Two incidents recently got me to thinking about how what was once an essential American value — frugality — morphed into a cultural pariah.
The first was when I posted on my Facebook page that my hubby and I had made a New Year’s resolution to not buy any new clothing during all of 2015. We both enjoy nice clothes, and we purchase worthy stuff — quality over quantitiy — but it’s not like we held back if we wanted something for the change of seasons or a special occasion or frankly, just ’cause.
But we wondered how hard could one year without be? So we went for it.
Well, when I posted this I received an aghast reply from a Facebook friend who lambasted me for not thinking about how this could impact retail fashion workers, one of whom was her college-aged child. She added than many other adults, some who are breadwinners, depend on these jobs for their livelihoods.
The message? Spend, buy, consume because it’s the right thing to do for jobs.
But in light of the human-induced climate chaos that we’re already living through, and which will get much, much worse, that’s not good enough for me.
Work will not make you free (nor will buying make you saintly)
I’m so fudging sick of the jobs trope, that catch-all rationale for an assumed higher take on what’s morally right and hence critical to our times.
Not only is it illogical, and nonsensical, but related to climate, it’s also patently damaging to the bigger context in which we all dwell. That context is the primary economy of nature, upon which we depend, in which we are only one part, and with which we share a world with myriad other beings and factors from bacteria to polar bears, fish to fungi, insects to wind patterns and more, all of which are essential.
That reality is the big picture that can no longer be left out of our considerations when we self-reflect on the human role in our global home.
So yes, I’m bright enough to gather that as of now people work in industries that drive the secondary economy (the human economy), and that as of now when those industries downturn, people can get hurt. I have the deepest compassion for that truth, that reality. I know that any shift from one paradigm to another will naturally bring pain and that that calls for sensitivity and respect.
But someone has to be a grownup in this world of ours and speak some of the hard truths, provide some tough love. (When did we all become such wusses?)
We have to recognize that in the face of hard choices compelled by monumental, worldwide climate disasters and the accumulation of industrial waste and exponential problems, we can’t prevent all human suffering, but that cogent, mature individuals have to reckon different kinds of suffering against one another and look to the path where there will be the least suffering in the long run, even if some growing pains — or in this case de-growth pains — must happen first.
What we can do is make every effort, through consciousness, discretion, humility, and courage to step as gently down from our industrial ecocide (which is actually a mass human suicide, albeit apparently slow). That means crafting a worldwide plan for how to shift industries from a deadly and rapacious scale and excessive output of largely unnecessary items to one that meets human needs (and not just material, but striving for our spiritual/inner needs as well) while also paying deference to that larger world matrix mentioned above.
This means a change in everything we consume, every way we manufacture, and every way we do things. Done right, this doesn’t have to be that painful at all and in fact could be surprisingly pleasant.
As grandiose a project as that sounds — and it is grand, demanding an all-out war footing (or an Apollo-style race to the moon if you prefer something not so violent sounding) — it nonetheless remains a non-negotiable imperative if we’re to make our way out of the shit storm we’ve created on earth during the anomalous years of the fossil fuel era.
So, uh, no, I don’t need to buy more clothes to keep anyone in employment. Enough said.
Rather, I need to use my brain and my vision and my words to help contribute to a dialogue that moves the needle on the hegemonic endless growth paradigm currently defining human experience to something of more worth and merit and with the possibility for actual survival. That’s how serious it is.
No more dicking around.
And it hardly looks like any person in power either nationally or in global agencies are in a position to do this since they won’t shake from the endless growth paradigm at all. It’s time to oust them all or create more serious alternative agencies.
Think tank blind spots
The second thing that happened was sort of like the first only less personal, and more overarching.
It was story I read in the Washington Post titled “Why don’t Americans feel better about the economy?”
The piece was navel-gazing over the perceived conundrum that Americans are perhaps skittish after previous recessions. The authors were so vexed, coming up with all kinds of head-scratching theories that would help explain when Americans would finally get over their hesitation and return to spending again with impunity, to again embrace a “good times” mentality that would put no brakes on spending (consuming). The author called this allegedly troubling situation, “the country’s core economic dilemma.”
