Thursday, June 03, 2010

Joyfully embracing less (and more!)

Doing without. Making do. Cutting consumption. Dropping luxuries.

Often an ecologically responsible lifestyle is put forward as a necessary asceticism to avoid the worst of the outcomes for our former (and ongoing) profligacy: "If you fly, we all die." This method relies on guilt and fear to motivate change, which may have some initial success, but are generally quite terrible at securing long term transformation.

But it need not be so. While a certain measure of fear can be a healthy part of facing the truth of our situation, true conversion is not simply away from, but towards: away from the false idols of wealth, security, consumption, endless growth and towards the living and true way that is Christ. We don't just shun death; we embrace life. And while some degree of fasting from luxuries is a healthy spiritual discipline to focus the mind on the pleasures of God, Christian discipleship is also about feasting, celebration and joy. Lent gives way to Easter.

Another way of putting this, is that consumerism is a false idol, promising far more than it can deliver, and ultimately diminishing our capacity for real enjoyment of what it offered in the first place. Renouncing this idol is not primarily about ecological mitigation, but first it is a simple matter of spiritual health, of being truly alive, deeply human. By the way, this is one of the reasons why I am suspicious of "bright green" technological optimism, which promises us that if we just build enough nuclear plants/wind farms (delete according to taste), then we can go on as gluttonously as before. Our need to change goes far beyond our carbon footprint, or even our entire ecological footprint.

And so it is not only possible and necessary, but good in all kinds of senses (not just ecologically, but psychologically, relationally, socially, spiritually) to shun consumerism, where "I am what I buy", and embrace the living and true God, who gives us every good thing to enjoy. This may mean embracing a life of "less", but in more important ways it is also walking towards a life of more, much more.

Less purchasing unnecessary products out of boredom, jealousy, indifference, laziness or habit; more attention to the wonderful blessings one already has. Less "stuff" and clutter; more reclaiming of lost skills of resourcefulness, sharing, creativity and building to last.

Less climbing the career ladder to keep up with the Joneses, to afford the latest toy or to impress the parents/peers/pets; more satisfaction in thoughtful service of the common good. Fewer debts; more freedom. Fewer hours; more time.

Less solitary living; more discovering the joys and sorrows of community. Fewer mansions and holiday homes and investment properties; more being at home in oneself and in God.

Less meat and animal products; more creativity and health in cooking. Less year round supply of whatever foodstuff takes my fancy today, more appreciation of the seasons and local produce. Less fast food; more hospitality. Less unceasing gorging; more cycles of mindful fasting and celebratory feasting.

Less advertising; more contentment. Fewer toys; more fun. Fewer shoes; more walks. Fewer wardrobe changes; more changes of heart. Fewer boxes; more room in life for the unexpected. Less retail therapy; more healing of desire.

Less unnecessary driving; more perambulation, pedalling and public transport for exercise, socialising and increasing intimacy with the local area. Less international travel; more depth of appreciation for local delights. Less business travel, more saving time and money through video conferencing. Less suburban sprawl; more new urbanism.

Less reliance on a finite supply of cheap energy to meet my every whim; more consideration of what is worth doing. Less watching; more observation.

Less wealth; more riches. Fewer heavy burdens of fear, guilt, desperation; more hope, forgiveness, peace. Less treasure that fades; more treasure that lasts.


Greg Clarke said...

Great post, Byron. My wife has an excellent phrase she uses in therapy which I think well sums up a Christian's approach to life: "progress, not perfection". That's what I hear in your "less...more..." constructions, too. Bono is also good: "It's not a hill, it's a mountain..."

Lionel Windsor said...

Hi Byron, great stuff. As I read it, I'm thinking of at least 3 aspects of the fruit of the Spirit: joy, patience, self-control.

byron smith said...

Greg - thanks. Progress not perfection is indeed liberating. I'm certainly not "there", but I am (walking, sometimes crawling) on the way. The key is getting the right kind of progress, which may often look (in the world's eyes) like regress at first (lower GDP, less productivity, less retail growth).

Lionel - indeed, and I hope love, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness are not absent either!

byron smith said...

“Sooner or later we spent what we earn. So if want to consume less we must earn less, and if we want to earn less we must work less. At least, we must perform less paid work. If that sounds shocking today, it is nothing more than a call to resume the great historical trend of declining working hours. Until the trend was disrupted in the 1980s, falling working hours were regarded as the surest sign of social progress. A return to the downward trend would mean a social choice to take less of the gain from productivity growth in money income and more in free time.” Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species, 86-87.

David Palmer said...

Hi Byron,

I’m not convinced by your reply, certainly not on a global basis. Maybe OK for the UK if it intends to continue the slide into senility.

When you talk about wealth, it means very different things in different parts of the world. Right now (and we have had this conversation before) certain countries with very large populations have decided they want to increase their wealth in order to pull their people out of poverty. Will we argue against this?

But let’s take the UK (or Australia). What does it mean to be less addicted to wealth in the nation? How will it be achieved? Can it be achieved without making life more difficult for those who struggle to make ends meet?

I think your ideas in Joyfully embracing less have merit at a personal level, certainly romantic appeal, though I reject tying the knot to an ecologically responsible lifestyle because that too can become an idol . There is no doubt that consumerism, keeping up with the Jones, however we describe it is leading to very poor decisions with resultant stress, marriage failures, etc. Take a simple example: the size of new homes and the mortgages that people take on and the necessity for 2 incomes to pay the mortgage.

I would actually want to add to your list to include the embracing of Biblical patterns for how men and women properly relate to one another, Biblical clarity regarding the distinctive roles of men and women, the welcoming and nurture of children. I think the widespread rejection of Christian teaching and national heritage in these matters ties in with the decay of modern society even as it tries to fly ever higher in search of individual fulfilment.

byron smith said...

David, I have answered your question a number of times before. Nations in absolute poverty need higher levels of consumption, yes. But consumerism is bad wherever it is found.

The fact that I did not in this post address every single moral issue is surely irrelevant, or were you looking for an essay?

Of course an ecologically responsible lifestyle can become an idol (as I discussed in that link), and so can marriage, family and a stable society. As can the nation state and even the church. But idols are good things replacing God. They are still good things and not to be rejected when received with thanksgiving.

And do you think that society that rejects consumerism and joyfully embraces God's blessings with thanksgiving will result in a slide into senility? I'm confused.

David Palmer said...

Hi Byron,

I am probably grating on you and if so I apologise, but then again we have some different views. Perhaps I should let go.

However, I find it interesting in your list of moral issues as you put it, and about which you have many passionate convictions, you consistently leave out anything that might relate to the deleterious effects of the 1960’s cultural revolution that have so deeply and adversely impacted modern society to its great loss. (After all you are interested in the big picture!)

I’m not looking for an essay, but I do personally find it distressing to see Europe in decline(my point about senility), to see as one writer has put it, women falling into the categories (and here I’m thinking of the broader society but conscious of how it intrudes into the church as well) of party girls, serial girlfriends or romantics just hoping against hope whilst men are either barbarians or wimps.

I feel your simple and rather romantic lifestyle which needs the guilt of our agw misdemeanours to give it some forward impetus fails to fully engage with the Biblical teaching on personal morality. I wouldn’t want marriage and family to be seen as an idol but as the God ordained foundation for how men and women are to relate together, to ensure the cultural mandate given in Genesis 1&2 is fulfilled.

From my reading of the Bible, I don’t think God is so concerned that we all fit into the same socio economic slot, but rather that we display (practice) justice, mercy, humility before God and our fellows, regardless of respective station in life.

However, as I say, maybe I should let matters rest.

byron smith said...

David - Where to begin in responding? I feel you are seriously misunderstanding where I am coming from and misrepresenting my goals.

I find it interesting in your list of moral issues as you put it, and about which you have many passionate convictions, you consistently leave out anything that might relate to the deleterious effects of the 1960’s cultural revolution that have so deeply and adversely impacted modern society to its great loss. (After all you are interested in the big picture!)
I have written on marriage, children, sex, relationships, community and much more. That I do not cover all of these in every post is hardly surprising, especially when the topic of the post is consumerism and its destructiveness, not the sexual failings of our society. Nonetheless, notice that I already speak about sharing, community, the common good, home cooking, hospitality and reconnecting with the local. If these are not also talking about the goodness of family and home life, then I'm not sure how I can do so more clearly.

Can you think of good links between these two issues (consumerism and the cultural/sexual revolution)? I am sure they are probably related (the fact that the sexual revolution occurred during the same period as the explosion of consumer culture is very suggestive), but at the moment, I'm not sure of which connections to make. Sexual freedom as an expression of consumerist individualism? The replacement of relationships with stuff? The destructive effects of the brainwashing of children on family life? You are right that this is all part of the big picture. Can you suggest some less/more lines to incorporate this connection? Perhaps "Less time earning; more time investing in relationships of trust and care" to make explicit the line "fewer hours; more time"?

By the way, are you suggesting that the 1960's were a kind of cultural fall? Were there no good things to come out of that revolution or is it entirely dark? I'm not saying it was a good thing, simply that by God's grace the 1970's and following are not uniformly worse than the 1950's and preceding.

I feel your simple and rather romantic lifestyle which needs the guilt of our agw misdemeanours to give it some forward impetus fails to fully engage with the Biblical teaching on personal morality.
If I may ask politely, which planet are you on? It is precisely not from a motive of guilt that I was arguing for in this very post! "This method relies on guilt and fear to motivate change, which may have some initial success, but are generally quite terrible at securing long term transformation." I have made this point repeatedly in many posts.

byron smith said...

Show me how I am being romantic in saying that consumerism destroys both the world and our soul? Which of my suggestions are unbiblical? Are you defending consumerism? Do I need to walk through all the biblical material against the love of money, against the accumulation of wealth, against finding our contentment in worldly pleasures, against robbing our neighbour through greed? I have made it very clear in many previous posts that matter matters, that the world is full of good things for which we thank God, that creation is to be joyfully affirmed and embraced, that world-denying gnosticism is heresy, that we should joyfully throw ourself into work and relationships and food and so on. I am not advocating any kind of world-denying asceticism. But consumerism is an idol, taking the good gifts of God and turning them into a competitor for God. It has no place in the life of a Christian disciple.

Or if you are not defending consumerism, which of these things (less/more) are the wrong way around? What is it that Christians should want more of?

I wouldn’t want marriage and family to be seen as an idol but as the God ordained foundation for how men and women are to relate together, to ensure the cultural mandate given in Genesis 1&2 is fulfilled.
Like all good gifts of God, marriage and family can become an idol. Jesus warned of this danger on many occasions, relativising the importance of family ties to seeking first the Kingdom. Let the dead bury their own dead. Who are my mother and brothers? Unless you hate your father and mother. And they left their father and the nets. And so on.

Europe in decline
More so than Australia? Cultural sins may differ between societies, but I'd be very slow to lay claim to a superior cultural heritage. This is one of the real blessings of a worldwide church in which we can help each other notice cultural blindspots.

byron smith said...

From my reading of the Bible, I don’t think God is so concerned that we all fit into the same socio economic slot, but rather that we display (practice) justice, mercy, humility before God and our fellows, regardless of respective station in life.
Have I ever said otherwise? Seriously, have I ever said anything like this? A search for equality on my blog yields a quote from Obama (that I am criticise), a few references to the Son's equality to the Father (hard to find fault there), and a quote from O'Donovan in which he is criticising using equality as a basic moral principle disconnected from phronesis. I confess that I believe a world without stupid poverty is a desirable world, but I know you think the same. I also confess that I unashamedly think that taxation is a blessing, that from those who have received much, much is expected, that the poor are often oppressed by the rich, that generosity is a core Christian virtue, that basically all Australians are wealthy and ought to listen to the instructions of the apostle. But I have never advocated that we ought to all "fit into the same socio-economic slot".

What does it look like for the rich (us) to practice justice, mercy and humility? I suspect that one of the implications is that we should not live lives of luxury and self-indulgence in unfettered consumption, but that we should live simply so that others can simply live. My point in this post is that this is not only a blessing to others (our neighbours and the rest of the community of life), but also to us.

byron smith said...

