I’m poking my head above the parapet, although not yet emerging fully, after hiding in an internet-free (and social media-free) zone for the past four months for health reasons. Perhaps I should have cut myself off from all news as well . . . . .
I need to express the despair and utter hopelessness I feel about our current global situation. COP26 has just finished – and the leaders of the rich nations have not gone far enough. They haven’t all been willing to make the really drastic and significant changes needed at national and international levels to prevent the predicted irreversible and impending catastrophy. (It seems that many won’t even make personal changes – about 400 private aeroplanes were used to bring leaders and delegates, including Boris Johnson, to and from Glasgow!)
Nor have our ‘rich’ leaders been willing to make reparations for the damage done to the poorer and most vulnerable nations who are suffering as a direct result of our way of life in the richer nations over the past 150 years. They will continue to suffer, possibly to the point of extinction, unless there are radical changes. Promises of financial help made in the past to tackle the effects of climate change for these nations have never been fulfilled. Without any sanctions built into the current deals that have just been made, what hope is there that the developed nations will keep the resolutions made this time when they haven’t in the past?
There is no justice or equality in the world, two conditions essential for peace but which developed nations are unwilling to work towards in any meaningful or sacrificial way. We continue to expect and demand further developments and wealth-creation at the expense of poorer nations. And our rich nations continue to spend eye-watering sums of money on activities such as space exploration, defence forces and military equipment.
The rich nations have the luxury of being able to make choices which the vulnerable nations don’t have. They remain subjected to the consequences of our choices. And we continue to make the wrong choices, choosing bigger, better, faster, irrespective of how much more of the world’s resources that means we will consume. How can it be right to buy roses for Valentine’s Day which are grown in Kenya on land taken away from rural people who can no longer grow their own crops but have to work, for very poor wages, in the flower industry? Our craving for fresh fruit and vegetables “out of season” entails draining vast natural underground water reserves in the Sahara desert which can never be replenished, with serious consequences.
Of course, we can (and must) all “do our bit to save the planet”. But that will never be enough without massive global changes. Our leaders are failing to “grasp the nettle”. But are we, the people who elect the leaders, really prepared and willing to pay much higher taxes and accept a simpler, more sustainable, way of life? Are we all willing to lower our expectations and standards of living instead of continuing to plunder the world’s resources, taking far more than our fair share? The future is bleak beyond words for the billions who are suffering from droughts and famine, floods and destruction with no resources left to survive such climate disasters. The people of the developed nations must “live more simply that others may simply live.”
I have recently re-read The Grapes of Wrath, a moving novel by John Steinbeck about the mass migration westwards of displaced tenant farmers to California in the 1930s. If you haven’t read it, it’s definitely worth reading.
Most books have an “ending”, a denouement. But this book doesn’t, which caused me to reflect. I think Steinbeck is pointing out that there is no happy ending to poverty, to life lived on the edge – as long as the wealthy, the landowners, the dominant and powerful people of the world, work so hard to protect the status quo and improve their own standard of living. COP26 was a “once-in-a-lifetime” last opportunity to make the changes necessary to bring the story to a happy ending. But the wealthy leaders failed – perhaps because they thought that their citizens would not accept the necessary sacrifices and halt to economic growth.
I want to copy Chapter 19 of The Grapes of Wrath here as it expresses so well the problems of changing (“improving”) farming practices for greater wealth-creation for the few at the expense of the poor and weak. Depressingly, nothing has really changed in the world in the 82 years since Steinbeck wrote the book about one family who were tenant farmers. They were forced off their land and their simple home was destroyed in the interests of “progress”. They joined the mass migration to California of hundreds of thousands of desperately hungry and vulnerable tenant farmers who were displaced in the USA in the 1930s. Why? Because the rich landowners wanted more and more wealth. “Enough” was not enough for them, so they forced the poor and vulnerable to lose what little they had – and condemned them to live without enough.
Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans; and a horde of tattered feverish Americans poured in. And such was their hunger for land that they took the land, stole Sutter’s land, Guerrero’s land, took the grants and broke them up and growled and quarrelled over them, those frantic hungry men; and they guarded with guns the land they had stolen. They put up houses and barns, they turned the earth and planted crops. And these things were possession, and possession was ownership.
The Mexicans were weak and fed. They could not resist, because they wanted nothing in the world as frantically as the Americans wanted land.
Then, with time, the squatters were no longer squatters, but owners; and their children grew up and had children on the land. And the hunger was gone from them, the feral hunger, the gnawing, tearing hunger for land, for water and earth and the good sky over it, for the green thrusting grass, for the swelling roots. They had these things so completely that they did not know about them anymore. They had no more the stomach-tearing lust for a rich acre and a shining blade to plough it, for seed and a windmill beating its wings in the air. They arose in the dark no more to hear the sleepy birds’ first chittering, and the morning wind around the house while they waited for the first light to go out to the dear acres. These things were lost, and crops were reckoned in dollars, and land was valued by principal plus interest, and crops were bought and sold before they were planted. Then crop failure, drought, and flood were no longer little deaths within life, but simple losses of money. And all their love was thinned with money, and all their fierceness dribbled away in interest until they were no longer farmers at all, but little shopkeepers of crops, little manufacturers who must sell before they can make. Then those farmers who were not good shopkeepers lost their land to good shopkeepers. No matter how clever, how loving a man might be with earth and growing things, he could not survive if he were not a good shopkeeper. And as time went on, the business men had the farms, and the farms grew larger, but there were fewer of them.
Now farming became industry, and the owners followed Rome, although they did not know it. They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos. They live on rice and beans, the business men said. They don’t need much. They wouldn’t know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny, report them.
And all the time the farms grew larger and the owners fewer. And there were pitifully few farmers on the land any more. And the imported serfs were beaten and frightened and starved until some went home again, and some grew fierce and were killed or driven from the country. And the farms grew larger and the owners fewer.
And the crops changed. Fruit trees took the place of grain fields, and vegetables to feed the world spread out on the bottoms: lettuce, cauliflower, artichokes, potatoes, stoop crops. A man may stand to use a scythe, a plough, a pitchfork; but he must crawl like a bug between the rows of lettuce, he must bend his back and pull his long bag between the cotton rows, he must go on his knees like a penitent across a cauliflower patch.
And it came about that the owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper; and they forgot the land, the smell, the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it, remembered only what they gained and lost by it. And some of the farms grew so large that one man could not even conceive of them anymore, so large that it took batteries of bookkeepers to keep track of interest and gain and loss; chemists to test the soil, to replenish; straw bosses to see that the stooping men were moving along the rows as swiftly as the material of their bodies could stand. Then such a farmer really became a storekeeper, and kept a store. He paid the men, and sold them food, and took the money back. And after a while he did not pay the men at all, and saved bookkeeping. These farms gave food on credit. A man might work and feed himself; and when the work was done, he might find that he owed money to the company. And the owners not only did not work the farms any more, many of them had never seen the farms they owned.
And then the dispossessed were drawn west, from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless, restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do, to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.
We ain’t foreign. Seven generations back Americans, and beyond that Irish, Scotch, English, German. One of our folks in the Revolution, an’ they was lots of our folks in the Civil War, both sides. Americans.
They were hungry, and they were fierce. And they had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred. Okies, the owners hated them because the owners knew they were soft and the Okies strong, that they were fed and the Okies hungry; and perhaps the owners had heard from their grandfathers how easy it is to steal land from a soft man if you are fierce and hungry and armed. The owners hated them. And in the towns, the storekeepers hated them because they had no money to spend. There is no shorter path to a storekeeper’s contempt, and all his admirations are exactly opposite. The town men, little bankers, hated Okies because there was nothing to gain from them. They had nothing. And the labouring people hated Okies because a hungry man must work, and if he must work, if he has to work, the wage payer automatically gives him less for his work; and then no one can get more.
