By Joshua Sowin
What is to be the fate of self-control in an economy
that encourages and rewards unlimited selfishness?
In part one of this essay we went over how our lives are lives of consumption—both at work and at home. This makes us dependent on corporations and government for the essentials of life. We concluded that we must each individually change to reverse this trend.
If we must change, what must we do? The rest of this essay will address that question. What can we do? Thankfully, even while living in an urban environment, there is much we can do. We will talk about areas such as character, housing, food, transportation, energy, and entertainment.
The first step is to recognize the problem: we are consumers. This should not be difficult—most of what we do gives great evidence of this. Think about how much food, clothing, gadgets, and fuel we buy. Think about how much garbage we produce. Is there any doubt?
After this recognition we must decide to do something about it. It is far too easy to recognize a problem but do nothing personally to solve it. We would much rather give money to an institution instead of personally doing anything. But giving is not the same as doing, even though we often act like it is. Giving is good—it’s just not doing.
Once we have decided to do something about our consumption, the solutions begin to become clear. We begin to see how wasteful and extravagant we live, and how we can cut down. In this final part of the essay, I hope to give practical suggestions that spark ideas to help others consume less.
A Crisis of Character
Our crisis of consumerism is a crisis of character. It would be wrong for us to condemn consumerism without realizing that we are condemning our character and thus ourselves. Consumerism is the fruit—character is the root. We lack neighborliness, responsibility, contentment, economy, and loath hard work. Do we deny ourselves anything? Do we even know what self-control is? If so, have we experienced it? We only think of obtaining more and more, instead of being content with what we have.
Jesus said “out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). What we do and say comes from who we are. That we merely consume is evidence that there is something defective with our character.
We lack neighborliness. Everyone knows the Golden Rule which tells us to “do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves.” When Jesus was asked, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” he answered:
“The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
Loving our neighbor is a high calling that we should be pursuing in all areas of our lives. However, many of us are harming our neighbors through our consumerism. As Wendell Berry asks:
How can you love your neighbor if you don’t know how to build or mend a fence, how to keep your filth out of his water supply and your poison out of his air; or if you do not produce anything and so have nothing to offer, or do not take care of yourself and so become a burden? How can you be a neighbor without applying principle—without bringing virtue to a practical issue? How will you practice virtue without skill?2
Through our consumerism, we create massive amounts of garbage, which is carted off to our neighbors here and abroad. We cause water to be polluted. We cause air to be poisoned and polluted. We can destroy small businesses and communities. All of these issues involve loving our neighbor—how can we then ignore them? How can we say we love God, yet ignore his command to love others? We have a strange view of Christianity if we think we can do one and ignore the other simply because our economy is based on exploiting neighbors.
We lack responsibility. Someone who takes and takes but never gives back is irresponsible. The earth is ours to use and to keep (Genesis 2:15)—can we really say we are keeping the earth? Do our lives and spending habits give evidence of it? Or do we contribute to the rape of the earth by doing what comes easy?
We lack contentment and self-control. Even when we have everything we want, we are not content. We quickly grow weary of new purchases and rush out to replace or upgrade them. What happened to contentment? Our economy does not allow it—if we had a widespread revival of contentment our growth would stop and we would be in an economic crisis. That should say something about what kind of economy we have.
We lack economy. No longer do people practice economy or think of it as a virtue. Our households spend money and produce garbage at astonishing rates. Few housewives now try to be thrifty by doing their own cooking and baking, sewing, etc. Everything is done by machines or corporations. Instead of harnessing the free power of the sun and of the body we use machines which require expensive and destructive energy.
We have a loathing for hard work. Wendell Berry has made the observation that “we have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from.”3 Many of us spend large amounts of time trying to get out of small amounts of hard work. This is why many people prefer to work for someone: so they can pay for others to do the work they do not want to do.
As I noted in part one, the Bible speaks highly of “working with [our] hands” and commands us to do it. C.S. Lewis, commenting on this and what the “ideal Christian society” would look like, said:
[The New Testament] tells us that there are to be no passengers or parasites: if man does not work, he ought not to eat. Every one is to work with his own hands, and what is more, every one’s work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them.4
Hard work isn’t always drudgery to be avoided. Adam was put in the garden to work. The curse was not that Adam had to work but that work would be more difficult and painful. Instead of trying to avoid hard work completely, we should seek to enjoy it and accept it is part of a good, complete life.
