December 31, 2009

2009: Our Year of Not Buying Alcohol


Today Linda and I mark one year of not buying anything with alcohol in it. It has been an interesting, and occasionally challenging experiment. Time to raise a glass of apple juice and toast our self-control, not to mention the hundreds of dollars we saved.

I used to enjoy drinking more than I have lately. When I went to university the hot 'n sweaty booze-fests at the Students' Union were a fire-code-busting right of passage. Hoisting a couple with friends on a hot summer day is a pleasant way to pass the time. But is it the booze, or is it the friends?

I think it is more about recovering from work and our fast pace, than having fun. I noticed over the past year that the time I felt most like buying alcohol was when I was working the most. I also felt that this was when I most "deserved" a drink. Driving home after a long, hot day of grounds keeping was the worst - cold beer called, beckoned, promising instant body/mind liquid relaxation. I kept driving.

Still, set a cold beer in front of me and my reflex will be to drool and reach for it. Is it any better than a cold lemonade, or is that just drink industry propaganda? Somehow you are more adult and happening if you drink alcohol. It is strange that part of the reason I started drinking as a teen was to be rebellious, and now, 34 years later, quitting is the rebellious act.

Is it possible to enjoy life without alcohol? Advertisers will tell you that you can't. Is history on their side? Can 10 000 years of beer consumption be wrong? Beer has been around longer than bread. That must count for something.

A WHO report found that in 1998-99 twenty-two percent of Canadians were non-drinkers, including 17.8% of men, and 26.1% of women. Compare this with Egypt at 99.5%, Cambodia at 85%, and India at about 50%. Are all these people having less fun than drinkers? If my past year is any indication, I would have to say no. Drinking non-alcoholic beverages when socializing made things no less special or enjoyable. Decaffeinated coffee, green tea or water sufficed nicely.

A few years ago we quit buying alcohol at the liquor store in order to trim our budget. We started to brew beer and wine at the local U-Brew establishment. It was an educational, enjoyable process, and the product was acceptable to us. It was a fraction of the cost of store-bought beer and wine.

Then around this time last year we discussed not buying any alcohol in 2009, and decided to go for it. We knew it would be a challenge socially - almost everyone we know drinks. Gradually we came to more or less forget all about drinking. Reading about the weekly car accidents in our community due to drinking made it easier to stay away.

According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, in 2004 alcohol was responsible for 4.6 percent of global death and disability, causing 2.5 million deaths, including 320,000 deaths among young people between the ages of 15 and 29.(1, 2) When WHO compared the burden of disease from alcohol, tobacco and 24 other risk factors in 2000, alcohol ranked just below tobacco in its impact on global health and had a greater share of the global burden of disease than unsafe water and sanitation, cholesterol or obesity. http://www.globaldrugpolicy.org/3/3/commentary.php

Will we buy any alcohol next year? No. We have broken our habit. We are not buying the whole "have to drink to have fun" myth perpetuated by advertising. Life is fun without it - we still get silly with the best of them, and no hangover or empty wallet. And if work and life are so busy that you "need" a drink to get you through, I recommend slowing down and working less, not drinking more.

Happy New Year.

December 26, 2009

Private Sector Doesn't Do Affordable, Sustainable Housing


What does a guy have to do to get an affordable, efficient, tiny house around here? Something about the size of the average two car garage, say, 400 to 500 sq. ft. It would be nice to have some space outside for a large garden, a few solar panels, a compost pile, and a bit of nature. Somewhere to escape the crushing burden of rent or mortgage payments and live a simple low-impact life.

I dream of a home that is different from the ubiquitous boxes that cloak our landscape as monuments to the dinosaur of for-profit housing. These McHomes may not be energy efficient, or have room for a garden, or encourage community, but they sure do maximize profits for developers, builders and realtors.

Why is a gargantuan mortgage the only option for securing shelter? Shackling yourself to the Big Banks for 35 to 40 years is not my idea of freedom. What if you don't want a 3000 sq.ft. cookie-cutter house in a prestigious neighbourhood with a front double garage and postage stamp yard? What happened to reasonable sized houses? What is wrong with tiny homes?

Across the land where the average size of new homes is growing (currently about 2500 sq. ft.), you will find it is illegal to build a house smaller than about 15oo sq. ft. Architectural restrictions in your enclave ensure any individuality is banned along with outdoor laundry lines.

We know that monocultures are very susceptible to disruption. Diversity is the key to survival. But you will not find that in your regular development.

No orientation for maximum solar gain, no solar water heaters, no straw bale, no grey water systems, no wind turbines, no tiny homes. No, you are not going to see any alternative, forward-thinking innovations here, because these homes and developments are about one thing, and one thing only - maximum profit.

Don't look for answers from the private sector. They are unwilling to provide affordable housing, and are not concerned with providing solutions to our environmental challenges.

A local developer recently quoted in the Sooke News Mirror said, "the imposition of affordable housing makes our business unsuccessful."

It is time to set aside self-interest and think instead about our survival. Securing shelter, a basic human need, should not make one a slave to the bank for half a lifetime. And those with cash on hand should have more of a choice than the unimaginative, expensive, inefficient wastes of space currently offered.

If the private sector can't, or won't, provide affordable housing, then the government should. If they refuse, then they should let the people organize and support their efforts, because the people CAN provide affordable, sustainable housing when profit is not the number one motivating factor.

All I want is my little hobbit house, in a cooperative community of forward thinking individuals willing to show that housing for all is not just a dream. It is attainable if we stand together and work toward that goal without greed in our hearts.

The imposition of unaffordable, inefficient housing makes us, and our planet, unsuccessful.

December 22, 2009

Frugal Sushi Solstice Celebration


This year we started a new tradition. We celebrated the solstice with a big plate of sushi, crispy sesame crackers, and a hot pot of green tea. 45 pieces of mouth-watering, wasabi-laden, homemade sushi. Perfect for the frugal sushi lover.

Good friends introduced us to the intricacies of preparing this amazing Japanese burrito, and we haven't looked back since. Technically we are making makizushi, which is sushi rice and fillings wrapped in a sheet of nori (dried seaweed).

Because we are making frugal sushi, we do not buy special ingredients. Everything we need is already a basic part of our kitchen except for wasabi. We use ordinary vinegar instead of rice vinegar, short-grain brown rice instead of sushi rice, and ordinary mayonnaise.

Sushi is tasty, creative food art. It is as pleasing to the eye as to the stomach. What goes inside your sushi is only limited by your culinary imagination and what is in your fridge. The fillings we used this time were thinly cut strips of: red pepper, cucumber, green onion, tofu, avocado, imitation crab, and carrots.

We added one teaspoon sugar, a pinch of salt, and a tablespoon of vinegar to 5 cups of sticky rice to make a reasonable sushi rice.

The basic steps to making sushi are:
  1. Make rice ahead of time and allow to cool. You will need about 1 cup of cooked rice per roll.
  2. After rice has cooled add sugar, salt, and vinegar.
  3. Cut fresh ingredients.
  4. Lay nori on sushi mat (or use a cloth napkin).
  5. With wet fingers press thin layer of rice on nori, leaving 2 cm at the top.
  6. Place fillings across bottom of rice, like filling a burrito. Include mayo here.
  7. Use mat or cloth to begin rolling from bottom to top. Press tightly as you roll. Ends remain open.
  8. At the top use your finger to wet the nori and finish rolling to seal shut.
  9. Use a sharp knife to cut roll into individual pieces (6 - 8/roll)
Serve with soy sauce and wasabi on the side in a shallow bowl. Complement with sesame crackers and a pot of green tea.

Working with basic ingredients that you have on hand will result in amazing frugal sushi. Ingredients for a meal for four might cost you 10 dollars, probably less. Have fun creating your own sushi for your own discriminating palette. Share with friends. Celebrate.

