July 1st, two weeks ago, was moving day in Montreal. Between 200,000 to 240,000 people moved their residences.The streets were filled up with worn out mattresses, broken furniture, and garbage bags of trash, recyclables, and reusable objects, all thrown together highly piggy because their owners were too rushed or too uninterested to sort out their stuff, or to take the still usable items to the local Salvation Army or Renaissance thrift stores.
It is shocking and saddening to watch these folks, who are clearly not well to do (most of them are moving themselves with the help of friends), being so wasteful with their possessions. It is as if the physical world has no meaning or reality for them. They have taken as a fact of living that it is normal to buy then to trash; to buy then to trash; to buy then to trash; and to repeat this process ad infinitum as if the resources of the earth are unlimited and they will have access to these resources forever!
But there is a secondary assumption at work here, and that is the belief that taking care of one’s stuff is somehow demeaning work! The goal appears to be to grow wealthy so that one can hire another person (less rich or lucky) to clean up and take care of one’s rapidly accumulating stuff.
So the skills of cleaning, tidying, repairing, and ordering are no longer learned nor respected. Once the skill of sewing is forgotten, a rip in a garment sentences the piece of clothing to the garbage unless one has the money and time to take it to a seamstress to be fixed. The ability to fix broken furniture is beyond the knowledge of most people even if all that is needed is wood glue & clamps. And in a disposable culture such as ours, the time needed to learn these skills makes the learning not worth doing. It is cheaper and faster to buy it new.
There also seems to me a final reason that what the care of things demands is beyond our present day understanding or interest. The world of objects, of our stuff, operates in the physical sphere which is bounded by time and energy, unlike the virtual world. It takes discipline and the ability to stay focussed to organize and pack up a household, to take on these mundane tasks in the physical world; and this is qualitatively different than our experience in instantaneous online reality where most of us spend so much of our time.
Is it any surprise then that, as we are unable take care of the simple objects that make up our households, we find the natural world with its complexity, its vastly slower and infinitely longer time; and its profound subtleties beyond our understanding or concern?
I choose to do a Spring cleaning of my apartment recently, which included pulling all of my art supplies out of the closets, and I realized, with a great deal of embarrassment, that I am a hoarder!
Now, I have always held myself above the friends and family that I considered hoarders, some of whom would describe themselves as “collectors.” Hoarding is, after all, a continuum with a range of states: the friend who never throws out a piece of paper in forty years, leaving barely a pathway to navigate her apartment; the neighbor who spends hundreds of dollars on two storage units to keep gifts, furniture from dead family members, and boxes of items that might come handy some day; and the fashionable young woman with fifty pairs of shoes, dozens of bras, and hundreds of panties. But cleaning my house has brought home to me that I, who have dozens of unused sketchbooks, boxes of colored pencils, uncounted frames, brushes large and small, etc., am also a hoarder!
Hoarding is considered a subset of OCD; it springs from the same basic desire to mitigate anxiety. Certainly in this time of heightened anxiety and runaway hyper-capitalism, it is the go-to neurosis!
It also, I think, feeds a need to participate in the abundance and wealth that is advertised constantly in the culture. Most people also do this by taking photos of everything: the food they eat, the places they visit, the friends with whom they socialize and even themselves. It allows them to present publicly as participating in the general affluence. This illusionary habit has little ramifications in their real world (though it may have psychological implications) unlike the very real compulsion to accumulate stuff, which does actually use up both energy and money in the physical world and is a more private vice.
So what are you hoarding? And how do you and I cure this neurosis? I think this problem has a three sided solution.
The first and most important strategy is to stop shopping except for necessities. Shopping is best described as the action of acquiring stuff, and that runs the gambit from high end full price status purchases through discount stores down to thrift shops ending in bartering and being the recipient of gifts and hand-me downs. For ordinary working folks, the trap is in discount stores where each purchase can be justified as a great bargain (shopping as a competitive game), or in thrift stores where originally expensive items can be found for pennies on the dollar. There is even trouble waiting for the devoted recycler if he or she rescues useable things from the trash, and then doesn’t find the time or energy to actually use them or to donate them or to somehow get them out of the house!
So the second vital action to take is to downsize. Now there are various ways to do this from purging (Marie Kondo is the most popular exponent of this method) to the gentler system that I have been using for the past couple of years: every time I buy or get a new (to my wardrobe) piece of clothing, two pieces must go out of my closet! This guarantees a much reduced set of outfits within a set time period. If you do decide to purge, I urge you not to simply haul everything to the curb to be picked up by the trashman. This not only makes garbage of many perfectly good items that other people in more straitened circumstances could use, but it also presents unbearable temptations to those of us of the dumpster diving persuasion!!
The final part of this three part program is the most difficult because it goes against a very deep-set social conditioning in this commodified culture. We are habituated to being dissatisfied, so that even long wished for objects lose their appeal in an amazingly short period of time as we go off on another quest to acquire another object that has been advertised as an absolute necessity. The best antidote to this is the daily practice of gratitude. This is part of Marie Kondo’s system: holding the item in one’s hand and thinking about how it has been instrumental in making one’s life better, and feeling gratitude for it, and then, if necessary, getting rid of it!
“If we live like there is no tomorrow, we will create just that-no tomorrow.” Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth.
This blog is not only a catalog of better choices for a more sustainable lifestyle; it is also the record of my struggle to embody those choices. Jim Merkel’s book is a map of what to do to get to a life lived equitably, which is, to say, in support of the health of the Earth and her peoples, and in the care of the Earth’s resources. But how is that expressed in my very unimportant life?
