Friday, May 13, 2011

Simplicity Bleg

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

It's that time again: call upon the received wisdom of the Plain People of the Internet, to help me with a new class I'll be teaching in the fall. This one is an attempt to pull together several long-standing interests of mine, and get a bunch of students to think with me about local government, alternative economics, environmentalism, and consumerism. I'm calling the class "Simplicity and Sustainability"; my hope for the course is that it will be focused equally on the national and international political and economic priorities and realities that can make difficult the kind of local and lifestyle control upon which "simplicity" depends, and on what we, as individuals and members of our communities, actually need to do and value in order to make "sustainability" a viable goal. As this will be the first time I've ever taught such a class, I have no illusions that I'll be able to hit that sweet spot which will enable the students and me to focus thoughtfully upon both these themes, but we can try.

In some ways, this course will borrow from a class I blegged about previously, my upper-level course on "Capitalism, Socialism, and Localism." But this won't be a seminar for advanced students; more of an introductory course. Of course, I could just have them read all of my "simplicity" posts from years ago, but that would be vain of me and painful for them.

So what am I looking at? The work of Juliet Schor (whom I've talked about before), for one: The Overworked American, Plenitude, or collections she has contributed to, like The Consumer Society Reader or Do Americans Shop Too Much?--all of those are possibilities. Barry Schwartz's wonderful The Paradox of Choice is, I think, an absolute must. I may make use of Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes, a book that I've recently made use of (and need to blog about sometime) in connection with some local food stuff I've involved my students in. Wendell Berry is an important possibility, of course, as may be E.F. Schumacher or Herman Daly. And those authors lead me to another consideration--the degree to which I want to make this a class that can align with some of the courses and programs here at Friends University that touch on Christianity, spiritual formation, intentional living, and social justice. A part of me wants to have the students read through the Dao De Jing together, and follow that up with The Tao of Pooh (which is, sincerely, a great little book). But in addition to that? Perhaps Thomas Merton, or Richard Foster? And how much philosophy do I want to bring into this anyway? There's a part of me which sees very clearly the connection between the specialization, professionalization, and standardization of modern life, and how that makes it difficult for us to even conceive of more "simple" arrangement, and in that sense I would like to talk about one of my favorite books of the past few years, Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft...but I recognize that the philosophical perspective he brings to bear on these questions just may be way over my students' heads. Moreover, I shouldn't stick with my favorites--I should stretch myself as well, and use the class as an opportunity to work through arguments which defend the complexity, the pace, the mobility and individuality, the busyness and anonymous dependency of modern capitalism and consumer culture: all these things that complicate the idea of living a simple, sustainable life.

But I suppose that's why I'm making this a blog post. What should am I missing, everyone? Any recommendations you may have, whether they're books or films or anything else, whether they're personal memoirs, economic studies, or religious works--throw them at me. And thanks.


Wm Morris said...

I'd suggest taking a look at "Buying In" by Rob Walker.

The book will help your students understand how they negotiate their choices as consumers. It also deals with some of the major threads of the simplicity movement, including DIYism. You can't really address simplicity without addressing marketing -- or as Rob Walker calls it -- murketing. Walker does a good job of exploring and trying to get at some of the core psycholog of consumer choice rather than condemn or endorse the tactics of modern marketing.

My GoodReads review goes in to more detail:

Wm said...

Oh, and Rob Walker and co.'s Unconsumption blog maybe of interest:

Anonymous said...

I was curious, so I looked up the definition of "bleg":

Whenever hot sweaty balls stick to the inside of your leg effectively becoming one body part. This usually requires peeling your ball bag from your leg.

Wish I hadn't.