. The beeswax candles we lit would have been a luxury to people stuck with tallow. Plenty of humans throughout history felt lucky to have a cooking fire, and eleventh-century Englishmen had to douse even those after dark.

Ice. Ice is a luxury, which I noted when I hesitated to open my freezer lest the meat spoil. My correspondent would say bourbon is a luxury, but humans have been making alcohol for thousands of years; we’ve only very recently figured out how to cool it. The Sumerians, now: They drank warm beer, unhopped, and they were glad to have it.

Socks. Socks are damned hard to make by hand, and time-consuming. Definitely a pre-industrial luxury. I don’t know that I could be bothered to knit my own.

My MacBook, obviously. But I also have a fountain pen (invented 1884), storebought ink (no need to husk my own walnuts!) and copious sheaves of white paper. I get all back-to-the-land-y inside when I write little essays with my fountain pen by lamplight, but Albertus Magnus would think me horribly spoiled.

When I was researching Pennsylvania Dutch history I found a story from the nineteenth century of a farmer who grudgingly tolerated his wife’s growing of strawberries, which he thought frivolous.

We could take this as far as we want. Do you really need a car — or any form of transportation other than your own feet? How about a coat? Cooked food? The pillar-saints would say not, and might well consign you, me, our wives, our sheep, our asses, and St. Francis of Assisi to an eternity of cleaning the nasty toejam from Mammon’s nails.

I don’t think agrarians need or ought to be anchorite. Indeed I think nearly everyone would agree we’re permitted more than merest survival. I’ll grant, of course, that mindless consumption of every crumb within reach is reprehensible. But between the extremes of meager asceticism and rank gluttony stretches a broad range of possibilities. Either end is suicide, but where in the middle is sustainable life? Where’s the peak on the Laffer curve of luxury?

The ideal lies considerably to the left of where most Americans presently are, I’m fairly certain. How far, I can’t say. “Luxury” is in the eye of the beholder. I can sit around and condemn the lifestyles of investment bankers while receiving emails from farmers who think I’m an effete brat but who would, in turn, be thought magically lucky by the homeless guy I pass on the way home from work every day who would himself be envied by tenth-century serfs and people in Zimbabwe just hoping not to get cholera this week. I’m reminded of what George Carlin said about driving: Anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac. Or, as the Good Book says, it’s a heck of a lot easier to see the strawberry in somebody else’s eye than the caviar in your own.