Thursday, July 17, 2008

Poverty or Simplicity?

"Poverty does not mean scorn for goods and poverty. It means the strict limitation of goods that are for personal use. ... It means a horror of war, first because it ruins human life and health and the beauty of the earth, but second because it destroys goods that could be used to relieve misery and hardship and to give joy. It means a distaste even for the small carelessnesses that we see prevalent, so that beautiful and useful things are allowed to become dirty and battered through lack of respect for them."
Mildred Binns Young, 1956

I tried --and failed -- to find the pamphlet on-line from which this quote is taken, so if anyone knows ...

I'd hoped to discover whether the "It" of the sentence that begins "It means a horror of war ..." replaced the word poverty. Would poverty mean a horror of war ... or a distaste for the small carelessnesses ...?"

Reading a tiny tidbit about Quaker Mildred Binns Young, I found that she did write about functional poverty, so in the above passage perhaps her "it" really means poverty. I think in today's parlance we would use the term voluntary simplicity for her kind of poverty or perhaps simple abundance.

The sentence that struck me was "it means a distaste even for the small carelessnesses that we see prevalent, so that beautiful and useful things are allowed to become dirty and battered through lack of respect for them."

How many small carelessnesses have allowed the things in my life to become dirty and battered? Or more to the point, how much rushing and forgetting has led to things piling up, getting lost, getting dented or broken? We simply replace these things ... we live in a culture with a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive consumables.

But wouldn't it make sense to slow down, have less and take better care of what we have? I think of a saying of John Wesley's, Methodism's founder, which I heard: "Earn as much as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can."

Ok, Ok, that's the Protestant work ethic in a nutshell. And we can take work to weird, excessive levels in this wired culture. But there's a wisdom in not wasting that I think we've completely lost sight of.

If Young bemoaned waste around her in 1956, a time when people had about half of what they do now, what of the mountains of waste around us today? I saw a YouTube video that said that 99 percent of what we buy is trash within six months. And then, of course, there's the movie "Wall.e" which I will discuss in another post.

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World part of the satire is that the "betas," the consumer class in a brainwashed world, are taught rhymes about replacing things rather than repairing them. It's high comedy, apparently, in the 1930s, to imagine a society in which people are taught to throw out sweaters that are missing a button. But that is more or less how we live. In fact, we give the sweaters away before they're missing a button!

When did all this go over the top? I think I can pinpoint two places when waste and excess started to be normative in our culture, both dating from the early 1980s. The first connects to the movie "Ordinary People," which won the best picture Oscar in 1981 (?). There's a scene early in the movie where Mary Tyler Moore, playing a housewife, is pushing her son's serving of French toast down the disposal. Someone in the movie must question her, because she says something like "you can't save French toast." I actually remember conversations with people at the time about this: can you save French toast? Is it OK to throw food away? Was this character being wasteful? I can hardly imagine having such conversations today. That was also the time when diet programs routinely discussed our guilt over wasting food and assured us that it would not feed any hungry person to throw away food we were too full to eat. Today, food waste isn't even mentioned.

When E.T. came out in 1982, I remember all the conversations about how many toys the kids in the movie had. We'd never seen such a surfeit of toys! The children had a whole walk-in closet stuffed with stuff! I remember discussions about how we had nowhere near so many toys when we were growing up. Nowhere. Near. But after that movie, the excess started to seem normal. It's as if the movie set a much higher bar for the "new normal" in toys. I know my children, born in the 1990s, have had far more toys than I did growing up, and I was not at all deprived.

What do you think? How do we control our consumption? Does it create a sense of abundance not to have to replace things? Can you pinpoint, what for you, were cultural moments when our notions of "normal" seemed to shift? Is this a spiritual issue?

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