Talk about a blindspot.
The underlying vibe of the article was that it was essential that Americans do get their spending groove back and quick because it’s the right, true, and good way to be.
Spending (a word used to mask the more sinister “consuming”), is an American value so unquestioned today that we assume it has unassailable worth — spend and consume, no matter what the item or service, no matter if you have the money or not, just do it because that’s what makes you a good consumer (a word almost universally used in place of citizen, which is an essay in itself), which by extension means a better human, or more aptly, a better American.
This highly regarded value of spending=merit is so different from the first 225 years of American history, where frugality (not to be mistaken for miserliness) was among the highest shared values. One didn’t foul one’s nest or water source or neglect one’s chores or animals, or toss out broken tools or torn clothes, nor befoul THE COMMONS because there was an understanding that we are what we share and that time-consuming human labor went into each item; the concept of embodied energy was deeply understood if not articulated.
Frugality then was deemed worthy for oneself, and it was judged worthy when seen in others, in business, in farming, in manufacturing, in government, in general.
I’m not purporting to offer an historical analysis of exactly how and when it all went to shit and people started not giving a rat’s patootie about how they spent their money, and how they treated what they owned or the surrounding environment, or exactly when we shifted from wanting durable reusability to expecting disposability. But the short history is:
- The fossil fuel era made everything cheap and everyone, relatively speaking, prosperous.
- Post-war America imagined it required a use for all those wartime manufacturing plants so they were repurposed toward gluttonous consumption.
- An increasingly ubiquitous advertising era pushed the edge between manufactured desire and shame, spurring a “keeping up with the Joneses,” culture.
- Through planned obsolescence new purchases replaced repairs, and personal convenience replaced self-reliance as the higher status approach to life.
- Capitalism’s dependence on “widgets” meant the rise of single-use disposability in everything from fast food to microwave foods at home, diapers to paper towels, paper plates to k-cups, coke bottles to lunchbox foods.
- Cheap and plentiful mattered more than having less but choosing quality, and having it done for you replaced doing it yourself.
- Credit was easy, and consequences were few, if not non-existent.
- Globalism outsourced labor, hiding that it was essentially wage slavery, removing the human story from manufacturing and further bullying and vilifying the American labor movement.
- From the middle class on up no one was modeling anything else besides heavy consumption, or if they were they were rendered rearward-looking fools or out-of-fashion.
- The Endless Growth Paradigm (growth at all costs forevermore) was pushed by Wall Street and the Feds as the highest human achievement and the goal of business and government, and hence of life.
- Externalities — externalizing the real costs of industrial production — became the devious but profitable business norm.
- God was “dead,” and so there were neither spiritual consequences nor any need to view “creation” as anything beyond deadened resources solely in the service of human use.
- Science did not replace God or nature with meaning, only with technology in the service of capital, thus failing on the inside even as it thrived on the out.
There’s obviously more to it than that in the subtle sense, but you get the picture.
The thing that shakes out from all this is that when a paradigm is born and then entrenched, it’s generally unquestioned. The process of questioning it is itself so far from accepted reality as to be irrelevant at best or the carping of cranks and misanthropes at worst.
And yet questioning it, dissecting and deconstructing it, is the essential thing we must do, because everything born from the history listed above is killing us.
Yet in all their befuddlement over cracking this nut, the observers in the Washington Post piece never considered anything more than fear or nervousness among Americans, like we’re some homogeneous herd of sheep (well, okay, there is that!), who only possess the will to consume or the anxious lack of that will.
There was also almost nothing on energy beyond costs — nothing about oil subsidies, nothing on the concern over dirty energy. Nothing except confusion over why artificially cheap (my modifier) oil and gas wasn’t spurring a gleeful consumer heyday.
earth big picture, stupid
Hey, big-brained think tank types, have you ever considered that the parade of products no longer has much power to entice because human meaning and context has been edited out of the American experience? That more and more of us are realizing that more stuff doesn’t make us happy? That more of us, as stuck in the system as we all are, and as much as we know it’s a drop in the bucket, are unwilling to live in service to excess consumption because of our concern for nature and the larger ecosystem of animals and plants and seas?
