Home Economics was the most trivial subject in high school, like an extra recess, a class just asking to be redesigned. Well, I’ve found a better use for it, turning it into something profound, actually cosmic and yet as down-to-earth useful as any class could be.
Think about the related words home, domicile, domestic and domesticated. The homey aspect suggests safety, a comfort zone, coziness. The domestic aspect suggests tameness, socialization, and deference. Traditionally, home economics aimed to tame us into the skills we needed for keeping home life cozy.
We domesticate animals, for example house training dogs. We teach them what to do mostly by teaching them what not to do, baring them from running away, climbing on furniture, or relieving themselves indoors. We can teach them because dogs are a domesticated species, bred over generations for their loyalty, deference, love and, dependency. Feral animals don’t need us. Domesticated animals can learn to do what it takes to keep us happy.
And visa versa. The standing joke is that dogs domesticate their owners too, keeping us on a short leash, close to home so they’ll get fed and walked. With dogs, it’s co-domestication—we domesticate them; they domesticate us. Together we learn to limit our behavior to what creates a harmonious synergetic whole, two parts, for example human and dog acting in effect as one happy home to each other.
Homeowners are domesticated to their domiciles too. If you own a home you can’t do just anything with your day. Your weekdays will have you working to earn money for your mortgage. Your Saturday’s aren’t free for just anything. Often your tethered to some household chore to keep your property in good repair.
One domestication leads to another. If you’re domesticated to your house, you’re domesticated to your job, which pays the mortgage, which in turn probably domesticates you to your car as a way to get to your job.
We can become domesticated to anything, even ideas and beliefs. To keep your job, you domesticate to your team or boss, often domesticating to what they believe. Groupthink is a form of domestication. Dan Ellsberg, a founding father of behavior economics, says the main lesson he’s learned from all his studies is that, “We can think whatever we need to think in order to keep our jobs.”
We even have internal domestications. Domestication to one belief might force domestication to another. To sustain your domestication to your family of origin or hometown community, you might domesticate to the belief that Jesus Christ is your savior, which in turn might domesticate you to the belief that alternative beliefs are sown by the devil and that thinking them will deliver you to hell, and that anyone who supports gay marriage is headed that way. A simple decision, for example to domesticate to a domicile in the Bible belt, can lead to a whole network of domestications, to community, religious beliefs, political beliefs.
More secularly, domesticating to your domestic partner, you might domesticate to the belief that he or she is the only one who could truly satisfy you, which in turn domesticates you to the belief that staying together is success and breaking up is failure, that you are everything together and nothing without each other.
In general, the longer you’re domesticated to something, the more additional domestications you’ll accumulate in support of it. The longer you’ve been domesticated to your home, the harder it will be to up and move. Over time you make more domesticating connections. You get domesticated to local culture friends and haunts all of which become your home, your comfort zone. It becomes unimaginable to live a different way. The longer you’re domesticated to your partner the harder it will be to break up, because over time you will have accumulated supportive domestications limiting your behavior to what works for him or her, believing whatever it takes to make the partnership work.
Breakups from home, partner, community, and beliefs is de-domestication. You have to wean yourself both off of what you got and what you gave to get it. We rarely de-domesticate from just one thing. We end up with whole networks of domestications. We think of domestication as learning the habits that will connect us to what supports us, but what are habits really? They’re other domestications. To domesticate myself to Christianity, I domesticate myself to going to church. I domesticate myself to fellow Christians and de-domesticate myself from other friends. I domesticate myself to belief in heaven and hell. Networks of commitment form making it hard to break away, but then that’s the point. Each supporting domestication makes my initial domestication more sustainable, which is great for sustaining the domestication but hard when you’re trying to break it. The same applies to all domestications.
I’m domesticated to my iPhone. I’m willing to do all sorts of things to maintain access to it. Recently I soaked it in a water fight and tried switching to a Droid. Only then did I notice how many sub-domestications I had made in my domestication to the iphone. I had trained myself to do dozens of things the iphone way, and I couldn’t transition. Fortunately my iphone dried out and I didn’t have to convert to the Droid.
We call domestication by different names, some positive and some negative. We call it love. We call it addiction. We call it care, neediness, co-dependency, a crutch. At core they all amount to the same fundamental pattern: When there’s something we’d miss if it disappeared, we’ll learn to do what it takes to keep it from disappearing. We know both love and addiction by the signs of domestication, the things we’d readily do to maintain our relationship with something or someone. The difference between love and addiction isn’t in the behavior but it’s consequences. When we think a domestication will turn out well, we might call it love. When we think it will turn out badly, we might call it an addiction.