And the dispossessed, the migrants, flowed into California, two hundred and fifty thousand, and three hundred thousand. Behind them new tractors were going on the land and the tenants were being forced off. And new waves were on the way, new waves of the dispossessed and the homeless, hardened, intent, and dangerous.
And while the Californians wanted many things, accumulation, social success, amusement, luxury, and a curious banking security, the new barbarians wanted only two things, land and food; and to them the two were one. And whereas the wants of the Californians were nebulous and undefined, the wants of the Okies were beside the roads, lying there to be seen and coveted: the good fields with water to be dug for, the good green fields, earth to crumble experimentally in the hand, grass to smell, oaten stalks to chew until the sharp sweetness was in the throat. A man might look at a fallow field and know, and see in his mind that his own bending back and his own straining arms would bring the cabbages into the light, and the golden eating corn, the turnips and carrots.
And a homeless hungry man, driving the roads with his wife beside him and his thin children in the back seat, could look at the fallow fields which might produce food but not profit, and that man could know how a fallow field is a sin and the unused land a crime against the thin children. And such a man drove along the roads and knew temptation at every field, and knew the lust to take these fields and make them grow strength for his children and a little comfort for his wife. The temptation was before him always. The fields goaded him, and the company ditches with good water flowing were a goad to him.
And in the south he saw the golden oranges hanging on the trees, the little golden oranges on the dark green trees; and guards with shotguns patrolling the lines so a man might not pick an orange for a thin child, oranges to be dumped if the price was low.
He drove his old car into a town. He scoured the farms for work. Where can we sleep tonight?
Well, there’s Hooverville on the edge of the river. There’s a whole raft of Okies there.
He drove his old car to Hooverville. He never asked again, for there was a Hooverville on the edge of every town.
The rag town lay close to water; and the houses were tents, and weed-thatched enclosures, paper houses, a great junk pile. The man drove his family in and became a citizen of Hooverville, always they were called Hooverville. The man put up his own tent as near to water as he could get; or if he had no tent, he went to the city dump and brought back cartons and built a house of corrugated paper. And when the rains came the house melted and washed away. He settled in Hooverville and he scoured the countryside for work, and the little money he had went for gasoline to look for work. In the evening the men gathered and talked together. Squatting on their hams they talked of the land they had seen.
There’s thirty thousan’ acres, out west of here. Layin’ there. Jesus, what I could do with that, with five acres of that! Why, hell, I’d have ever’thing to eat.
Notice one thing? They ain’t no vegetables nor chickens nor pigs at the farms. They, raise one thing -cotton, say, or peaches, or lettuce. ‘Nother place’ll be all chickens. They buy the stuff they could raise in the door-yard.
Jesus, what I could do with a couple pigs!
Well, it ain’t yourn, an’ it ain’t gonna be yourn.
What we gonna do? The kids can’t grow up this way.
In the camps the word would come whispering, There’s work at Shafter. And the cars would be loaded in the night, the highways crowded – a gold rush for work. At Shafter the people would pile up, five times too many to do the work. A gold rush for work. They stole away in the night, frantic for work. And along the roads lay the temptations, the fields that could bear food.
That’s owned. That ain’t our’n.
Well, maybe we could get a little piece of her. Maybe – a little piece. Right down there – a patch. Jimson weed now. Christ, I could git enough potatoes off’n that little patch to feed my whole family!
It ain’t our’n. It got to have Jimson weeds.
Now and then a man tried; crept on the land and cleared a piece, trying like a thief to steal a little richness from the earth. Secret gardens hidden in the weeds. A package of carrot seeds and a few turnips. Planted potato skins, crept out in the evening secretly to hoe in the stolen earth.
Leave the weeds around the edge, then nobody can see what we’re a-doin’. Leave some weeds, big tall ones, in the middle.
Secret gardening in the evenings, and water carried in a rusty can.
And then one day a deputy sheriff: Well, what you think you’re doin’?