Or that maybe we just don’t freaking need anything because we basically all have SO MUCH and we don’t buy the hype anymore that we “just gotta have it?”
That there’s an emptiness that a clever new ad campaign won’t change? That we’re tired and we don’t want to chase the illusion anymore?
Or that collectively, and however small in the large scale, we will punish places like Wal Mart for their egregious labor practices and that that is a higher value to us than getting something cheap and of poor quality that “will do” or worse, on impulse?
Your rendering us as paralyzed and brainless consumer cogs who need to come to our senses doesn’t make it so and the Internet is helping us push new values (or old values really) for the sake of not only the Earth, but of us — our sanity, our life meaning, our hearts, and yes, our pocketbooks.
In short, voting with our dollars
In the end, contemporary American values are so firmly out-of-touch with America’s frugal and mindful roots that any positive change will likely be slow and rife with troubling issues and events as we face the inevitable downshifting that must and will occur, if from peak oil and climate change alone. Based on current cultural norms, psychosis is a more likely American response to the urgent need to downshift than is consciousness.
The sad and inspiring thing is that all those needed jobs, and any truly needed stuff, could all be ours pretty painlessly with an entire paradigm shift where the American culture grows up, finds a firmer footing, and does the heavy lifting (perhaps literally) that will take us from excessive, outsourced, centralized, industrial production that is killing the planet and all her creatures, us included, to simpler, slower, regional production (with some expected trade), clean energy and far less consumption over all.
Every single one of us knows that this must occur. Knowing that and not doing it is the surest example that in the end, we don’t really care. That we’re a “me-first” people, not a very smart people, and that worse, we view our youngest offspring as accessories rather than as full humans who will unrelentingly bear the worst of the hell on earth that’s coming down the pike. It’s their problem, not ours. “Isn’t she cute on Instagram? Hope she likes a moonscape earth when she’s 20!”
This is a feminist issue, a gay issue, an issue critical to people of color and indigenous groups, to the poor, to the middle class, to people of God, to humanists, to scientist, and even to the greedy (if they still want to get theirs), to all of us. We should be single-issue at this point, focused unwaveringly on climate (with offshoots in energy and consumption), to communicate that there’s nothing to do, no one to love, nothing to buy, nothing..on a dead planet.
The simple life
As for me, I’m going to continue to be frugal. I like not wasting things, and I like real things over disposable things, even at a picnic or barbecue. Even when inconvenient (convenience is killing us).
I like using simple cleaning products, growing food, cooking at home, mending my clothes, and hanging out with family and friends without the need to travel to exotic locales on climate-killing planes for kicks.
It’s not self-righteous, but it is self-denying. And it’s good for my bottom line.
The world is full of a lot of temptations. I obviously am stuck with many of them just because of the entropy of the existing system, things like the built environment, transportation, communications, etc.
I’m almost as guilty as the next guy (I have made many conscious downshifts but I can’t make them all yet)…with my anti-consumerism about the only tool I’ve got beyond pressing local and state government and my representatives in the wholly untethered and unaccountable US government.
But I’m willing to live with a whole lot less so that I can somewhat counter these things, so that I can sub in DIY wherever I can, so that I can refuse the belief that I need more, and most of all, to stop believing that I owe it to my fellow consumers to consume for consumption’s sake or because a good consumer lifts all boats, er something.
That idea is dead on arrival these days and as for jobs there’s millions that could be had if we got our national asses in gear for climate — mass transit projects, new urbanism, sustainable farm work, slow everything (building, clothing, food), craftsmanship — I could go on and on…again, another essay.
I’d prefer we used some degree of forethought to address the manifold problems in our world rather than wait till far more dire circumstances force our hand. Consuming less, unapologetically, is the surest step in the right direction, fashion workers, the puppet media, and the think tank deluded be damned.
— Lindsay Curren, Art & Essays