Character matters. To reduce our consumption, we must change the kind of people we are. We must look at our character deficiencies and strive to be better people. We must have better role-models than celebrities. We must learn to be neighborly, responsible, content, self-controlled, thrifty, and hard working. Having good character is the most important solution for us to consume less and produce more.
At the same time we are working on our character, we must also be working on our actions—specifically, our actions of consumption. We consume through our purchases, of which there are two main categories: necessities and luxuries. Practically everything we purchase falls into the category of luxuries. Most of what we think of as necessities are not “bare necessities”—they are “luxurious necessities.” We live like kings and queens. Thoreau said “most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”5 The Bible warns us against living “luxurious and self-indulgent” lives (James 3:5). We need to determine what purchases we need, and what purchases are extravagant, luxurious, self-indulgent. The list of unnecessary purchases is longer than most of us think.
Asking questions can help determine what our needs really are. “To ask the question is to break the spell,” Neil Postman said. When walking through the store, and a product catches our eye—and then our hand—we should ask, “Is this something I really need?” If not, why buy it? Why should we be so quick to part with our money? The purchase will not bring lasting happiness, and will only leave us poorer.
We also need to ask, “Can I make something like this or get by with something else I already own?” For instance, disposable paper napkins could be replaced with reusable cloth napkins; disposable tissues could be replaced by reusable handkerchiefs; boxed mashed potatoes could be made from scratch.
Another question to ask is “Is this product of quality workmanship?” It is good economy to purchase products that will last for a long time. Sometimes this means spending more up front to save long-term. Purchasing a product that can be cleaned and maintained by the user will also save money. The simple tools are often best. Why should we buy something more complex than we need? Why buy something that will break after a year? Yet we do so far too often, and support shoddy work.
Origin is also of importance. “Is this made (or grown) near here, and what were the conditions it was made (or grown) in?” Made in the United States is good, made in your state is better, but made nearby is best. It is almost always best (and rewarding) to support a local economy when it is feasible. Local organic food is always fresher, and sometimes cheaper (due to fewer transportation and chemical costs), and product quality can be better (and if not, easier to influence it for better). Buying locally also supports local jobs—and thus local people. It is also possible to see how the product was made, under what conditions, and if it is a person or corporation you want to support financially. It gives a form of accountability that cannot exist in a global market. When our food is brought in from hundred of miles away, how can we see how it was grown?
It is important to study consumption habits and reduce them. Asking questions can help us achieve this goal. Economy does not happen on its own, especially in a society inundated with advertisements that claim what we have is never adequate.
In order to reduce spending, we need to see what we are spending our money on. Housing is often the largest expenditure. Most of us pay an enormous amount of money for shelter. Home owners are often in extreme debt and spend most of their lives paying it off. Renters end up paying even more and never have anything to call their own or pass on to future generations.
The houses in which we live are palaces—and we pay accordingly. Because we cannot afford to pay for these palaces, we borrow enormous sums of money from usurers in order to have an elaborate roof over our heads. Thoreau said (in 1854!):
Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually … needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have…. It is possible to invent a house still more convenient and luxurious than we have, which yet all would admit that man could not afford to pay for. Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?6
Ironically, we spend little time in these palaces. We are too busy working, eating out, driving, going to movies. Time at home is usually spent in front of a television or computer—or, more likely, in a bedroom sleeping. Ah! What a life! One works all day to pay for a palace to sleep in!
Strive to be free from the bondage of a mortgage. “The borrower is the slave of the lender,” King Solomon wisely said (Proverbs 22:7). Depending on circumstances, selling a house that cannot be afforded and moving to a cheaper dwelling is often profitable and beneficial, especially if the new dwelling has more land. If a person is willing to discard public approval, prefabricated houses are often available from a fourth to a half of the price of frame-built houses, which can be paid off substantially quicker. Or, someone who is handy could consider building his own house. Any way we do it, we must purchase or build houses we can afford—and not what the bank says we can afford. Never forget that the borrower is a slave. We must purchase houses that we have the money for or can pay off quickly.