Mike Wells: "We need to learn a new way to live.
Not because christianity gives us a definite form of life, somehow trying to recapture 1st Century palestine.
But because the western consumerist way of life is destroying the world.
As a church we have a choice.
We can be at the vanguard of thinking through how to live responsibly with this information.
Or we can trundle along with a destructive system.
We need to think about how our decisions today will affect the witness of the church in the future.
There will be a time of reckoning in the future. There may even be a backlash.
If we are tightly allied to the people and systems that are destroying the earth, we will be tainted in the future."

byron smith said...

A useful review of a book on the concept of ecological sacrifice.

byron smith said...

MWH: Consumer Detox: a review of book that looks very interesting.

byron smith said...

How to make trillions of dollars and why hate has a low ROI. A good brief account of how consumerism makes you passive and the role of advertising (a.k.a. desire distortion).

byron smith said...

[Following interchange imported from a Facebook discussion I didn't want to lose.]

Craig Schwarze said...

Regarding your suggestion that we" joyfully embrace less" - anything concrete on what that would actually look like? Any evidence to back that up? Here's a thought. Tonight on the 7:30 report, Bob Brown said if Australian's didn't do something about climate change, then their living standards would decrease by 5-20%. Now, what % decrease in living standard is required to embrace your energy solution?

byron smith said...

My post had a range of suggestions, though it was not aiming to be comprehensive or to quantify.

Living standards can't be measured in percentages because so many of the important things can't be quantified. I take it the point of our lives is to be obedient to Christ, and I believe this includes for us today rejecting the idolatry of consumerism and the myopic hubris of endless economic growth. Our lives don't consist in the abundance of our possessions. What good news!

That Brown appeals to the hip pocket and the backyard in his discussion of climate change is a little disappointing. The bigger concern is not loss of Aussie GDP (which is what I assume Brown is referring to), but the destabilisation of nations through food insecurity, conflict over resources, acceleration of biodiversity decline, the undoing of global poverty reduction through food price instability and the justice issue that those primarily responsible are not those who are and will be hit hardest. These are all of far more concern to me as a Christian than whether Australian GDP goes up or down.

But if you must have your ethics spelt out in dollars and cents, then the Garnaut Review is a decent start at showing that aggressive climate mitigation costs less money even at a national level than business as usual will end up costing us as a nation.

byron smith said...

PS One example of joyfully embracing less (which is actually more) is taking efficiency gains as increased leisure time rather than more income (and so more consumption and more stuff). This is something very practical. I'm yet to meet an American who isn't jealous when they discover that much of the rest of the developed world enjoys 5-8 weeks paid annual leave rather than 2. This is a significant part of the difference between the per capita GDP of the US and elsewhere. They have taken more of their efficiency gains in money and consumption, rather than leisure time. Australia used to be heading in a more European direction on this, but these trends have reversed and we are working longer hours than ever. Instead, we could have more job-sharing, less unemployment, less social inequality, more time with family and friends and church, less workaholism, fewer broken relationships, less unnecessary consumption, less focus on keeping up with the Joneses. It's all win.

Craig Schwarze said...

Byron, I just read your post then. To be frank, it seemed more like sloganeering than a concrete proposal for a simpler lifestyle. I'd be interested to hear how you are working this out in your own lifestyle. Don't let modesty prevent you from sharing!

byron smith said...

