When in Ecuador, do as the pre-industrial do: a brief getaway from the industrial-economic monster

This guest post is authored by Emmanuela Mujica, a recent graduate of the University of Arizona’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program. Emmanuela is working toward a Master of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in sustainability at University of Texas-Arlington, where she is currently a laboratory technician. A native of Puerto Rico, she hopes to return there to save a small piece of the natural world, alongside her family and friends. Emmanuela writes at Wordsprout.


Travel to the future for a moment. Imagine a post-industrial America. Abandoned cars grow like weeds out of sun-cracked sidewalks in the parking lots of the forsaken strip malls. With no fuel to speak of, the one-eyed-one-goaled-giant-American-petroleum-eater unhinges on its political neighbors for one last hurrah; the ugly thing breaks through its political chains and incites the first true domestic war since 1861. The hind-signs of the great economic collapse of the US empire are clear: political mayhem, hunger, rampant violence, and general chaos. It’s not a pretty picture, and I’ve only painted a few potential pixels. A post-carbon apocalyptic United States of America is certainly not a place to which people would willingly travel (not on a direct flight, anyway). This place is not one that easily crosses the minds of those living in mildly industrial parts of the world. Developing nations look toward the US with a hopeful glint in their eyes, seeing only the power of progress and, like many Americans, blind to the actual costs of advancement.

Now, travel back in history. Imagine pre-industrial America, a pre-petroleum America. Communities bound by their familiar relations and their religion, a simple set of beliefs. Hay-fueled mules and horse-fueled carriages, friendly were these beasts that traveled cleanly on unpaved roads. Children were to the family as workhorses were to the farm. Back then, the one-eyed-one-goaled-giant-American-petroleum-eater was a mere zygote of a thought, and the United States was a sweetly naïve country brimming with hard working hopefuls. I recently traveled to a place that’s largely analogous to this rendering of pre-industrial America. Living in Manabí, Ecuador this summer was my personal back-to-the future experience, a snapshot of young, crying industrialism in motion. Sometimes it was difficult to decipher whether the industrial baby in this part of the world was crawling forward or backwards. The community is not perfect in terms of its impact, and the influence from modern industrial society is great. But for now I’ll paint the positive picture.

Imagine the last true rainforest in Ecuador, a lush landscape filled with the symphony of insects and birds. You trek along a wide dirt path connecting the community of Camarones to the main paved road. Few people here own cars, so motorcycles, horses and feet are the main form of transportation into and out of the community. You walk across a meandering river, El Rio Camarones, named after the native fresh-water shrimp that gave the community its first taste of economic livelihood. You see a group of girls walking across the river in the other direction to catch a bus to the nearby city of Pedernales. You do a double take when you notice their bright skimpy clothes and nice sandals; it’s a funny sight in a place like this. On your way up to the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve, you pass houses nestled against a backdrop of cloud-whipped mountains that blend all-too-well into their scenery. Their hand-harvested timber floors and bamboo walls invite lingering glances in their simplicity. You stop at Don Colon Vaca’s home to rest, just as all the other outsiders have done before you. This is the patriarchal home of the community, a center of generous activity. Colon’s family greets you with ever-extending kindness, and Doña Bernadina makes sure you’re well fed before you head out in your rubber boots. It’s an hour of steep and muddy hiking to the reserve from there. You wave to the locals before you reach the remote edge of the community. Not one person you stop to chat with is too busy to send you off with wishes for a good day. You see a group of glassy-eyed women shucking lima beans from fresh pods; they poke their heads from glassless windows. You wave and greet them warmly, their faces relax into soothing toothy smiles and they giggle, expressing wonder at the life of a gringo. And you express wonder right back. How could it be fulfilling, the ostensibly simple life of the Latin American farmer?

Mutual astonishment is well warranted: the life of the average US citizen is utterly different from the life of the rural Latin American, just as the life of the modern-day American is different from the pre-industrial American. Many people in the community of Camarones work directly for what they need (i.e., shelter and food). But sadly, this way of life is morphing into the grotesque modernization we find almost everywhere. People purchase imported goods from China, they ride buses fueled by toxic combustibles (mixed with lead and other heavy metals), and they graze cattle that eventually pollute and destroy the native landscape. Someone in the community introduced a profusely invasive snail species that’s reeking havoc on the native forests and creating tremendous setbacks for reforestation efforts. The community has overfished its native freshwater shrimp populations and women are sent to work exorbitant hours in industrial shrimp factories for little pay. Because of the lack of contraception, these women have multitudes of children. These younger generations have fallen out of touch with their agricultural heritage and have, unfortunately, fallen into narcotics. And to a great extent, many people are convinced that globalization and industrialization are good things, but simply out of their reach. But for every negative impact, there is a positive effort.

There are several organizations in the area, such as the Third Millennium Alliance, that are slowing the effects of industrialization by educating and conserving the natural area in which the community is nested. The reserve is an experiment in reforestation, and theirs has been a tremendous influence in the community. I was fortunate to be around those rural Latin Americans (campesinos) who still construct their own shelter and grow their own food, on their family’s land, with the resources they have (or those they can barter for). I was sent in, among other things, to make this kind of seemingly archaic life look attractive and desirable.

Within the community, manual labor is necessary and, to a lesser extent, valued. The story of Angel Paz (literally, Angel of Peace) is a great example of a rebirthing of respect for manual artisanship. The community calls him El Maestro, The Master, for his aptitude in wood and bamboo carpentry. He designed and directed a crew, composed of young volunteers and a handful of community members, to build the Third Millennium Alliance’s bamboo house. The house is a stunning structure with a floor made of diagonally arranged bamboo slats and wooden pillars soaring up to meet a loft of colorful hammocks. The bamboo was naturally grown and harvested by hand, according to the lunar calendar. It’s a magical place I like to call the bambúngalow. After he constructed the glorious house, Angel Paz became a legend; he is practically famous among the gringos and both respected and envied within the community. I was lucky enough to watch his swift mastery first-hand as he constructed an addition to the bamboo volunteer house in the community, the mini bambúngalow, my humble home for two months.

