Monday, December 29, 2008

Doubts and Rededications for 2009

I have been working on this blog posting for a week now. It was going to be a “year end” reflection, but I clearly missed THAT deadline. Now it is a “looking forward into the New Year” sort of thing. My original intention was to reflect on how the conspicuous consumption of many of us in the “minority world” (meaning the very affluent, economically developed population that is first on so many material measures) is now contributing to poverty around the world AND also creating our own society’s financial crisis and moral bankruptcy. In the spirit of wanting to offer new paths and alternatives, I thought I'd put forward conscious consumption again as a useful path.

Of course, I’m not the only one drawing cautionary tales and suggesting new approaches. When discussing some of the operating myths of our financial world, one of my favorite columnists, Ben Stein of the NY Times, said last week, “We are more than our investments. We are more than the year-to-year or day-by-day changes in our net worth. We are what we do for charity. We are how we treat our family and friends. We are how we treat our dogs and cats. We are what we do for our community and our nation. If you had $100 million or $100,000 a year ago and now you have a lot less, you are still the same person. You are not a balance sheet, at least not one denominated in money, as was explained to me recently....Losing and making money are not moral issues so long as you are being honest. You may have a lot less money as this year ends than you did two years ago. But you are just as good or bad a person as you were then. It is a myth that money determines who you are, and if you have gotten over that myth by now, then 2008 will have been a very good year.”

In preparing for 2009, I wanted to offer up the ways of simplicity, Fair Trade, and its sister movements of buying local and green, as anecdotes to our woes and as elements of a way forward to have a very good year. Re-emphasizing themes of my book, I was going to try to convey that we can figure out when “enough is enough” for each of our households and our real net worths. In doing so, we can help build better communities in our society and around the globe and, as Stein argued, create deeper understandings of who we are.

Through several blog drafts I almost got there. Flipping through my journal and reflecting on my personal vision for 2009, I continue to believe and get excited by the idea that the more consciously I consumer the less likely it is that a laborer is going to be exploited. In the same spirit, I remain steadfast in my belief that the less I acquire also means less burden is put on an overtaxed planet. I am so pleased that the Green movement has really hit its stride so I have even more opportunities to learn from others on how to make this so. This year I re-read Quaker John Woolman’s “A Plea for the Poor” first published in 1793. Although the English is antiquated, I feel motivated by Woolman's point that an unnecessary increase in possessions is contrary to the Golden Rule—a value of so many world cultures. Woolman points out that if you knew what others had to go through to to satisfy all your desires, you wouldn’t want to trade places with them. With the “do unto others" mentality you’d turn away from the unnecessary material goods and, surprisingly, enjoy a lighter way of being and doing in the world. That seems to a very appealing invitation during tough economic times with the specter of a consumer credit meltdown on the 2009 horizon.

But in trying to craft a nice exhortation, I’ve been sidelined by doubts (and not just because I saw the movie of the same name yesterday—which I highly recommend). There are two main reasons for this: The first is that during the recent presidential election, thanks to Joe the Plumber, I heard more from folks in my life who believe that what they earn is theirs to spend and they alone should determine how to spend it. In the spirit of American independence, there didn’t seem to be much a sense of connection to others who have less but who make our economy function, or who consistently fall outside its boundaries, especially if there was any indication that those in need might have a sense of entitlement for the help given. One family member rightly challenged me to explain “Who says when a person on welfare has enough?” Is it when the poor person has a television? Is it a flat-screen? Does it include cable? She went on to ask if we are going to prevent homelessness, “How many bedrooms does a family get in their house?” One for each child? Each adult? " This person, and others I know, said that she had worked hard for her money and she, not the government or any other system (such as Fair Trade) should determine how she spent it. My "it's a gift to be simple" refrain was respected but not a tune these folks picked up. I seem to be able to decide for myself what is enough, while also admitting what Ani Difranco once wrote, “just when you have enough, enough grows.” But I can't seem to make the case for others so far removed from my perspective. Obviously I know that there IS a middle ground, and “yes we can” get there, but the road seems so very long and well worn.

Which leads to my second reason for my feeling of ineffectiveness these days: the lessons of history. Above I quoted an 18th century Quaker. Woolman was connecting consumption to slavery. I and others connect it to sweatshops. Progress, but not enough. Confronting poverty and its causes is a perennial struggle. Even more, there is an undercurrent in our Judeo-Christian society that “the poor will always be among us.” Some approach these kind of social ills with a sense of “it is what it is” resignation. They see no connection between their behavior and its unintended consequences. And--this is where my heart really sinks--their concern for how the economy does or doesn't impact people seems proportional to how they are feeling in their pocketbooks. Hearing that Americans, with crude oil back in the $40 a barrel range, are back to using their SUVs and sales for hybrids are decreasing, I feel as if our society is doomed to a boom-bust cycles of disinterest and only baby steps to justice.

Okay, “doomed” is a strong word. I’m sure my sanguine personality will kick back in gear here soon. But I did want to share some of my internal dialogue, an indication that while I may promote simplicity I do try to avoid being simple-minded. I also know that conscious consumption is not a cure-all. Take a look at the current situation in Gaza for a prime example of how we can't consume our way into justice and peace. But I guess I needed a refresher course--preaching to the choir as much as I do--in the need to recognize and respect the diversity of viewpoints and counterpoints. Perhaps that becomes my resolution for 2009: stick to my vision of a world and pursue that place while being open to the ideas of others, all while learning from the wisdom of the past.


  1. Anonymous3:42 PM

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Jackie. I have to say I've been feeling similar ones myself. I've been chalking a lot of this up with approaching a new point in my life, graduating college. I've also been questioning this unsettling trend in pop-psychology and philosophy that simultaneously tells us that we are controlled by our environment and can control our lives if we control our thoughts, without making any meaningful connections to social, economic, or historical circumstances, and without supporting generosity for its own sake regardless of recognizable return. I'm glad you're staying true to your vision. Gives me hope to do them same.

  2. Thanks for the reply Ida and congratulations on graduation! This is why I like blogging--we can share our journeys and encourage each other. I look forward to keeping track of your next steps!