The Goat Question or ‘Who Should Wipe Granny’s Bottom?’

Would you, could you…milk a goat? While small is certainly beautiful, it can also be relentless and constraining.  The re-embrace of place-bounded community, sensitive to local ecosystems, probably requires re-enchantment and the re-sacralization of every day activities and ways of being. It will be hard for us to become once again rooted, ‘small’ and also happy, unless we can recover what anthropologists call ‘participatory consciousness’ – a cosmic sense of the connectedness of all things.

Like many people in North America, we have moved into a house with lots of grass. We have inherited two small lawn tractors and ended buying an old Ford 8N tractor built in 1947 along with a ‘bush hog’ rotary mower – and all to keep the forces of nature at bay. In the summer, I spend every other weekend trying to keep a few acres of grass open and grassy. It is war: grass and Quilley versus shrubs and trees. And of course, we end up using a great deal of precious fossil fuel, whilst devoting scarce time, energy and money keeping those machines running.  Actually the last bit I have found interesting and empowering.  As part of Red Neck 101 my good friend Aaron has been training me up – changing the oil, taking wheels off, hacking off bits of the PTO connecting rod… the list never ends.

But I still feel guilty about the insane waste of petrol (or ‘gas’ as they say here). My feelings of guilt are heightened by the fact that I teach environmental studies and I blather on about energy scarcity all the time.  Part of our family project is about greater self-sufficiency. One of the first things that we did was to take up an offer from our friends Lisa, Bill and Will Sutherland, to create a system of permaculture raised beds in the back garden (copied from their own monstrously verdant and productive plot).  With Aaron’s help we have also created a deluxe chicken hotel, for both meat and eggs. And we can go a great deal further. With four children we produce a great deal of food waste, which currently ends up on the fields. Time and money permitting, we may create a pigpen and fatten up piglets for a couple of months each year. We are also trying, without much success, to use the wood off our woodlot to such an extent that the winter heating doesn’t rely so much on the geothermal (which is very expensive by the way, and doesn’t do what it says on the pot).

With all this activity, it is not surprising that after each day’s tractoring, we have a conversation about goats. It is obvious, we comment, that we should turn the excess grass into organic, guilt-free, eco-friendly food: meat, milk, cheese. Produce food; cut out the tractoring; cut out the gas – perfect!  So after much deliberation, this is where we stand. Meat goats might be a goer. They need a shelter and an electric fence and perhaps some defence from the coyotes – we have been told that a Llama will do the trick.  But milk goats are completely out. Goats require milking every day, at the same time, and preferably by the same pair of hands (and why not…it is, I imagine, quite personal and a big deal for the goats).  But as Nikki has pointed out repeatedly, ‘it will not be the green theorist with the big ideas who ends up doing the milking’.

In short, much as we like the idea of sufficiency and home production, we are even more committed to our freedom of manoeuvre. Nikki home-schools the children and, for sanity’s sake, needs to be able to shoot off for the day at the drop of a hat. Although I work from home a lot, I have too many hobbies and competing domestic commitments. But the clincher is that we moved to Canada with family exploration in mind: camping trips; folk festivals; fiddle camps; canoeing expeditions, Route 66. Even if we never do any of that, the idea that we might do, that we could if we wanted to, is central to our family mythology. Crops can be abandoned for a couple of weeks. Meat animals can be slaughtered. Chickens can fend for themselves for a few days. But milking involves an unshakeable commitment to a place, to a patch of land and to a bunch of goats. It is a relationship that can’t be switched on and off. It doesn’t go very well with holidays, trips to the city, pyjama days, learning jazz guitar and all myriad of self-improving hobbies that soak up time like pee on cat litter. So despite the fact that we drink gallons of the stuff and have a small army of helpers who could help us do the work, we have acres of grass and are unnecessarily dependent on fossil fuel to keep it under control – in the end we seem to value our personal freedom above everything. For the single most important food item and one of the most expensive, when we have a real choice, we opt to stay dependent on agribusiness and enormous great, energy intensive supply chains.

Of course there is another option. We could share our goats and our land. It is a brilliant idea. Get a few families together and share the responsibility and time commitment. Now we are only under the cosh once or twice a week and there is always cover if we want to go away.

This option is appealing, but we still haven’t gone for it – not yet anyway. Why not? After all, ties of place-based, mutual interdependence are what define rural life  – or at least they did do until the era of industrial farming. Barn raising, getting the hay in, harvesting, managing a woodlot and dozens of other activities all took place in the ebb and flow of reciprocal give and take, back scratching and interdependence. Many hands making light work was the lattice principle that re-created communitarian commitments to place, to neighbours and to the land.

So what gives?  The image of neighbourliness and rural community is very appealing to romantic urbanites – and always has been. But over the last few decades we have become addicted to individual freedom of action. We really do want to be able to do what we want, when and whenever we want. That is the bottom line. Even hippy permaculturalists just don’t want ties – not to goats, not to the land, not to neighbours and not to the community.  Not really.

This is of course a staple of early sociology. According to Ferdinand Tönnies, in pre-modern societies, individuals were relatively ‘place-bound’ – tied to by ascriptive bonds of proximity, mutual interdependence and kinship to a community, and by extension to particular places, landscapes and ecological systems. Community, place and social role/status (all accidents of birth) framed and limited the identity and opportunities of all individuals. Sometimes cosy, sometimes stifling and oppressive, such ‘communities of fate’ were unavoidable, unremarkable and probably only dimly perceived as constraining by most people.