The first week in the community, I helped the matriarch of the house, Doña Bernadina, kill a rooster for our inaugural supper. Because I’ve had this experience before, I was the only willing volunteer; I was excited to hone my poultry-harvesting techniques with a pro. Let’s just say, I have 48 years of poultry harvesting to go. This type of small-scale, “backyard” agriculture is still a big part of the Latin American culture. But just as most good things wash away with the rising tide of the Western world, so too have familial agricultural practices in the region. Sustainable agriculture has been slowly phased out since the 90s with the introduction of shrimp farms and factories and the devastation of the native freshwater shrimp populations. Despite the recent move from family-style agriculture to industrial production, most people in Camarones have not moved away from farming completely just yet. It was common to pass by roosters, ducks, turkeys, pigs and chickens just as often as it was to pass by people on the pathway up to the reserve. It was not so nice to wake up to the out-of-tune tabernacle rooster choir at 4 a.m., but I got used to it quickly. Familial banana tree orchards, small cornfields, and sparse coffee groves take up much of the green space. It’s hard work to maintain and harvest the land. Rural life is difficult, but appealing in its tranquil hospitability. Because of this appeal, there’s been a recent movement of young Ecuadorian environmentalists to set up permaculture reserves in the area. In cities such as Quito, the air is heavily polluted and the people are not very congenial, all together a harsh life to take in. I was pleased to meet like-minded young Ecuadorians who are seizing the opportunity to remind people of what they’ve got before they lose it.

Initially, I was in the community to set up an organic farmers’ market, to create an economic market niche to promote regional small-scale agriculture and sustainable reforestation. The idea was that the widening of the principal avenue would increase tourist traffic, which would heighten the demand for local products. The idea is a good one, but not one that was feasible for me to complete within the 2-month period I was to be working there. There were many political and logistical hoops for me to jump through before I could even consider organizing the farmers, who only encompassed a portion of the community members. There’s a history of failed municipality and volunteer projects in the area, and the community-folk have become largely disillusioned and wary of promises. I could not guarantee to the farmers that the tourists would arrive with a demand for their products, and they could not guarantee to me that they would take the initiative to make the market work. I decided in my first week to exchange the project for a new one. I chose something none of the community members could refuse: to get rid of their trash. I would get their trash picked up, educate them on waste management, and, hopefully, help them gain a stronger sense of pride about their natural environment.

I noticed the trash problem almost immediately when I moved into the mini bamboo house in the community. Plastic wrappers and old tires are an eyesore against a native green landscape. There was trash along the path, in people’s yards, and, to my dismay, in the river. If the trash was not thrown into the river, it was burned haphazardly into harmful off-gases. I spoke with my mentor, the patriarch of the community, Don Colon Vaca, to better understand the waste management issues. The community is located 7 kilometers from the main road. It is more difficult for the dump truck to reach than the neighboring communities, which lie directly on the main avenue. Other communities were getting their trash picked up regularly. Don Colon told me that he had been trying to get the municipality to redirect the truck to pick up their trash for years, but that the promises made by the mayor never came to fruition. He explained, and I later learned first-hand, that Camarones is a legally recognized community, but that it gets ignored because of its small size (big surprise there). I immediately jumped into action.

I wrote a tenacious letter to the mayor. I explained to him that waste management was a basic right, and that the community was prepared to take whatever action necessary to be recognized by the municipality with this and other services. At first, my letter struck Don Colon and his family as too harsh and far too risky (and I was just using words!). I wasn’t surprised that they were scared to confront their political officials. The history of colonial Latin America and its politics created a submissive population, particularly among the campesinos. I urged the Vaca family and community to make a stronger stink.

Don Colon, his son, and I had a hearing with the mayor about the trash and other pressing issues in the community. The mayor told me they were in support of the trash collection and added, with a smirk an old saying, “one who doesn’t cry, doesn’t suckle!” I wasn’t impressed by the words from this political horse. But he agreed to provide a cart and a mule to collect the trash and employ a person from the community as the trash collector. On our end, we would have to construct a dumpster, a basurero. I was skeptical about his agreement. I kept my side of the deal, but the mayor “flip-flopped” a few times. I recruited people from the community to donate bamboo and their time, and together we built a biodegradable dumpster. The mayor decided the mule idea was less cost effective, so he trashed that plan, and redirected the dump truck into the community to pick up trash from each house. I was a bit disappointed because the new plan didn’t seem to be very economical or environmental in the long-term, but at least the truck showed up on time. The people of the community were very receptive to the change, and they revered it as an important accomplishment. My brief stint in Latin American politics was satisfying, but I wasn’t prepared to become a Latin American politician.

Instead, I became the trash girl. I organized a trash festival with the school children. I actually got the kids excited about picking up trash. I admit I bribed them with prizes and healthy snacks, but I taught them the difference between organic and inorganic wastes. I even influenced some to become little trash police in the community. I educated the community members about creatively recycling inorganic wastes. I made flytraps from old plastic bottles as an example. At each community meeting, I reminded them of the usefulness of organic waste, and encouraged them to compost. I explained that the point of the trash program wasn’t to generate more trash, but to clean up their act, and get municipal recognition by generating a smaller volume of trash than their neighbors. I painted anti-trash signs and hung them along the river as a friendly reminder. If I had stayed longer, I would have continued the project with communal compost and a comprehensive recycling program.