Well, two days ago I stopped shopping. I have not bought anything for two days. Now this may seem like a very small thing, but in the doing of it, I realized how habituated I am, and have always been, to shopping. Please understand that I am not a binge shopper; my purchases have always been very modest: a second hand book, a piece of used clothing (https://www.genesisshelter.org/), some art supplies, groceries.
But my need to shop everyday, my expectation of shopping is unrelenting! My mother was a professional buyer, and I was taught early on how to shop well, which is to say getting the most quality for the least money; and I taught my daughter these skills. Buying stuff every day is as natural for me as breathing…and as unexamined!
However, at my late stage of life, I find that I really need very little. So shopping becomes what it is for me and most of my friends: a way to entertain ourselves; a mode of anxiety relief; a distraction for loneliness. I am, of course, describing a particularly middle class (and richer) lifestyle, though poorer people are also being impelled toward buying things that they don’t need. The act of shopping assures every one of us our place in our commodified society. It also guarantees that the powerful corporations and their owners will get richer, and we will get poorer! Resisting the urge to shop is a way to slowly but surely change the balance of power, by husbanding our financial resources and denying the wealthy our money.
So we will see how long I can go without buying something that I feel I “need,” but which isn’t really a necessity. How long before I can’t resist scratching the itch? Wish me luck!
Meanwhile, if you are interested, check out one person who went without shopping for a year! :
There have been a number of articles recently complaining that the individual decisions and actions that people are being encouraged to take and to do are irrelevant and possibly counterproductive as they lull people into a false sense that they can ameliorate or even prevent the coming climate related disasters by their personal choices.
These opinion pieces come from both sides of the political spectrum, but they all fail to understand a basic fact of capitalism and our present exploitation by multi-national corporations: whether drugs, fashion, sodas, fast foods, plastic water bottles, or gasoline, all sales of stuff depends on the individual deciding to spend her or his money for something that will enrich the wealthy, impoverish the person, and destroy the earth. And the 1%, the wealthiest in the world, have made their fortunes on these millions of our small individual choices.
The problem, as I see it, is not that sustainable actions for individuals are ineffectual, but that they are unworkable at the scale and with the depth of determination with which they are now practiced. Recycling, minimizing waste, taking shorter showers, not using plastic bags, not drinking anything in one time use plastic bottles, etc. are all good, but are too little too late.
It took barely two generations in the U.S. to go from a relatively modest lower middle class living situation for most people to an untenably wasteful and destructive lifestyle that is sickening and impoverishing much of the population. It took a concentrated media blitz with television shows and advertising to convince people that a wasteful and “luxurious” way of living is to be desired, is a sign of success and even virtue (sic!), and, more importantly, is “normal” and an important indication of progress.
The reality, as we have finally discovered, is quite the reverse: in order to live on the earth and protect our future, we must reduce the cost of living on this earth; and revert to a much simpler, slower, and more modest lifestyle. And if we, the mass of separate individuals, created the wealth and are complicit in the destruction of the planet, it stands to reason that we, as individuals, can make the choices that will save the planet and redeem our species.
But which of us is really willing to do that? What culture in history has stepped back from the brink by reducing its consumption and its power? What individual has willingly walked away from comfort and wealth? The only one I know is Siddhārtha Gautama, the scion of a wealthy family who gave it all up to find enlightenment and become the Buddha. Buddha followed and preached what is called “The Middle Way”, a lifestyle that is neither luxurious nor impoverished. But what was “The Middle Way” in Southeast Asia in the 5th century BCE, would probably look like the poorest most uncomfortable way to live in the 21st century AD!
So how do we, the well educated, the solidly middle class, the believers in climate change and sustainability, step out of our boxes? How do we disengage from the non-stop voice in our heads that repeats and repeats that we should never be inconvenienced, made uncomfortable in the smallest manner, or in any way voluntarily limit our appetites or desires? We have been taught that we deserve the best of everything, even if it means the end of the world as we know it. It is what Bill McKibbon calls “hyperindividualism” and it is a very hard habit to break!
So here are some modest suggestions for better choices for healthier habits in the New Year- a way to practice for the coming hard times, disengage from large corporations, and realize a more human lifestyle:
Stop shopping. Don’t shop for recreation or to feel less depressed or less lonely or to alleviate boredom. And if you, as I, were raised in a household and a culture that prioritized shopping, and you are having trouble breaking the habit, here is a link with a helpful psychological tip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDpyS2HN5SA No joke: just stop it!
Don’t buy, eat or drink any processed food. Eliminate all sodas, fast foods, and packaged foods with ingredients that your grandmother would not recognize. This is probably the hardest thing to do, as commercial food is created to be, for want of a better word, addictive. However, if you drink only water, tea, or coffee without sweeteners, and you cook and eat locally grown and harvested produce, eggs, and meat, you will find your health improving within a short time.
Unplug from your phone, television, and the internet for as much of the day as you can. Apple, Google, Facebook, and all the other large tech corporations, want you to believe that you can’t live without their products; and their products, which mainly provide entertainment, increase desires and decrease the ability to delay gratification. They also create a mindset that expects speed in all things: information, relationships, and solutions to problems. Neither speed nor tech will be the answer to the dilemma we are facing.
Make your connections to other people locally and in person. Politics too should be rooted in your community.
I don’t know if enough of us will make the necessary changes soon enough to save our species. But I do know that I would rather make the choice now of my own volition than be forced by disasters to live in straitened circumstances later. If we are committed (and lucky!) we might live to make a more mature and Earth-centric human culture. May we all find peace, joy, & compassion in 2018!