How do we judge the “success” of the holiday season? Some people meticulously document and curate their holiday season in glowing filters– scrubbed and bedazzled children making cookies, Martha-worthy tinseled trees, snowy landscapes poking out behind cozy fireplaces. For them, the number of likes and hearts pouring onto their curated feeds belies a successful holiday. For some families the bar is a little lower–a successful holiday is one where no plates were smashed, no punches were thrown. If you are an economist or business owner, you count credit card swipes and projections vs. actuals. No two ways around it, the holidays are big business and I can’t say that is a terrible crisis. Economic growth is a fairly unchallenged route to improving quality of life for a lot of people, and we are accustomed to using GDP, productivity, and the value of the dollar as measures of growth. I get it – I can’t shake my neoclassical economics training; I love the clean rationality of it all. I thought Atlas Shrugged was just a good love story.
But after the rush of the season, I’m ready for something different. As much as I love Target (we don’t have any in Vermont!) I just can’t come to terms with entering a giant overlit big-box store with lots of fresh new plastic smells. I recently re-read Wendell Berry’s poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front (full text below). I was struck by one line in particular– “So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute.” Do something that can’t be calculated, that can’t be posted, or liked, or tracked in any way. This month, I don’t want to be part of a GDP statistic; I want to take a break from being computed in someone else’s success metric. Instead, I want to refocus this year on going deeper into my community, supporting my neighbors, and continuing to make choices that do as little damage as possible on our planet.
I should say, for some people doing “non-computable” actions come naturally– but, again, I am an economist and I make a living measuring, tracking, and very intentionally computing the impact of people’s behaviors. But even in my work, I see an application of Wendell Berry’s words. In general, energy efficiency programs place a high premium on “countable measures”– informational collateral, definable services, and especially on discounts and free stuff. However, recently the ILLUME team had the opportunity to “ride along” with home energy technicians in a home energy audit and direct install program in the Midwest. We rode along on standard program and low-income program visits, and observed as technicians talked to homeowners, walked through the house and installed equipment. We found that over and above the formal, computable services, what customers truly valued was a lot more ephemeral. What really resonated with customers was the technicians’ informal advice on free and low-cost things they could do in their home to save energy – the little weatherization tips here and there; the behavioral tips. None of these tips were recorded anywhere – they weren’t “counted” by the program, and not part of savings. But they seemed to have a lot of value, and also increased customer satisfaction – a “surprise and delight” factor. Even in our work, the intangible moments of connection can be what we remember the most.
I hope the below poem can inspire you in multiple domains of your life as it has mine and we can journey together through 2018– finding daily moments of non-computable actions that, taken together, build to a more just, more sustainable, and more connected community.
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.