Happy Solstice.

December 21, 2009

The Gift of Being Present


The bestseller Remember Be Here Now by Ram Dass was a gift my dad gave my mom Christmas of 1971. I felt like an elementary school beginner hippie/mystic, reading it in our home in Eugene, Oregon. I would get one of my father's ties and wear it as a headband while thumbing through the natural looking brown unbleached pages. Not far away, on campus, U of O students vigorously demonstrated against the Vietnam War, occasionally with small explosive devices.

Ram Dass introduced me to eastern thought early. Coming to fully embrace that "everyone is a manifestation of God and that every moment is of infinite significance" has been a goal since.

Many people spend less than 1% of their time living in the present. Our fast pace and busy minds have us dwelling in memories of the past, or anticipating future events. But the present is where everything is happening. It is where you can be the authentic you and experience life at its fullest, unencumbered by regret or anticipation.

When we observe our thoughts we can see by their content which time frame we are living in. Living fully now is the goal. Always gently bring yourself back to the moment. When washing the dishes, wash the dishes. Being mindful of the moment has many benefits.

Time slows down, and you feel calm. You are sharp, clear, and ready for any scenario. You are open and energetic. As a good friend says, "Life is fun."

There is more. You become less responsive to emotional triggers, and feel in control of yourself. You connect easily with others. Your interactions are meaningful and sincere. You respond to situations in a logical, fair manner. You have confidence. You are you, genuine and unafraid.

First we have to recognize we are trapped. Then we can work on becoming free. When you live in the moment, everything changes.

Remember.

Be here now.

December 16, 2009

A Holiday Meditation on Death


A brief candle; both ends burning
An endless mile; a bus wheel turning
A friend to share the lonesome times
A handshake and a sip of wine
So say it loud and let it ring
We are all a part of everything
The future, present and the past
Fly on proud bird
You're free at last.

Written by Charlie Daniels en route to the funeral for Ronnie Van Zant.

I had a brush with death the other day, and it was scary. Am I prepared for my own death?

The elderly neighbour that lives in the unit above us had been going through chemotherapy for several months. Her last days were a struggle with weakness and blackened, painful fingers.

We were home when her relative came by to do a regular check. The relative discovered that our neighbour had passed on. Her little dog was at her side. The relative was overcome with an immediate wave of shock and grief. She sobbed the woman's, and the dog's, names over and over.

Later, I thought of my death. I looked at Linda and imagined life without her after 22 years of being best friends. I thought of my friend who is dealing with the loss of his dog Willy. A couple nights later we watched Marley and Me. Everything we hold and love and cherish will be taken away.

I was forced to consider non-attachment, and how difficult it is in a world full of material possibilities and instant gratification.

The Dalai Lama recommends meditating on death for a short while every day. This prepares us for the inevitable, and helps us to be mindful in the joy of life.

My neighbour's death was a powerful reminder of the fate that awaits us all. Her passing has reminded me to squeeze the bubbles of the past and the future into the bubble of the present, and enjoy the magic moment we are existing in. All we have is the here and now, and each moment is a precious jewel.

I am going to enjoy as many of them as possible. I want to come to terms with death so I can live. Life is uncertain - do not hesitate.

While making your living, don't forget to live.

December 11, 2009

Are Conspicuous Consumers The Next Smokers?


At one time an individual's choice to smoke in public was based on purely personal considerations. Either you felt like having a smoke or not. Not so much any more. Taking into consideration the greater effects of public smoking, many jurisdictions have created laws restricting it. Attitudes are changing, and it is considered socially unacceptable to light up indiscriminately in public. Is conspicuous consumption next on the list?

The unintended effects of one billion people consuming 35 times more everything than the rest of the planet are monumental. We are living in the second hand smoke of our smoldering scorched earth lifestyles. We are destroying everything the enemy can use, and the enemy seems to be the very planet itself.

Not only do we see that there ARE limits to what nature can provide us, but we are nearing some of those limits. We are witnessing the limits of atmosphere and ocean, forest and farmland, flora and fauna. On a finite planet with an ever-increasing population, I can only see this going one way, and it is not a vision of excess.

There are current examples of consumption laws. Some are health related such as restrictions on consuming cigarettes in public, while others deal with resource depletion such as rationing water in a drought. My own community has water rationing every summer during the dry season and it is the main limiting factor in the development of this area.

Fines are associated with breaking consumption laws, and when we opt to hit people in the pocketbook you know we mean business. Society reminds us in this way that our decisions are no longer bound by purely personal whims, and the greater good will be preserved. Such "extreme measures" become ingrained in our lives and before long we adapt, and perhaps even wonder how things could have been the way they were previously. It is what happens when you choose to live with less - you wonder what all that stuff you used to have was for. You don't miss it. You welcome the empty space it has left behind.

According to the law of diminishing utility increasing consumption does not translate into increased happiness past a certain critical point. It is possible that the less we consume, the happier we will become. Will we need further laws to help us overcome the initial fear as we move toward a sustainable existence?

Our current high-consumption lifestyle is leading to obesity, chronic stress, climate change, and a widening gap between rich and poor. Are we going to limit our own self-destructive behaviour, or will we need to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing? It's not just personal anymore. We all share the same planet.

December 9, 2009

Tis The Season For Hibernation


Living simply allows me to live at my own pace. Cast out the clocks and calenders and experience rubber time - a bendy and flexible way of living that allows you to ebb and flow with personal and seasonal cycles. Circadian rhythms. Sunrise, sunset. Tide coming in, going out. Moon phases. Length of day.

We are just a few days shy of winter solstice. It is prime hibernation season, a time of introspection. Temperatures are plummeting, and we are retreating to our caves to rest and look within. It is time to regenerate as we move from the frenetic pace and growth of summer into a recovery/assessment phase. Now is a good time to treat yourself. Do less, rest more. Conserve energy. Ask yourself, "How am I doing? Am I achieving my special purpose? Am I becoming a better person?"

The Sun is getting thin and lethargic, and so are you. By 4:20pm it has disappeared completely. Plunged into the cold dark of the winter night we naturally seek shelter and rich foods. A hot bowl of soup, warm fresh bread, and a friend to keep you warm.

It is essential to let yourself slow down and think any time, but especially now. Where are we all going? What is the overall plan, and are we manifesting it effectively? Are we improving life on Earth? These are things I can think about as I rest and recover.

Then it is time to just stop. The puffy warmth of that 30 cm thick down comforter never looked so good. A good nap or solid nights rest is wholesome, healthful, and mother nature-approved.

The simple life provides time to rest, assess, and recharge so that come spring we are ready to cash in on the fecundity of nature and our own creativity while the cycle continues.

Good night. It is time to channel my inner bear. Zzzzzz...

December 3, 2009

10 Steps Toward Mindful Consumption


"Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming." - Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Buddhist monk

Unmindful consumption has created many problems. Even if I don't consume a lot, I am still consuming. All of my purchases have repercussions throughout the supply chain. Are my hands clean? How can I become a more mindful consumer?

We are questioning our purchasing habits. As we become aware of the externalities involved in the things we buy, we can choose products and companies that cultivate personal, environmental and social well-being.