By contrast, the experience and promise of modernity has always centred on ‘freedom’ – from class, from geography, from rigid gender roles and from particular places.  The iconography of modernization has always revolved around individual mobility and escape from the constraints of class, gender, prescribed sexuality and most sweepingly, from place.  The American dream always involved the possibility of upping sticks and starting again – of cutting ties and ‘moving West’. Thousands of road movies play on exactly this formula (‘Thelma and Louise’ never milked goats).

It tends to be the Right that dominates the discourse of political and economic freedom. Left liberals, feminists and social democrats have been rather concerned with social emancipation. And over the last hundred years, the interests subaltern groups – the working class, women, disabled people, lesbians and gays, ethnic minorities etc. – have been advanced under the umbrella of an expanding state. Since the 1970s, rather than greater status and recognition of work within the home and community; rather than demanding that men take greater part in family life; and rather than an agenda of curtailing consumer capitalism and expanding a more sufficient ‘prosumer’ economy of households – feminists have typically fought for equal access to the capitalist labour market. ‘Let us work! Let us break through the glass ceiling!’ Unintentionally perhaps, double income households expanded the effective demand for consumer durables. The culture of working women gave renewed impetus to the culture of consumerism and the endless cycle of commodification.  And of course, as sovereign individuals able to buy what they needed and backed up by the complex systems of state and market, working women vied for the same kind of independence as men: freedom from the absolute, cloying compulsions of kith, kin, community, ‘the land’ and especially goats. Social ties became contractual, negotiable and rescindable – not least, with liberal divorce laws, the ties associated with marriage and co-parenthood.

I don’t want to make any particular claims about whether this was a good or a bad thing except to make the following observation: Gender equality has been tied systematically to the expansion of the state, as the institutions of education, social work and health have taken up the slack.  In the capital cities of Europe it is now routine for babies to be looked after by state or private sector crèches from as young as 6 weeks old. The same process is apparent in the way that we look after the elderly. Our parents and grandparents are ‘managed’ in the context of health and care institutions and increasingly detached from the rhythms of family life. In such ways the freedom of younger women from the obligation to look after very young and very old members of the family is not without a cost.  Whether institutional care is an adequate replacement is a moot point. In many cases, it may well be better or even the best alternative. Either way, it costs. Removing the nurturing function from the envelope of reciprocal obligation associated with family requires energy and money.  It is associated with high levels of complexity and employment (the UK National Health Service is among the top five employers in the world). It requires enormous financial transfers either through the fiscal system or the market.

In short, in very basic ways, the freedoms and choices through which we express ourselves as individuals are to a great extent dependent upon the abstract, logistical systems and supply chains of the market on the one hand, and the institutions of the state on the other. At the same time, the public sector depends on fiscal transfers from the private sector. This is obvious, but also ignored by many greens and Transitionners who look forward to a more self-sufficient and relocalized economy. Such an economy might be ‘Small and beautiful’. It would certainly radically reduce the metabolic load that the human economy places on ecological systems. But it is consumerism and growth that generates the financial surplus that allows us to out-source care. No fiscal surplus, no double income families, no growth… no care homes, no hospitals, no meals on wheels, no subsidised state crèches. In short, in a no/low growth economy one of the most significant questions would be ‘who should wipe granny’s arse’.

Clearly, just because women did most of the caring work in traditional, pre-modern societies, it does not follow that a relocalized community economy of the future could not emerge with a more egalitarian and gender-equal version of the reciprocal economy. It is easy to think up all kinds of scenarios (although it is probably naïve to discount the idea that the bifurcation of sex roles would present a strong and steady tug). But the issue is significant in a broader sense.  People who grew up and were socialised in complex, urban, individuated societies would almost certainly experience the imperatives of a place-bound, self-sufficient economy overwhelmingly as a constraint. The relentless regular commitment to wiping Granny’s bottom, like the commitment to milking goats or the diffuse and overarching obligations to neighbours and ‘community’ – would feel discomforting and irksome, at the very least, for individuals committed above all to finding and expressing ‘their true self’. The ludicrous antics of celebrities are only an exaggeration of a narcissism that is pervasive and present in all of us to varying extents (Lasch; Twenge). To a great extent the processes of individualization that accompanies modernization, makes narcissists of us all.  Recovering the capacity to experience constraints of place and community as life affirming would probably require a wider ‘re-enchantment’ of social life. I will address this in my next post.

Some references

Tonnies, F (1887) Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, Leipzig: Fues’s Verlag, 2nd ed. 1912, 8th edition, Leipzig: Buske, 1935 (reprint 2005, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft); translated in 1957 as “Community and Society

Lasch, Christopher (1979). The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Warner Books.

Twenge, J and Campbell, W K (2010) The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (Atria)

3 thoughts on “The Goat Question or ‘Who Should Wipe Granny’s Bottom?’

  1. Dan Wilsher

    Lovely essay. Very nicely constructed; it unfolds gently from the specific to reveal the broad historical lines of enquiry. Is there a way to put the narcissistic genie back in the bottle? Even when ecological constraints push towards that being necessary, it will be a challenge given that most corners of the world have taken up this as their destiny.


      Thanks very much 🙂 I have just finished closely re-reading Morris Berman’s book, the Re-enchantment of the World (which is a work of real genius I think) – and I think that if there is a way both backwards and forwards, it will draw upon Gregory Bateson, Jung and Reich – but also for me Norbert Elias and Ernest Becker who he doesnt discuss (it was 1981!). On a practical note, having to look after a baby was the first check on my own narcissism. Perhaps the withering away of the welfare state and the re-emergence of mutual dependence at the level of families and communities will have unintended consequences…although i can’t see people (women, people with disability, senior citizens, people with chronic illness) jumping for joy 🙁 Anyway, I will post something on that soon…

  2. Pingback: Medicine in the Anthropocene at the Planetary Health Alliance Annual Meeting – Katharine Zywert

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *