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Living With Less in the Land of More

Many are reflecting on the stuff we own and how it owns us in this season of shopping and gift-giving. I read an excellent article recently about one family’s journey with their relationship to their stuff (Stuffed to the gills: How crap took over my life—and how I intend to take it back). So, I thought I would reflect on my family’s journey with our relationship to our stuff. Many of your stories are probably similar in many respects.

The Birth of the Monster
It all began… well, when I was born, but that would take to long. Accumulating stuff really hit an exponential growth curve when we got married. Neither of us had too much stuff after college, but we had both lived on our own long enough to accumulate more than enough. Not only does a wedding combine two people’s stuff, it piles on a whole host of new stuff on top of what you already have. We tried to keep it simple by encouraging people to donate in our name to a charity, but in our culture it doesn’t really count unless you buy something for somebody. So, we filled our registry at various places and people piled up the presents. Even with all the gifts we still had room to spare in our little two bedroom apartment.

Then we made two more decisions that many people make which set us on a trajectory to having more stuff, 1) we bought a house (bigger than our apartment) and 2) we decided to have kids. We bought the house first and people tend to fill the space that they live in. We tried to keep things minimal, but living in an empty house also seems kind of silly. Then we had kids. Between baby showers and grandparents these little 7 to 8 pound bundles of joy come with an incredible amount of stuff for being unable to eat solid foods, walk, sit up or burp without help. They continually acquire new stuff every year for birthdays and new clothes as they grow faster than sea monkeys.

Taming the Monster
While we considered ourselves to be people that tried to live simply and consume less, we found ourselves trying to figure out what to do with a 1600 square foot house full of stuff when we decided to move to the World Hunger Relief, Inc. farm where we had a small two bedroom apartment. There were a lot of craigslist ads and a big yard sale. We tried to think hard about what we needed and what was worth keeping. Still, when moving day came we had to put a lot of boxes into storage (at my mom’s) and managed to fill up the apartment nicely.

Then we accepted a position with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Bolivia. We thought it was silly to put our stuff in storage for three years. So, we got rid of everything. This time we really did. We got rid of all our furniture, chairs, table, futon, beds, dressers…our car…everything. We still had some things stored at my mom’s but even that was picked over and cleaned out. We pared down our material possessions to an absolute minimum. It was a crazy, radical move that tested our faith and resolve to trust God and the Body of Christ.

Yet, when we got to Bolivia our eight suitcases seemed a little excessive in light of the people around us who had so much less. While living there and working with MCC, I wrote about what it means to live simply (What is Simple Living?). Once again our ideas about what was enough, what was simple and what we needed were challenged. Each time we moved and tried to simplify we learned more about what was important and what was not.

Now that we are back in the United States, we are looking to replace some of those items we so happily gave away. We hope to add these things back into our life slowly and be discerning about what we really need. We’ve asked our community to share their excess with us as we shared with them. What we have found is that we continue to have more than we need, because our friends both have more than they need and are willing to share it with us.

Lessons From the Monster
The obvious lesson here is that you should pursue downward mobility by moving every few years to poorer and poorer places in the world, right? As the aforementioned article also points out, moving does provide an opportunity to evaluate what’s worth piling in a moving van. Yet I’ve often talked about the importance of place and putting down roots. So, perhaps the solution is a discipline of seasonal cleaning. We already have this cultural concept of “spring cleaning“, but how many of us practice it? Choose a time of year to give your stuff a good cleaning and share with others out of your abundance.

There’s also trying to cut the monster’s head off from the beginning. We tried an alternative wedding registry for such a purpose, but with little success. I know others have held their ground and been more effective. I found The Scavenger’s Manifesto to be a great resource with more than just tips and tricks for finding free stuff, but a different way of thinking about our stuff.

Patience is the most important and most difficult virtue when considering our shopping. Consumerism is based on impulse buys and tickling our acquisition bone. The longer you can avoid the instant gratification temptation to buy stuff the moment you think of it, the more things will simply filter out over time. Then you’re left with things that were worth the wait to buy. You’ll probably find a good deal, find a cheaper alternative or at least thought more carefully through your purchase.

Finally, I mentioned in Wading Into the Pond last week some ideas about how to move from charity to justice in our lives.

  1. Don’t do it alone- Find others to walk with you on the journey.
  2. Learn to talk again- Within relationships of trust, we have to learn how to talk about our finances with others.
  3. The Holy Excise Tax- Find creative ways to hold each other accountable and make your choices more transparent
  4. Saints and Sinners- Show yourself and others grace. The goal is not being more righteous or holy than others, but attempting to follow Jesus into a new way of living.

Sacred Days and Desecrated Days

There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

– from “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry

black-friday-smyrna-vinings.jpgThis year during Thanksgiving there were a number of stores having sales on Thursday already. This prompted a friend of mine to ask, “Is nothing sacred?” This is an oft-heard complaint about the way that different aspects of our culture have continued to creep into what many consider to be sacred times. Whether its American football played on Sundays or other activities planned for Wednesday evenings (traditionally reserved for many churches to have mid-week services) or children’s and school’s sports games planned for all of the above, many people ask the same question as my friend, “Is nothing sacred?”

Holy Days or Holidays
During this time of the holidays, at the height of the religious calendar of the consumer religion, it seems appropriate to reflect on the meaning of sacred days and spaces. The word “holiday” is a shortening of “holy day”. This truncating of the word seems symbolic of the loss of this sacred time as the word’s meaning is obscured by its decreased stature. In Australia, Canada and the UK the word “holiday” is used to mean vacation, as in “I went on holiday to Hawaii.” Now holiday just means a day off from work.

We have holidays that are purely secular. While they may be important and worthwhile, they have no roots in religious observances and can thus not be considered “holy days”. These include many of the so-called “Hallmark Holidays” such as Grandparent’s Day, Sweetest Day, Boss’s Day, and Secretary’s Day. Mother’s Day, while not a religious holiday, has its roots in the anti-war movement. Labor Day was initiated by labor groups and unions to celebrate and remember workers, but Grover Cleveland chose the current date in order to distance the day from the more radical International Workers’ Day. Now it’s seen as a day for cook outs to celebrate the end of summer and the last day that it’s fashionable for women to wear white.

There is Veteran’s Day, which was originally Armistice Day. Initially this holiday celebrated the cessation of hostilities in World War I, a solemn occasion to remember the true cost of war. Now it has become a celebration to rally the country around ever expanding militarism. It originally commemorated the ending of war, but is now used to justify our ongoing and unending involvement in conflicts around the world.

thanksgiving-cartoon.gif

The Real Earth Day
Finally we have Thanksgiving. This holiday has its roots in traditional harvest celebrations of indigenous people and Europeans. The mythological beginnings of the United States’ tradition with pilgrims and native people sitting down to share a meal almost certainly never happened, though apparently the “Wampanoag Native Americans helped the Pilgrims by providing seeds and teaching them to fish” when they were starving (Wikipedia). The myth of Thanksgiving is that European settlers and Native peoples got along just fine.

The roots of the tradition of giving thanks at the end of harvest is not unique to any particular religion or people. On the contrary it seems to be universal across cultures and religions through history. What is divergent is not stores being open on Thanksgiving, but that the vestiges of the harvest celebration with seasonal foods is barely recognized or acknowledged. It is telling that Thanksgiving is known primarily for the overconsumption of food and consumer goods. Granted many people spend quality time with their family and take time to express what they are thankful for. Remarkably absent from the majority of thanks is any reference to the harvest, seasonal food or land that sustains our lives every day.

The point of all this is that 1) holidays no longer signify only days with traditionally religious significance and 2) holidays tend to shift from their original meanings toward something else.

Is “Nothing” Sacred?
Thanksgiving cartoon.jpgThe question is, “What is the something else towards which our holy days and holidays have shifted?” I would suggest that it is not that we have shifted away from religion toward secularism, but that we have moved from one religious system to another. There is not an absence of religious significance. Instead what we have are competing systems of religious significance and meaning.

William Cavanaugh argues in Being Consumed that consumerism is not actually an attachment to things. On the surface it appears that the consumer religion is about accumulation and materialism, but on a deeper level it is more about a detachment from things as we are constantly in pursuit of the new and the next thing. In this sense “nothing” is sacred as all objects are emptied of their meaning. In the consumer religion it is the absence of meaning in objects, places and times that is sacred. The meaning is supplied by the act of shopping, buying, desiring and repeating the ritual. Which begs the question, “Is this religious violence?”

So, it is a mistake to ask about the sanctity of holidays when stores open on Thanksgiving. The growth economy demands its offerings and sacrifices as well. Therefore to paraphrase Wendell Berry, “There are no unsacred days; Only sacred days and desecrated days.”

Images from smyrnavinings.com, joyoftech.com, and http://lindaraxa.blogspot.com

The Shallow Pond Dilemma

It seems appropriate in this time of gluttony and the consumer frenzy of consumerism known as Black Friday, to talk about the ethical dilemmas of the financial choices we make.

A long time ago, I listened to Episode #100 of the Diet Soap podcast and it sparked a lot of thoughts and conversations, mostly with myself, about the nature of charity and justice and how to get from one to the other. More recently at Hope Fellowship we’ve been reaffirming our membership and commitment to the values of our little ekklesia . The last couple weeks has been teaching and discussing the value of tithing and sharing. While we can always do better, I really appreciate that we attempt to tackle one of the most touchy subjects with a little more depth, transparency and thought…how we deal with our finances. So, I thought I’d tackle some thoughts from the podcast and current conversation on the difference between charity and justice and why we should all be Mother Theresa.

The Shallow Pond Gets Deeper
In the podcast the host, Doug Lain, shares an analogy from the ethicist Peter Singer. He imagines that you are standing at a shallow pond where you see a child that has fallen in and is going to drown. The pond is shallow. So, you have no risk of injury yourself, but you have on an expensive pair of fancy shoes that you don’t want to get all muddy. In this situation it seems ridiculous to choose to preserve the muddy pair of shoes instead of the child’s life. But Singer argues that this is what we do all the time through the consumer choices we make. So, his conclusion goes something like, “You should give the money you would spend on fancy shoes to Oxfam or Unicef to take care of a starving child.”

So, Singer has highlighted the ethical dilemma involved in how we deal with our finances in light of inequality in the world. However, there are some problems with Singer’s analogy. The limit of what Singer can imagine people doing is giving lots of money to charity. Charity is the ultimate act of an utilitarian ethic. So, within the confines of an unjust social structure the best we can do is charity. Justice requires something more radical. The guest, Ben Burgis, argues that Singer’s own analogy undermines his ethic of charity,

If you go with Singer’s argument then and embrace his conclusion, then, not only should we give to charity, but even living a comfortable First World lifestyle is morally unacceptable.

Singer’s analogy presents an individual ethical dilemma where you are face to face with a choice, but when you are shopping you’re part of a mass. We don’t really make consumer choices on a purely individual basis. Within our capitalist framework we insist on the individual ethic, but there are spaces where we don’t act as individual agents, but as a collective. The forces of the economy and consumerism that create and reinforce injustice and inequality are not face to face with us when we make purchases in the supermarket or a store. As Doug Lain points out,

If you want to have a more ethical system you can’t stay within the context of that system…To ask people to invest in Oxfam instead is to ask them to do something counter to the ethics of the culture they’re in.

The Counter-Cultural Ethics of God’s Economy
This is partially the purpose of how the church is supposed to function. It intends to be an alternative to the way the world organizes itself. The hope and purpose is to embody the ethic of the reign of God that we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the ways is by committing to share our resources with this particular community. This takes different forms. One is the tithe, where ten percent of goes to the common treasury of the church. Far from absolving us, this practice is meant to invite us further in to how this is used in the life of the church and its mission in the world. But in many ways the tithe is really the lowest common denominator form of economic participation in the life of the people of God.

