Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Laura Says: Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do, or Do Without

Did anyone else grow up with that phrase hanging around their living environment--as counsel, as a warning, as a reprimand? I did. We sure didn't live it as well as we might have, but still, I heard it recited often enough, from my parents and grandparents and church leaders and others, to accept it as the Gospel truth, long before I read any of the philosophy or politics or economics that persuaded me of its correctness on their own. Basically, the message is that the way to prosperity and happiness--at least insofar as the material world is concerned--is to live conservatively and renounce extravagance and stick with what you have and know. "Pioneer truths" is what we called it, invoking the memory of Mormon ancestors crossing the Great Plains in handcarts, and their descendants who built homes and communities in the midst of poverty and persecution and with next to no consumer goods. If it was good enough an ethos for great-grandma, it's good enough for us, or so we were supposed to think.

Such a mentality is somewhat rare in today's world, particularly in America, and especially around here, in the mostly American blogosphere. Oh sure, you can find some genuine "conservatives" that blog, agrarians and localists and self-sufficient types like Rick Saenz; and there are people who, even if they don't entirely live those "pioneer truths" either, have an intellectual and moral appreciation of the point of that saying, folks like Patrick Deneen, Lee McCracken, or the Caelem et Terra people like Maclin Horton. (All of whom you should read regularly, by the way.) But still, it's just not often than someone comes out full bore on the blogs and slams the world of planned obsolescence and over-consumption and clever capitalist expansion for being the personal and environmental plague upon us all that it truly is. Thankfully though, I now have the perfect blog post to send to everyone who doesn't quite get the point: Laura McKenna's short, brilliant, and vicious slam on trendy "eco-consumption":

You want to save the earth? Here’s a little hint. Don’t. Buy. Shit.

The greenest people are totally unhip....They’re still wearing their clothes from twenty years ago. They aren’t keeping their home spa-worthy clean. No need to worry about polluting the air with chemicals, if you aren’t dusting every five minutes. They aren’t constantly renovating their kitchens and bathrooms, all of which uses enormous amounts of energy and resources; they are still living with the Formica numbers from the 70s. They aren’t jetting off to Europe to browse the Paris markets; they go bowling in the next town over. They aren’t constantly shopping for new things and tossing out the old things. There is some poetry in all of this. Grandma with the Hummels has a smaller carbon footprint by doing absolutely nothing than the wealthy do-gooder in the Range Rover attending the NRDC fundraiser.

If you must have a hip home and global warming is a concern, then there are other ways to go. Pick up end tables from a garage sale and paint them. Buy an old house near the center of town. Don’t get your nails done. Don’t drive to the gym. Don’t join a gym and instead, burn calories by gardening. Stop recycling your San Pellegrino bottles and drink tap water. You could also elect politicians who are willing to make serious efforts in conservation, mass transportation, and in the regulation of industry....

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a dent in global warming. But to do it, you need a serious, non-cosmetic, un-cool, and un-trendy change in lifestyle and habits. And frankly there’s no need to make a big fuss about it, get preachy or show off to others how environmentally correct you are. Excessive non-consumption aimed at impressing one’s friends and neighbors is just as annoying — and as conspicuous — as consumption.


I honestly can't think of anything to add to that. I mean, really, it covers all the bases. You want to be environmentally conscious and help conserve what resources we have left, right? Of course you do--you're an enlightened individual! Well then, quit buying all that expensive and "cutting-edge" crap that gets shoveled out at us by the Powers That Be, crap that'll have to thrown away as soon as you're lured in by the next model car/range oven/purse/sneakers/lifestyle renovation/electronic gizmo. Resist change, cut back, slow down! Wear that sports jacket for another year! Exercise at home! Garden and eat your own food! Not everyone can do all of this; indeed, given how pervasively the habits of acquisition, competition, and consumption are threaded through most of our daily routines, most of us can't do most of it. But here and there, we can and should make a stand, however wired our professions or home lives may be. As Laura herself noted long ago, buying that Blackberry is only going to put you on the clock, make you run more errands, make you burn more gas, keep you away from making do with what you already have and make you compensate by buying more stuff you don't need and can't afford and will throw away that much more quickly anyway. So here's a radical idea--don't get one. Real environmentalism begins with "tending to" our environment, rather than upgrading it or ourselves in the name of continual betterment, and supporting those moral causes and political campaigns that are actually trying to make tending to our families and jobs and neighborhoods more possible, rather than selling us on constantly retraining and retrofitting ourselves and our world.