OK, in my life, a few examples:
I have spent a fair bit of my life working flexible hours and part time, giving more time for church and more time with my daughter. I don't buy many clothes/shoes (and when I do, often secondhand) and have never bought any electronic goods (though admit have received some as gifts), leaving more money to give (to church, friends, missionaries, Christian and other ethical organisations) and reducing the need to for a massive income. I only occasionally eat meat and only occasionally eat out and my wife and I have been trying to focus on increasing our hospitality. We have sold our flat, got rid of credit cards, are out of all debt and the mortgage rat race. We rarely purchase new consumables as Christmas/birthday gifts, instead using a range of attempts at being more creative and speaking more love languages. We have never owned a car and currently walk pretty much everywhere in a city that is far better designed for this than automobile-based sprawls like Sydney. I have cut down on book purchases (which would probably be my main discretionary expense), since I don't get to read them all and have nearly always lived near excellent libraries. We take holidays locally, and have loved exploring Scotland rather than jetting off somewhere more exotic every few weekends. I try to avoid going to unnecessary conferences (a real temptation for an academic). We have switched to a 100% renewable energy supplier (and it isn't costing us a packet). We compost, recycle and try to shop predominantly organically, free-range, in season, locally and/or fair trade. We share tools and occasionally-used appliances with friends. We eat MSC-approved fish. We are members of local transition and community groups trying to build resilience and relationships of trust. We live in a place with good passive solar heating (7ºC outside today, but our flat is low 20s without any heating on). I write an average of maybe a letter a week to politicians, corporations and other organisations giving them feedback, encouragement and constructive suggestions. We're also about to switch from using a major multinational bank that funds the arms trade and fossil fuel exploitation (and dodges its tax obligations) to a local cooperative bank with ethical investment prinicples.

And I believe that Jesus has (and is) good news for us today! And so I preach, teach the Bible, study, write, blog and pray.

But it's a drop in the ocean. I don't think I'm going to save the planet, or even industrial civilisation. But I do believe that my life doesn't consist in the abundance of possessions and that living more simply is a blessing today to be embraced with joy.

Craig Schwarze said...

Thanks mate - well done. I admire a lot of the lifestyle changes you've made...

byron smith said...

Admission: A number of those are more aspiration than reality at this stage (our involvement in the local transition group has been patchy due to busyness, and the last few weeks have hardly been a model of healthy work hours as I've struggled with some deadlines, and so on). But you're right to push for a coherent and more detailed picture.

It's a difficult call on specificity in application. You're right that my post is somewhat vague (although it does have links to some more specific discussions as it is intended as an opener), as I don't want to mandate particular choices as non-negotiable aspects of Christian discipleship (ok, in some cases, maybe I do ;-), but I try to resist that urge most/some of the time).

Craig Schwarze said...

From a Christian perspective, I think your emphasis on less work could be problematic. Proverbs commends a strong work ethic. The Bible also commends us to work hard to provide for our children, our relatives, and for those who are in need. I don't find a lot of biblical support for the idea that we should be seeking ever greater amounts of leisure time! (Though it's a somewhat attractive idea)

byron smith said...

Perhaps not ever greater amounts of leisure time, but definitely some regular time to rest. Work, however, doesn't need to be paid. What if most parishioners did four days paid work and could work a day for church for free?

And many/most people can easily provide for their family's basic needs on a lower income (especially if this were society-wide, as this would reduce the value of houses and the burden of mortgages).

Craig Schwarze said...

As you know, in Sydney the biggest cost for most people is rent/mortgage. And many people are struggling because of it. I think it really would have to be a society wide change for it to work as you suggest.

Another point - government collects tax on income and consumption. Say we reduce both by 20% - that's 20% less in taxation. Given a vast chunk of our budget goes into welfare, health and education, how do you make up the shortfall?

byron smith said...

I guess what I was saying is that "leisure" = time when neither sleeping or doing paid work, and so that includes a whole range of things. There is no scriptural command that says we have to maximise every available moment for earning money (quite the opposite). Yes, we want to be good workers and to be able to provide for our family and contribute to the good of society, but our current model is far from the only (or the best, in my opinion) way of doing this.

I realise that there are indeed many people struggling with crazy rents/mortgages. We sold our crazy mortgage in order to get out of debt (also because my hunch is that Sydney housing prices may currently be experiencing something of a bubble). Some of this mortgage/rent stress (in some cases) is their own doing and many could live quite comfortably if they learned some more contentment with fewer material goods (joyfully embracing less). Some of it is the result of poor government decisions. For example, the failure of the State government to invest adequately in public transport over the last few decades, making car ownership a higher priority for more people, which reduces health (it is the main correlating factor for rising BMI in a population and hence the root cause of the "obesity epidemic") and is a drain on finances. Or to take another example, a failure of town planning that has given us unsustainable suburban sprawl when we could have had walkable, safer, more energy-efficient (cheaper), more socially-cohesive designs (see new urbanism). Or another example: fiscal policies (and a range of other policies) that have aimed to maintain growth in real estate prices well above that of rising wages (partially out of fear of electoral backlash from established money at seeing house prices stagnate or fall, even though that would actually be good news for large numbers of people). Such a goal effects a significant transfer of wealth from the young to the old, which is generally from the poorer to the wealthier and so is socially regressive.

byron smith said...

