June 30, 2011
I found myself reading Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything non-stop, with a pencil in hand, underlining like crazy. That totally took me by surprise, but then, I didn’t know I’d be reading an astute explanation about what I’ve been feeling recently, something I couldn’t put my finger on. It’s an uncomfortable sense of how everything seems to be monetized, from our work to our personal relationships to our education to our creativity to our charity work. A sense that nothing should be attempted unless its value can be measured and brings advantage. A sense that we should be motivated by keeping up and constantly improving and optimizing ourselves, as if who we are and what we’re doing isn’t and never will be enough because there’s always something new to be achieved.
According to author F. S. Michaels, what I’ve been sensing is the governing pattern in today’s society, a master story that shapes how we think, feel and act, forming a monoculture, which, in our time, is economic. Michaels writes:
“Over time, the monoculture evolves into a nearly invisible foundation that structures and shapes our lives, giving us our sense of how the world works. It shapes our ideas about what’s normal and what we can expect from life. It channels our lives in a certain direction, setting out strict boundaries that we unconsciously learn to live inside.”
An economic monoculture, we learn in this insightful book, isn’t simply focused on how to make, spend and/or keep money. It involves a more profound and intricately woven tapestry of values and assumptions that, whether we’re aware of them or not, are guiding us. For example, society predominately rewards us for job performance, and so we maximize our time in that relationship, outsourcing our domestic lives to profit-making businesses (child care, lawn care, house cleaning). There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what we accept as our story. We also accept worker wellness programs, but they’re in place “not because we value health in and of itself, but because healthy workers are productive workers, and the company’s Medicare costs have to be reduced.”
The concepts may be familiar, but in Monoculture, they’re uniquely gathered and, suddenly, that governing pattern comes into focus, and we see how it’s affecting not only our work and home but also our community, religion and education. According to Michaels, it’s important we understand how the pattern unfolds, so “you can discover the consequences of the [resulting] monoculture and decide if that’s how you really want to live.”
She writes in clear, energetic prose that’s thoughtful, engaging and unforced. She defines and analyzes without judgment or insistence and copiously refers to her sources, but without rude interruption to her easy narrative flow. I wish Michaels had delved a bit more into the religion and science monocultures of the 16th and 17th centuries, which she only briefly mentions, but that would’ve increased the page count of this just-right size of under 200 pages.
One would think such a starchy title as Monoculture would give entrance to stiff, laborious reading, but this exploration is nothing of the kind. It’s a breath of fresh air, recognizing the dangers at play in today’s monoculture because “what it means to be human will always encompass more than economic values and assumptions.” It will always encompass more than one story.