Let me be honest. I may be counterculture in some ways (being Pagan, vegan, etc.), but in some ways I have many of the pitfalls of being a typical American. I don’t exercise enough. I weigh too much. I spend too much. I’m too far in debt. I’m too dependent on electronic gizmos.
I am trying to move my life toward some more sustainable practices. I don’t drive much (I work from home part time and take public transit frequently). I try to recycle trash as much as possible. I had a garden in a neighbor’s yard to start in some way to eat from a very local source and learn the craft of gardening. These are all small steps.
The debt part, sadly, is a big part of the trap. My debt, both consumer credit card debt and my underwater mortgage, means I have very limited opportunities to move, take a lower-paying but more rewarding job, go back to school. I am deep into it in many ways, and every time I succeed in scaling back certain areas of expenses, others go up or I am hit with unexpected expenses, and I have made no progress at all in getting out of debt. This year I will have thousands of dollars in dental costs and car repairs, and those are just the ones I know about.
So this January, being a time for starting anew and establishing new habits, I decided to purchase as little as possible and instead use what I have. This is not as much about self-denial as that may first seem. I have slightly hoarder-ish tendencies around certain things, particularly food. I have a huge amount of food in my freezer and cupboard that have been there too long. Why am I spending money on food when I have plenty at home? I never can go to the store just to pick up the staples, the items on the list. I always walk out with more – an item that’s on sale, or something new I haven’t tried, an ingredient for a recipe that just popped into my head. The stores are designed to make you buy more, and I definitely fall for it.
So a big part of this is that when I ran out of things that seemed like staples, I challenged myself to use a substitute or even rethink my need. I ran out of bread, and instead of buying more, I started baking. I don’t tend to bake yeast bread, so I’ve made muffins and cornbread and various other things. It has all been good – and I like baking. Anything fresh baked in my kitchen is so much tastier and more wholesome than something that I would buy at the store.
On one level, this is a tiny thing – I need to use the perfectly good food that I have instead of buying something else. It betrays my privilege – I have a stockpile of delicious and nourishing food and I feel the urge to buy more – for novelty, for impulse, for some strange satisfaction. But the challenge is the re-training of my impulse, my habit. I must break the habit that tells me that I must constantly buy more. And breaking habits is never an easy process.
A friend of mine recently shared a video by the author and doctor Gabor Maté. He covered a number of topics in the talk, but one part jumped out at me. Here’s a similar quote from him on this topic from the Toronto Standard.
People have a need for meaning and for belonging. But this society defines the value of a human being by how much they can either produce or consume. For all our talk about human values, we don’t really value humans for who they are. We value them for what they either give or purchase.
In other cultures, elders are considered to be people with wisdom, with experience, with a contribution to make. In our society, we don’t talk about elders, we talk about ‘the elderly’ — in other words, we define them by their age. And once they’re no longer either producers or consumers, they lose their value.
That idea that we are valued only for what we consume or what we make to be consumed is a powerful truth that is also repellent – why should that be the definition of our value? But that’s definitely a mindset that we are taught in our culture, and one that I will have to fight against within myself in order to break this habit of just buying – even when I don’t have the money and I don’t need the product. On some level, I see my value as tied up with what I buy. It’s even a common Liberal theme – activist consumerism – buying or not buying things for political reasons. It has a validity, absolutely – it’s better to buy from a company with ethical standards than one that does not. But it can also be a trap that causes unhealthy pressure to spend money we don’t have thinking that somehow we are going to change the world by buying more stuff.
This also goes hand in hand with a thought I have been pondering for a while. I think our current consumer culture is unsustainable, and it will come crashing down. Influenced by the thinking of John Michael Greer, I think about “collapsing now to avoid the rush”. This involves a radical simplification and learning more practical skills for an age when our consumer culture falls apart. I think cooking and gardening definitely fall into this category and I’m glad to be learning more about these all the time. At the same time, I know I’m far too dependent on certain technologies that may become rare and inaccessible when the finite resources and unsustainable processes that prop up our current prosperity fall away.
Of course there’s a strong environmental argument for cutting down on consumption, too. This article appeared recently and has made me think even more about ways to use less and waste less.
“Yes, you recycle. But until you start reducing, you’re still killing the planet”.
So, these different arguments – the environmental, the spiritual value idea from Dr. Maté, and the education for survival ideas from John Michael Greer – they all add up to making me back away from consumerism. They are strong arguments against impulse buying and for making it yourself, being creative and yes, sometimes just doing without. Now to let this all sink in and figure out how to restructure my life with the realization that I am not just a Consumer.