And so yes, a society-wide change would be better (though many people can easily afford to lead the way in this and then call on the government to follow). Not overnight, of course. But it could happen in small increments through the granting of more holiday time, stronger employer acceptance/enforcement of time-in-lieu, mandating a shorter working week, higher tax on overtime (perhaps for both the company and the individual), reducing the emphasis on GDP figures and putting it on things that are better than growth.

I'm no expert in how these things are done (the details of the policies), but I'm aware that other societies have made this a goal and it would be likely to have quite tangible benefits for public health (which could actually save money - less stress, fewer mental health problems, people getting outside more and being more active, etc.). Also, it could reduce social security payments by reducing unemployment. And there are all kinds of other excellent side-effects: greater job satisfaction (how many people do you know who actually love their work but can't stand the busyness and demands?), more time for families could mean fewer relational breakdowns (which are very expensive economically, even if they increase GDP by increasing the workload of lawyers, removalists, police, psychologists, etc.), more time for volunteer organisations, which means less need for some government services (I'm actually a fan of David Cameron's "big society" as an idea (though in practice think it is largely a fig-leaf for the Tories to make ideological cuts, cuts that will actually undermine the very goal of a "big society" in their nature, scope and timing)), more time for parents to be involved in their children's lives (and education - I know many parents who have said to me that they would love to volunteer to help out at their childrens' schools in all kinds of ways, if only they had the time), less social inequality (if all members of society, including the most highly paid, work less, then the gap between rich and poor grows more slowly), less mortgage stress and people staying in jobs they don't actually like because they're scared of taking a risk in case they fall behind on repayments.

At its heart, it is about a shift in priorities and how we measure wealth: away from GDP and towards a more holistic understanding that includes health (including mental health), relational wealth, satisfaction, social cohesion, and so on.

As a Christian, to my mind there are all kinds of things commending this and little against it. Maybe I'm being naïve, but isn't this at least a social conversation worth having?

byron smith said...

Guardian: The lust for novelty and the limits of growth.

glorya said...

excellent. well-written.
I'm glad I read this

byron smith said...

Graham Hill TED: Less stuff, more happiness. Some interesting thoughts here, but he doesn't really challenge the central tenets of stuff-ism, just invites us into a smarter version of it. Rather than celebrating space-saving nesting designer chic-ware, he could be celebrating the possibilities for relationships and time that a smaller footprint/debt brings.

byron smith said...

MWH: The simple living survey.

byron smith said...

John suggests that the language of "plenty" might be useful as it brings together the concepts of both abundance and enough/limits ("you've had plenty").

byron smith said...

Grist: The medium chill. This piece gets some of the way towards the kind of thing I'm trying to articulate.

"Consider: Why do we always remember our childhood friends? Why do so many people look back on college with fondness? Why are so many married couples nostalgic for those hardscrabble early years, with the crappy jobs and tiny apartment and borrowed baby clothes? It’s because, while those environments were materially constrained (we had fewer choices), they yielded powerful relationships. We made the best of what we had, which is an intense psychosocial process that leads to deep bonds and enduring memories.

"On this point, social scientists are all but unanimous: social connections are at the heart of wellbeing. We’re happier, and our happiness is more resilient, when we are woven into a social fabric: when we have a devoted life partner, supportive networks of family and friends, and larger communities of which we are a valued part. Even having a pet helps. The good life is a life rich in relationships.

"Yet millions of Americans [and others!] devote themselves to making more money, buying more stuff, accruing more status, dissolving more constraints, and having more choices, even at the expense of social connections. It’s not making us happier, so why do we do it to ourselves?"

byron smith said...

NYT: Living with less. A lot less.

"we take up more than three times the amount of space per capita than we did 60 years ago."

byron smith said...

Grist: The medium chill. And The medium chill revisited. David Roberts summarises the research that less is more.