In a section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus challenges us to engage systems of domination with creative nonviolence, he offers this final, perhaps most radical, word, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Mt 5:42). This verse challenges our most precious possession, control. When faced with how to best use our resources, this verse challenges our addiction to those resources and the power and privilege of deciding how they are used. Elsewhere, Jesus tells the rich young man that following him requires divesting himself of all his possessions and give to the poor, enacting Jubilee in his own life (Mt 19:16-22; Lk 18:18-30). There is a radical principle here summed up in the Psalms and the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 that God is the only absolute owner. Followers of Jesus are called to hold their possessions loosely as things to be used for God’s purposes and not their own accumulation or comfort.

The next post will attempt to think about ways that we can live out these ideas in our daily lives.

Isn’t It Ironic…Don’t You Think?

Unlike the Alanis Morisette hit, “Ironic”, which was in fact not at all ironic, I have come across some ironies in my work that strike me as worth mentioning and perhaps exploring more in depth. The world we live in seems full of these strange paradoxes, but they come in to stark relief in development work where all of my “developed” cultural assumptions, privileges and background come into contact with those of the “developing” world.

Compost vs. Flush Toilet
The first one relates to the beautiful wicker throne of which I am so proud. I’m very happy to no longer be flushing and instead turning my own excrement into an agricultural resource. It takes hands-on management to empty buckets and manage the compost pile, but for me the trade off is well worth it in my mind. When I built this system, my co-worker had to laugh when he imagined what the Low German Mennonites (LGMs) would say if they ever saw my toilet. “We left that way of life back in Russia. What are you thinking?” People in Guarani villages like Caipepe have not had flushing toilets in their homes or villages. Their vision of development, similar to the LGMs, is one that brings many of the modern infrastructure to their homes. Why would I choose to go backward by pooping in a bucket and piling it up in the backyard? (For the answer you can read Humanure: Waste or Resource?)

Off vs. On the Grid
We have friends back home who have lived or aspire to live “off the grid”, meaning not connected to the electricity infrastructure. For some this might mean using renewable forms of energy instead, but continuing to consume electricity. For others this means getting rid of the need to use electricity as much as possible. For most it’s a combination of the two. We also aspire to this kind of lifestyle and have started a Sabbath practice with no electricity Sundays, which is easier there is only one breaker for the entire house.
In contrast our friends in Caipepe just got electricity in their village within the last year. Their experience of the world has been one without electricity in their home for most of their lives. What would they say to my friends, or me, about wanting to live without electricity or at least “off the grid”?

Sustainable vs. Industrial Agriculture
The irony I find most disturbing is that I, the white, North American, male development worker am the one advocating sustainable agriculture to indigenous people (LGMs are another story). The Guarani lived on the land as hunter-gatherers and perhaps farmers long before the chemical and seed companies that now dominate the market and dictate the type of agriculture practiced. They have a long history of knowledge of local flora and fauna. There are still lots of people that know about what plants are edible or useful for medicinal purposes, but this kind of knowledge and intimacy with the landscape has been marginalized in favor of the cash crop system of industrial agriculture. So, the farmers we talk to use chemicals to manage weeds, insects and fertility. They lack the knowledge of the ancestors about better ways to live on the land, which may be because they were hunter-gatherers who were forced to settle in to sedentary villages.
Other people, like the Quechua and Aymaras, who practiced agriculture before even the Incan Empire have probably retained more of their traditional knowledge than those who remained hunter-gatherers right up to the colonization by the Spanish beginning in the 16th century.

These are the ironies of development work, particularly with an emphasis on sustainability. It’s important to remember that the North American obsession with a “green” lifestyle is a privileged position. Some of it may be the right thing to do, but any attempt to simply import it to “developing” countries and/or indigenous peoples would simply be another form of colonization. Part of the reason those of us in the privileged “developed” world are able to choose lifestyles that contradict and challenge the status quo of industrial agriculture, consumerism and the growth economy is because our lives have been so saturated by these realities. Those in the “developing” world have experienced these realities from a completely different perspective and advertising continues to sell them a dream that is beyond their reach. So, once again we must find a way to bring these worlds together and find better solutions over a guampa of yerba maté.

