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Bringing economics home

rants from the podium

Long before anyone reading this column was born, I asked my grandmother one day what she had majored in in college. My grandmother said, “Home Economics.” 

I gaped at her, and no words came out.

In distant times, boys were funneled into “Shop” and girls were funneled into Home Economics. Boys were given hammers and blocks of wood, and they went down the hall to pound things and make noise. Girls were taken to a place that we would now call a “lab,” with cooking equipment and sewing machines. And they would track from there into two long dark channels of adult life leading from graduation to death. 

All that collapsed in the early 1970s, when female people began to struggle against barriers to their participation in public life, in careers, and education. I was a recent victor in the battle against this girls’ lab requirement (I chose Latin). That year they also started letting us wear jeans to school. At that point there was no going back. As for the boys, they weren’t in shop all that much any more either; the wooden things they made had no calculable value beyond the pride they brought parents. 

In the intervening, oh, forty years since that conversation with my grandmother, those bifurcated life tracks, with their relationship to home, vanished. Home changed completely: fewer and fewer people were even there; we all fanned out to workplaces, day care, the gym, the mall, soccer camp, after-school care. Drive through any subdivision during midday, and there will be no signs of life—as though everyone were away, on Mars or something.  

Now I’m not being nostalgic here; I actually never set foot in Home Economics. But I have this gnawing hunch that something like it might come in handy one of these days. Bear with me. What women of my grandmother’s generation learned was how to manage their households: how to control what came into the home so that everything worked efficiently, how not to waste money, time, or food. They would wash off sheets of aluminum foil and plastic bags and pin them over the kitchen sink with a clothespin. They would hang clothes out to dry. And twice a week the milkman—yes that was a real person!—used to bring dairy products to the door, where he picked up the used milk bottles, which he would wash and reuse. They basically didn’t even have plastic bottles in those days. People didn’t throw stuff out, really. The stuff coming in was pretty much used up, and the containers it came in traced one nice continuous cycle from full to empty, empty to full, full to empty, and then full again. Garbage went into a compost heap where it fed worms and eventually made things like carrots and potatoes. And in the entire history of the world, not a single whale had choked to death from eating plastic junk.

I’m told that in the US today we waste 30% of the food we buy. We just throw it into the garbage, along with the plastic utensils we eat it with. We waste energy too: in North Carolina when it’s 100 degrees in the summer you still have to take a sweater to work so you don’t catch a cold in the air conditioning. And we spew exhaust and other sinister invisible stuff into the air we breathe and the water we drink. This all has to do with a failure of home economics: instead of prudently managing the flow of stuff into our home and out of it, we waste it.  

Now I’ve just gotten back from a long slow trip across Siberia. Yes, The Siberia.  One thing I noticed along the way was that it can be hard to find a trash can in public. You don’t see trash, though. Why is that? Well, partly it’s because they don’t use all that much disposable paper and plastic, so there’s not all that much to throw out. Once you see that, you start noticing every little piece of trash you acquire and start wondering why you need that stuff in the first place. You are feeding it to whales, after all, and choking them to death. 

All right, now closer to home: A couple of years ago, up on the third floor of the Language Building where I spend most of my time, the recycling bins disappeared. No one knows why. Some people up here just started tossing everything into the trash. We woker ones started collecting recyclables in our offices. Every once in a while we carry them down to the nearest bin—in my case, the one in the beautiful main lobby of Perkins Library—and dump them loudly there. It is just one more #$%& thing in a busy workday, though, so generally the stuff just builds up in our offices. This has led to, in a couple of documented instances, mouse infestations—most appropriately in the case of one of us, who makes a practice of teaching works of Russian literature in which vermin, or vermin metaphors, play a prominent role (Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, for example, Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug, or Gogol’s Dead Souls). 

BTW, Kafka stole that stuff from the Russians. 

Meanwhile, what with California and Australia in flames, and other parts of the world underwater, people seem to have started recognizing that climate change is real—even as people in neckties, and governments and corporations, work actively to make sure things get worse. The Australian prime minister was vacationing in Hawaii while his country burned to a crisp, and another world leader who will remain unnamed has been fervently dismantling his country’s existing environmental protections in a concerted effort to protect the fossil fuel industry. Both of them fervently deny that climate change is real. 

There’s this bazillion-trillionaire dude Elon Musk. A couple days ago, he took off his little propeller beanie and tweeted a plan to establish a space colony on Mars. OK, I’m listening. Guy’s goal is to schlep a million human beings out to the red planet, and to give them a “lot of jobs” there. He’s even calculated the fuel costs and logistics: it will take 20 years and “a thousand ships” to take a million tons of cargo to Mars. The numbers are suspiciously round, but whatever you say; you’re the mathy guy. Anyway, I’m not sure why he wants to do this. Some people just like to get in machines and go super far super fast, making really loud vroom-vroom noises along the way. Or maybe on some primitive level he understands that the earth has filled up with so much trash and rocket-fuel exhaust that soon it will be uninhabitable and that people will have to move on. 

I’m not usually on the same page as technocrats, but honestly, this is a great idea! By all means, give the billionaires and fossil fuel lobbyists free one-way tickets to Mars. From the looks of it, they actually want to go!  And they can take all the money with them, and use it to pay each other there and give each other fancy Mars jobs. 

Once we’re rid of all this trash, the rest of us can roll up our sleeves and begin the hard task of cleaning up our home. 

Carol Apollonio is Professor of the Practice of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke. Her column, “Rants from the Podium,” runs on alternate Mondays.


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