Friday, April 24, 2015

book review - The Unwinding

I picked this book up somewhere, not knowing anything about it except that it looked vaguely interesting compared to the romance novels that were also on the free shelf. It sat in my drawer for months until I was about to head off on a trip. Sometimes I like to bring actual books with me when I travel, so I don’t depend on battery power all day long. I don't keep print books after I’ve read them, so finding another home for a book sometimes leads to an adventure, too. 

In this case, I was in Montreal, playing the corporate wife with nothing to do but sightsee. Once I finished the book, I searched out a nice little used bookstore in the Ville-Marie and traded it in for something to read on the way home. (future post on No Logo by Naomi Klein)

While I wasn’t keen on reading this book at first, once I opened it, I couldn’t put it down. Packer is a journalist. Turns out his writing is very engaging. Instead of being a boring fact-filled analysis of the last fifty years of American history, he chose to tell the stories of real Americans - their dreams, their hopes, their journeys. Stories are currency. Humans are made of stories. He’s a good spinner of tales.

His basic premise is that the institutions that guided and protected us: governments, unions, churches, schools, have been unwound. They no longer guide and protect us, instead they have been hollowed out from within or destroyed completely by the power of the corporations and the elite. Slowly and surely, these organizations that were the heart of the American community are just not there anymore. Certainly they exist, but their effectiveness as community structure is gone.

Packer introduces us to a working class woman from Youngstown OH, who must navigate through the factories closing down and her neighborhood rotting, a former tobacco farmer in rural NC turned entrepreneur, watching every business he starts fail, and a DC lawyer who chooses to support a politician who never returns the favor.

Interwoven with the stories of these Americans (real people, I was compelled to Google them), are the stories of Americans who have had impacts on our changing cultural landscape: Sam Walton, Joe Biden, Oprah Winfrey and many others. Through these stories, we watch the unions crumble and the government sell us out. 

Even though I have lived through this period of American history, I didn’t understand the impact of these changes. The consequences of global trade treaties and of union busting on real people and our social institutions just hadn’t solidified in my mind. This book was a real eye-opener. You should read it. I know where there’s a copy on Rue Stanley.


A gleeful grandmother was telling me this weekend about the birthday gift she just bought for her 4-year old granddaughter. She described it as a parent's nightmare gift. It was a singing Elsa dress. I totally agree with her description.

But it is more than the noise the dress creates.  It’s so many other things. 

It’s the buy-in with a Disney character. What, this child can only pretend to be Elsa in this dress? It’s the singing. What’s wrong with the child singing? It’s the batteries. Seriously, a dress needs batteries? It’s the plastic. How was this dress made? Why did we need to drill oil to make this dress? It’s the sweatshop. Who made this dress? What are their living conditions? Why did this dress need to be made in a far-away country and then shipped across the ocean? The more I thought about it, the more I hated this dress, too.

How much of the rest of our material lives do we not think about?  How often do we have blinders on about the consumer choices we make?

We drink our morning cup of coffee without thinking about the forests that have been cut down to grow the coffee plants. We don't think about the laborers on the plantation who are struggling for low wages. We don’t think about the diesel fuel used to move the coffee from the plantation to our cupboard and the packaging required for us to buy it at the store.

We put our dirty coffee mug into a dishwasher, not thinking about what resources were used to build that dishwasher and install it into our home. The metal had to be mined, the plastic parts had to be made from oil, the electricity and water have to be used to run it. There are 65 dishwashers in my building. Or worse yet, we toss our “disposable” coffee cup in the trash can. What about the resources to make that cup? Where does the trash go? 

Every day, we are bombarded with choices about what we buy. Granted, a four year birthday comes only once per child and this grandmother wanted to make a big impression, but why is this kind of gift not only acceptable, but lauded? Do we think? Or do we just buy what Disney tells us to buy? 

It’s Earth Day week month year. Let’s think about what we consume. All the bits.