The following are 10 tips I use to become more mindful in my consumption habits:
  1. Don't panic. Many purchases are unplanned and based on emotions. Pause. Think. Then buy, or not. Often by the end of a waiting period we have ceased to desire the item altogether.
  2. Beware of emotional foreplay. Don't be seduced by consumer culture advertising/programming that appeals to lower brain functions and promotes reflexive behaviours. Beware of PPD (premature purchase disorder).
  3. Do research to increase awareness. Consumers can increasingly access information that will assist in making ethical purchasing decisions. Webs sites such as GoodGuide, SkinDeep, and EnvironmentalHealthNews offer a wealth of information for the concerned consumer. Also, check labels on products to find information such as point of origin, potentially dangerous ingredients such as unhealthy fats, high fructose corn syrup, MSG, diacetyl, suspected carcinogens etc.
  4. Support Fair Trade and Organic Certified products. Fair trade products promote equity and well-being throughout the system by helping consumers make ethical choices. Entire cities are designating themselves fair trade zones.
  5. Be aware of the lifespan of products. 90% of a laptop computer's impact is when it is made and disposed of. Vinyl shower curtains off-gas in landfills for decades. Plan for the entire life cycle of things you buy.
  6. Choose non-toxic alternatives. If there are aren't any, ask why.
  7. Buy local. If there is a local, healthy alternative, support your community.
  8. Plan ahead and make a list. Know what you need and limit yourself to those things.
  9. Buy quality and make things last. With proper use and maintenance quality products can be made to last, reducing the overall price per use while saving resources.
  10. Question your desires and promote good health when desires are met. Being aware of what motivates your consumption habits will make you more mindful when making purchases. You will be doing the least amount of harm possible, and that in itself promotes personal health.

November 25, 2009

Buy Nothing Day... Week... Month


Some people think that we can shop our way out of the ecological corner we have jammed ourselves into. I am not one of them. Therefore, groups that are helping curb consumption get my attention. Adbusters is one such group.

Based out of Vancouver, B.C., Canada, Adbusters is a "global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society." Through their website, magazine, and organized activism, Adbusters questions, investigates, and reports on existing power structures and the way we do things on our shopping mad planet.

For a couple of decades they have been promoting Buy Nothing Day, a day when we are asked to question our purchasing decisions by making a conscious effort to spend no money. That is not as easy as it may sound. For 2009 the Buy Nothing Day organizers are proposing the following:
This November 27 (November 28 in Europe and overseas), we’re calling for a Wildcat General Strike. We’re asking tens of millions of people around the world to bring the capitalist consumption machine to a grinding – if only momentary – halt.
We want you to not only stop buying for 24 hours, but to shut off your lights, televisions and other nonessential appliances. We want you to park your car, turn off your phones and log off of your computer for the day.
We’re calling for a Ramadan-like fast. From sunrise to sunset we’ll abstain en masse, not only from holiday shopping, but from all the temptations of our five-planet lifestyles.
They are definitely banging that Ramadan drum hard, and like the drum, it is a wake up call. What might a Buy Nothing Day look like? A bit of activism, perhaps, mixed with:
  • sleeping in
  • focusing on local rather than global
  • taking a walk
  • playing board games/cards/dice
  • getting creative with music and art
  • running and playing (ask a kid - they know how to do this)
  • listening to each other
  • channeling your inner Gandhi
  • flying a kite (after making a kite)
  • going on a cycling adventure
  • testing your emergency preparedness plan
  • sitting under a tree/on the beach/in the park
  • snuggling with someone
  • doing nothing (you could make it a Do Nothing Day)
When we try new things doors of possibility are opened. Anything could happen. Buy Nothing Day could begin to transform us from consumers into something completely new. It could transform us into global citizens where, as American philosopher Thomas Paine said, our country is the world and our religion is to do good.

Give not buying anything a try this Friday. You might like it. You might like it a lot. Who knows - you might be moved to try a Buy Nothing Holiday Season this year. We're here if you need support with the withdrawal symptoms.

November 16, 2009

Natural vs. Artificial Desires And Wealth


In responding to a comment on my last post, found here, I realized that the length of my response was getting a tad unwieldy. I decided to post the comment and my response here in order to share it with a larger audience, and perhaps illicit further comments on this topic. The comment was in response to Evolving Past Narrow Definitions of Wealth:
Why would someone have to not want something to be wealthy? It is a natural drive of human beings to want, to know they can get and achieve. Real wealth is seeing something, knowing you can have it and then freely deciding whether you want it or not. It's the ability to choose. That is freedom, when a person knows they can have, but is free to choose not to have, rather than being forced not to have or thinking there is something to gain from self-denial. I agree that it is unfortunate the our society has evolved into the perception of a person's wealth as their possessions. That is a game that individuals can choose to play or not to play. The way to not be effected by it is to realize one's self worth and develop one's confidence... from there they can freely choose to possess or not to possess.
I thank Shannon for her thought-provoking comment, which represents a "be careful what you wish for" moment for me. Like most in the blogosphere, I enjoy reader comments and want to encourage them. And then you get a comment and it is, "Argghh, this person is making...me...think." It is challenging work representing. But if you can't pull it off, it is time for a change. Here is my attempt to do this comment justice:

Being forced to do something is not good, you are right. However, some self-denial can be a powerful character builder - it is why we send kids to rustic summer camps. It is why we feel good when we can go a day without spending money. One can get carried away, however. Self-flagellation, for example (literally or figuratively).

I know from personal experience that the more I choose to unburden myself from things and endless entertainment, the healthier I feel. With fewer distractions I am more able to cultivate the conditions that add to my inner wealth. Thomas Aquinas made a distinction between natural and artificial wealth.

Natural wealth results from the fulfillment of natural desires. Such desires are common to all of humanity: the desire for food, shelter, love, community, freedom, etc. Fulfilling these adds to our sense of contentment. Not fulfilling such desires has a detrimental impact. We need natural wealth.

Aquinas said, "...artificial wealth is that which is not a direct help to nature, as money, but is invented by the art of man, for the convenience of exchange, and as a measure of things salable." The desire for artificial wealth is a result of cultural conditioning. Such desires vary from person to person, and culture to culture. Not meeting them will not harm you, and yet it is possible that meeting them may yield harm to yourself, those around you, and the planet.

Presently we have a preoccupation with our infinite artificial desires, the attainment of which defines our wealth, as well as our place, and perceived value in society. We can meet all of humanities natural desires, but not its artificial ones. As Gandhi said, "There is enough to meet every one's need, but not every one's greed." We can not all possess everything, but we can all feel good about ourselves as we boldly and freely explore the magic of life. Such natural wealth is freely exchanged, and all benefit.

Attaining natural wealth leads us to experience enduring personal health and well-being. We all desire love, security, and adequate food, shelter, and clothing. It is also natural to desire a sense of self-worth and belonging, as well as a feeling of achievement. When we reduce our desires for fleeting artificial wealth we can concentrate on attaining the enduring natural type Aquinas speaks of. He also warns that even natural wealth is simply a means to an end.

November 15, 2009

Evolving Past Narrow Definitions of Wealth


We usually define wealth by how much money a person has, or by what possessions they own. William Henry Channing (1810-1884), American clergyman, writer, philosopher, and early supporter of the socialist movement, described his alternative view of wealth in "Symphony":

To live content with small means;
to seek elegance rather than luxury,
and refinement rather than fashion;
to be worthy, not respectable,
and wealthy, not rich;
to listen to stars and birds, babes
and sages, with open heart;
to study hard;
to think quietly, act frankly,
talk gently, await occasions,
hurry never;
in a word, to let the spiritual,
unbidden and unconscious,
grow up through the common--
this is my symphony.

This affirms my belief that wealth is not what you have and what you can get, rather it is what you can live without. Real freedom lies not in desiring things and experiences, and having the riches to get them. Rather, it is in not desiring them in the first place.

Real wealth is what each of us carries inside. It is obscured by desiring things in the material world that only provide temporary, hollow relief to our ongoing inner struggle. Contentment brings peace and a calm, unhurried state; a secure feeling of having enough. Since consumerism is based on cultivating unending need and desire, contentment provides a vaccination against it.

