What lies ahead looks like what I have seen before

As I was reading this article about the incoming Cabinet appointees, I couldn’t help thinking that I see what is ahead of us. It looks a lot like a place where I have been before.

I came out in 1987, in Reagan’s America. Only a handful of states had non-discrimination laws for employment or housing. No one even dreamed of legal same-sex marriages. A major epidemic had taken hold because the Federal government thought it only affected gays and drug addicts, who frankly deserved to get sick.

It was a common fear for children to be disowned by their parents or forced into therapy for coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. It was common for people to lie to themselves and their spouses and live lives that looked like everyday American families, but were really a kind of silent hell.

For Trans people – well, it’s hard for me to even imagine. There was so little hope for support from home, school, work – so little awareness and so little sympathy for their identity that they knew in their hearts.

For LGBTQ people of color, who faced multiple intersections of discrimination around sexuality, race, ethnicity, and religion – the challenges and complications went far beyond what I ever experienced.

And so many brave and beautiful souls persevered.


It won’t look like it did before. The 1980’s didn’t look quite like the 1950’s, even if that’s what many in power aspired to achieve. LGBT communities had become established during the freer years of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Anita Bryant took her anti-gay crusade around and succeeded in getting quite a few places to roll back anti-discrimination laws (including St Paul, MN, my home at the time I came out). But the community still existed and grew stronger in spite of the disasters it faced.

The “Moral Majority” was in full swing – as was the “Satanic Panic”. There was a backlash against the open religious exploration of the 1960’s as well as the increasing secularism of American culture. Here, too, the counterculture was established enough that it held on, even if it was only in casual, personal ways. Neopaganism continued to develop, although it took on a “New Age” cast that was more about self-improvement than creation of an alternative spiritual community.


I was too young to really understand it at the time, but the 1980’s were also a time when environmental progress was rolled back. The move toward energy conservation through the 1970’s was reversed. Protected lands were opened to logging, drilling and mining. The EPA was weakened in favor of “business friendly” policies allowing more pollution. See more about Reagan’s environmental record here

The 1980’s saw a dramatic step up in the War on Drugs, which meant increasing incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders. Of course this had a racial component – much of the enforcement was in communities of color, even when drug use was just as prevalent in primarily white communities. See more about the War on Drugs here.

It was also the time when standards of honesty and integrity of the press was eroded. Reagan played a critical role in rolling back the “Fairness Doctrine” and other safeguards to hold media responsible for their reporting. This deregulation, along with the proliferation of cable news and then the internet news sites, has led to most news outlets being highly partisan and in many cases portraying opinion and sometimes even lies as news. See more about the changes to media in the 1980’s here.



We seem to be facing all these social currents again (or, in some cases, still): Anti-LGBTQ legal actions; Religious xenophobia and fear; Environmental protections being rolled back; An increase in racialized policing; A news media system that continues to fail in bringing reliable and balanced information to the American public.

I hope the cultural shifts of the past 20 years around all these issues will be enough to hold us together through the next decade. I am worried that if I get fired from my job because of my sexuality or my religion, the Federal legal system is not likely to help me out. I am even more worried about the climate of religious and ethnic discrimination that seems to be rising. And I am most worried about the fragile balance of the environment and the climate, which already seems to be on the verge of tipping.

Is this new government going to turn me into an anarchist?

I am in a rather grim mood about our future today. I know people think of me as normally balanced and reasonable. But without any real hope, my reasonability is feeling pretty strained.


A year and a half ago, I wrote this article about why I am not an anarchist.

The thrust of it was that I believe that the best argument for a strong Federal government is to provide effective regulation and restraint to those who are destroying the environment. I do not see any other institution that will effectively prevent people from literally trashing the wild places, forests, water supply, oceans, and air. I do not see any other institution with the power to reduce our society’s love affair with producing greenhouse gasses.

With the recent election, I guess it is pretty clear that the new administration and Congress will have no interest in using their power to protect natural areas, curb hazardous practices like fracking, limit or reduce carbon emissions.

I have a growing certainty that we are already past a point of preventing significant effects of climate change, and we keep hurtling down this path to use as much fossil fuels as possible – while we destroy forests and pollute water along the way. Turning away from this path could mitigate, but not prevent climate change – and yet we as a country are determined to ignore the changes needed.


