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Householding, Sustenance & Commerce
When I first became interested in living in a way that is "in harmony with nature" back in 1987, I looked to indigenous cultures for inspiration. There is much we can learn from native peoples about living sustainably in our places, but we can't take a giant leap back to living in such a primitive way.
Even though I could see we needed to make a change in both how we choose products, and the way we live, a basic piece of the puzzle of what we need to do to live sustainably now didn't fall into place for me until I started reading Wendell Berry, particularly his The Unsettling of America and Home Economics. Given that his writing has been motivated "by a desire to make myself responsibly at home in this world and in my native and chosen place" (a very sustainable idea), I was surprised that I had never been drawn to read his books before. The reason, I believe, is that his books are promoted as being about small-scale agriculture and preservation of the family farm, but his insights on being a consumer and keeping a household give practical guidelines for creating a sustainable home and economy.
According to Mr. Berry, a consumer buys everything they need for survival: food, water, clothing, shelter, and as a consequence, consumers need an ever-increasing, steady supply of money in order to survive. As consumers, we put our lives in the hands of those who sell the products and services we rely on because we do not produce any of our basic needs for ourselves. Our choices are dictated by advertising, salesmanship, and the amount of money we have. We think we gain convenience and leisure, but in the process we forfeit our creativity, our individuality, our ability to fend for ourselves, our human relationships, and our connection with the source of our sustenance.
The whole idea of consumerism is disconnected from and therefore destructive of natural ecosystems. For a consumer, domestic labor consists of buying things, putting them away, and throwing things away. If they can manage it, all domestic work is done by someone else. Consumers need instant gratification and often live on credit. It's a vicious trap that depletes financial, human, and environmental resources. In many ways our environmental crisis is fundamentally similar to our consumer credit-based culture; we are living beyond our means "eco"nomically--both financially and environmentally.
What we have lost in becoming consumers is the art of homemaking. Mr. Berry points out that, in contrast to consumers, homemakers or householders (and I don't mean to suggest that only women can be homemakers here) are in some way producers as well as users, providing some of their own needs out of their own resources, skills, and imagination.
While homemakers do buy things, there's a better balance of contributing as well as taking. In learning domestic skills of cooking, gardening, sewing, building, home remedies, and personal health care, householders become more able, valuable, self-responsible human beings providing the basic necessities of life, with something to give to others and the earth.
Instead of being dependent on consuming, householders take pleasure in creating. Households can be places to grow and prepare food, create energy, work, socialize, learn, heal, amuse ourselves, our families and friends. These activities can be more meaningful and satisfying than working away from home all day to indulge in consumer luxuries like the latest fashions and new espresso machines.
In our consumer culture that values money to buy consumer goods over all, the basic skills required to sustain our home life have been undervalued in favor of skills that can be marketed outside of the home for money. As a result, we spend our time pursuing money instead of creating a nurturing home. Our success is measured in dollars, rather than quality of life. For us to live sustainably in our places, we need to restore the value of caring for ourselves, our families, our communities, and the earth—at home.
Shopping for Sustenance
Belonging hand-in-hand with householding is the concept of sustenance. Sustenance is, according to my dictionary, a "means of sustaining life, nourishment"; it is that which sustains us. Just as we need to learn how we need to behave to sustain the earth, we also need to learn how to behave to sustain ourselves. By being consumers—destroying, using up, and spending wastefully—we cannot even begin to hope to sustain ourselves or the earth.
In our consumer culture, we sacrifice our sustenance for a fantasy of material fulfillment. Whatever it is we hope to gain by eating packaged foods, wearing the latest fashion, and buying electronic gadgets cannot satisfy the emptiness we have inside when we give up the purity of our air and water, our forests, and biological diversity in exchange. It's having real sustenance in our lives that makes us feel fulfilled and brings us happiness. Consumerism makes us pursue more and more "luxuries" when we lack our basic necessities.
Our needs for sustenance are basic and simple. We need clean air, clean water, fertile land, fresh wholesome food simply prepared, practical and attractive clothing, shelter that is appropriate to where we live and what we do at home, meaningful and profitable work, creative expression, loving relationships, participation in community, intellectual stimulation, spiritual growth, and probably a few other things I haven't thought of yet. Consumer culture does not provide for our basic needs. But we can provide these things for ourselves through the choices we make every day.
I'm not suggesting that we give up shopping entirely, nor do I expect that everyone will suddenly switch from being a consumer to a sustainable householder—that's just not practical. We are all enmeshed in consumer culture, and to live in ways that regenerate and sustain life we will need to create new choices and new systems that support those choices. Meanwhile, though there are many things we can do to start making the shift away from being rampant consumers to providing for our needs in a thoughtful, responsible way. Here are some basic principles that I apply in my own life:
- Evaluate what your real needs are. Choose which material possessions you choose to purchase based on your own human necessities and responsibilities to life, rather than advertising and cultural conditioning. There's no need for deprivation, but do eliminate waste.
- Purchase products most important to sustaining your life first. Nourishing food is necessary to sustaining life; candy is not. Clothing is necessary for warmth and protection of your body; the latest fashion is not. Clean water is necessary to sustain the life of your body; soda is not. Identify what you need to purchase to sustain your life and make those purchases first.
- If you can make it yourself, make it yourself. Wendell Berry says "find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands, and the mouth." Many products we use daily are consumables—products we use up completely—that can easily be made at home. These could include cooking at home from fresh ingredients, using simple substances such as baking soda and vinegar to clean, controlling pests by natural means, and using natural home remedies. Even though we purchase the raw materials, we save money and get to use our own creativity and skills.
- Buy a local product from a local business. This may be easier said than done, but I've found that if you make a decision to do this, you begin to find local products and services that are not immediately obvious. We like to shop at craft fairs, farmers markets, and local businesses. We recently discovered a new butcher shop that sells fresh organic meat and poultry, wrapped in paper instead of plastic, and they make their own nitrate-free sausages. And the prices are only a fraction higher than the supermarket. If you look, you may be surprised at what you find. In my own community there are quite a few, but I've found most people don't know about them and they don't know about each other!
- Purchase green products. These are nontoxic, natural, earthwise, and fair-traded—having greater social and environmental benefits than most products. Even though these products come from places beyond your local area, these businesses need to be supported in order to expand the marketplace for green goods.
Unless, as a society, we dramatically change our way of life, there will always be a need for commerce, manufacturing, and trade. Humans have been making everyday necessities and luxuries and trading them for centuries. Commerce is completely different from industrialism. Commerce is about an interchange of ideas, opinions, or sentiments and the exchange or buying and selling of goods. We can certainly have commerce without being consumers, as we all work together to provide for all and sustain the Earth as well.
Imagine that you are living in a village in an ecosystem, prior to industrialization. There are no supermarkets to buy food or other stores to buy anything else. There is just you, other members of your tribe, or citizens of your village, and the land. Yet you need food, clothing and shelter. How do you get it? By using the available resources and your own skill. But there's no need for each individual to have every skill. You might be better at building huts while your neighbor might be better at preparing food. Everyone does what they do best and then trade with each other. That's commerce, only now we use money for exchange. And that's sustainable. It's part of life. Each organism has it's own job and contributes to the whole of life.
Consumerism starts with machines, not human need. It starts with someone building a factory and saying "how do we keep these machines running to create more and more profit?" It's about getting people to buy products they don't even need, and reducing their ability to produce for themselves so they become dependent on the creations of the company.
Being customers of commerce is a good sustainable activity. Being consumers of industrialization is not.