Those who experience contentment, balance, and inner peace have true wealth.

Our money, stuff, and pace of life are preventing us from realizing this wealth. But we can sacrifice our negative habits and addictions to the forces of evolution that are constantly urging us to grow beyond our current incarnation. We can give up the distractions in our lives. We don't need them.

There is poverty in desire and riches. We are waking up to the wealth of contentment and enough, and we are evolving together. W. H. Channing said,
"The highest products of human achievement, such as language, law, civilization, religion, and ethical development, are the results of social growth, and not of individual attainment."
Real wealth accumulation, like evolution, is a cooperative activity; we are all on the same team.

November 13, 2009

The Fear And Panic of Not Having Enough

Look out folks, Extreme Shopping Season (E.S.S.) is about to begin. Black Friday refers to the first Friday after Thanksgiving, and marks the beginning of the retail Christmas season. The term also has origins in that many businesses will begin to turn a profit around this time, and thus are in the black. With all the advertising pumping us up, it is hard not to feel excited. Or is that fear and panic I feel?

Retailers use this time of year to launch major sales, often using deep discounts to lure in shoppers with money to burn, or at least credit cards to melt. Stores often open early, and encourage consumers to line up hours before to build anticipation (fear and panic). Frequently, people are hurt. Occasionally, people are smothered in a chaotic stuffalanche of consumers, shopping lists, and merchandise.

Last year during the E.S.S. event there were both injuries and deaths at retail centers as a result of frantic shoppers lusting for cheaper things. A WallMart greeter in New York was crushed to death when a mob of shoppers broke through the glass doors before the store's scheduled opening at 5:00 am. A pregnant woman in the same incident was injured. Many more minor injuries occur every year while shoppers struggle over rapidly diminishing stacks of popular toys or gadgets of the moment.

Consumer psychologist, Professor Joe Priester of the University of Southern California, commenting on the situation said, "I think it ties into a sort of fear and panic of not having enough."

Enough what? And when do we have enough of whatever it is? When can we stop?

Most of the shopping done during the next few months will be for things no one needs. Things that will break down on cue thanks to planned obsolescence. Things that will generate enormous waste. Things that will create social and environmental harm. But, the corporate world has convinced us that their products will soothe our basic feelings of fear and panic of not having enough, and please don't think about the consequences. Cash or credit?

To help increase your security further, advertisers have infiltrated your favorite social networking sites. They want to make sure you have enough of whatever they sell.

Dan de Grandpre, editor-in-chief of dealnews.com, said retailers are smart to use social networking sites because shoppers probably will stick around as followers of the company even after the sale.

"Twitter and Facebook are now major ways to disseminate information," Grandpre said.

One in five shoppers plans to use the sites in their holiday shopping this season, according to Deloitte Research.

And the fun won't end Nov. 27, traditionally seen as the day that the holiday shopping season launches.

After that, an iPhone application from dealnews.com that now tracks Black Friday deals, for instance, will show sales for the following Monday, now known as Cyber Monday because it's the first weekday after the Thanksgiving weekend and many consumers shop from their desks that day. http://www.newsday.com/business/holiday-shopping-notebook-holiday-tweets-1.1584374

I guess I will have to finally give in and join Facebook so I can follow some companies, get in on the fun, and save money on their distractions, and distractions from distraction. On the other hand, with recent economic events perhaps now is a good time to re-evaluate the whole consume-or-die way of life that has pushed us to the brink and made 1% of our population disgustingly rich, while over 1 billion of our human family goes to bed hungry every night.

I look forward to "Buy Nothing Day" on November 27, 2009, although here at Not Buying Anything we try to make every day a buy nothing day. I am prepared to miss the "fun" of fear and panic. I am not afraid. I have enough.

November 7, 2009

A Consumaholic 12 Step Program


What is the most difficult addiction to kick? Some say heroin. Cigarette smokers will tell you nicotine is the hardest to beat. Will our consumaholic tendencies be more difficult to recover from than both of these? Our sickness is leading to obesity, cancer, and depression. The planet is the enabler and it, too, is suffering. We need help, and quick. The situation requires a speedy shift in mass behaviour. We need to kick the habit.

We all consume in order to survive. Over the past few decades we have become addicted to over- consuming. We make our purchases not to survive, but to satisfy other less visible and rational needs. We need a program to get us back on the healthful path of sustainability, limits, and contentment.

If someone is addicted to a drug you don't tell them they are harming themselves and their family so, "JUST QUIT!" The problem is bigger than that, and 12 step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous reflect this fact.

An addiction-afflicted individual may require a program and a supportive community to assist in recovery. Consumaholism is a sickness. It is larger than any individual person. It will take time to recover from past mistakes. We need to be understanding and supportive of one another. Along this vein, I adapted the 12 step program to see how it might apply to our addiction to over-consumption.

A 12 Step Program for Consumaholism
  • Step 1 - Admit we are powerless over our addiction to consumption - that our lives have become unmanageable
  • Step 2 - Believe that Nature, a power greater than ourselves, can restore us to sanity
  • Step 3 - Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of the Earth as we understand the Earth
  • Step 4 - Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, and our stuff
  • Step 5 - Admit to the Earth, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
  • Step 6 - Be entirely ready to have Nature remove all these defects of character
  • Step 7 - Humbly asked Nature to remove our shortcomings
  • Step 8 - Make a list of all persons, other life forms and natural systems we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all
  • Step 9 - Make direct amends to such people, life forms and natural systems wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
  • Step 10 - Continue to take personal inventory and when we are wrong promptly admit it
  • Step 11 - Seek through thought and meditation to improve our conscious contact with the Earth as we understand the Earth, asking only for knowledge of Nature's will for us and the power to carry that out
  • Step 12 - Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we carry this message to other consumaholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs
We have been mass mainlining consumerism for several decades, but we can, and will get better. I am hopeful that we will recover from our addiction to things, and the work that supports the continuance of our disease. I look forward to the coming cultural shifts that will sustain our recovery and return to healthful, balanced relationships with our planet and each other.

November 4, 2009

Low Carbon Travel: Slower, Not As Far, Less Often


It seems like all the good stuff is somewhere else. It makes a guy want to pack a bag, fire up the tricycle and hit the open road. On the other hand, what is up with this obsession with anywhere other than where we are at? The exotic is always advertised as someplace else, and there are plenty of businesses ready to whisk you there for an extremely low price (plus taxes, fees, and additional levies). Is all this travel to learn about other cultures and make the world a better place, or is it just to help us keep boredom at bay and make ourselves feel 'successful'? Life changing events, or distracting ego strokage?

Regardless of why we do it, there is an environmental cost to all this moving from here to there with near-instant efficiency. In addition to climate change, we are at, or close to, peak oil meaning the end of cheap energy. Remember how you felt filling up at the pumps when crude was at $147/barrel? How attractive was the cross-country voyage in the RV then? We are destined to see those days again.
It will be a huge challenge for the world to adapt to such rapidly declining fuel supplies. So from a probabilistic standpoint, there is no arguing with the actual oil production statistics, they show that it's happening -- it's real and it's happening now. http://energybulletin.net/50578
Low carbon travel is a reality that we currently face. Get ready for the slow road to somewhere close, serviced of course by slow food restaurants.
Given that fuel efficiency decreases markedly with higher speeds, an enforced 60mph speed limit on motorways could save around 1.9 MtC a year. Even enforcement of current limits could achieve significant reductions in emissions. In France, in 2004, strict enforcement on main motorways reduced CO2 emissions by 19% as well as cutting crashes by 30%. http://www.sustrans.org.uk/about-sustrans
We will either find alternative energy sources, dramatically improve the efficiency of our modes of transportation, or do without. Since we are not getting very far finding viable energy alternatives any time soon, and our vehicles are still only about as efficient as Henry Ford's Model T, it's looking more and more like we will be doing without.