I have sometimes said that I am not an anarchist because I don’t have an optimistic view of people’s motives, compassion, or even really about their ability to see what’s best for their own middle-to-long term future. I don’t think that view has really changed. Most people don’t really think about their impact on those around them, the future generations, or the environment.

Unfortunately, my faith in the federal government to protect us from the destructive actions of others is now destroyed. My main reason for supporting the idea of a strong federal government has been flushed down the toilet. Wild areas will be logged and mined with abandon. We’re going to keep getting more electricity from coal and less from wind and solar. The EPA will be slow to enforce whatever regulations are left, and polluters will feel quite free to dump and spew in whatever way benefits their bottom line.

I am still not optimistic about people’s ability to not destroy the environment, but that no longer seems like much of an argument for a strong federal government. It just seems like a recipe for drought, storms, poisoned water, and flooded cities. And no governmental authority is willing to take the action to stop it.

Here are some articles about where we’re headed on the environment:




My Big Gay Pagan Agenda

It used to be a common refrain from the Religious Right that we as a country shouldn’t give in to the Gay Agenda. With the increasing acceptance of different sexual and gender identities, that phrase was starting to seem rather silly.

But I am here to admit that with the changes that seem to be facing us, trying to move past despair and fear, I am starting to make up an agenda. Unfortunately, most of these are not things I can do on my own. These are all things we need to pull together to accomplish, and as of January 20, 2017, we can count on very little help from the federal government to support any of these goals.

This isn’t a complete list of what I want, but it’s some of the more realistic areas where we can take action in the political climate going forward.

So, in the spirit of being the change that scares the crap out of the religious right, here is My Big Gay Pagan Agenda.


My Big Gay Pagan Legislative Wish List:

Enact laws to ban Conversion/Reparative Therapy (State and Local)

Conversion Therapy is a damaging and debunked practice that attempts to “convert” people with same sex attractions to heterosexuality. Our new VP, Mike Pence, is an advocate for this infamous practice. Several states (California, Illinois, New Jersey, Vermont, and Oregon) have already banned this. If you can push your state and local politicians to enact a ban, I heartily encourage this. http://www.hrc.org/resources/the-lies-and-dangers-of-reparative-therapy


Enact laws to ban “Gay Panic” and “Trans Panic” legal defenses (State)

At this point only California has banned the use of “gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses in cases of murder and assault. In the rest of the country, a bad reaction to someone’s sexual or gender identity can be used as an argument for justification or mitigating circumstances for the crime. We need to acknowledge that this is pure discrimination and malice. It should not be allowed as a defense in crimes against LGBTQ people. http://lgbtbar.org/what-we-do/programs/gay-and-trans-panic-defense/


Enact laws to protect LGBTQ people from employment and housing discrimination (State and Local)

A lot of people thought that after same sex marriage went nationwide, the Gay Agenda had been completed. Far from it. In many states, people can be legally fired from their jobs or kicked out of their homes because they are LGBTQ. Efforts to push a national bill through Congress have been stalled and we are almost certainly not to see any progress with the incoming Congress. The game is at the state level. If you live in any of the states that do not have such protections, put the pressure on your elected officials. https://www.aclu.org/map/non-discrimination-laws-state-state-information-map


Change policies to de-escalate police violence against Communities of Color

This is a huge and complex issue, but Campaign Zero has a lot of concrete and useful suggestions about ways to change and de-escalate policing that too often ends in the deaths of people who pose no significant threat, and are very often not even involved in criminal activity at all. http://www.joincampaignzero.org/#vision


I wish I could add issues around environmental protection and immigration reform, but those are questions handled federally, and I’m afraid there’s little hope for progress there, only a wish that the most radical proposals fall apart or are opposed so vigorously that they can’t move forward.


My Big Gay Pagan Personal Wish List:

Be Out

Visibility helps, when it comes to sexual and gender identity and when it comes to religious diversity. People are less likely to support discriminatory policies if they know that it would hurt their friends, family, and neighbors. I know not everyone feels safe doing this, and different places can have different levels of safety (out with friends and family, but not at work, for example), but try pushing the envelope. Talk about and normalize your family or romantic situation. Challenge gender stereotyping and gender essentialism. Respectfully challenge the idea that “we all believe in the same god”. Talk about the sacredness of natural places.


