Category: Sustainable Living

The Fantasy of Tidying

blue hubbard web detail
How do you tidy the natural world? Eat it!!

Netflix has begun streaming a series of Marie Kondo visits with her clients to help them declutter their homes, all of which are in California. I just binged the full eight episodes, and it is definitely helping me with my wish to make this a “no buy” year!

I have been a fan of Kondo since I read her 2011 book: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, but the suggestion of this series that working through one’s clutter, preferably in tandem with one’s spouse, will improve one’s life: solve problems in family relationships; bring more joy into the home; and eliminate the problem of clutter by creating habits and storage systems that will be continued to be used; and all in the short time one has with the in-person help of Marie Kondo, makes this clearly a TV show Netflix should file under the “sci-fi &fantasy” rubric!

The most egregious part of this series is the unspoken assumption that the hyper-consumerism that all these families support is somehow normal for the rest of us! These are wealthy people, not average working people. Most of these folks have houses big enough to support huge collections of clothes, kitchen supplies, shoes, books, bric-a-brac, toys, etc. (Interesting statistic from A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance: the US has 3.1% of the children in the world, but buys 40% of the toys worldwide!) But nowhere is the money that is needed to hoard the amount of stuff that fills these houses anywhere commented upon!

Kondo elides the darker, but truer emotions, that her method elicits: guilt over the amount of money and energy that allowed the stuff to be bought and to accumulate; anxiety over the inability to keep one’s head above the engulfing chaos; despair at the emptiness of lives lived for consumption; and grief over unfulfilling personal relationships. Instead we are given, in the figure of Marie Kondo, a Japanese Tinkerbell: perfect, petite, and with a constant smiling mask, who assures all her clients that they are okay, and that they will be successful.

The “system” Kondo uses is based on positivity (probably why it has been so attractive to Americans): the object is to make choices about what to keep rather than what to give up, though the pieces that don’t “spark joy” (a limited and poorly defined emotion) are dumped after being “thanked” for their service.  But never does Marie Kondo suggest that thanking one’s possessions for their service may not be as important as thanking the Earth for the resources it provided for all the objects, or thanking the thousands of people whose hands, sweat, ideas, and energy created the items that glut these homes! The source of our wealth here in the West is again made invisible!

And finally, as the focus remains tenaciously on the clients’ emotional state and how happy the Kondoma method will make them, the work of decluttering, which is a really hard struggle, takes place offstage. Nor is there any suggestion of a larger community who could use the stuff. Again, an interesting hint that the families only know other people in the same economic bracket as they are in; people who would not need any more stuff either or to whom they are too embarrassed to ask for help!

The assumption is that most of the bags go to thrift stores where it can be reused (though recent statistics suggest that much of what goes to thrift stores ends up in the trash as does recycling. But how much was recycled? And how much was trashed without any attempt to reuse? Recycling and reusing is not a part of the Marie Kondo brand.

There were a lot of intriguing hints of deeper issues in these first eight episodes: the gender roles, the politics of which played out with shopping, accumulation, and jobs in the home; the comparison of Japanese Americans, only a couple of generations here compared to Marie Kondo, a native of Japan; and the sadder struggles of the true hoarders whose spouses were enabling them and keeping them from dealing with their underlying and debilitating anxiety.

But for me in this blog, the show seems to be a warning against using a band-aid to make a gaping wound seem somehow more attractive! The basic problem is our love-affair with hyper-consumerism. The solution is as basic (and unpalatable) as stopping the shopping! Even the slogan: reduce, recycle, reuse may not be applicable if we are reducing from a completely unnatural level. It may be better for us to only buy necessities and to reuse as much in our homes as we can until we have worked through everything extra, which if the families in this show are any indication will be a long time!

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A Happier New Year!

new year's (2018)card lilies 2017 web
© J. Hart ’19 Watercolor pencil on paper. “Winter bouquet.”

“…the driving force behind most of the unintended changes in society is the power exerted by the countless small decisions made by people in the course of their daily lives.” from The Long Descent by John Michael Greer.

We are starting the New Year (2019) in the United States with a revitalized House of Representatives filled with a newly elected, young, and diverse group of Congress people whose mission it is to make the government less corrupt and more responsive to the people’s needs. It is a tremendously encouraging beginning to the New Year.

However, a political and governmental response to the grave problems we face is only one part of the equation. The other part, rarely spoken about, is each of us as moral agents making important choices individually in our every day life. The government sees us as voters, as workers, as consumers, but not as free agents able to change systems by our combined individual actions.

For much of our life, we are enmeshed in an economic system, and, like fish swimming in water, we really are not aware of the water in which we move. The system is not transparent, so it is difficult to make out how it works, even if we wish to understand it: it is hard for us to know what are the best (or better) choices that we should make.

I am resuming this blog, because I wish to share with you my attempts to make better choices in my life, and to hear, hopefully, what you are choosing to do in yours.

Some choices I am making this year are easier than others: I am taking a hiatus on shopping. I will continue to buy food, but I hope to avoid other purchases, especially impulse buying. So far, so good, but we are only a couple of days into the New Year!

Also, I refuse, and have refused for a while now, to buy anything through Amazon. I will not support a company whose owner doesn’t pay his employees enough to live on, and won’t pay taxes for the infrastructure he uses. Amazon also encourages a mindset of instant gratification that I believe is detrimental to people’s ability to act maturely and morally.

The more difficult choices I want to make this year are with my retirement income, which is tied to stocks and the stock market with its focus exclusively on money making; whether I should eliminate meat completely from my diet; and how to switch my household to a truly sustainable one.

I believe that it is worth putting in the time and effort of research and thought to make better choices in day to day, and everyday, life. Here is to a year of better choices for us all!