I ain’t doin’ no harm.
I had my eye on you. This ain’t your land. You’re trespassing.
The land ain’t ploughed, an’ I ain’t hurtin’ it none.
You goddamned squatters. Pretty soon you’d think you owned it. You’d be sore as hell. Think you owned it. Get off now.
And the little green carrot tops were kicked off and the turnip greens trampled. And then the Jimson weed moved back in. But the cop was right. A crop raised – why, that makes ownership. Land hoed and the carrots eaten – a man might fight for land he’s taken food from. Get him off quick! He’ll think he owns it. He might even die fighting for the little plot among the Jimson weeds.
Did ya see his face when we kicked them turnips out? Why, he’d killa fella soon’s he’d look at him. We got to keep these here people down or they’ll take the country. They’ll take the country.
Sure, they talk the same language, but they ain’t the same. Look how they live. Think any of us folks’d live like that? Hell, no!
In the evenings, squatting and talking. And an excited man: Whyn’t twenty of us take a piece of lan’? We got guns. Take it an’ say, ‘Put us off if you can.’ Whyn’t we do that?
They’d jus’ shoot us like rats.
Well, which’d you ruther be, dead or here? Under groun’ or in a house all made of gunny sacks? Which’d you ruther for your kids, dead now or dead in two years with what they call malnutrition? Know what we et all week? Biled nettles an’ fried dough! Know where we got the flour for the dough? Swep’ the floor of a box-car
Talking in the camps, and the deputies, fat-assed men with guns slung on fat hips, swaggering through the camps: Give ‘em somepin to think about. Got to keep ‘em in line or Christ only knows what they’ll do! Why, Jesus, they’re as dangerous as niggers in the South! If \hey ever get together there ain’t nothin’ that’ll stop ‘em.
Quote: In Lawrenceville a deputy sheriff evicted a squatter, and the squatter resisted, making it necessary for the officer to use force. The eleven-year-old son of the squatter shot and killed the deputy with a 22 rifle.
Rattlesnakes! Don’t take chances with ‘em, an’ if they argue, shoot first. If a kid’ll kill a cop, what’ll the men do? Thing is, get tougher’n they are. Treat ‘em rough. Scare ‘em.
What if they won’t scare? What if they stand up and take it and shoot back? These men were armed when they were children. A gun is an extension of themselves. What if they won’t scare? What if some time an army of them marches on the land as the Lombards did in Italy, as the Germans did on Gaul and the Turks did on Byzantium? They were land-hungry, ill-armed hordes too, and the legions could not stop them. Slaughter and terror did not stop them. How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him, he has known a fear beyond every other.
In Hooverville the men talking: Grampa took his lan’ from the Injuns.
Now, this ain’t right. We’re a-talkin’ here. This here you’re talkin’ about is stealin’. I ain’t no thief.
No? You stole a bottle of milk from a porch night before last. An’ you stole some copper wire and sold it for a piece of meat.
Yeah, but the kids was hungry.
It’s stealin’, though.
Know how the Fairfiel’ ranch was got? I’ll tell ya. It was all gov’ment lan’, an’ could be took up. Ol’ Fairfiel’, he went into San Francisco to the bars, an’ he got him three hunderd stew bums. Them bums took up the lan’. Fairfiel’ kep’ em in food an’ whisky, an’ then when they’d proved the lan’, ol’ Fairfiel’ took it from em. He used to say the lan’ cost him a pint of rotgut an acre. Would you say that was stealin’?
Well, it wasn’t right, but he never went to jail for it.
No, he never went to jail for it. An’ the fella that put a boat in a wagon an’ made his report like it was all under water cause he went in a boat, he never went to jail neither. An’ the fellas that bribed congressmen and the legislatures never went to jail neither.
All over the State, jabbering in the Hoovervilles.
And then the raids, the swoop of armed deputies on the squatters’ camps. Get out. Department of Health orders. This camp is a menace to health.