The trash program was certainly my main focus, but it wasn’t the only thing I did in small-village Ecuador. I collaborated on a fellow volunteer’s coffee cooperative project by designing the label for coffee bags. I helped other volunteers at the reserve tend their reforestation plots and harvest bamboo, bananas, and peanuts. I spent time in the vegetable garden planting cucumbers and carrots. I spent a lot of time with the family and with kids. I played futbol and ecua-volley, I gave sporadic English lessons, and I helped Doña Berna with daily chores. I helped out in the Vaca family’s little store, which they run from their dining area. If I was in the house during the day, store duty was unavoidable. I smile now thinking of the children who poked their little heads up to the open-air window to ask me for a lollipop or frozen treat (I only took their 5-cent coin when they said please). I organized a raffle to accumulate funds for the community’s bank cooperative. I donated a live chicken to raffle off, along with the first-place prize of $50. I sold tickets to anyone I could, and interestingly, people were more excited about the chicken than the money. But that’s campesino mentality at its best.

I explored the forests and surrounding natural area. I did a few hikes up to the cloud forest from the reserve and a solo hike that was absolutely incredible. I saw howler monkeys and capuchins, a childhood dream of mine. I was flabbergasted the first time I sat at the base of a palm tree listening to the demoniacal calls of the howlers in the canopy just above me. But they, just as the myriad tropical snakes, frogs, and birds became a regularity. When I was at the reserve, I was living in an enchanted forest experiencing the complex beauty of true biodiversity. When I was in the community, I was living in a true community experiencing a strong sense of familial encouragement and the complex task of organizing people for a cause.

I travel to the present. Since Ecuador, I’ve been continuing my path toward environmental enlightenment. It’s a steep hike ahead of me. (I still have a hard time remembering to flush … the composting toilet taught me well.) But for now, I won’t think about the past or the future, the good or the bad. Because in Ecuador I learned that there is nothing that cannot be enjoyed and that it is almost absurd (and futile) to distinguish between my happy and unhappy experiences. I accept all news and experiences as they come; I welcome and cultivate them, whether or not they are facilitating my enlightenment. I keep a list of my unfulfilled wishes for an ideal world stuffed away in a drawer somewhere and take each day as it comes because I might as well be personally fulfilled if and when the unrelenting giant industrial-economic monster comes crashing down.

Comments 37

  • That was good: reminds me of a far remove in time and space, of banana plants fruiting in the back yard and chickens journeying from clucks to curry. But the mesmerism of Western industrial civilization had already taken hold and a measure of success was the extent to which one could distance oneself from the traditional lifestyle.

    That had a substantial influence in my choice of an exit destination: that I would exit was a foregone conclusion, as 20,000,000 of my people had left East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) starting a year and a half before I was born.

    Now that a paradigm shift for Western industrial civilization seems in the offing, one would wish that one had retained and developed those habits (ingrained skills) more likely adaptive in coming times.

  • Well, I know the rural latin America, and I must say that unfortunately, rural population is still moving towards the laaarge cities you can find there: every day, peasants from every single small village move to cities looking for a better life, and they just find a place in the city’s lumpen.

    The percent of peasant is every day lower in Latin America, unfortunately. Their urban population is very vast, and they’re essentially the same as urban population in western world.

    Indigenous people are excepcional at this point… but that’s another story.

  • The world and the people in it only concern themselves with what they know. I watch carefully the growing conflict between an expanding China and Japan over the East China Sea and Chinas determined push to break through the Japanese Ryukyu islands into the western pacific. A weakened United States will only accelerate the process. War is coming.

  • A lovely read this morning; thank you. It reminded me of my VISTA experience on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, especially the trash. And it gives me hope; hope that native people everywhere retain ancestral knowledge of living close to the land. Hope that they will be the first to regain a bit of our collective sanity when the cheap imported goods stop arriving by truck or mule. Best of luck to Emmanuela.

  • Our only hope for survival is the return to our natural roots.

    Double D

  • Below is an essay I wrote yesterday before reading Emmanuela’s piece this morning. Even though I grew up in consumeristic America, fifty years ago America was a different place and in many ways closer to what was described in Ecuador:

    I Remember
    By Stan Moore

    I remember the world of my youth. It is a world that is gone now and cannot be restored. It was a world with more wild animals and less people. We would drive to grandma’s house through miles and miles of country and open road. Now it is all developed with houses, subdivisions and businesses.

    I was too young to remember the first televisions, but I remember our family’s first color tv. And there was one tv per house all throughout our neighborhood, not one in every room, including children’s rooms. I remember our entire family would gather in the living room after Sunday dinner to watch Bonanza or other shows – we watched as a family. No one does that any more.

    I remember when retail stores and even grocery stores were closed on Sundays. You could not shop on Sunday, but you could play and get together with your family. I remember when most adult women in our neighborhoods worked at home and did not have outside jobs. And I remember when a new car was a big deal, and we kept our cars till they wore out before getting another one because cars were expensive at two or three thousand dollars, whereas gasoline was cheap at fifteen cents per gallon.

    I remember when country roads were mostly unpaved and there was lots of grazed grassland, open fields, small ponds where a boy could sneak in and fish with his cane pole and worms or with his rod and Zebco 222 reel and lures. I remember catching bluegills and catfish on the outskirts of my own neighborhood on the weekends and then spending the week in good quality public schools that were well-funded and within walking distance of my home.

    I remember when huge flocks of birds were a common sight, and when deer lived in mortal fear of their lives during hunting season. I remember when boys like me played out doors all the time, exploring the county drainage “ditches” for snapping turtles and other dangerous critters.

    I remember when we had less things but much more time. I remember when neighbors all knew each other and when I knew all the elderly ladies in the area because I would mow their lawns for two dollars per lawn using my dad’s thirty dollar lawn mower.

    I remember when people were in less of a hurry and not so rushed all the time. When there seemed to be stability in the world. When a man often kept his job until retirement and could expect a pension after retirement.

    I remember when we thought the world was good and always getting better. When people did not necessarily hope or expect to get rich and did not openly envy and try to mimic the rich and famous. We made do and got by and found happiness in satisfying our needs and not our manufactured wants.