For the past five years I have been limiting my travels to local areas that I can access by walking, riding, or paddling my canoe. It gives me great pleasure to execute a local carbon-free adventure. I live in a rural area known for its scenery, but I can honestly say that I have never lived in a place that did not have its own gifts.

When I lived in the city parks provided much-needed breaks from the built environment surrounding me. Even in cities nature finds a way. Office towers in many cities across North America host peregrine falcons. In many cities one could bike downtown to view one of the fastest creatures on earth hunting in the concrete corridors. Empty lots and fields are reclaimed by pioneering species attracting wildlife to seek shelter in them. Many cities have developed areas that are beautiful in their own right. Chances are there are tourists from afar checking your city out. Why not be a tourist in your own town?

Phillip Croft, a west coast naturalist, highlights the joys of his own West Vancouver neighbourhood in his "Nature Diary Of A Quiet Pedestrian". This amazing book chronicles Croft's 25 year ritual of a daily walk from his home, through a wooded park, and to the beach. He takes the reader through the seasons with wit, keen observations, and his own watercolour illustrations. It is a wonderful example of someone recognizing the exotic in his own back yard.

Due to a variety of ailments globalism is crashing, and it is taking speedy global travel with it. Flying aluminium sausages are out, 6 month trips around the Horn of Africa on a creaky sailing ship are in. Road trips in a personal internal combustion vehicle are out, road trips on your bike are in.

Travel to 'exotic' foreign lands, or even the next province or state, is changing, and for good reasons. People are traveling slower, not as far, and less often. Local is the way of the future, and eventually we will discover that what we are looking for can be found wherever we are. Learning about ourselves, our neighbours, and our own locality may be the biggest, most beneficial low carbon trip of them all.

October 31, 2009

Thrift Shop Zombie Horror Story




Teaching elementary school provided a fun venue for dressing up for Halloween. The year after I dressed as the Mathemagician from Norton Juster's "Phantom Tollbooth", I decided to go less academic and more... horror. I went to a local thrift shop and picked up an old suit for a few dollars. I never gave a thought to its former owner, and looked forward to getting it home and zombificating it.

Once home I attacked the suit with scissors and knife, greasy sticks of makeup, dirt, lipstick, and strategic rips, shreds and tears. On Halloween day I put the shredded, disfigured suit on. I rubbed makeup on all exposed skin and in my hair. I blackened a tooth or two. Mr. Zombie was ready to go to school.

At my small school there was a Halloween Parade in which all grades stood in the long hallway and did a walk through to share and view all the costumes. Mr. Zombie must have been convincing because some of the kindergarten and grade one kids either bumped each other trying to get by me, or started crying. I also noticed one of the staff giving me a scrutinizing glance.

At lunch time in the staff room the woman that gave me the inquiring look during the parade sat next to me. All the staff were streaming in and many were commenting on my ghoulish getup, and whether or not I made their students cry. Everyone laughed when I told them that it was the first suit I had ever bought.

Mrs. Q. said, "I could have given you a three piece suit. I just donated all my late husbands clothes to charity."

I told her I picked up the suit at Value Village, a local thrift shop.

She reached over and looked at the inside of the jacket. Distinguishing marks allowed her to identify it.

"My husband got married in that suit," she stated.

We didn't know if we should gasp in horror, or laugh at the transient nature of life, and our possessions. Since she had already released her husbands clothing to the thriftosphere she had come to terms with this difficult process. She enjoyed the fact that I could use the suit to provide entertainment for all the kids, and appreciated it's theatrical value.

Mr. Zombie went on, with Mrs. Q's endorsement to entertain trick-or-treaters later that night. We have never given out less treats because all the short, early crowd ran away as soon as I opened the door and they saw me. Unless they stood at the base of my steps petrified and crying. It scared me.

Enjoy Halloween and your thrift shop costumes.

October 26, 2009

What Will The Post-Consumer Future Look Like?


A recent thought-provoking comment from a reader provided the opportunity for the following post in which I would like to tap into the wisdom of all those who pass by this humble blog. The comment was in response to my recent post on desires, consumer culture, and advertising. What will happen if many of us decide to not buy anything? What if it becomes a way of life, not just a temporary setback before resuming borrowing and spending? What will a post-consumer culture look like?

During the last two decades, the percentage of the U.S. economy devoted to consumer spending went up and up and up - from 67% of GDP to 72%, a huge increase.
http://www.dailyreckoning.com.au/us-economy-devoted-to-consumer-spending/2008/07/31/

We can't all not buy anything and expect our world to remain the same. But you know the trend has begun when economists like David Rosenberg are talking about a "new frugality" cutting into consumer spending.
Now, with credit tight, wages flat-lining and unemployment steadily ticking higher, consumers are strapped. Personal spending in the second quarter was $195 billion below the figure for the same period last year. That 1.9% drop is significant — over the 20 years that ended in 2006, consumer spending reliably increased at an annual 3.3% rate.
http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/2009-10-11-consumer-spending_N.htm?csp=34
We are cutting back and thinking twice about our discretionary spending. Many of us are deciding not to buy anything, or at least not as much as before. We are re-evaluating our role as consumers. The Jones' have left the neighborhood, and we ain't lookin' over the fence any more.

And now, to the comment:
This has been on my mind for some time now as well. My current financial situation has created a huge obstacle in my old habits of consumerism. My families survival needs are met, and we have found contentment within our purchasing restraints.

I find myself wondering what it is that I would actually want, if I had extra money to go around? At the same time, however, I wonder what would happen to all the billions of people on this planet if even just 5% decided that they no longer desired material objects.

How many jobs would be lost? What would people do to earn an income if they weren't needed in jobs that support consumerism? How would science advance? What would drive our economy so that we could still share resources and knowledge if the motivation of earning an income was extinguished?

I believe that there are major philosophical and political issues/implications that would arise as a result of millions of people changing thier outlook on capitalism. I am personally not a fan, but I wonder if some people would even know what to do with themselves if they didn't want to work to buy stuff, or go to the bar afterwards. And finally, how could this effect you or I in the long term?
Thank you to Pzeffan for his comment. I would like to do a bit of future visioning of my own.

The murky view in my crystal ball reveals that cooperatives will be a larger part of the solution in the future. The cooperative movement began in Europe in the 19th century in response to rapid industrialization. There are thriving housing cooperatives around the world. I lived in one quite contentedly for a decade. There are also retail cooperatives like MEC in Canada, and REI in the U.S. Worker cooperatives in developing nations are realizing great success. In these endeavours all members benefit, not just a small elite at the top. The membership shares in control of the venture, and in the benefits that flow from it.

I see a frugal future where we humbly come together in communities in order to help support one another, and realize the benefits of our cooperative efforts. It is already happening, with about 800 million members globally participating in the cooperative movement.

The current crisis of greed yields an opportunity to try a different model, and a better way of life. My vision sees the dark, polluted fumes of excess and luxury clearing, and a brighter, more cooperative future for all just over the horizon.

What do you see in the post-consumer future? How will we overcome the challenges inherent in the continuing shift toward a less individual, competitive, materialistic culture?

October 23, 2009

Bake Your Own Local Loaves


Baking your own daily bread is something you can do with a minimum of equipment, ingredients and knowledge. Doing so will improve your diet, and your life. It a wondrous tactile experience making it, and an odoriferous delight baking it. Kneading a warm blob of dough for 5 meditative minutes is the antidote for a busy world, and fresh loaves on the counter are better than dollars in the bank.

No wonder 'dough' and 'bread' have been slang for money. Bread's importance as a food staple over thousands of years makes a comparison with cash warranted. It is as important a part of our diet today as it ever was, and is referred to as 'the staff of life' for good reasons.

