Yesterday one of the headlines in Google was “Economy Contracts as Consumers Retreat“. There is a nice rhythm to that phrase, don’t you think? And, also like a good line of poetry, it says a lot in the most subtle of ways. The bellicosity of this phrase reveals what we all really know about consumption in a more-is-more, me-firs, “free” market: it’s a battlefield.
Who are these consumers at war with on this field, and to whom are they losing the upper hand? And where can they retreat to, to which safe haven?
Since beginning the Riot 4 Austerity I have had some conversations with friends and family members about reducing one’s footprint. I’ve noticed a couple of things. First, that invariably the first two questions from family members are: (1) Are you in financial trouble? (2) Isn’t 64 F (17 C) too cold? No to both. That was easy.
But friends have more complicated, diverse reactions. They run the gamut of (1) a smile (you-goofy/silly-people-now-on-to-a-different-topic) to (2) “why on earth would you deprive yourself of Coke and cable”, to (3) “I really admire that but we just can’t do it like you”. So far I am ashamed to say that I haven’t made any convert, but then again I’m so non-confrontational I am probably the lamest activist you’ve ever met!
But here’s the thing: I get the sense that none of my friends are happy in their role as consumers, to which they choose, nevertheless, to cling. I have the feeling that they all long for something different than a life on the battlefield/market. I have heard them talk of their need for something spiritual, a different kind of riches. For a return to daily rituals of comfort and belonging, like they remember from their childhood perhaps (because most children, if you let them, are so naturally at home with themselves). And for time: time to be at home with oneself and one’s family, time to reflect on something beautiful, to read a book, time for friendship. Time that is not hurried, not stuffed up with stuff, but calm and warm and ample.
They want these intangibles (a nice way of avoiding calling them “things”), but they seem to deny that the only way to get them back is by taking them back from the mass marketplace. Because in my honest opinion, that’s where we have traded them in, our time most of all, for stuff, for plastics, for vapid “entertainment,” for glossy magazines and a glossier, paper thin life.
The mass marketplace where we are at war. The “economy shrinks” as we “retreat” from a battlefield: what does that mean? The newspapers and politicians and Wall Street investors would have us believe that it means that we are losing jobs, so money, so stuff, so happiness. They would have us believe that the only way to win it back is to ratchet up our consumption again, to “have confidence in the market”. They want us to believe that the enemy is the Chinese toymaker, the Euro, the Japanese car manufacturer and the Indian telemarketer. And they want it to be taken for granted that our retreat can only be temporary and that a victorious recovery just around the corner. That there is no other place to be.
But I believe that we are really at war in that field with our worst enemy: ourselves. We have been pitched against ourselves. No wonder no one can win. And even if the market recovers, “victory” is only Pyrrhic. Pyrrhus after winning one of many battles said that one more such victory would utterly undo him. It’s the same with us, only worse. I’m saying that we have already been completely undone.
I’m not just talking about global warming, peak oil, and all those “obstacles” to economic growth and ultimately, of course, our self-preservation. I am talking also of our loss of our “spiritual needs.” Yes, let’s name them: love, home, kindness, peace, and time. I believe that’s what my friends have been saying, suffering. Not the loss of stuff, but of soul.
And no marketplace is going to return these to us.
There are many other ways to recovering happiness. By avoiding the mall and the box store, and saving the money for something more permanent and less polluting to the body and the mind (a woodburning stove, in our case), or for a sense of security at least. By coming together every evening in the kitchen, cooking together and then sharing the meal at the dinner table. By congregating in the living room, telling stories and listening to music or discussing a book, and playing board games or making art together. By staying home, going for a walk in the woods and listening to the birds. By counting what we consume in energy and goods and how much we trash our planet, and reducing those. By planning our garden, our self-sufficiency.
By knowing where we stand, as a family, on that marketplace: more and more on the sideline, less and less at war with ourselves.