The DIY Lifestyle™

Through our family’s journey to live more in tune with the planet and our neighbors we have gained a lot of new skills in the last few years. My wife has learned how to brew kefir, make cheese, knit, make bread and a lot of other food from scratch. I’ve built some things from scratch, like a chicken coop, composting bins and our composting toilet. We have tried to use what was laying around the house or find salvaged or used materials. I’ve made gardens with old tires, recycled milk jugs and old windows. We’ve learned to raise chickens and grow more of our own food. When we lived in the states I checked the local free page on craigslist and freecycle group for stuff that might be useful. In many ways we embody what someone, somewhere called the DIY Lifestyle™.

I add that little trademark for two reasons: 1) just in case it is actually trademarked so I don’t get sued and 2) because what we do based on trying to live out our principles has been commodified, commercialized and turned into a multi-billion dollar industry. This “movement” has its own cable channel, not to mention all the shows on home makeovers and magazines. Multi-billion dollar companies, like Lowe’s and Home Depot, profit off of and fuel the DIY trend. We’ve come a long way since Bob Vila’s This Old House.

Do the people who own the companies associated with the DIY Lifestyle™ participate in the idea from which they profit? Do they get down on their hands and knees to remove tile, paint rooms, caulk tubs, build picnic tables and gazebos by the sweat of their own brow? Somehow I doubt it. Their business is built on the idea that they profit off all the schmucks who do their own home repair and remodeling projects while they have everything done for them.

There’s something disturbing to me about the commodification of doing something yourself. What does it mean that doing something yourself means participating in this industry, buying magazines, watching shows and shopping at big box stores? It means we aren’t doing anything ourselves. Even that is being taken from us. “Do-It-Yourself, but please let us help and make some money along the way.” This doesn’t seem to bother some people. “It’s just the way it is” or maybe “That’s just business” and I should get over it.

But there is something sacred about having spaces and activities that are not commodified and commercialized. There is something very human about doing things that step outside of the world of cost/benefit and brand names. There is something important about holding on to activities that business cannot touch. The truth is that there is nothing that business will not touch. So, it is up to us to fight for our right not to be commodified.

I once heard Utah Phillips say that the most revolutionary thing you can do is sing your own song. As a musician and songwriter that really struck me. It took a while for the meaning of what he said to really sink in. I’ve been writing and performing music for most of my life. People, friends, family and strangers have asked over the years when I was going to make a CD. I have often flipped through the Discmakers catalogue dreaming of having my own CD and making a living from my music. It often felt as if my music could only be legitimate if I allowed it to be commodified. It seems there was never enough time. There were always other things to do like seminary, learning about sustainable agriculture and moving to Bolivia. The truth is I never made producing a CD a priority, but I never stopped writing, playing and singing.

One of our favorite things to do here in Bolivia is sit on our porch and play music together. I’m learning to play the charango and still writing songs. One day not long ago I realized the real impact of what Utah Phillips said. When we create and play our own music, we refuse to allow it to be commodified. We create and play music for its own sake. We refuse to allow the market and commodification machine to define what is legitimate for us.

It’s easy to relegate this kind of activity to something called a “hobby”, by which we mean to pat someone on the head and say, “That’s nice that you like to pretend. Just remember that the big boys are the ones who make the real music”. This is true for “hobby farmers” or any other number of activities that people do for their own sake without the need to make a profit from it. The music we create on our own terms should not be relegated to the kiddie table. It is a serious human activity that stands against a consumer culture, economic system and advertising industry that wants to commodify everything in order to satisfy the insatiable hunger of the infinitely expanding growth economy.

So write poetry and novels, paint and write music. Don’t sell it to anyone, but give it away for free. Make your own house, food, chairs, clothes, etc. and don’t watch any shows or read any magazines to figure it out. Find a friendly old man in your neighborhood with a garage full of tools and ask him to help. Carve out parts of your life and soul and refuse to allow them to be turned into something that is either commodified or called a “hobby”.