    I remember when life was slower, the world seemed healthier, people were less stressed, and when we did not need electricity to open our doors, keep us in touch minute-by-minute with our social networks, or worry if we had a future.

    I remember a world that is gone and hardly remembered, even though I am only fifty four years old. I miss that world, and if I had kids of my own, I wish they could live in such a world rather than in the frantic, manipulated, consumeristic, barely satisfying world we live in today, where people go by their first names only, enjoy the most shallow and superficial friendships and watch the remnants of evolution, history and culture fade away.

  • It must be pretty for an Ecuadorean, when she can afford an education in America quite easily.

    (It says she’s puerto rican, but she looks, well, a bit different from the typical PRer.)

    She is better off than most of the people who would want to live there. She speaks the language, and is reasonably beautiful enough to be spared when the stuff hits the fan, as well as more likely to strike an alliance/marriage with the local PTB.

    So I cannot blame her having an easier life than 90% of everyone else in that Ecuadorean rainforest, but it’s not something most people can repeat.

    If one looks like Cameron Diaz, she would be OK anywhere in Latin America. Otherwise, to each to its own.

  • Thanks to Robin Datta, Jean, Jb, and Stan Moore for revealing your own experiences.

    Greg Breneman, war is already here, as it has been since civilization arose. I strongly suspect you’re right: more war is coming, and soon.

    Stan Moore, thanks for this excellent piece. I remember, too. I even remember my family’s first television, on which we could watch one fuzzy station.

    jaime lopez, I can assure you Emmanuela is Puerto Rican and I know she struggled to pay for her education (e.g., she’s an expert dumpster diver). She would disagree with us, but I agree with you that she is physically beautiful. I suspect she would agree with me, though, that she is able to succeed anywhere she goes because of her charm and tenacity to a greater extent than her physical beauty. On the other hand, she is wise enough to accept the comparison with Cameron Diaz as a compliment.

  • I am stans age and “I remember” is exactly as I remember it too.

  • I’ll follow Guy’s lead and thank everyone for making it through my long essay. There’s so much more I could have included, but I tried to keep the details as concise as possible. I appreciate the positive feedback from Robin, Jean, Jb, Greg and Stan.
    I especially liked Robin’s description of “banana plants fruiting in the back yard and chickens journeying from clucks to curry”. Jean’s insight about large city Latin America is something I could have expanded on. Many of the families have had a personal experience with the large city migration. Either they themselves or their have children have moved out of the countryside into the cities, but many of them have returned with the realization that city life isn’t truly fulfilling.
    Stan, I always wish I could teleport to those magical simpler times, so thanks for taking me there for a little while. Unfortunately, I missed out on the era when neighbors were actually neighborly and families didn’t need a special occasion to get together.

    Thanks to Jaime Lopez for the shallow remark. I did not have the easiest time in Ecuador, and I have had to work very hard for the things and abilities I have in life (including my intellect). If you can extract anything from my post (other than my seemingly “non-Puerto Rican” appearance) it’s that I can let difficult/negative experiences go because dwelling on negativity is not worth it to me. Maybe it’s time you let go of your bitterness, too. I’ve let go of your snide remarks, and decided, like Guy said, to take your fixation with my looks as a very nice compliment.

  • Emma, thank you for a well-written post and a glimpse into a world removed from our bloated American culture. Clearly this experience had a great impact on you, and I wish you the best as you apply it to your own future.

    One thing that struck me – contrary to what we are often led to believe, these pre-industrial peoples don’t automatically care for their own environment. Sadly, they were busy turning it into a trash heap until you came along and began to teach them about recycling, composting, etc. And once there is no fuel for that garbage truck to come by, how will their trash be removed, since the mule-and-cart idea was “less cost effective”? That part of the story sounded far too similar to the attitudes of the “civilized” world.

  • @ Wendy:

    “And once there is no fuel for that garbage truck to come by..”

    Were you referring to the truck bringing IN the cheap imported goods (garbage) that eventually break down / wear out and NEED to be thrown away? (humor)

    Because therein lies the beauty of our situation. Native indigenous people learned to survive on what they could extract from the natural world around them. Little was wasted and everything was biodegradeable! It may take a few generations for the western model of civilization to unwind, but I have no doubt that we will eventually stop importing and exporting our garbage!

  • Emmanuela,

    I would like to follow up on comments by Wendy and Jb with a question. Do you think the reason for the “trash” problem has to do with the fact that previously, and not so long ago, all of the trash was biodegradable (bamboo, wood, etc.) and that the people there only recently had to start dealing with junk from China? Or do you think it is a function of being poor?

    Let me explain a little. Here in my neck of the woods (northwestern US) we have a similar problem. Referencing what Jb said, the local Indian Reservation has abundant examples of native people just throwing trash out the door and leaving dead cars all over the place. However, if anything, many of our non-native citizens are as bad or worse and it is not unusual to drive by a house with 6 or 8 dead cars and a pick-up piled high with a mountain of filled white plastic garbage bags, often overflowing onto the ground where the dogs rip them open and scatter the contents. Conversely, many of my friends and neighbors, both on the Reservation and off, keep clean, ordered home-sites and either use mobile trash pick-up or make regular trips to the transfer station to dispose of their trash.

    I’m tempted to conclude that people with a good job or some other source of income are the ones who keep their places clean and those without (on average, with many exceptions) tend to allow the trash to accumulate. I’m reminded, too, of comparisons between affluent and poor sections of cities.

    What’s your take on the “why” of trash?

    Michael Irving

  • I must say that a Latin American from a large city, visiting a small community in Alaska, would have the same mental image: “these guys are going to make it, and I won’t…”. If we leave the Empire in the next 2-3 years, our chances are reasonable.