I've written a lot about this over the years, I know, at much too great length; I get caught up in the complexity of seeking simplicity, the difficulty and hardness of learning the discipline and thrift and acceptance of living in an "enclosed" world that came naturally to our grandparents and great-grandparents (and which have perhaps endured in some parts of Europe better than many conservatives imagine). Laura is definitely no enclosed great-grandmother or lifestyle conservative--she's cool and worldly and sarcastic and knows pop culture and loves the catalogs she gets in the mail. But alongside all that, she's got common sense: she knows about families and homes and communities and their all blessings and costs, and how we Americans, blessed as we are, seem particularly of confusing the former and thinking we can dodge the latter. I've always read and liked her stuff, but this Laura at her succinct, biting, contrarian best. Again, I can't say anything more than that.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I should have sent you a link to this when I read it. It was great.

-Adam Greenwood

Queen K said...

I can't say anything more than that.

Seems to me you just did. ;)

great post. I'm keeping my gym pass and my ipod, though. It's kinda hard to garden in two feet of snow. And think of all the waste I'm preventing by downloading itunes rather than purchasing CDs.

Also, just because I don't wear a shirt to shreds doesn't mean it goes to waste. It gets donated and used again.

Can I give myself points for having garage-sale furniture in the living room and folding chairs in the kitchen? Although, as soon as I've got the means, I'm heading for IKEA. They sell furniture with washable slipcovers that I could actually keep looking nice.

Nate Oman said...

"...long before I read any of the philosophy or politics or economics..."

You read economics?!?!

In all seriousness, I agree with you (sort of), although I have also seen the dark side of the thrift ethic in my own extended family -- an overwhelming desire to hang on to useless junk. My father successfully channeled this into being a museuem curator. ("Hey, look! I get to collect old stuff!")

I do have a huge beef with modern residential architecture. I live in one of God's most beautiful spots, but it is also one of the muggiest. The modern solution is a home that consumes an enormous amount of energy and has walls made of cardboard. You can solve the problem, however, by using different materials. I visited Andrew Jackson's house in Nashville once in July. The interior was pleasant and cool because the walls were made of thick stone which was then shielded from the sun by broad porches.

Michigan Madsens said...

Less is always more. It's ashame that we live in a society that believes bigger is better. Good post.

Mom M.

Rob said...

I have counterpoint, at my own blog. I was just going to leave a comment but I got wordy.

Thanks once again for making me thoughtful, Russell.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Adam--yeah, I knew you'd be a perfect reader for this. Glad to hear your support.

Kathy--well, I'm hardly a perfect Thoreau-esque example of green hippyness/simplicity myself. Follow some of the links: you'll see that I've struggled with this (in connection with travel, electronic media, fine restaurants, and the rest of the usual modern-American-bourgeoisie consumption pattern) in numerous posts before. We do what we can. Props to you for donating all your old clothes. And buying IKEA slipcovers to spruce up and maintain your garage-sale furniture sounds like a fine eco-compromise to me.

Nate--yes I do read economists: Gar Alperovitz, Juliet Schor, and...oh, wait, that's right, you don't think they count. Um, well, I have read some Hayek; that'll work, right?

I'm completely with you when it comes to modern architecture. Disposable homes deserve what Mother Nature does to them, I think.

Mom Madsen--thanks for stopping by! I knew you'd basically agree with the post.

Rob--let me try and respond on your blog, and see if I can get it to work this time!

Anonymous said...

Whenever I hear that admonition...(to use it up, wear it out,...etc,) at church, I can't help wondering if the admonisher is still using (or making do with) his trusty Commodore 64 computer.

Which begs the question...where does the familiar admonition apply and more to the point, where might it be misapplied?

Richard Anderson

HorseJumper12341 said...

My great-grandfather used to use that quote.
"Use it up,
Wear it out,
Make it do
Or do without."
He grew up during the Great Depression and WWII.

Happy Blogging!