In general domestication occurs when we become partial to someone or something. If it de-parted we would feel incomplete, no longer whole, but partial, like McCartney sang “Suddenly … I’m not half the man I used to be.” Grief over loss is the pain of de-domestication, pulling up stakes where the stakes were high.
All economics is really home economics. Indeed home economics is redundant, since economics comes from the Greek, “oikonomia’ meaning, in effect thrifty household management.
Supply and demand are all about our domestications and co-domestications. We’re domesticated, in love with, or addicted to oil. Oil isn’t addicted to us, but oil companies are. We demand and oil companies supply. Oil companies are domesticated to the income from selling oil and therefore are domesticated to the belief that climate chaos isn’t really happening. We’re dependent on oil companies and don’t like imagining the catastrophe that’s coming, a catastrophe that will make us work unbelievably hard and largely unsuccessfully to maintain our home planet. We’ve been domesticated to oil so long that we’ve accumulated all sorts of entailed domestications. We’re addicted to our cars, the freeways, parking lots. Breaking up with oil is like breaking up with a partner we’ve been married to for over a century--all sorts of high stake stakes to pull up if we’re going to move our tent off the oil grid.
Domestications, loves, addictions, and dependencies—they all have entailments. Getting hooked on cigarettes domesticates you do what it takes to maintain the habit including smoking breaks, trips to convenient stores, shorter plane flights.
Getting hooked on child-rearing domesticates you to feeding schedules, trips to school and soccer games, and belief that our children are exceptional.
In economics we distinguish between substitutes and complements. Substitutes are either/ors: Either you buy this or you buy that, but not both. The more of one you buy, the less of the other you’ll buy. Substitutability reduces domestication. The more we say things like “there’s no place like home,” “you’re the only one who can satisfy me,” or “I’d accept no substitute” the more motivated we are to domesticate. After all, if there’s literally no place like home, you’ll do what it takes to keep it. When you are forced to leave your home, your partner, your source of energy, you’re forced to find substitutes.
Complements are “both/ands.” They’re the domestications that our domestications entail. Buy a home and you’ll need its complements: a job, a car, a highly domesticated professionalism that enables you to keep them all. Lose one of these complementary domestications and you put them all at risk.
Life is all about domestication management. To manage our domestications we need to understand how domestications work. Above all we have to recognize that we have limited resources. We can’t be domesticated to just anything any more than we can be addicted to just anything. Our domestications change over time. They vary with circumstances: What’s available and what isn’t? What can and can’t be substituted? What our being domesticated to one thing entails about being domesticate to other things?
The conflicts both within and between us are all conflicts over different domestications. You say “potato” and your partner says “potahto” because you’re domesticated to different things. But as the song says “If we ever part, then that would break my heart” because you’re also domesticated, in love, partial, dependent and addicted to each other. And even just within yourself, you say “I need my job,” and you say, “I hate my job” because of conflicting domestications.
Domestication management--in other words, home economics, is about inventorying the people, things and beliefs we do and should call home, thereby domesticating to them. It’s the key to homing in on your best life possible. That’s why it’s the class we all needed growing up and a class we still need as adults.
Oh and the cosmic? I collaborate in research on the physical origins of life, in other words how in our physical universe in which everything is transient, degenerating, falling apart, coming and going--could things ever come together into these fancy organisms and organizations in which the parts do what it takes to maintain each other. The origin of life is the origin of co-domestication, what the philosopher Emanuel Kant called life’s unique “formative power” whereby the parts are means and ends to each other’s maintenance, repair and reproduction, much the way you and your loved ones keep each other keeping on, supporting each other but also staying together through the thick and thin of it.
At the origins of life it’s different because we have to figure out how strictly-chemical processes could become co-domesticated to each other. We’re making progress on that question, progress that gives me a continuity about home economics from the beginning of life to now, from cosmic creation to the practical present.
In a non-mushy way we’re talking about proto-love. If love is demonstrated by the focused, constrained domesticated work habits we accumulate in the service of sustaining whatever we’re partial to and therefore can't do with out, then life itself begins when the first chemical processes were able, in effect to love each other.
For a scientific introduction to domestication dynamics, check out Terrence Deacon's book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerges From Matter.