Food and Land
Much of our money goes toward grocery stores and restaurants. How can these costs be reduced? With land. That is why it is important to purchase a house with land—even if only a small amount. Money can be made and saved with land. Owning land and living on it also gives motivation to care for the land properly—many of our ecological ills come from absentee ownership. With land a garden can be planted, which is one of the best things that can be personally done to reduce consumerism and begin improving and caring for the earth:
Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of good and the pleasure of eating. The food he grows will be fresher, more nutritious, less contaminated by poisons and preservatives and dyes than what he can buy at a store. He is reducing the trash problem; a garden is not a disposable container, and it will digest and reuse its own wastes. If he enjoys working in his garden, then he is less dependent on an automobile or a merchant for his pleasure. He is involving himself directly in the work of feeding people.
If you think I’m wandering off the subject, let me remind you that most of the vegetables necessary for a family of four can be grown on a plot of forty by sixty feet.7
Growing our own food moves us from mere consumers to producers. It can also be pleasurable, healthy, and give us a great deal of independence, financial savings, exercise and garbage reduction. If a person cannot own land, a friend may be willing to let them use a portion of their land, or there may be communal garden space available in their area.
When we purchase food, we should try to purchase from local organic farmers and families. This can usually be done through local farmers markets. If there is not one in the area, work with co-ops or directly with farmers. Whenever possible, purchase raw materials and make food yourself. Avoid precooked or prepared meals. This gives us fresh, sustainable, nutritious food—without poisons—while at the same time supporting a local economy, which is essential for healthy, sustainable, safe communities.
Next to housing and food, one of our biggest expenses is automobiles. Gene Logdson gives good advice about this:
Be especially astute about buying automobiles, your biggest cost next to housing. If you borrow money to buy a new car, you will pay for it at least twice because of interest on your debt. Owning even the cheapest new car will cost you $2000 to $3000 a year out-of-pocket, if you use your own money. If you use the bank’s, that car will cost you $4000 to $6000 a year. People who pay on car loans all their lives will spent a hundred thousand dollars in interest alone. Much of that money could otherwise be in a savings account making you money, not losing it. If you have only enough cash to buy a $1500 car, be content.8
The initial cost of an automobile is only the beginning. Automobiles usually end up costing more in fuel, insurance, and maintenance than the initial price. The ideal way to reduce this cost is not to have one. But our society has been so shaped and changed by the automobile that this is very difficult to do, unless one lives in a large city. In large cities, stores are often within walking or biking distance—or. if farther, there is public transportation. When possible, walk, bike, or take public transportation to work (or if possible, work at home). If you can do this, you will be saving yourself a large amount of money each month while making the city a safer and less polluted place. Those who hate smog and smokestacks should be at least trying to reduce their usage of a moving pollution machine.
If you can’t bring yourself to get rid of your vehicle, only have one. One car is more than you “need” so don’t say you need more than one vehicle. You don’t. Make it work. It is possible, believe it or not. Another option is to own a motorscooter or motorcycle instead. They often get better gas mileage than even those expensive, fancy, hybrid cars. The major downside, though, is the lack of safety and storage room. Cars do not always see you—and when they do not, you are the one who gets hurt.
One last comment on transportation. Always drive under or at the speed limit. It doesn’t matter what arguments you use to justify casual speeding. It is illegal and dangerous for you and others. Is speed more important than life? While as a culture we have answered that question in the affirmative, we should question that conclusion. The faster one goes, the less reaction time there is to respond to something—like someone walking in front of the car, or another vehicle suddenly stopping. Since speeding puts human life in more danger than if going the speed limit, it makes speeding a moral issue. For that reason, it seems casual speeding is immoral and uncivil. How can you love your neighbor and put his life in jeopardy—just so you can get somewhere a few seconds faster?
Even if you do not believe in the moral aspect of speeding, speeding often reduces gas mileage and thus is more expensive—in other words, speeding is another aspect of our consumer culture. Speeding does not even save much time—sometimes it even takes longer due to traffic lights that are timed to punish speeders. Driving aggressively—accelerating fast, speeding, braking—apart from being stupid and dangerous, wastes fuel. Also, if you get a ticket (and you should) then it will make your trip slower and you will have to pay the ticket price and pay more for insurance each month. Bottom line: speeding is illegal, immoral, uncivil, ineffective, expensive, and consumptive. Don’t do it.
We are also consumers of energy and utilities. Wendell Berry, talking about energy, writes:
[T]he basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral ignorance and weakness of character. We don’t know how to use energy, or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves.9
We waste enormous amounts of energy each day. Instead of mindlessly using energy, we must ask ourselves what the proper use of it is, and learn to restrain ourselves to use it in that way. Saving energy does more than save money. It makes the world a better place to live due to less pollution or radioactive waste and less need for strip mining and other ecological damaging practices. When we use less city water, less sewage needs to be treated. Here are some suggestions to reduce energy and utility use:
Don’t turn lights on in the daytime—use the natural light God has given us. Turn lights off when you leave the room. Replace old light bulbs with energy-saving fluorescent bulbs. Instead of using an electric or gas dryer, hang up clothes outside and use the free energy from the sun (which is also less damaging to clothes). Obtain a wood-burning stove and get access to a woodlot where you can cut your own wood—as Thoreau experienced, you’ll warm yourself chopping the wood and then again while burning it.
In the winter, turn your heater down before you go to sleep. Turn it back when you wake up (most thermostats can be set to do this automatically). Open up the curtains and blinds in the daytime to warm the house. In the summer, close the curtains and blinds in the daytime and shut the windows to keep warm air out. At night, open the windows to allow cool air in. Use fans instead of an air conditioner unless you really need it.
When you are finished watching television, turn it off. Better yet, don’t own one. Turn off your computer and monitor when not in use. Don’t turn on the water faucets full blast and never leave it running when it is not being used. Take short showers or use a washcloth instead of taking a bath.
Doing these types of things will save you money, make the world a better place, and make you feel better for making a difference. There are many reasons to conserve our energy—there is no reason, apart from laziness and wastefulness, not to conserve.
Most of us are slaves to the massive entertainment industry. We worship at the altar of entertainment. Our idolatry is more technologically sophisticated than the idolaters of old, but we are just as devoted. We crave distraction, and want more exciting distractions than we can create ourselves. As a culture, we have three major entertainment weaknesses: visual imagery, music, and gadgets. We love our televisions, movie theatres, music players, computers, video games, still and video cameras. When we cannot have our visual fix (like when driving or walking), we turn to the distracting pleasures of audio through portable music players.
We must free ourselves from dependence on the entertainment industry. Television is often the most common culprit—through television we watch television shows (which often means purchasing cable or satellite), movies (which means movie renting services and purchasing DVDs), and video games (for which we purchase game systems and video games). The best solution is to not own a television. I—and many others—do without one quite well. If you need to be convinced about the many disservices television does to our culture (and our lives), I refer you to the best book written on the subject: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. Everyone should read Postman’s book at least once.
It comes down to buying only the things we need. Gene Logdson advises,
Don’t buy gadgets you don’t need. Why buy garage door openers unless you are disabled? Ice crushers are unnecessary unless your hands are crippled with arthritis…. Leaf blowers are rather stupid. I saw three workers on the lawn of a public institution last week, each armed with a blower, trying to corral a flock of about twenty-five leaves into a pile. What I wouldn’t have given for a camcorder … but that’s another doo-dad you don’t need. The more kitchen appliances that people on the verge of bankruptcy own, the more they eat out. Don’t buy clothes you don’t need. A good suit can cost eight hundred to a thousands dollars today. A thousand dollars buys an acre of land that, in the right hands, might make an entire living. Let those who put their faith in fancy threads laugh at your jeans. Bury them in their thousand dollar suits.10
You don’t need a “home entertainment center”—and you certainly don’t need to “upgrade” the components of one every few years. Contrary to advertisements, retail stores, internet sites, technology companies and friends, you don’t need a new computer. In fact, you could get one that does all you “need” for free—old computers are worth nothing. They will do e-mail, web browsing, and word processing. Or enjoy the pleasures of using pen and paper to write real letters instead of e-mail. A good fountain pen will last decades and a jar of ink should last a couple years.
Instead of watching television and buying gadgets, let us read good books—if you don’t already own some, go to your local used bookstore and purchase nice hardcover or leather editions that will last. And then read them. And then re-read them. Read books aloud with your family or friends.
Instead of running in place on a machine, run outside. Cultivate a love for hobbies that honor and make use of our bodies as well as our minds. Take walks alone. Take walks with friends. Eat home-cooked meals and enjoy the company of others—eating out is a luxury and should be treated like one. Play cards or board games that you own. These things are much better—and less expensive and ecologically damaging—than staring into a screen for hours.