  • Emmanuela:

    Your comment regarding our “magical simpler times” troubles me. Please don’t confuse it with our recent past. It’s a mistake to do so. What’s simpler is what we have right now. (I say this with the best of intentions and not as a shallow remark.)

    I know technology’s a dirty word on this blog site (as is agriculture), but both have brought us a long ways toward a simpler life. When I compare my living-off-the-land upbringing with Guy’s current back-to-the-land setup, I see an awful lot of amenities that did not exist in my youth. Fifty years has made a huge difference in that regard.

    I remember backbreaking summers scrambling to get in enough firewood and food to last eight months. Days that ran from dawn to dusk. Hand cutting hay to winter feed the livestock (and this is on a household, not commercial, basis). Constantly repairing what the weather had torn apart. Bone-chilling mornings where your breath greeted you when you stuck your head out from under the covers. And it wasn’t going to get any warmer unless someone started the fire. School was not a short distance away. It was a mile walk to the bus stop and then a two-hour drive in. For a good part of the school year, it was dark when I boarded and dark when I disembarked. And then chores still needed to be done because animals still needed to eat, the cow still needed to be milked, the fire still needed to be fed, and fresh water still needed to be hauled. It didn’t matter whether stores were closed on Sunday or not. There were no stores.

    I never want to go back to that stark existence. It tears you up. There’s nothing simpler about it.

    Guy has the right idea. Take the best of what we’ve gained in the last fifty years, eliminate the fragility and frills, and put it to work. It may not be sustainable forever but it will get the job done for the first few decades. By then, who knows where this planet sits.

    I have no idea how everything is going to turn out. I only know that magical is not one of the qualities of what once was.

  • Thanks for the great comments and questions, Jb, Wendy, Micheal Irving, and Jean.
    “The why of trash” (I really like this phrase) is something I pondered a lot about while I was in the community. As Wendy said, it’s disheartening to notice when people “don’t automatically care for their own environment.” But then again, we haven’t done a great job of doing that in the US. Of course, the trash situation is not as grave as it is here; the volume of trash the entire community generated was not as staggering as the tons of trash the average American household generates in a year, and we’re talking about a community consisting of ~100 families.
    The lack of environmental care is multidimensional issue largely consisting of a loss of knowledge, the influence of industrialization, and a broader sense of dejection and frustration among people.
    The loss of indigenous knowledge, and even the more recent loss of simple agricultural practices, has caused a change in cultural transmission. There were many people I didn’t have to remind to compost or teach the difference between organic and inorganic wastes. (And would you believe it?) These people were the older generations. But there has been a grave neglect on their part to teach the younger generations about the importance of the land and its resources. The cultural transmission of survivalist skills is not totally amiss. Children, mostly from the less scholarly-educated families, are taken along on harvesting expeditions, and taught to ride horses, to kill chickens, to use machetes, to wrangle cattle, and to look after their family and land.
    The rural Ecuadorian cultures are “civilized”… just not so much as our own (I should have called them mildly-industrial rather than pre-industrial). But I think it’s difficult for them to see the grand payoff of “caring” in the context of an industrial society that seems grandiose and exciting, but tauntingly out of reach. They see that it is much easier to be a consumer than a producer. When the garbage is trucked in (from China or wherever), why not dump on its bandwagon? Isn’t that what larger society has profited from in the short-term? These people are not blind to this.
    I’ll give you an interesting example here. There’s a wealthy entrepreneur and politician, who lives outside of the community on the principal avenue. He sells yogurt (which is delicious!), along with chicken (butchered and by the pound), dulce de leche and real butter. I went to see him about starting the organic market project because he has the only food stand in the area where I planned to construct the market. His response to my ideas was what you’d expect from a great believer of the industrial age. He said he would rather buy the raw products from the community to process and ship out to the cities because, he said, people these days don’t want crude and brutish products. People these days, he told me, want cleanly packaged products. I saw the dollar signs well up in his eyes when he began to imagine containers and bags of processed mango, cacao, and papaya. He assured me he would compost to keep things environmentally friendly (His environmental scales were skewed, to say the least). He wants industrialization really badly, and even more so because he’s already done well by it. The people in the community see him and seethe in envy and mistrust (they really don’t like this guy very much). They bitterly think, “If only we had enough money to own a little piece of the industrial empire pie…” Sound familiar? (Yes, I’ve thought it, too.)
    So, that’s what they aspire to.
    The last dimension of the “why trash?” dilemma is this broader sense of dejection and frustration. What has the land done for them? Besides feed them and give them a place to call home, it has made them work harder for less pay, forced school-age children to stay out of school (so they can work), and brought in greedy industrial-political monsters and disgusting mining companies (but that’s ANOTHER story…) to take advantage of them. They feel these injustices and could give a flying flip about throwing a piece of trash into the river. And I don’t blame them for it.

    PS: I hope my chances of surviving are reasonable. I’m going to make a concerted effort to spend less time blogging so that I can take up archery and hunting.

  • Resa,
    I hear what you’re saying, but I think you’re misunderstanding my use of the word “simpler”. By saying simpler, I by no means meant “easier”. I realize that life 50 years ago was not easy, but it didn’t have the same “fragility and frills” you say we should eliminate (I meant it was simpler in a no frills kind of way). I probably should not have called it “magical” because I don’t know what it was like in reality, so please accept my amendment to that statement.
    Everything has its good and its bad. Your story of a starkly difficult childhood filled with long days and farm chores is interesting to compare next to a mind-numbingly easy childhood filled with TV and house chores. I’m not saying either is better or worse than the other, only that we have had vastly different experiences. I agree that the best solution as we move into the anthropocene is to to make the simple life easier with the technology and resources we have today.

  • Congratulations to Stan Moore.

    I’m age 78 ,and can verify everything he said.I too have been thinking that the world was a much better place 50 years ago.