Strengthen our support and solidarity networks

Don’t let despair prevent you from connecting with friends, local groups, and support networks. I found this article below from Gods and Radicals to be very thought-provoking and full of ideas to keep moving forward, even if/when there are new repressive actions from the government. Although I don’t advocate illegal actions at this time, I think it’s very important to ask ourselves where the line is. Mass deportations? Religious tests for US travel? Suppression of the press? The justice system turning a blind eye to racial violence?



Stand up against harassment and violence

As has been reported in many parts of the country, violence and intimidation against Muslims, immigrant communities, and many other groups have been on the rise since the success of the Republican nominee’s campaign. Many people are noting that bigotry has been emboldened.



Support the resolve of Sanctuary Cities

My home city of Chicago is a Sanctuary City, which will not cooperate with Immigration enforcement and will not even request the immigration status of people who interact with police. Otherwise law-abiding citizens who are undocumented are not subject to local law enforcement. The incoming administration has threatened to take away federal funding for such cities who defy the new immigration enforcement protocols.

More information on Sanctuary Cities


Support organizations that advocate for the embattled groups and the environment

I’m sure any of these organization will be happy to receive donations of time and/or money. Again, this is a very incomplete list.


Campaign Zero


Lady Liberty League

Lambda Legal

Mercy for Animals


Pagan Pride organizations

Planned Parenthood

Sierra Club

Southern Poverty Law Center

Wilderness Society

Immigrants’ rights groups, trans advocates, food pantries and homeless shelters, anti-defamation leagues, local LGBTQ organizations, Muslim aid societies, independent press organizations


My Big Gay Personal Challenges:

I am introverted by nature, but I am pushing myself to feed and strengthen my support networks at this time. I will continue to grow my involvement with Brotherhood of the Phoenix, an organization for men who love men (gay, bi, trans, queer). This Brotherhood can be a resource and support for the vulnerable among us.

I have limited financial resources, but I will try to help support organizations doing good work in whatever way possible – publicity, volunteering, etc.

I need to remain strong, physically and mentally. Friends and strangers may need a sympathetic ear. They may also need someone to help protect them from abuse or harassment, which is a far more physically demanding challenge.

I am going to seek out a self-defense class at some point in the near future. I am not a person who has a background in physical confrontation, but I fear there may be a time when such confrontation comes to me. I need to be more prepared than I am today.

One of my gifts is that I love to cook for people. Food is an immediate way to give people a bit of support, and it provides an occasion for gatherings and network building. I need to continue to use that gift.

I will continue to refine this Agenda and to keep myself strong enough that I will not be overwhelmed by the challenges ahead.

The Wild and the City

My friend Theo recently posted on Facebook:

“It is often said that when humans built cities the wild retreated. That the spirits and gods and peoples who were there were destroyed, or that they left. But what if they didn’t? What if, like us, they just adapted?”


The writer is a city witch, and in a sense, so am I. Initially, I felt the appeal of this sentiment. Humans are part of Nature, right? I want to think there’s a possibility that I can be an integrated part of the natural and spiritual world around me, that I can connect to the Earth, to the elements, to the forces of Nature. But I have to wonder, what is the “wild”? And what I come up with is a kind of negative description. The wild is what is not planned or created by human intervention, and this can come in many different degrees.

I have lived my entire life in cities, but I have been an observer of what is “wild” in my environment, although I wish that when I was young I had paid more attention, particularly to local plants. I would love to be an expert urban forager, but my knowledge is sadly lacking.

My mother loved songbirds, and we always had bird feeders in our yard. We saw robins, finches, sparrows, cardinals, grackles, blue jays, crows, and even the occasional small hawk. Where I live now is a bit denser and more paved over than where I grew up, but we still have pigeons and gulls, as well as the familiar robins and sparrows. Canada geese and ducks show up during certain seasons in nearby parks.

Some creatures do quite well in urban settings. Rats, of course, and pigeons, numerous insects and spiders. We have rabbits and squirrels around all the time where I live, as well as the occasional skunk. A little further into a suburban area, it’s easy to find deer, chipmunks and raccoons.

