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What Future Am I Planning For?
During a conversation with my son a few months ago about the differences between grasshoppers and praying mantises my husband described the plot of A Bug’s Life. My brain doesn’t retain movies so I had forgotten that the movie is basically a version of Aesop’s Ant and the Grasshopper.
At some point after I started gardening I found myself thinking about this fable. The ants save food for the winter and the grasshopper does not. The grasshopper comes begging for food and the ants turn him away in disgust. They say the grasshopper is not deserving of food for the winter because he spent the summer dancing. It is an ode to work before play, to planning for the future. It is also completely disconnected from the reality of natural cycles.
It is true that grasshoppers do not store food for the winter. Grasshoppers do not need food in the winter. They hatch in spring, lay their eggs in summer, and then they die. The eggs over-winter and hatch in the spring. Grasshoppers spend their short lives eating and mating not because they are short-sighted or irresponsible but because they have no future to plan for. Or rather, the only future they have to plan for is the future of their offspring, who will hatch and eat and mate and lay their own eggs.
A week or so prior to this conversation with my son, and the reminder of the inaccuracy of Aesop’s take on grasshoppers, I had been reading The Good Life Lab by Wendy Tremayne . I had set the book aside in frustration when I got to the chapter where she described cashing out the entirety of her and her husband’s retirement plans to buy tools for their move to a piece of land in the desert. She argues that investments of the sort that made up their 401Ks had no real value. Instead they viewed tools as real investments, the means to create things necessary for life and of real, tangible value. She also argues that monetary investments cannot be counted on, citing the 2008 economic crash as evidence.
Fundamentally I don’t disagree with the core of her arguments about the lack of societal value of markets, but I also recognize that investment in skills and tools only goes so far. When you are strong and full of energy and able to do physical work to sustain yourself it can be hard to imagine not being so physically able. Her chapter on the logic of spending all their amassed money on tools filled me with a creeping dread, a fear of what aging would look like for them in the desert with their collections of projects and tools and lack of financial nest egg.
As we sat at breakfast discussing mantises, grasshoppers, ants, and fables I realized something about that dread. I am, in my heart, an ant. I am planning for winter because I believe that winter is part of the cycle of my life. I believe that there will come a time when I cannot provide for myself and will have to rely upon what I have stockpiled.
I am willing to concede, however, that this might be the result of having never felt like I had a safety net. My parents have always been willing to help if I needed it, but their resources are too limited to ever be more than the most temporary of fall back plans.
As an ant I am assuming a very specific kind of future, one where the money in investment and savings accounts grows in value over time. One where that money still exists in 20 years when I start thinking about retiring.
Those assumptions have always felt relatively safe. I have wondered if social security will survive until my retirement, of course. And the burst of the housing bubble and accompanying market crash of 2008 certainly raised questions about how much value investments have at any given point. But I have never really fundamentally believed that the monetary system would collapse in a way that made investment pointless.
The future, though, is uncertain and reasonable people can have very different ideas about what it might bring. I must admit that if one believes that the chances of economic collapse are high, selling all your shares in everything and buying tools isn’t exactly an irrational choice.
I don’t anticipate complete financial collapse, at least not in the near term, but I also don’t expect the future I was planning for when I first started investing in my retirement accounts. The climate change crisis once felt distant, concerning but not something I needed to plan around. As bigger fires burn each year and the number of extreme heat days across the country–and the world–increase, it seems more and more likely that there will be disruptions, big disruptions, as a result of climate change in my lifetime, maybe even within the next decade.
The truth is, though, even if I don’t quite believe in a future I could plan for anymore I’m too much of an ant to do anything but try to plan. Part of me wishes I were more of a grasshopper. Forget the future. Eat, fuck, frolic and hope we don’t have to survive the winter.
The best I can do is try to imagine a better future. What would a just world look like?
Maybe that seems like a silly question to ask, but I find that I have to do a lot of work to unravel my default ways of thinking to get there. Capitalism, meritocracy, white supremacism, imperialism, patriarchy, homophobia, ableism all share space in the bedrock of our social structure. For me, imagining a world without them requires a lot of untwisting.
That leaves me, though, with a bigger question. How do I plan for a better future? How do I plan to survive the winter? Maybe more importantly, how do I plan to help others survive the winter?
I feel like I’m reasonably good at working on the first question (within the limits of my extreme uncertainty about the future). Answering the second requires more work, requires some untwisting and letting go of my fear of instability that leads me toward a tendency to hoard resources.
Can I become an ant that feeds the grasshoppers? Maybe even an ant that joins the dancing?