    Double D

  • I will never forget pulling into the little town were the Tribal headquarters was located. The plastic grocery bags lodged in the barbed wire fences provided a constant reminder of the wind blasting across the Dakota plains. Packs of dogs roamed freely. Litter strewn about abandoned cars and homes. Half naked children eating bags of chips for breakfast. I was dumbfounded.

    How could the culture that gave us Iron Eyes Cody crying beside polluted American highways end up like this? Quickly I realized that my mental image of traditional Native American values had nothing in common with the crushing poverty on the Rez.

    Many of my co-workers on the Rez were college educated and some had served in the US military. Their homes were no cleaner or better maintained than their less motivated extended family members. I believe the problem was primarliy one of education and cultural amnesia. Their grandparents lived in log cabins and drew their water from the river. Their kids were into heavy metal and huffing glue. It’s what happens when you give a stone age civilization MTV.

    Trash is the by-product of a culture that has rejected or lost its connection to natural systems. It is a failure of imagination, humility and constraint, self imposed or otherwise.

    Please forgive the indulgent trip down memory lane.

  • Just read James lees manifesto the guy who took over the discovery channel today and appears to have now been shot. I welcome a thread on this event and its implications. Any comments-Guy?

  • Emmanuela:

    Retraction accepted. I do have to say, however, that even on a “no frills” level, what we have today is far simpler than what was available in the 50s, 60s and early 70s. I understood your original use of the word “simpler.”

    I was lucky back then. I went to school and could interact with other kids and teachers. My father worked off and on as a saw filer at a distant lumber mill. When he was gone, so was the truck. My mother (as many mothers did) lived largely a solitary life. She’d tell you in a heartbeat that there was nothing physically or socially simpler about her lifestyle. No phone. No mode of transportation other than walking or biking. No paper delivery. The post office miles down the road. On a good weather day, perhaps the one TV channel and one radio station would come in. A book mobile came within a mile of our place once every three weeks. My mother would mark the day and make the hike.

    Connecting with others was a gamble. Maybe they’d be home. Maybe they’d have the time to chat. Maybe they’d have what you needed and didn’t need it themselves. Maybe they’d understand your borrowing/taking what you needed if they weren’t available. There’s a reason why good fences make good neighbors.

    Repairs were a nightmare. Illness or injury was pure anguish. Today I can generally have a crisis contained within minutes. Back then, you made do, did without, or took the loss.

    I read voraciously as a kid because four hours of bus time provided ample opportunity to do so. But I was limited to what was available, which meant frequent re-reads or waiting weeks for a request to come in. Today, I flip on the computer and generally within a few keystrokes, have whatever information I’m seeking.

    I stand by my original statement. Frills or no frills, what’s simpler is what we have today. Unfortunately, along with that simplicity comes the side effect of helplessness, and that (more than anything else) saddens me to see in today’s youth. I’m hopeful you’re an exception. Being resourceful will buy you a lot of time. Being able to balance out your strengths and weaknesses within a community of others will buy you even more. I wish you the best.

  • Greg Breneman, I’ve been watering the orchard today, so I have only superficial knowledge of the story to which you refer. This clearly is a very sad situation, and we’re liable to see much more of it in the months ahead. Derrick Jensen’s militant voice comes to mind, though the guy at the Discovery channel is having little impact (and it’s all negative). This guy is being painted as an absolute wacko because he is pointing out the lunacy of population growth. Obviously, his message is counter-cultural. But his approach is mainstream … I would say the difference between him and the troops we support is a fine line. After all, he’s acting on behalf the living planet and future generations whereas our military is working to destroy the living planet (and non-industrial cultures), and also to enable us as we do the same.

    Later …

    I’ve read the copy of the manifesto posted here. Lee’s views are not far from mine, especially if he truly is an “anti-capitalist Malthusian who wants the Discovery Channel to stop any programming that promotes capitalism, human birth, progress, the ponzi economy.” Well, I wouldn’t put it quite that way, especially the part about human birth. But it should be clear to regular readers that I’m hardly a fan of capitalism in its current form, I’m definitely Malthusian, and I’m opposed to any television station that promotes American-style capitalism, industrial progress, the Ponzi economy, and continued growth of the human population. On the other hand, I don’t back up my requests with artillery.

  • I lived in Ecuador for a total of 5 years, over the past 9 years, with a three-year stay up until the end of 2009. The writer of the article was very accurate, and honest, in her statements on the country. Simple statements should be expanded and digested because they describe everything in one, fell swoop. For example “In cities such as Quito, the air is heavily polluted and the people are not very congenial, all together a harsh life to take in.” It IS hard to live in Ecuador, in general. Everything, from obtaining permits, to being a student… getting to work, or getting work done, is VERY laborious. For a country so very wealthy (in great fruits, vegetables, flora, fauna, climate and geography), it is very “poor”. That is not only my opinion, but one I first heard from an 80 year-old Ecuadorian, a physician, and others as well.

    And, the statements about rural Ecuador are not only well-written, but vivid, and just as accurate.

    Ecuador is a little country that has everything, both the old rural life, and the new industrial-modern one. Old ways of cooking, and modern ways of consuming. Malls and hand-made items. It can be either “World” if you choose it to be, but the modern world seems to be slowly destroying the old ways, there.

  • Emmanuela, espero que no te hayas olvidado el español… en el Caribe no se habla del todo mal :-).

    Viví un tiempo con los mayas en el sur de México, y es asombroso con qué tranquilidad se lo toman todo. Uno de ellos me dijo: “los blancos teneis relojes, pero nosotros tenemos el tiempo”. No dejo de pensar que la anomalía, en este planeta, somos los occidentales, que ellos son los verdaderos hombres.

  • Emmanuela,

    Thanks for your rich and thoughtful reply. A number of your ideas jumped out at me and I am working at integrating them into my thinking. Some of them, like comparing the trash generated by an average American family comparing to the volume generated by an entire ~100 family community, were shocking, and depressing. Your reminder that the garbage is first shipped in from China (both in the US and Ecuador) was right on the money. I re-watched the movie “Alice’s Restaurant” last night, after a break of 40 years, and wondered if New York still dumps barge-loads of garbage into the Atlantic Ocean; garbage in (container ship from China), garbage out (barge to the Atlantic).

