We need to renovate our entire culture. But where do you even begin? There are so many things that need doing and so many opinions on priorities. But I’ve yet to see a practical list that an average human can afford, that someone with little agency or influence can expect to accomplish. So I’ve been working on my own list.
These are my assumptions. We need to reduce what we use in all respects and eliminate what is produced in unjust or polluting ways. We need more care work and less wage work. We need to localize, not merely because this reduces shipping and remote production (which is almost always extractive and unjust) and creates employment and local economic resilience, but also because it’s a happier way to live. More people in your community doing things they enjoy. More resources sloshing around your community. More rootedness and connection. We need to recenter ourselves in our lives. We need more of what we want and less of what is obligated. We need to focus on relationship. We need to know our world and our place in it.
To accomplish this we need new ethics and economics. Economics needs to be home-centered, as the word implies. More people need to benefit from our culture — morally and sociologically. And I just don’t believe that capitalism is beneficial. Not to the majority of humanity, certainly not to the planet. I think profit — seeking to get more out of a transaction than you put in — is just morally squiffy. It feels wrong. Moreover, I don’t even believe those who extract money from this system are truly benefitting. I think money-based wealth is stupid and useless. Money meets no needs. True, you can buy what you need — if what you need is being produced within reach of your money. However, if you live in a city in the very near future, you can’t plan on, for example, food making its way to you. You could be a billionaire, but you will starve.
Here is an illustration. Much monetary wealth is extracted from property, usually through using what resources are available on the property and then turning the property over to development — meaning some sort of rudimentary housing, for people or businesses, is built on it. Most development land comes from farmland these days, so development takes the capacity to grow food out of the regional system. A new subdivision with houses pressed together like tinned sardines can produce no food. That land is never going to feed anyone again — including the money-rich developer. This is stupid. And it is robbing people of their ability to make a livelihood. Turning property into monetary wealth is both practically and morally wrong.
So I think we need new economics. We need practical and beneficial ways of living. More benefit, more possibility. Now, I can’t say what this is. I suspect Bhutan is a fairly good model for how we should organize ourselves. But each place will need to figure out how to meet needs. There will be many solutions, as long as people are free to do what is needed.
Which brings me back to the list. I’ve made a list that is as general as it can be. These steps will need to be taken in every community. This list is also practical. You can do all of it and all of it will make a difference to you and the rest of the world.
1) Reduce use.
Sure, recycle and reuse glass and metals. That still works. But there is little else in your recycling bin that is actually being recycled these days. Paper recycling is spotty. It’s costly to move around all that bulk, and there aren’t enough uses for the low-grade pulp that comes out. Recycling plastic is not working at all. There are almost no uses for recycled plastic, and too few plastics can even be recycled.
Reuse is great in theory. If you can repurpose something, do it. If you are relying on others to use your unwanted stuff, that’s not so good. Many resale shops — from boutique vintage clothing to used bookstores to Goodwill — take in far more stuff than they can sell, even of what is in sellable condition. Sadly, much of what you donate ends up in the trash.
So the recycle and reuse bits of the popular slogan — reduce, reuse, recycle — are ineffectual. We need to focus on reducing. We simply need to use less. Of everything.
Go shopping less frequently. Buy in bulk. Avoid packaging. (Really avoid packaging. Packaging is the devil!) Buy things that will last a long time. And buy what you need; never buy on impulse. A helpful way to figure out whether you need something is to put it on hold for a bit. If you wait a week or more and still think the purchase is a good idea, then go for it. You will save so much money. You’ll have room in your budget for what you actually do want in your life.
2) Shop local.
This is the way you create jobs and wealth in your community. This is the way you drive business to provide what is needed locally. This is the way you support your neighbors and they support you. You will reduce the amount of shipping that goes into what you buy. Production will be more transparent and therefore more just — it’s hard to hide pollution and wage-slavery in a small community. And transparent production tends to produce higher quality goods. Shopping local also drastically reduces all the needless waste in packaging and over-processing. Locally produced goods are rarely engorged with fillers and wrapped in plastics.
Of course, buy your food, clothing, and household goods as locally as possible. But also buy your entertainment locally. This might not entail spending money. Local theatre and music groups may need volunteers more than money. They may even want your participation. This is both free and fun! Support local sports rather than watching television or driving to a distant stadium — though that could still happen now and again. Another way to localize that I seldom see mentioned is to choose local schools, preferably public. Meet as many of your needs at home in your community as you can, and push local business to broaden what is available.
3) Grow your own food.
The best way to meet your food needs is to make your own food. Make a garden. If you can, make a farm. We all know that gardening is healthy for body and mind. Your food will be fresher and more to your tastes. You will probably dump fewer toxic chemicals on your own property; so pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers will not be part of your diet. Gardening uses the body as vigorously or as gently as you prefer, but it is always outdoor exercise that benefits everything from hand strength to heart health to emotional well-being.
But raising even a portion of your own food produces benefit well beyond yourself. Our food system is enormously polluting and wasteful and energetically inefficient. The goal of agriculture is not to feed people but to extract money from the farm. Most cost-cutting measures in any industry are harmful to other people and to the planet. In agriculture, the destruction is grotesque — ranging from things like pig-waste lagoons to ocean dead zones to violent animal abuse. We need to center agriculture in local cultures. We need agriculture to feed people not bank accounts.
Also… having backyard chickens and goats is about the best entertainment you can find.
4) Make and repair things.