We must protect ourselves and our families from advertising. Advertising is temptation. It is based on manipulation. It is a catalyst for consumption. Advertising mainly consists of telling people that what they have is not sufficient or good, and something new is. Of course, that is what was said a month ago about the old product. It tells people that they need more. It tells them that they cannot solve their own problems, but corporations can for a “small price.”
It is not easy to get away from advertising. Even when we try to get away, it is practically impossible—we are assaulted with advertisements on televisions, billboards, t-shirts, product boxes, radio stations and in newspapers and magazines. We need to resist it, yes. But we must make an effort to avoid it as well, because it has an effect on us, even if we don’t realize it. Advertisers bet (and corporations net) billions of dollars every month on that fact. If you doubt the effect and power of advertising, look at our youth.
Instead of watching TV shows when they are released, wait for the DVD to come out so you can skip the advertisements. If you browse the Internet, install an “ad blocker.” The other day I saw a popular web site on someone’s computer without an ad blocker and I was appalled at the advertisements and how they were presented. It will only get worse.
Above all, we must do everything possible to keep our children away from advertisements. A child should never have unrestricted and/or unsupervised access to the Internet or television. They will thank us—through their words and character—when they are older and wiser.
Not only do we need to shield ourselves from advertisements, but we need to not be advertisements. We should not be salesmen for corporations. This means trying not to purchase goods with advertising on them. Corporations really have it good—consumers actually pay corporations to advertise their brand and products on their clothing. There is something strangely wrong that we allow ourselves to be walking billboards. What is even sadder is that children and teens don’t feel like they “fit in” unless they wear such clothing. We need to make an effort not to advertise unless we are purposely trying to.
We must recycle. It is the least we can do when we support such a wasteful and destructive economy. When we have to purchase a product or food, and it has packaging, it is best to recycle what is able to be recycled. Virtually every city or town has a recycling program, and it is often easy to participate in. While recycling is not the ideal solution, it at least allows us to reduce the amount of garbage in landfills and reclaim materials. Paper is the worst offender—about 50% of landfill space is taken up by it. But at least the paper will decompose in the next couple of decades—aluminum takes 500 years to decompose and glass takes a million years! Recycling also saves energy—for instance, recycling aluminum takes only 5% of the energy needed to manufacture it from raw material.11 Recycling conserves our natural resources, saves energy, reduces pollution, and reduces landfill space.
Studying and reducing our consumption along with recycling will have a very beneficial side effect: we produce less garbage. The average person produces 52 tons of garbage by the age of 75. Gadgets and toys (and their packaging) end up in landfills—they become garbage. Our economy produces an immense amount of garbage—practically everything that we buy will find its way there relatively quickly. In other words, much of what we produce is garbage.
Purchasing less means throwing away less. In regards to food, think of all the food packaging that gets thrown away in our homes each day. Growing food ourselves or making meals from raw materials reduce this considerably. It is also more ecologically friendly and often makes food tastier, healthier, and more pleasurable to eat. It also lets us see what ingredients are in our food. Kitchen scraps can be put in a compost pile, which also reduces garbage and will provide soil rich in organic matter to grow better vegetables in. Reducing garbage is important—even apart from the ecological consequences, who wants a stinky, unsanitary land fill taking up space? No one wants to live next to them. Putting something in the garbage solves the problem for you, but it just becomes someone else’s problem. Is that a good way to love our neighbors—or God, who commands us to love them?
The Individual Solution
Consumerism is a major part and problem of our society. Worse, the consequences of it will affect those who come after us. This problem needs to be solved individually—we all need to work towards reducing our consumption and increasing our production. We must not only receive, but also give. We must start with ourselves and our families and our land. Can we condemn others if we do not change ourselves and our ways? If we all work towards this goal, we can make a better world, live better lives, and enjoy a better future together.
It is good advice when borrowing something to return it better than given. We have been given this wonderful world to use and to keep. Let each of us use it, keep it, and leave it better than we arrived.
2 Ibid., p. 299.
3 Ibid., p. 43.
4 Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters Complete in One Volume (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2003), p. 84.
5 Thoreau, Henry David. Walden (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993), p. 12. Originally published in 1854.
6 Ibid., p. 29.
7 Berry, Wendell. “Think Little” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, p. 88.
8 Logsdon, Gene. The Contrary Farmer (Post Mills, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1993), p. 24.
9 Berry, Wendell. “The Unsettling of America” in The Art of the Commonplace, p. 44.
10 Logsdon, pp. 23-24.