And of course, there are the weeds. Native and invasive plants show up unbidden in any unattended place. Many of these are beautiful and useful plants, even though there is a cultural imperative to destroy them in favor of even green grass lawns and carefully manicured flowers.


So yes – to some extent, the wild adapts and lives with us, persisting in spite of human efforts to sterilize the ground with tar and asphalt, spray pesticides to get rid of those unwanted residents and visitors.

I think of the spiritual version of the wild as very much like this. Some parts of it may adapt to places dominated by humans. Some parts seem almost tame to us, and we will happily bring them into our lives. Some parts of it can easily live alongside humans and our desire to control the environment. Some can feed off what we throw away. Some are so persistent that they will push up through the cracks in our spiritual pavement to assert themselves in spite of our efforts.


But there is a difference between noticing that the wild is never fully eradicated and embracing and/or cultivating the wild in our world and within ourselves. And neither one of those is the same as leaving a wild place (relatively) undisturbed and left to its own way. If a forested plot that’s full of woodland creatures and spirits is cut down for a new subdivision of “McMansions” with manicured lawns, why would we think that the wildlife or the spirits who lived there would want to adapt to the bland and non-nourishing changes that humans imposed on that environment for their own profit? If a wetland that harbored hundreds of kinds of plants, insects, amphibians, and spirits gets filled in and covered with a parking lot, why would we think that either the wildlife or the spiritual life would stay around to hang out with the parked cars?


Have we, as humans, adapted to our environment, or have we done our best to force our environment to adhere to our desires? We create our interior micro-climates, safe from wind and rain, with temperature and humidity controlled. We keep out the bugs and the mice. We shuttle ourselves between these protected spaces in our air-conditioned cars on road surfaces made unnaturally flat and even. I am guilty of this, too. I may not be able to control the wind and the snow of a Chicago winter, but I can ride it out with minimal outdoor trips, watching Netflix streaming and ordering dinner from GrubHub. This may be a comfortable, unchallenging way for me to live, but does that mean I “adapted”.


To a large extent, I think this is how we avoid, rather than how we adapt.  We shut out the weather, we shut out the pests, we open a small window for those poor others who labor away to grow and then deliver our food – but only long enough to grab their products and throw our money at them. And yes – I think that when we shut out the wildness, the natural forces, we also shut out the spiritual forces that exist outside of our human-built controls.

Will most of the spirits of this land, the gods of the Pottawatomi people who were here before us, the ancient presences who lived in the trees and swamps will just sit down on the couch and watch “Stranger Things” and eat Pad Thai with us? I don’t think their goal is to tune out real life, like modern humans do. So much American life has its primary goal to tune out of reality – TV, movies, drinking, drugs, video games, amusement parks, cat videos on social media – these are all escapes, ways to tune out.

If we wish to, we may be able to connect with those spirits if we find some remnants of wild and neglected places in parks, forgotten corners, and vacant lots that nature begins to reclaim. Or we can unplug from our distractions and get away from all of our current built environment to find some of those wild spirits that live outside.

Talk this weekend – John Michael Greer and the Steampunk Future

This Sunday, I will give a talk to The Owen Society for Hermetic and Spiritual Enlightenment, my Steampunk esoteric group. I have given several talks in the past to this group on different topics.

This time, my topic is “John Michael Greer and the Steampunk Future”. John Michael Greer is an author, Archdruid and polymath who writes on a wide variety of topics. Specifically I will be covering some of his writings about Peak Oil, the decline of Industrial civilization in general and American culture specifically, and his suggestions for personal actions to make the slide down a little easier, as covered in his blog the Archdruid Report.

I have written about John Michael Greer several times in this blog over the years, especially here

The talk is over brunch at a pleasant local restaurant. It requires an RSVP, and space is limited. The information is here. The Owen Society is one of my favorite groups, and the people are delightful – creative, supportive and stylish.


.My last talk at the Owen Society, "Food of the Gods"

My last talk at the Owen Society,

“Food of the Gods”

Faith in Humanity?

An internet meme set off a chain of thoughts that came to an essential question for me. It really is at the bottom of so much of my philosophy, particularly when it comes to politics.

“Do you have faith in humanity?”


Now, I have to be honest. Vague questions like this make me itchy. Faith in humanity to do what? Faith in what sense? Individuals, groups, or literally every human?