This staff sustained millions of poor through the Middle Ages, caused riots and uprisings, and has been mentioned repeatedly in writings across the ages. Having our daily bread means we are able to work on improving ourselves and the world around us. Without our 'bread' we are reduced to survival. Providing this basic food source for yourself and your family has the potential to be a powerfully satisfying activity.

Baking your own bread fits with the trend toward eating as locally as possible. If you are lucky enough to have a nearby source of wheat your baking becomes a sustainable activity that will eliminate problems associated with buying industrial bread transported from away.

Seven years ago I decided to try my hand at baking bread. I was not satisfied with dollar per loaf bread, and the more substantial loaves I liked were expensive. They also had ingredients I would never add myself, such as glucose-fructose, calcium propionate, diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, vegetable monoglycerides, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, and the list goes on, and on, and on.

Some of the additives used in industrial bakeries allow a faster baking time and the use of lower grade flours. Other additives make sure the bread does not go bad during shipping. It won't do that until you buy it and take it home. I bought my first 10kg (20lb) bag of flour, and started channelling my grandmother's legendary baking skills.

When I was a child, my grandparent's visits were anticipated for a variety of reasons. Prime among them was that a visit meant shortly after arrival, our kitchen would be covered from top to bottom with a bounty of baked goods. Grandma would whip into our kitchen and take over. She assembled equipment and managed ingredients with military precision. "She doesn't even need any recipes," I marveled as I looked on through a flurry of flour and activity.

I watched her pummel large heaps of dough. It looked like the folds of skin that swung gently from her strong arms, in time with her kneading. She may of been attacking the dough with vigor, but her demeanor was calm, and she hummed quietly to herself as she worked and created her magic. She was content and relaxed, and smiled a little smile. It was cold outside. The kitchen was warm.

Before long baking odors would be eliciting generous amounts of drool in little mouths. Our eyes would be as big as plates as we viewed the sugar-encrusted donuts, bread, dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls, cakes and pies scattered over every available surface. Twisted donut creations, the name and recipe of which grandma may have taken to the big bakery in the sky when she 'rose' to that lofty position, were family favourites. My personal preference was the bread, though. Puffy, golden crust, white, moist crumb (the inside bits). Before long a loaf would be sliced open, steamy, yeasty, and fresh. We would mix butter and honey in equal parts and spread that on the still warm slices.

I have since learned that the basics of bread making are easy to learn. Flatbreads, like chapati or tortillas, are simply flour and water. You may already make pancakes, another of my favourite bread products. Add a bit of yeast, oil, sugar, salt, and water to flour and you can make beautiful, basic loaves. A slightly different mix, a few tablespoons of olive oil and you have an amazing pizza crust. Pita bread, raisin bread, cinnamon rolls, biscuits, burger buns... Once the basics are learned anything is possible. With wholesome ingredients you can't go wrong.

I have not had a failure in seven years. I have had a few projects that needed to be re-branded, though. For example, a heavy bread that didn't rise as much as anticipated became 'bagel bread'. Tasted great. After a few times you can begin to play and add your own creative touches. It is easy to feel child-like with your hands deep in dough.

Kids love baking bread, and since it is very straight forward activity, they can participate fully. There is the promise of a yummy food at the end, plus the rewards of doing it yourself. This promise holds whether you are a kid, or a kid at heart.

Does baking your own bread save money? Short answer - yes. I have not done a detailed accounting because I firmly believe that time spent baking is not deducted from your lifetime total. It may even prolong your lifespan, and that is just for the baking part. If you are baking whole wheat bread there are added benefits in the eating. The fiber is like a roto-rooter for you digestive tract, and healthy inside means healthy outside.

The following lists everything I made with one of my recent bags of flour (10kg):
  • 13 loaves bread
  • 24 green onion cakes
  • 38 tortillas
  • 36 pancakes
  • 36 spice cookies
  • 2 pizza crusts
  • 1 chocolate cake
  • 12 chapatis
  • 13 samosas
A quick and rough estimate of how much it would cost to purchase these products pre-made came to about $170.00 dollars.

Before the global economic crisis a bag of flour cost me about $5.00 dollars. During food riot time that same bag was $12.00. That was about a year ago, and for some reason the baking area of my grocery store often looked like there had been a riot just before I got there. I grabbed my flour and ran. Things appear to have settled down since then and now a bag of whole wheat flour is about $6.00 and I can walk to the till. But even at the most expensive, it still looks to me like a bargain. And you can't put a price on the enjoyment of manipulating ingredients to create a staple, wholesome, life-sustaining food such as your daily bread.




My basic whole wheat bread recipe (makes 3 loaves):

3 cups lukewarm water 750ml
1 tsp sugar 5 ml
2 tbsp dry yeast 25ml
1/2 cup vegetable oil 125ml
1/2 cup sugar 125ml
1 tbsp salt 15ml
9 cups whole wheat flour

  1. In a mixing bowl pour in 1 cup lukewarm water; sprinkle with 1 tsp sugar and the yeast. Let proof for 10 minutes in a warm place.
  2. Whisk in the remaining water, oil, sugar and salt. Stir in flour 1/2 cup at a time to make a stiff dough.
  3. Knead for 4 or 5 minutes or until smooth, satiny, elastic and bounces back when pressed lightly with a finger. Consistency of an earlobe.
  4. Wipe bowl lightly with oil, drop in dough and turn to coat. Cover with a cloth and allow to rise in warm location (oven with light on works well) till doubled, 1-1 1/2 hours.
  5. Punch dough down, divide into three, and shape into loaves. Put loaves in lightly greased pans, cover, and return to oven for another hour.
  6. Remove loaves, keep covered, and pre-heat oven to 400 F. (200 C). Put bread in for 15 minutes at 400, then 15 more minutes at 375. Remove and turn loaves out on to counter/cooling rack.
  7. Pat self on back. Wait for loaves to cool a bit, then slice and enjoy.
All in all I spend about 20 minutes from start to first dough rising. Punching down, forming loaves, greasing pans and back in oven for second rising takes about another 20 minutes. By this point the bulk of work is done. After the second rising all that is left is the baking, the cooling, and the eating. Clean up is wiping the bread pans lightly with a damp, warm cloth, letting them dry and putting them away.

Good luck, and have fun. May you find enjoyment in the meditative pace that a day of baking provides. Learn with your kids. What a wonderful skill to pass on to them. Eat better, and reduce your impact at the same time. Learn to bake your own daily bread. Your ancestors did it. You can do it.

October 17, 2009

Extreme Frugal Living: The Ultimate Household Budget

Most people hate budgeting. It forces us to limit ourselves and we have been programmed to believe and act as if everything exists in infinite abundance, and we ought to have it now, if not sooner.  But look at where that has gotten us.

I propose a very simple, easy to implement budget.

The Ultimate Household Budget has two categories:

  1. What you need to survive, and
  2. Everything else.

Category 1 consists of the basics, things every human ought to have. Healthy food, safe, secure, affordable shelter, clothing adequate for the climate, clean drinking water, systems to deal with waste, and access to learning experiences.

Without these basics, many die every day. Every human ought to have them, and in a sane world every one would. If you have them, you are doing better than about one billion people on the planet.

Category 2 consists of extras. Wants. Desires. Luxury. Extra. Expendable. Can live without. Contrary to popular belief, we will not die without the things in this category.

This budget has one step: give up everything in category 2.

Don't worry. You can start slowly. You can take months or years, if you have that luxury. But category 2 spending has to go if you have a shortage of cash, or wish to help the ailing planet. Everything you take out of category 2 helps you get out of debt, and stay out of debt, if that is your goal.

And it lowers your ecological footprint dramatically.