    The fact that the oldsters continue to use systems learned in their youth does not surprise me. Their culpability for not properly training the youngsters in sustainable systems is telling. Of course we’ve done a much better job of the “non-training” here. If the global industrial economy crashes soon the old folks in Ecuador will still be around to act as a living resource for the young. Here in the US most of the people who lived through our Great Depression and the rationing of WWII are gone now and every subsequent mainstream generation has worked really hard to escape the old ideas. Same as your observations but a generation or two removed in time and therefore even harder to access. Your phrase says it well… “The rural Ecuadorian cultures are “civilized”…just not so much as our own…”

    Your last paragraph (before the PS) expressing the anger and discontent felt by the people is telling. Being a peasant is to be poor, and forced to worker harder for less. It is to be powerless in the face of political and economic forces being injected from the world outside your community and your control. Of course the youth want to move to the easy, gadget filled life of the big city and industrial civilization. That the move usually results in a dead end is not their vision. Their vision is the same as the poor lottery player in the US; it’s magical thinking.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful reply. Get to work on your target practice.

    Michael Irving

  • Jean,
    Gracias por tu comentario! No te preocupes. Nunca me olvidare el español. Hasta los 11 años viví en el Caribe y te puedo decir que no hablamos de todo mal.. jaja! A veces buenas palabras e ideas salen de nuestras bocas aunque a veces son difíciles de entender.
    Me encanto el dicho “los blancos tenéis relojes, pero nosotros tenemos el tiempo”. Esto me llamo la atención mucho. Me parece que los semblantes tienen tiempo para sobrar porque no están siempre pendiente de aquel. Eso fue una de las cosas mas maravillosas de estar allá: perdí la cuenta del tiempo por no tener reloj y perdí la vanidad por no tener espejo.
    ¿Has leído la poesía de Luis Cernuda? No se por que, pero tu comentario me hizo acordar un poema de el. El poema se llama He venido para ver, y me da mucha nostalgia para el Ecuador. Escribí una adaptación del original que lo pondré en mi pagina de web pronto.

    Michael Irving,
    Thanks for the encouragement. Sometimes it is depressing to make the comparison between the U.S. and Ecuador—and believe me I was doing it all the time. I agree that it’s this “magical thinking” about the future that can be toxic. I’ve been thinking about William Blake’s Eternity in this respect. It goes (eh-hem):
    “He who binds to himself a joy
    Does the winged life destroy;
    But he who kisses the joy as it flies
    Lives in eternity’s sun rise.”
    To me, the poem suggests that to fix yourself to something that gives you joy (be it a material possession, wealth, an idea of yourself, or an expectation) is futile because it destroys the essence of happiness. To appreciate beauty and joy in every experience as it comes is true fulfillment. But I could be mistaken in my interpretation… (I know a lot of Blake’s writing was religious, so it probably has more to do with earthly happiness vs. divine happiness)
    Do any of you have a different interpretation?

  • Sí, conozco a Cernuda. Mi abuelo lo conoció en persona: decía que era un tipo demasiado sensible para una época demasiado colvulsa y violenta.

    He venido para ver semblantes
    Amables como viejas escobas,
    He venido para ver las sombras
    Que desde lejos me sonríen.

    He venido para ver los muros
    En el suelo o en pie indistintamente,
    He venido para ver las cosas,
    Las cosas soñolientas por aquí.

    He venido para ver los mares
    Dormidos en cestillo italiano,
    He venido para ver las puertas,
    El trabajo, los tejados, las virtudes
    De color amarillo ya caduco.

    He venido para ver la muerte
    Y su graciosa red de cazar mariposas,
    He venido para esperarte
    Con los brazos un tanto en el aire,
    He venido no sé por qué;
    Un día abrí los ojos: he venido.

    Por ello quiero saludar sin insistencia
    A tantas cosas más que amables:
    Los amigos de color celeste,
    Los días de color variable,
    La libertad del color de mis ojos;

    Los niñitos de seda tan clara,
    Los entierros aburridos como piedras,
    La seguridad, ese insecto
    Que anida en los volantes de la luz.

    Adiós, dulces amantes invisibles,
    Siento no haber dormido en vuestros brazos.
    Vine por esos besos solamente;
    Guardad los labios por si vuelvo.

    Aquella fue una magnífica generación de intelectuales en mi país. Lástima que la guerra civil los hiciera pedazos, de uno u otro modo.

  • I see you’re still under Ulises’ syndrom; once you understand that the lesson is not at the end of the road, but it’s the road itself, you grow as a human being:

    Todo pasa y todo queda,
    pero lo nuestro es pasar,
    pasar haciendo caminos,
    caminos sobre el mar.

    Nunca persequí la gloria,
    ni dejar en la memoria
    de los hombres mi canción;
    yo amo los mundos sutiles,
    ingrávidos y gentiles,
    como pompas de jabón.

    Me gusta verlos pintarse
    de sol y grana, volar
    bajo el cielo azul, temblar
    súbitamente y quebrarse…

    Nunca perseguí la gloria…

    Caminante, son tus huellas
    el camino y nada más;
    caminante, no hay camino,
    se hace camino al andar.

    Al andar se hace camino
    y al volver la vista atrás
    se ve la senda que nunca
    se ha de volver a pisar.

