I live in Edmonton, Alberta. The Gateway to the North. Oil City. Everything here is built on oil and gas money—a situation that makes me by turns proud, sad, frustrated, and angry. My left-leaning sentiments (which I could over-simplify as anti-capitalist) come along with a certain working-class pride that sometimes makes even a vicarious participation in the industry exhilarating. I am at all times implicated in a system of capitalist consumerism which is ecologically unsustainable and seems to dilute culture and relationships—a system which replaces a human dependence on art, experience, and interpersonal interaction with a dependence on money and possessions.
But I am beginning to think that the most eloquent statement I could be making on the economy is already manifest in my sex life.
My partner and I are openly, actively non-monogamous. I’m a writer and he’s a filmmaker. We live with our cat Simpkin on 118th Ave, a veritable bakery district in the middle of the city where we can easily walk to the grocery store, the calzone place, the library. Our close friends live in the apartment below ours, and Dylan's cinematographer is moving in down the hall. We share meals, a vehicle, and a bedroom with each other, but often with other people as well—sometimes lovers, sometimes just friends. We're freelancers in our mid-twenties; by Albertan standards, we're poor (though there are many people in our neighbourhood subsisting off of much less). The amount of money I make is laughable to many of my peers; at the same time, Alberta has a poverty problem out of proportion with its overall wealth. Like many millennials, we depend heavily on a network of friends for everything from the use of an electric drill to help with website design. Dylan uses his truck for hauling film equipment, but he probably uses it more to move everyone's furniture. When Dylan or I want the apartment to ourselves, the other one has to go sleep on someone else's couch—or bed.
This is not the way the so-called Albertan lifestyle works. I can generalize about interdependent groups of “millennials,” but I'm only referring to a small subset of the young adults in Alberta, the ones I know from university arts programs and house shows. Even since the price of oil dropped a few months ago, it's more common here for twenty-somethings to be working up north on the rigs or in the bars in Fort McMurray, earning more in a couple of months than I do in a year.
I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that traditional heterosexual monogamy is the only acceptable basis for a forming a relationship or a household in this culture.
People are likely to tell you they’re up north for three years—or five years or seven years—just as much time as they need to save up the money to buy a new house in one of Edmonton or Calgary’s vast suburbs. The Albertan dream is to work as long and hard as necessary to attain self-sufficiency. These identical houses with four-car garages become physical manifestations of security, havens in which to raise a family, man’s home as his castle. And who can blame anyone who regularly works a dangerous job for two or three weeks straight, who’s being paid accordingly, who can afford it? Life is hard. Wouldn’t anyone want a home to come back to, a partner who’s not going to have taken up with someone else during those long stretches away?
True, this dream makes less sense when you’re interested in maintaining a semi-permeable household and meeting new people to have sex with. These houses on the ragged outskirts of the city necessitate a certain level of consumerism just by their isolation from amenities and centres of community. You can't walk for groceries if you live in Terwilligar, but you can definitely park a couple of SUVs and a boat. I can't help but wonder if it's loneliness and insecurity more than anything that's actually fuelling this economy. Dylan was on a shoot recently in one of these suburban homes. He came home and told me about the giant calendar on the kitchen wall on which the seven-year old in the family was counting down the days until her dad got home.
I realize it's audacious to suggest that commitment to ideal monogamy is directly correlated with consumerism and the perpetuation of a capitalist economy. In my own city, however, I see oil money being earned in order to establish discrete, traditional, single-family households, I see the loneliness and isolation that result, and I see the excessive consumerism used to combat this loneliness and all the while maintain self-sufficiency.
In monogamous relationships (including previous monogamous relationships I've been in), the threat of cheating is potent enough to inhibit the kinds of interactions Dylan and I have with other people, even though not all of our relationships are sexual ones. Many couples do not feel they can afford to entertain the possibility that close platonic friendship or neighbourly collaboration might lead to any level of physical intimacy, and I think that a fear of cheating often leads to a kind of emotional isolation that I see mirrored in the physical isolation of living in a big house on the edge of the city.
It's too easy to limit monogamy to a simple question of limiting sexual interactions. There's a reason why every house on a suburban crescent has its own lawn mower, and it's not because everyone needs to mow their lawns at the same time. The individualism promoted by our economy also reproduces itself in our relationships, in particular in our romantic/marital ones; the jealousy and protectiveness that a fear of cheating produces often makes the alternative small-scale communal sharing economies impossible. Once the threat of cheating is removed, it's not only the idea that one lawnmower could be shared amongst several households that becomes plausible. In my experience, non-monogamous partners who have their own friends, who are not accountable for every moment spent with people other than their primary partner, do not need to feel the same protectionism over the practical intimacy of household-sharing (carpooling, communal maintenance, shared meals, distributed parenting duties that might limit the need for expensive daycare).
We had an unseasonably—a freakishly—an apocalyptically warm winter here. There has been much talk about the future of the planet versus the future of oil. It's not a hypothetical question. With the drop in the price of oil, capitalism in Alberta is floundering (again). People have lost their jobs, their houses. The suicide rate is up. No one knows what to do; everything from construction to arts funding has been affected. Effective community-building seems like the best antidote to excessive consumerism and dependence on the work/life imbalances that fuel corrupt capitalism—and strong community is something that many (I would even argue most) people in Alberta do not have. The Albertan economy, which facilitates (and is facilitated by) discrete, monogamous, single-family households, does not facilitate measures to alleviate the isolation that families living in this situation experience. For example, while shared child-raising, networks of emotional intimacy, and inter-household dependence would make sense in a culture where one parent is away for weeks at a time, Albertan culture does not accommodate these practices.
I know many people who practice monogamy lovingly and well, as a considered choice, and I do not wish to discredit them at all. But I don't think that monogamy as a norm produces strong communities or stable societies, as has often been assumed. On the contrary, it seems to put up barriers between people, cutting them off from each other and making them more and more dependent on material wealth, more and more at the mercy of a corrupt and unstable system. I'm convinced that moving toward a sustainable future will need to involve not merely a turn to renewable sources of energy, but a simultaneous turn to alternative kinds of families, households, and relationships.
I wrote this for the GUTS magazine blog, back in March, on the subject of 'Futures'. You can find their post here.