But won't it be boring? How can I live without (fill in the blank)? Humans are amazingly adaptable creatures. "Have much, be confused," Lao Tzu said, and if he is correct, then having less is the way to go. Couldn't we all benefit from less confusion in our lives?

Is eliminating all category 2 spending unrealistic for you? Start by taking one thing off your list. Then remove a couple more items. When you realize you don't miss them, you will be motivated to cut more. Give the ultimate household budget and extreme frugal living a try. You will be amazed at what you can live happily without. Good luck.

October 5, 2009

Capitalism: I Tried It, I'm Just Not Good At It


When still in high school I entered the dark world of capitalism. It was my first foray into using money to make more money, rather than using my labour or ideas. I was a lazy teenager, and I had great expectations for this road to riches. Extreme wealth was inevitable. Why not? The capitalist system had been making individuals wealthy since the Middle ages.

For my initial business investment of $750.00 I reaped exactly nothing in profit. Never mind profit, I could not even get my initial investment back. After waiting several long, disappointing days, I swung a new deal. In the end I settled for a car that I hoped was worth at least the money I was owed.

The car was a well-used 1969 Mustang coupe with faded paint and a motor that sounded like a tractor. Dreams of a lucrative business venture quashed, I began to make lemonade out of my lemon. I drove the Mustang for thirteen years, then sold it for $750. I had salvaged something from my first attempt at commerce, and learned that the world of business was strictly survival of the fittest. Wealth would have to wait.



My saddest exploration of the underbelly of greed and wealth accumulation occurred when I brushed up against a millionaire in my home town. He was known to my family and was a respected man about town and at church. Mr. Money had a huge house complete with indoor swimming pool. Surely he would take me under his wing and share his secret to wealth. At the time I was employed in a job I did not like, and looked forward to quitting once the riches began to roll in.

This was Mr. Money's business plan:
I was to steal from my employer, then deliver the goods to his house for his home renovation project. Since I would get the materials for free, he would be able to purchase them from me at a great discount. It was, he explained, a win-win situation.
Except of course, for my employer, the actual owner of the goods in question. And my conscience.

I was puzzled. Why would a man, already swimming in money, propose such a devious, unethical, and illegal plan? Then it dawned on me. This is how capitalism worked. You get things as cheaply as possible, then sell them for as much as possible. This millionaire did not steal because he was rich, he was rich because he was willing to steal. He would do anything to minimize his output and maximize his bottom line, even if it meant theft.

I filled the trunk of my Mustang and drove off to complete my second business venture. I finished with a pocket full of cash, but was unable to enjoy it. My guilt overwhelming, I started serving my sentence immediately. So much for business venture number two. "If this is how people get ahead", I thought to myself, "then I am willing to fall behind."

Today I am mildly repulsed by the world of business. There are good business practitioners out there, but throw money into a pit anywhere and you are going to see a fight. Capitalism will bring out the worst in all involved. Show me big money and I will show you criminal activity. Lottery frauds are one small example. The recent global economic meltdown is another.

The capitalist system is just as bereft of workable solutions as the Soviet system once was. The best system will be a balanced blend of the two. In that regard income redistribution would be the best case scenario for both those that do not have enough, and for those who have too much. Robert Anton Wilson recommended a guaranteed annual income, saying:
A system that is less expensive than welfare and also less debasing to the poor, it seems to me, should not be objectionable to anybody but hardcore sadists.
Where's the exit? I'm out. I would rather give things away than sell them. Commerce makes me feel dirty. I can hear the little suited guy on my shoulder whispering sweet schemings in my ear. It does not feel right. I don't want to buy, and I don't want to sell. I am a failed capitalist.

October 2, 2009

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme: How Do We Know What To Desire?


I was watching an episode of Star Trek: Next Generation the other day. "Deja Q" involved an omniscient alien that had been kicked out of the Q Continuum, a guild for the all-powerful beings of his race. The Continuum was punishing Q for being naughty, and his punishment was to be confined to a physical body for a period of time. Q chose to take the form of a human being on the Enterprise. He had gone from an all-powerful and immortal entity to a puny human. He needed to be consoled.

An obliging crew member took Q to 10-Forward, a crew lounge. At the bar the crew member told Q that he could have anything he desired. Q, being new to his human form, pimples, desires and all, asked, "How do I know what to desire?" That got me to thinking about one of my favourite videos.

I think it was on America's Funniest Home Videos (aging self now). In it a small boy unwrapped a large present with great gusto. He ripped the decorative paper off revealing plain cardboard beneath, then stepped back and yelled, "A box! A box!" He jumped up and down joyously in response to this amazing gift. Like Q, he didn't know what to desire.

Witnesses to the child's open-minded reaction would chuckle, then gently (or not so gently), show the child that he is suppose to desire the object IN the box, not the box itself. Indeed, the box will quickly be shuffled out of the living room and into the recycling, its destiny fulfilled.

The video was only a few seconds long, so it did not show the boy's reaction afterward. But I could just picture him clutching some unimaginative, garishly coloured plastic toy while his time machine, castle turret, go cart, and tollbooth disguised as a cardboard box was carried off to the garbage. He is learning what to desire.

We are trained what to desire by our culture and its agents, including parents and friends. In addition to such forces, and perhaps dwarfing such forces, is the global advertising business. It spends about half a trillion dollars a year training you in what to desire. By comparison, total global government spending on education is about 2 trillion dollars.

That $500 000 000 000 advertising budget is spent to train us to desire what is most profitable. Such desires will not include clean air and water. Or love, generosity, cooperation, independence, self-reliance, or "do it yourself".

Then we have to add in money spent on public relations. The Public Relations Society of America reports:

U.S. spending on public relations increased 12 percent to $4.27 billion in 2007, as companies sought improved methods of promoting their products and services in a perpetual news cycle. This marked the industry’s fourth straight year of double-digit growth.

I am questioning what I desire, and why I desire it. I am questioning who gains from the fulfillment of my desires. I want to find value in the box, rather than the expensive, shiny, soon-to-be-ignored bauble inside. Let's climb into that cardboard box and use our imaginations to whisk us off to the world that we desire, rather than some slick, fake world that someone is trying to sell us.

September 30, 2009

My Mom Would Think You're Lazy

Anyone seriously considering downsizing, or living with less is going to be up against formidable opposition. Courage, perseverance, and a tough leathery hide are required to venture into the Simple Zone. When troubled times call for us to go shopping in order to do our part, not doing so is risking being unpatriotic. Being seen as a penny-pinching tight-wad pales in comparison.

When I first decided that I wanted to delve deeper into simple living, some thought I was making a colossal mistake, or worse. I could have stayed in my teaching position until I was 65. Over the course of my career I heard of many colleagues that passed away shortly before, or after retirement. All that financial planning is rendered ineffective if you die before the first pension check hits your mailbox. I had to change my life before it happened to me.

I took a two year sabbatical first, wanting to ease into a life with less. After the freedom of these two years I couldn't go back. I quit.

"If you don't teach what will you do?" I was asked. My mind was reeling thinking of the infinite possibilities. Don't get me wrong, teaching was one of the most incredible and satisfying things I have ever done. But it has a way of consuming your time; it takes over your life, becomes your life. It is 'right livelihood' but at what cost?

Someone else asked, "What about retirement?" Since I try to live in the moment, considering this was not at the top of my list. Sixty-five felt like a long way away, and I wanted to retire to a simpler life immediately.

My favorite reaction, though, came from two individuals I didn't even know. I explained to these friends of friends, that I had quit teaching to live a slower-paced, environmentally responsible, low-income life. The young couple were silent as they shook their heads in response to my words. Finally the woman looked at me, and proclaimed, "My mom would think you are lazy."