Where we gonna go?
That’s none of our business. We got orders to get you out of here. In half an hour we set fire to the
They’s typhoid down the line. You want ta spread it all over?
We got orders to get you out of here. Now get! In half an hour we burn the camp.
In half an hour the smoke of paper houses, of weed thatched huts, rising to the sky, and the people in their cars rolling over the highways, looking for another Hooverville.
And in Kansas and Arkansas, in Oklahoma and Texas and New Mexico, the tractors moved in and pushed the tenants out.
Three hundred thousand in California and more coming. And in California the roads full of frantic people running like ants to pull, to push, to lift, to work. For every man-load to lift, five pairs of arms extended to lift it; for every stomachful of food available, five mouths open.
And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at oppression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out. The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on.
The tractors which throw men out of work, the belt lines which carry loads, the machines which produce, all were increased; and more and more families scampered on the highways, looking for crumbs from the great holdings, lusting after the land beside the roads. The great owners formed associations for protection and they met to discuss ways to intimidate, to kill, to gas. And always they were in fear of a principal, three hundred thousand, if they ever move under a leader, the end. Three hundred thousand, hungry and miserable; if they ever know themselves, the land will be theirs and all the gas, all the rifles in the world won’t stop them. And the great owners, who had become through their holdings both more and less than men, ran to their destruction, and used every means that in the long run would destroy them. Every little means, every violence, every raid on a Hooverville, every deputy swaggering through a ragged camp put off the day a little and cemented the inevitability of the day.
The men squatted on their hams, sharp-faced men, lean from hunger and hard from resisting it, sullen eyes and hard jaws. And the rich land was around them.
Did-ja hear about the kid in that fourth tent down?
No, I jus’ come in.
Well, that kid’s been a-cryin’ in his sleep an’ a-rollin’ in his sleep. Them folks thought he got worms. So they give him a blaster, an’ he died. It was what they call black-tongue the kid had. Comes from not gettin’ good things to eat.
Poor little fella.
Yeah, but them folks can’t bury him. Got to go to the county stone orchard.
And hands went into pockets and little coins came out. In front of the tent a little heap of silver grew. And the family found it there.
Our people are good people; our people are kind people. Pray God some day kind people won’t all be poor. Pray God some day a kid can eat.
And the associations of owners knew that some day the praying would stop.
And there’s the end.
“And there’s the end.” How devastating is that – especially if you are a weak and vulnerable person with no hope and no choices?
“Jesus wept” (John 11:35). God is weeping.
COMMENT from Matthew Perry
I’m grateful to Matthew for his very thoughtful and honest reflections on this post which I think are worth adding here.
Good to have you back Margaret!
It’s a long time since I read The Grapes of Wrath, still one of the very best novels I have read, fiction that says more than non-fiction. Yet, I wonder, where did all the Okies go in California? Steinbeck was writing in the 30s depression, when the economic upturn of rearmament and then the postwar economic growth occurred what happened to those malnourished children? California became extremely prosperous, unequally divided but prosperous. Presumably the poor of the 30s became the residents of the less desirable parts of the cities and worked the jobs that no-one else would take. I suppose that many of the rural poor in the UK have migrated to join the urban poor in the same way. The big concern is that, as the resouces of the planet become increasingly depleted there is n’t a boom to come and those who are currently marginalised will become even worse off.
Your analysis of COP26 agrees with mine, it is hard to be optimistic. It is quite difficult to know what is reasonable to do and to buy and what is too much. As a Christian I feel a strong sense of responsibility to be a good steward of the resources I have, knowing that they are a gift and not for me only but for all. Where is the balence between consumerism and living as a hermit? Perhaps closer to the hermit than is comfortable. The difficulty of being affluent is that it brings hard choices.
I follow one who said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). I need to work on denying myself and following him daily. Yet, somehow, my denial must not be a mean-spirited denial, but a life-embracing denial, a denial that turns me away from the temptations of the evil one and to the fuller life of the Spirit.