So let me tease this out a little.


My immediate reaction is that in a group of humans, I do have faith that a couple of things will happen:

  1. Some of them will do brilliant, creative, beautiful things.
  1. Many, perhaps most, of them will only look out for their own interests or the interests of their small group of insiders, family members, club, tribe – instead of the greater good and/or future sustainability.
  1. A few will take advantage of more than their share of limited/finite resources. They will know or willfully ignore the fact that their actions hurt others.
  1. Some will come up with genius solutions to problems.


Some people will look at this list and say that I’m talking about “human nature”. Once again, I get itchy. If you notice, nothing on that list is an “all” or “nobody” statement. There are very few statements about human behavior that fall into those categories, as far as I can tell. There are any number of behaviors that people assured me were “human nature” that never seemed particularly natural for me (e.g. being attracted to the opposite sex, eating meat), so I tend to distrust any talk like that.

So, how does this lead me to politics? For one, it means that although I value freedom, I am not an anarchist. I have written about this before, specifically with regard to the environment. We absolutely need environmental regulations and someone to enforce them, because even if we somehow create a culture where most people are responsible and motivated to protect the air, water, and wild places, someone will screw it up for the rest of us. Someone will quarry the Grand Canyon. Someone will build a smokestack to belch smoke. Someone will dump toxic waste into pristine waterways.

So we need some kind of governance to restrain those who would ruin vital resources for the rest of us. We need governance to restrain those who would abuse people, animals, and natural places. We need governance to restrain those who would take away the freedom of others.


But beyond that, taking into account the list above, what should a political system look like?

In our current economic system, bolstered by our political system, there is a variation of a Capitalist free market economy in play. In classical free market, the market determines the price and value of a limited commodity based on supply and demand. The tendencies in #2 above are encouraged, and the “invisible hand” of the market will lead to an equilibrium. The pitfalls of #3 are pretty much ignored.

There’s no value assigned to wild natural places – they are simply assigned a value as raw materials. Even animals are considered nothing but possessions and commodities. Creations of beauty – music, poetry, art, dance, theatre – are only considered valuable if someone is paying for them or if they are used to sell something else.

In our corporate Capitalist society, time –as the saying goes – is money. Many of us give our labor – our time, our energy, our physical work – to our employers. It is only through government regulation (thanks to the pressure of the labor movement) that prevents employers from demanding virtually all of an employee’s time and labor. Even so, many people still give long hours and all their energy to their employer or employers, just to survive financially. There’s no time or energy for creating the beautiful and the brilliant, and little to no breathing room for the genius to emerge.

So what should the political system look like based on all this? I will write about that in the near future.

Anger, Frustration

I envy those who seem to be able to use their anger to fuel a furnace to create change. I’m not set up that way. I can’t let anger take hold. I know it will destroy me if I do.

For me it just settles in as a crimp in the neck and knot in the shoulders. It settles in as an acid taste coming up my esophagus into my mouth. It eats away at me and cripples me. I can’t let it stay.

Please understand, this is not because there is no reason to be angry. There is plenty of reason. Each moment is filled with a thousand injustices and indignities big and small aimed at those I admire and respect. Insults and punches are thrown at people for the way they look or the way they speak. Beautiful people live in fear of the bullies and the trolls. And sometimes people’s blood is spilled for no good reason at all.

I know this. I don’t forget.

But if I want to live, I can’t let the anger live here with me, crippling me, eating at me, turning me into a twisted and burned wreck.

So I will cry. And I will shout. And I will punch a pillow. And then I will breathe deeply. And I will collect myself. I will put the anger somewhere outside of me. I won’t forget it and its lesson, but it can’t stay here.


I have been having a rough time lately. I feel disconnected from friends. Relationships from the global to the interpersonal seem especially contentious and uncooperative lately. People are ready to accuse and take offense, slow to listen and discuss.

I have had waves of mourning for my father, whose dementia has been progressing lately. He’s safe, thanks especially to my sister, but the man we knew growing up is gone.

The concrete evidence of environmental destruction seems very evident lately. News story after news story shows how much human activity has thrown off the balance of the natural world. Melting permafrost, flooding lowlands and islands, polluted rivers, methane and nuclear leaks – the bad news keeps coming.