 

 

 

Time out of mind

Morning lilac working drawing
‘Morning Lilac’ working drawing watercolor pencils

I have a birthday later this week, and as I am statistically into the category of ‘old,’ time and how much time I have left has been much on my mind. Time also seems to me to be something much constrained by how our society insists that we use it. In other words, only certain modes of time use are allowed if we wish to be included in this culture and not marginalized.

We are obligated to abide by the clock, which has dissected the body of our lives into equal, small, standardized parts. We must go by the clock’s law if we want to work in most jobs, or socialize easily with other people, or even organize our daily routines in an acceptable fashion. We are habituated to living fast and being constantly entertained; the hours of the day determine what we do and when.

Farmers and gardeners, on the other hand, work with the weather, the seasons, and Nature. This structure is in some ways less forgiving than the clock. If seeds are not planted in time, food not harvested promptly, or animals not cared for regularly, failure, starvation, and penury can ensue. But these actions are made in larger, slower chronological increments: mornings, afternoons, evenings, seasons, and years.

I am a gardener as well as an artist. This Spring, gardening trumped the painting! It took me the month of May to get all my seeds and plants into my balcony garden (this year my garden is focused on plants that can be eaten). I therefore, unfortunately, missed the magnolias and lilacs which bloom in May in the Botanical Gardens. Still, I am in time to paint the peonies which will bloom all through June.

The experience of painting a blooming flower is a surprisingly active one: the peonies can open their blossoms and then loose their petals even in the couple of hours as I paint them. They are, in essence, a type of clock based not on mechanical numeric equal divisions, but on the natural cycle of birth, growth, setting seed, and death. And since painting and drawing also are both not clock-based activities (although it is interesting how often I am asked by non-artists how long it takes to make a drawing or painting: it seems to me that the question represents a way for non-artists to somehow make more concrete an activity that feels mysterious to them!), I have the happy daily opportunity to step out of the confines of mechanical time!

I am lucky in my life that I have chosen to experience the exterior time of biological reality and the interior flow of artistic production. It allows my mind to escape the urge to speed and the habit of entertainment that keeps us all alienated from Nature and our true selves.

 

 

 

 

The Myth of Convenience

Atwater flower market
Beautiful flower stalls at the Atwater Market, Montreal, Canada.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but sometimes I wonder if we must examine every little itty bit of it, even our trash, even how we store our food, even what we use to wipe our asses?! The answer, I am afraid, is an unavoidable yes.

Why is this worth doing? Well, as Jaren Diamond writes in Collapse:

“All of us moderns…can get away with a lot of waste when the economy is good. We forget that conditions fluctuate, and we may not be able to anticipate when conditions will change. By that time, we may already have become attached to an expensive lifestyle, leaving an enforced diminished lifestyle or bankruptcy as the sole outs.” page 156.

So, it seems to me, that it is much preferable to start now to downsize and simplify your life in a proactive rather than a reactive (and crisis-driven) manner. We can’t know when the system will crash (and following Taleb’s ideas about how Extremistan operates, that can be very suddenly! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq2_nyyugVk), but a lifestyle that is “antifragile” and flexible will weather the weather, as it were, more successfully than a day-to-day life that is dependent on large complex fossil fuel systems for food delivery and waste disposal.

Last summer, a visitor to my place in Montreal suggested Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home. I took it out of the library here in Dallas, and worked my way through it. (As an aside, the Dallas public library system automatically renews my books, unless someone has put in a request for the book, which is a really nice service! It means I can keep books for an unlimited time!)

Now the zero waste movement (and the minimalism movement which I will talk about in another post) is not the easiest thing to do. I am finding that it takes quite a bit of work.

https://www.texasenvironment.org/campaign/zero-waste/
https://www.goingzerowaste.com/
https://zerowastehome.com/

The difficulty with this, is that 1) we are hardwired to create habits, and then live as much as we can on autopilot, and 2) we get these habits from our cultural traditions.

Unfortunately, most places in the Western world, we are operating on very recent habits that have nothing in the way of a track record or deep traditions behind them. They are, at best, two generations old; and though they have been “brilliantly successful and understandable in the short run” as Diamond writes, they can fail and create fatal problems in the long run. They are based on two pillars of our current lifestyle: convenience and (its reason for being) hyperindividualism.

Hyperindividualism is a term Bill McKibben describes in his book, Deep Economy, as the idea that we deserve to have everything that we want when we want it, no matter the consequences for our community or the earth. It is the habit with which all of us here in North America have grown up; and it is virtually invisible to us.

And for all of us hyperindividualists, convenience and its partner personal comfort are the rationale for our way of living. It is more convenient to sit in hours long traffic jams alone in our air conditioned car with iPod and internet than wait a couple of minutes on the corner for a shared bus with its set schedule. It is more convenient to toss all the “trash” into a plastic garbage bag and throw it out (but exactly where is “out?”) than to take a few minutes to sort the trash into recyclable and compostable containers.

Local laws can help support lifestyle changes (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/what-you-need-to-know-about-montreal-s-plastic-bag-ban-1.4451421), but as long as we privilege convenience and our own personal comfort above all else, nothing will change.  As Tim Wu in his opinion piece for the New York Times, Feb.18, 2018 wrote: “Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable.”

So some other options: https://www.treehugger.com/green-home/11-easy-ways-reduce-your-plastic-waste-today.html

P.S. My apologies for not posting the past two months! It was planting season first in North Texas, where I was very busy getting everything in the raised beds at the Bridge Recovery Center before the weather got hot. You can follow my gardening blog at: ourbackyardgardenatthebridge.wordpress.com.

Then it was and is planting season here in Montreal where I spend my summers, and I am filling in the boxes and planters on my small balcony. I keep a gardening journal (not virtual but in sketchbook form) which I will photograph & post soon.