Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Advanced Man

Jonathan Rowe is still in the Phillipines and thinking about what constitutes progress.

"We commons advocates usually dispute this premise on its own terms. We point out that often the imposition of a corporate property regime upon a commons stifles innovation, as when a patent minefield stymies the cause of research, and the over-reaching of copyright impedes the artisitic creation the copyright laws was supposed to encourage. We also point out how the enlisting of a knowledge or resource commons drives the use of thope in the direction of corporate convenience and gain rather than of human good. We get baldness cures instead of malaria vaccines, theme parks instead of wetlands and forests. And yes, commercial television.

These points are all important. But ultimately the question goes deeper, to one we generally don't get to: namely, what is progress in the first place? What does it mean to be more advanced? Does it lie in the tools and devices at out disposal, the conveniences we enjoy -- in external circumstance, in other words? Or does advance lie in ourselves, our capacity to know and do and understand, in some sense, what we are for?

That question occupies my mind whenever I visit my wife's family rice farm here in the Philippines. It is a small farm on the island of Panay, in a remote barangay (village) of the municipality of Lambunao, about an hour and a half by jeepney from the privincial capital of Iloilo. Her father is a small quiet man who, though in his seventies, has the lean wiry body of a teenager. (In fact he's leaner and more wiry than most American teenagers.)

Tatay, as they call him, built the family home himself, with hand tools that could be rejects from a garage sale in America. He cut and split the bamboo, designed the house and constructed it, with inlaid patterns that add an artisitc touch. He designed the plumbing system too, which -- until electricity came a few years ago -- was based on rainwater he collected from the roof, in a big tank he constructed himself out of sheet metal, with a soldering iron he heated over a fire.

This was in addition to his farming, in which he used a caribou -- water buffalo --to plow, and rose at 1:00 AM to do so, to avoid the scorching daytime sun. Tatay no longer works the fields; he has earned some rest. But he still is busy all day, fixing and improving. He's talking about rebuilding the house now, to accomodate his enlarging family. (His seven kids have produced 18 grandkids, and they are still coming.) Just last year he built a bamboo cottage with a thatched roof that is utterly exquisite.

I watch Tatay go about his daily tasks. I see what he has built, and I have to ask -- who is more advanced. Myself, with all the sophisticated devices at my disposal, or him, with his rusty tools? He can build a house with those. With my computer, all I can do, really, is shop. I write too, and yes that's hard. But somehow, on the scale of human development and self-sufficiency, it does not match up to building a house and raising food."

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