Our country’s political climate has been unusually contentious. Even among those who I think of as politically “like me”, the escalating viciousness of the Sanders vs. Clinton rhetoric has been troubling. And that’s not even to mention the xenophobia, sexism, and crassness that has been coming from the presumptive Republican nominee.

And all this is against a background of violence, poverty, and injustice. The justice system is heavy-handed and full of prejudice. The social safety nets are being dismantled.

All this has me a bit exhausted.


I wish that I could wrap this up with a solution or at least a message of hope. That’s the way I often try to end these blog posts. Not today. Today, the best I can hope for is to see these situations clearly and take some deep breaths. Some of these troubles will pass. Some will continue to get worse. Some of these I can try to change another day, when I have the energy.

See The World, Ruin The World – An Unpopular Observation

I grew up valuing and even idolizing the idea of world travel. When I was young, I envied the few friends whose families took them to different countries. I was awestruck by high school friends who became exchange students. I chose a college with a focus on Internationalism and wanted desperately to study abroad. It never happened, for various reasons. In my 20’s, I finally did travel outside the United States, to Montreal, Paris, and London. I also saw some of the cosmopolitan cities of the US – New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston.

The cachet of foreign travel had me sold, although I rarely had the money or time to pursue it. Meanwhile, my childhood family vacations amounted to piling five kids into the back of a station wagon and driving across the Midwest (which was exciting to me, if more modest than my dreams). I didn’t fly anywhere until a high school trip to Washington, DC. I have only flown a handful of times since the increased travel restrictions following the 9/11 attacks. The process of getting through any airport is very unpleasant now, with long lines, invasive searches, and extra hassles. To me, that has taken much of the joy that I once had over flying.

But I still want to see so many places. I have years worth of unused frequent flyer “miles” to use and I decided a while back that in a few years (the year I turn 50) I want to go back to Europe. I want to check off a few more places on my long list of places that I want to see. In part this desire is still tied up in my own striving to be what I see as a worldly person, well-traveled, sophisticated. In part, it is because I have actually gotten significant enjoyment from my travels in the past, even in spite of the hassles of the logistics of travel.

But there’s a problem with this. I increasingly have begun to wonder if, as an environmentalist, I can support our current culture of cheap and easy airline travel. I know this is not going to be a popular thing among so many of my friends, but flying is incredibly destructive to the environment, and I need to radically rethink its virtues and desirability.

Take a look at these recent articles that I have come across. They will be better at presenting the data about it than I could be:

Every Time You Fly, You Trash the Planet from Fivethirtyeight.com.

A Climate Scientist Who Decided Not To Fly from Grist.org.

Travel broadens the mind and challenges one’s assumptions, as common wisdom goes. On some level, we believe that seeing the great sights and sitting down for a coffee with a person from another world paving the road to world peace and understanding. And of course – it certainly can do these things, when minds and hearts are open. I hardly think that most people who fly repeatedly for business, to very tourist-driven resorts, to events filled with people who are quite similar to themselves – these are probably not travel experiences that expand and challenge who we are.

But flying has become so commonplace, so expected. People even speak of airline travel as a “right”, which is a strange concept – do we really have a right to trash the planet?

Various organizations, including government agencies, talk about flyer’s “bill of rights”. I know, the rights are to be treated fairly as a consumer, and I’m behind that, but should participating in such a destructive practice be thought of as a “right”?

But, in truth, we may not need to travel around the world to experience others. For me, I live in Chicago and people from around the world are here. I have people speaking Spanish or Polish on virtually every train ride. We have ethnic enclaves all around the city. And of course there is great diversity in our domestic population – people of different races and economic classes, different religions and subcultures. We can drastically cut down on flying and still be open to people who live radically different lives than we do. Of course, I do understand that if flying becomes less commonplace, there may be less diversity in cities in the longer term.

I am still struggling with this. I know I have already on some level made a choice to back away from flying. As I said, I haven’t done it in years, and the last time was for work. After that trip, I made it clear to my supervisors I didn’t care to do that kind of trip if it can be avoided. But I have not yet totally rejected the possibility of airline travel in the future. There is still so much in the world that I would love to see. But I will not take it for granted, or treat it as something to be taken on casually.

We Are More than Just “Consumers”

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.