    Caminante no hay camino
    sino estelas en la mar…

    Antonio Machado

  • I was listening to Pacifica Radio again this morning and heard an interview about the new Gulf oil accident with someone from Ralph Nader’s organization, and the bottom line he stated was that we have to regulate industry and improve our safety record and response techniques to such accidents. But I would suggest something much deeper, and Emmanuel’s piece ought to provide a strong mental picture for us of what lies ahead for the US in the intermediate future:


    The truth is that mankind received a one-time inheritance of cheap petroleum energy and we are at the brink of spending the part of that inheritance that “benefited” us the most. Of course, the benefits in terms of prosperity for all of mankind were never distributed fairly or wisely, and America above all nations, took by force from other peoples so as to create lives of luxury for even its “underprivileged” compared to other peoples, even in the hemisphere. I doubt you see obesity among poor Ecuadorians as you do among poor Americans, for instance, and I suspect that poor immigrants to America who hail from Ecuador are more likely to be obese and even “lazier” than they would if they had stayed in Ecuador. America has become a decadent society even at its lowest classes compared to other nations.

    But the truth also is that Americans must be told and taught that the party is almost over. We need to rethink our expectations of lives of prospertity, luxury, leisure and freedom from toil. Our lives are going to become more difficult and strenuous. Our numbers are going to eventually shrink back down to a more normal and sustainable carrying capacity.

    And in the final tally, after nature bats last, we will reach equilibrium and I think one of the end results will be greater human happiness amongst the survivors.

    Yes, indeed! I noticed long ago, for instance, while riding a city bus in the Mission District of San Francisco, that the poor immigrants tend to have the most frequent smiles and least apparent stress. Yes, they have the stresses of work, but not the stresses of decadence. They have the positive pressures of survival, but not the negative pressures of lust and greed and covetousness that the Bible warned about long ago.

    I daresay that in fifty years the obesity rates of Americans will be much more similar to what they were in American fifty years ago and in Ecuador right now. More people will grow their own food, walk to get to their destinations, and possible even wash their own clothes and may even gather their own water.

    I think that there will be a learning curve involved in which people like Emmanuela can play an important part. Teach us Americans how to live and think like Ecuadorians’ do right now! And Cubans! And Venezuelan’s who are lucky enough to have a President right now who is willing to partition the weath and resources of the people more equitably and even to send aid and resourcs to America’s poor during times of crisis, such as during recent heating oil shortages in the NorthEast of the US.

    Yes! Thank you Emmanuela! You have given us a reality check and a view of our own future, and it is not a grim one at all, in my opinion. We will be forced to work harder (like our grandparents did) and learn how to be more self-sufficient and happy in a much more natural world.

    Stan Moore

  • Emmanuela,

    I think you got it right about the Blake quote. I think it is like the “living in the moment” thing we hear so much about. I try to do that, although my wife thinks its because I’m so old I just can’t remember anything from one moment to the next. I do remember yesterday, however; a day with my almost-21-year-old granddaughter, a hike to a grove of 2000+ year-old cedars, a swim in a mountain lake (COLD!), and my dog fighting with a skunk on my front porch. It’s hard to forget any of those.

    Now if Blake is telling us that we shouldn’t try to hold on to our memories and our dreams (“binds himself to joy”) I think he got it all wrong. Memories are what make us and our dreams are what open the path for our future. As Langston Hughes said in Dreams:

    Hold fast to dreams
    For if dreams die
    Life is a broken-winged bird
    That cannot fly.
    Hold fast to dreams
    For when dreams go
    Life is a barren field
    Frozen with snow.

    Emmanuela, I do hope you have as full a day today as I had yesterday.

    Michael Irving


    gentlemen, I must insist: Ecuador is not just the amazonian indigenous people but also Guayaquil and Quito, and… well, most population can not grow potatoes… :-)

  • Few people seem to realize that Galapagos island is also in Ecuador; in fact it’s the most visited destination in that country by foreigners, who don’t bother with Quito and Guayaquil too much.

    Galapagos is good for turtles, not too good for hombres. It’s likely that the remaining species in these islands will be eaten by hungry two-legged critters who will not give a damn about ‘living off the land’.

  • Querida Emmanuela,

    Te hablo desde uno de los centros de la civilizacion occidental, Londres, trabajando, además, en un edificio supermoderno lleno de superordenadores y camaras. Solo para decir que estoy en uno de los lugares mas técnificados del planeta, mas alienados de nuestra madre naturaleza…
    Estuve en Ecuador este Febrero, diez dias de ese mes viviendo con una tribu de Shuares,la experiencia fue increible, como increible son las risas con las que se levantan todas las mañanas. La vida ahi es durisima, pero solo dependen de ellos mismos y de la pacha mama. Una gran lección. Comparto contigo tus descripciones de Ecuador, concisas y evocadoras.
    Yo vivo aterrado con la que se nos viene encima, vivo en un punto en el que celebrar cada dia como si fuera el ultimo me parece al mismo tiempo necesidad y banalidad. Al mismo tiempo hipnotizado, despierto y desesperado. Alucino con la mentalidad general de la gente, practicamente todo el mundo cree que las cosas van a seguir asi indefinidamente! Celebro tu entusiasmo y tu inmersión por hacer que todo no se vaya al diablo, ojala lo tuviera yo!
    Ademas tienes el don de inspirar a la gente…
    Muchas gracias y mucha suerte!
    Desde londres, suyo,

  • matt,

    Great link! I will have to investigate his new book. The interview itself is full of things to think about. I especially like his statement about mindfulness, “It is like when the wave know that water is not outside of her.”

    Thanks for sharing.

    Michael Irving

  • Guy,

    Orlov’s latest at http://www.culturechange.org/cms/content/view/674/66/ seems like must reading. It just restates what you have been saying, but is certainly worth the read and will give people (especially me) another needed jolt.

    Michael Irving

  • “Estuve en Ecuador este Febrero, diez dias de ese mes viviendo con una tribu de Shuares,la experiencia fue increible, como increible son las risas con las que se levantan todas las mañanas.”

    Bueno, que conste que no han vuelto a ser los mismos desde que dejaron de reducir cabezas. :-)