Ouch. Move over Big Brother, Big Mother is here. Call me a slacker, call me a hippie, a radical even, but don't tell me your Mom thinks I'm lazy. That's just mean. I guess what she was saying was she thought that my work ethic sucked. This is what French philosopher André Gorz said about the work ethic:

The work ethic has become obsolete. It is no longer true that producing more means working more, or that producing more will lead to a better way of life. The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet- unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact. Neither is it true any longer that the more each individual works, the better off everyone will be.

Critique of Economic Reason, 1989

Go tell your momma that. We have to become smarter about work and consumption and quality of life. We have to lift our foot off the gas pedal as we speed toward the precipice. If that means affecting the 72% of the economy that consumer spending accounts for, then so be it. It has to happen or we are going over. Things will be changing. I am getting out of the car, even if your mom thinks I'm lazy.


September 26, 2009

Old Skills For A New World: Canning, Baking, Gardening on The Upswing

Modern society moves at a bewildering pace. Hardly able to keep up we succumb to the enticements of technology, entertainment, and the fast life. We are busy having fun, but along the way we have forgotten how to take care of ourselves. Basic skills of self sufficiency are dying with our elders. Increasingly, people are looking to low tech 'heritage' methods of living.

Progress and prosperity have made us into the largest collection of humanity in history incapable of taking care of ourselves. Houses and cars have become wombs, government and big business the umbilical cord. What will we do as we are born into a new world of expensive energy and deteriorating environment?

Our fault is to feel safe and secure in our habits, as if the way things are now is the way they will always be. Recent global economic turmoil has shown us the precariousness of this illusion. Things can, and will change, and we best be ready.

Heritage skills, as we refer to them today, are tried and tested instructions for taking care of ourselves. Activities like sewing, canning, and kneading bread seem like quaint pastimes from ancient history. Victory Gardens are making a comeback, as are food preservation workshops.

VicinSea, commenting on a previous post here, let me know she is a 20 year simple liver and part-time heritage skills teacher teaching food preservation, basketry, sewing/repairs and other self-sufficiency workshops in the Seattle area. It looks like she is keeping busy.

We are dependent on technology and low cost fossil energy to provide us with what we need. What happens when cheap energy is gone? Will you reach for the power can opener, or its hand-powered equivalent? What happens if trucks stop delivering food to our supermarkets, or the food they deliver is so expensive we can't afford it? We can learn skills to take care of our needs within our communities. Victoria, B.C. has a variety of options for learning.

Who has time to bake bread, let alone can your own produce? Make your own clothing? Right. But when cheap energy is gone, or we have lost or quit our job, we will need to look for healthier, less expensive alternatives. Life skills from days gone by will serve us well in the future.

Choosing a less complicated lifestyle is about freeing up time so I can live in ways that are beneficial to myself, others, and the environment. You either spend time in the blackberry bramble and the canning corner, or you spend time at work so you can pay someone to pick the berries, process them, and ship them to your local store.

I would rather harvest the berries and risk the bramble thorns. I would rather tend a bubbling cauldron of blackberry jamiliciousness. I would rather live a slower, less money-oriented, independent existence.

I love having the time to choose to pick berries and get scratched... in the rain. An added benefit is that I know what is in my food. I am in complete control of ingredients. No MSG, no high-sucrose corn syrup. And it saves me money.

If you are a life-long student, creating a simpler, slower-paced lifestyle could be for you. My household has already had Blackberry JamFest 2009, and a case of the freshest Blackberry jam available awaits the whole wheat, home-baked bread. We have had time to learn about a whole food, vegetarian diet. It has not been a burden, this change to simpler, lower-tech living. It is an interesting, thrilling, and tasty adventure.

Now my partner and I are learning how to cut each others hair. This is a money saving idea that is sure to be popular with the women, most of whom would rather go out in public without makeup than let their partner anywhere near their hair with scissors. Go slowly - you can always cut it shorter, you can't cut it longer. What could be next? Rock wall building? Hide tanning? Flint knapping?

What will you do when the power goes out? How about setting your songbook up on your inert laptop, take out your acoustic guitar, and, using your old-style ipod shuffle as a slide, sing the power's-out blues. Then have some home-baked bread with your own canned jam, followed by canned peaches by candle light. When it is time to turn in you can crawl under the bed cover you quilted with scrap pieces of fabric from your electric blanket. Heritage skills, not just for your grandparents any more.



September 19, 2009

Do I Really Need A Car?




My partner and I still own a vehicle. And it is no micro, go-cart that I need to watch lest a rogue pack of Girl Guides tip it over. Neither is it a hybrid. It is a small North American truck with four wheel drive. It is thousands of pounds of glass, rubber, steel, and old pollution-reduction technology. But it is black and shiny, and I knew when I first laid eyes on it that we were destined to travel the open and rough road together.

I agreed to feed it regular fuel, oil, and other mechanical fluids, as well as lavish it with a large portion of my monthly income in order to keep it in top shape. It, in turn, promised to free me from the drudgery of the every day, and propel me and my stuff to any exciting destination of my choice. And return me home safely. All the while making me look like a rugged and able individual (ick, how North American).

It was a useful and completely justified purchase, I told myself. I had visions of stream crossings, water fans spraying up from gnarly tires. Steep hills, washboard logging roads, and deep snow were now nothing against the four clawing wheels of my uber-mobility device. It would be worth it. If you live in North America you need a car, right? And if a two wheeler is good, a four wheeler is better.

We haunted the backroads and logging roads of British Columbia for a couple of months each year after we bought the truck. This was not so long ago when the Provincial Forestry Service maintained hundreds of back country camp grounds, most of them free. Only a few are free now, and many others have been decommissioned due to funding cuts of years gone by.
While it lasted, though, it was a great way to spend a few weeks of rustic camping for low cost. However, most of the time our truck, which was "built tough", was handling the hazards of a modern city: construction zones, potholes, terribly rough pavement, the odd foot or two of snow, and appearances at the opera. Of course, my friend Sarah handles all that on her daily mountain bike commute, although I am not sure she can get the valet parking at the opera.

Today, living in our truck and driving crazy roads far from everywhere for weeks at a time seems extravagant, both in the outlay of money for fuel, and the environmental impact. However, it was probably nothing compared to my daily slogging commute to school in the city.
When we were in the city we asked ourselves where we would like to be when fossil fuels ran out. What if we couldn't, or chose not to, drive? We figured we better like where we were if the farthest we could get was under our own power. We decided on the west coast. When we got here we gave ourselves a limit for driving: an area 50 kms (31 miles) from home. After a while we reduced that to 40 kms (24 miles), then 30 (18 miles). Since then we have discovered more than enough in our immediate neighbourhood and community to keep us busy and adventuring for the foreseeable future.

Currently, we drive just a few times a month. Often that is for work. The rest of the time I have been using my bicycle for errands. We are now to the point where we are wondering why we should keep a private vehicle at all. The shiny truck feels more like an expensive ball and chain than the freedom machine that manufacturers' ads depict.

I am rediscovering cycling, and am having the best year for cycle adventures since I was a 10 year old hippie-in-training living in Eugene, Oregon (while my dad went to school). My bicycle has delivered the freedom that the auto manufactures promise, but can't deliver with their current products. I roll along my local roadways and trails completely carbon-free, feeling fit and completely liberated from the complication, expense, and danger of driving.

Perhaps I can trade the truck for a cycle rickshaw, and transport my partner in style, carbon-free. Better yet, maybe someone will think of a simple, sustainable solution to our personal mobility needs, although it is difficult to improve on tried and true technologies.


Top photo by: ВиКо (modern cycle rickshaw in Moscow)
Bottom photo by: K.C. Wilson (Alternative Transportation In Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada)

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