Basic Stances — Careful Consumption

We articulated three central tenets of the Low Technology Institute. These are simple concepts but they have profound implications for our everyday lives. Naessi articulated a list of character traits (adapted below) that we hope to cultivate in our society. These are not meant to be rules, but examples of how one might live.

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel EcoGuerrillas.

We should work to avoid consumerism, overconsumption, and superfluous personal property. Each decade, the average American owns more things than ever before. Our houses have been getting bigger to accommodate this increase in possessions. Many kitchens, for example, have a variety of gadgets that perform single tasks. Granted, a food processor, garlic press, pizza slicer, apple corer, banana slicer, and corn-kernel-remover may all perform their tasks admirably, but a single chef’s knife and cutting board can perform the same tasks almost as well. Our closets bulge with clothing, much of which is produced in terrible labor conditions, the main reason why we can have so many clothes so cheaply. We own so many articles of clothing that we get rid of them when fashions change, well before they wear out from use.

Try to maintain and appreciate common items so that everybody’s needs can be met. We have been taught that we live in a world ruled by the maxim “survival of the fittest” (something we will dispute later). One of the things that sets humans apart from other animals is that we have replaced physical competition with cognition. We use weapons to best other animals and humans instead of fighting with our hands and teeth, and we work together to out-think other species and humans. As direct physical competition for resources has declined in the industrial world, we have created other guises to demonstrate our fitness, both physical and social. We use sports and other competitions to showcase our physical prowess. We display our wealth and taste with expensive objects and social behavior. We must, however, get over the idea of besting our fellow beings, and instead focus on encouraging everyone and everything to live up to its potential; this includes people, other animals, and even plants. One way that we can manifest this ideal is by taking only what is truly a fair share. By taking more of a finite resource than you can comfortably consume, you may be depriving someone or something else of what it needs to survive.

One way to reduce our consumption is to avoid “neophilia” (the love of new things) and cherish well-worn items. In a world of abundance, we have had to create scarcity. Each year, hoards of people clamor to exchange their year-old smart phones for the newest model. Fashions change faster than we can wear out our clothing, requiring the purchase of new items to be “in.” Car companies invent new creature comforts that we never knew we needed because basic automobile design hasn’t changed in decades. As children, we learn to ostracize those who are not up to date with the current trends in music, movies, or clothing. Instead of producing goods that last, companies build cheaply and make a second profit when their products require inevitable replacement. Instead of repairing something that is damaged, we throw it out. We must hold up the ideal of having a few, well-built, long-lasting items instead of many cheap, disposable ones. We must reorient our society’s value system to prize the heirloom, avoid the derivative, and still remember that these are just things.

We can also participate in, and cultivate an appreciation of, primary production, such as small-scale agriculture, forestry, and fishing. For a generation or more, most of us in the first world have been divorced from the production of anything we consume. From food and shelter to clothing and transportation, we purchase ready-made products. Even modern farmers do not eat their own produce. We can start small. By cooking meals from scratch, repairing worn-out clothing, or starting a small garden, we are taking a step forward. Sometimes these skill require patience and training, but the benefits will outweigh the costs over time, especially as the system supplying ready-made products collapses.

We must recognize the difference between vital needs and desires. Our society has trained us to shop for fun while ignoring the needs of others. Everybody will be better off when we reduce our sheer number of possessions and favor the old, much-worn, but essentially well-kept things. With the abundance of products and the superabundance of calories available to most people in the first world today, many have become insulated from true want. This is not meant to diminish the tribulations of poor people across the world, but to make the point that people with even moderate wealth simply have to choose how their needs will be met and rarely have to make truly hard choices between necessities. Our society equates consumption with status and this will be a difficult habit to break, but we can chose to do it now or have it done to us later as the world changes around us.

Food is a vital need, but how we fulfill this need must be examined closely. Meat-eating goes back hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years into our shared history. Physiologically, our bodies are well equipped to consume meat. We can, however, be perfectly healthy consuming only plant-based foods. Too often, meat is taken for granted and we do not think about its origins. The high rate of modern meat consumption is not sustainable, as it takes an immense amount of resources to raise, slaughter, preserve, and prepare industrial meat. If you had to raise, kill, butcher, and prepare the meat you ate, would you eat it as often? Or at all? If you are uncomfortable with the thought of killing and eating an animal, perhaps you should consider what you are asking others to do so that you can continue to consume meat, pretending that it appears by magic in the supermarket. The economic and resource costs associated with eating meat will be described in detail in a later post, but in general, we should think carefully about the food we eat, where it comes from, and what sort of externalized costs are associated with its production. The shorter the chain of consumption, the better off every involved organism will be. While meat will always be on some plates, each person must carefully examine his or her diet.

i Naess, Arne. “Deep Ecology and Lifestyle.” In Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, edited by George Sessions, 259–61. Boston: Shambala Publications.

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