Go beyond food in meeting your own needs. Make soaps and cleaners. Make clothes and housewares. Make your own home! Of course, you will have strengths and weaknesses. You may hate to sew but can throw a pretty decent pot. On the other hand, you may love to sew but always seem to turn out oddities. (Yep, me.) But if it’s for yourself, oddities are character. So make as much as you enjoy making. Whatever you make for yourself, you are not buying from elsewhere. Whatever you make for yourself is for yourself!
And when it breaks, fix it. Don’t default to replacement. Of course, you’ll need to plan for repair when you buy things. Buy things that you can fix or that can be fixed in your community. Avoid things that are going to be very difficult to repair. Just don’t buy into the planned obsolescence economy at all. Not only is it wasteful and polluting; it’s stealing your money.
There are plenty of things that you won’t be able to fix yourself. For all that, build community repair resources. Encourage repair cafés and fix-it shops. Make space, physically and economically, for spare parts. Build tool libraries.
One seldom mentioned thing is absolutely critical — we need to make making and repairing cool again. Don’t denigrate shop class; encourage your kids to take those courses. Have repair parties and making bees — maybe with costumes, music and dancing, wine and chocolate. Make it attractive. Our current attitude to creating and maintaining our lives is extremely negative. Making and fixing are embarrassments. We need to change that.
5) Get active in your local politics and community.
Contrary to the current zeitgeist of focusing on our national political circus, all real politics is local. All decisions that affect you directly are made in your community. Laws may be handed down from outside, but enforcement and support are all local decisions. So if there is change you want to see in who gets what and when — and of course there is! — get involved in the real allocation process, local politics. If you have children, join the PTA and pay close attention to the school board. Attend land use committee meetings and community finance board meetings. Whenever the planning commission is taking public comments, comment vociferously. Know your local police, your department of public works, your council people, your local librarian. Run for office yourself if you can.
Dig into your community. Get to know your neighbors. Volunteer! Go read to elementary school kids. Shelve books at your library. Volunteer at the food panty. (If there isn’t one, absolutely make one). Go help those who need it. Make sure your elderly neighbor has working heat, a mowed lawn, someone to talk to. Feed each other. Take that pot of chicken soup to a sick friend. Make casseroles for working parents. Bake bread for the neighborhood. (Which is about the only practical volume of baking when you’re maintaining a sourdough culture anyway.)
Create bonds with the people near you. You are all going to be working together. You should at least know each other. Better yet, you should enjoy being together.
One caveat: If you live in a fragile place — densely populated areas (food supply will be difficult), near the coast (water supply will be compromised, storms are increasing, it will be increasingly underwater), in fire prone regions (which will get worse) — and you can afford it, move to a more resilient and sustainable place. It’s sort of cool to be a climate refugee (says the climate refugee). If you can’t afford to move, begin to work within local politics to reduce fragility and to create relocation programs for the most vulnerable.
6) Read and learn.
The more you know, the more you are prepared. Surprises are rarely positive in real life. Resilience flows from knowledge. Just like we old folk were told growing up, “Knowledge is Power!” So read all you can. Haunt the library. Learn how to do things. Take pottery classes. Cultivate repair skills. Sign up for ballroom dancing. There are no limits to learning. Embrace it all. This is not only going to prepare you for whatever lies ahead — it’s fun in the here and now. Learning is joyful living.
7) Spread health and well-being. Take care of yourself and those around you. This one is really just that simple. Yet it is the most profound, essential and important thing you can do to make a better world.
So that’s my to-do list. You’ll note that I’ve excluded a number of things.
— Buying an electric car or putting solar panels on your roof. If you can afford big investments in technology, maybe spend that money on your community. Build a town solar or hydro-power grid. Push for walkable communities and public transport. By all means, decarbonize your own life. But if you follow my to-do list, you’re doing just that already.
— Marching or worrying overmuch about national politics. See number 5. A better national government will flow from strong community and regional politics. Marching is fun, but it accomplishes almost nothing. And there is usually a good deal of transportation spent on it. I don’t want to say it’s wasteful… (except it sort of is).
— Throwing out all your possessions, following the pop simple-lifestyle nonsense. Simplifying your life means meeting your needs with the fewest resources — not self-abnegation. Also I should point out that while the monastic life is not big on fashion or décor, most monks live pretty well. Moreover, keeping few tools and resources on hand, cycling through clothes or books or tools when the need arises, actually uses more resources, not less. You may have an elegantly spare living space, but you are off-loading a great deal of waste, transport, and just-in-time production onto others. Do donate what you don’t use. But even then, keep in mind you will be doing more; maybe those knitting supplies will come in handy later on. And books are just essential.
Now there are a few things that do need to be jettisoned in a just and ecologically balanced world.
What needs to go:
— Tourism and air travel. These use a great deal of resources. They cause massive pollution. They serve a vanishingly small number of humans. They harm almost everyone and everything else.
— Processed and fast food. It’s not food. It’s mostly poison.
— Screens. You need to live in this real world. You need to get your life back from these two-dimensional wastelands. You need to reclaim your time. And you need to rescue your brain. It’s being pickled.
— Any industry that is based on violence, misogyny, racism and all other forms of abuse. This takes out much of the programming on screens. It also includes most professional sports. Less obviously, it includes the parts of fashion and lifestyle industries that push unhealthy body image or normative racism. Weddings, for example, need to go into deep rehab! Maybe if there was more focus on the marriage to come rather than the big night of posing, there would be more healthy relationships — as well as a healthier planet.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021
Teaser photo credit: By Ilvy Njiokiktjien – Stichting Repair Café, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24316530