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Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Less: A New Year’s Evolution

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Like most halfway sane people, I’m wary of telling other people that I’ve made resolutions, at New Year’s or any other time, and even more wary about posting them on the internet for all the world to see. But you’d know I was lying if I said the thought of self-improvement and change didn’t occur to me at this time of year.

Of course I want all the usual New Year’s things. I want to be a better parent, more engaged and more patient with my children. I want to eat right and exercise and pray more regularly. I want to be a better wife and daughter and friend and teacher. I want to get numerous book projects written, edited and published. In other words I want to get better at all the things I strive to do normally anyway.

But if I could identify one thing I want to do differently in 2008, one new focus, I would have to say that I want to have … less.

This is probably the first time in our married lives that Jason and I have the luxury of thinking about having less voluntarily. We’ve always been comfortably middle class and I certainly don’t want to belittle the struggles of those who are genuinely poor, but for most of our married life we’ve lived on one salary (first because Jason was in university, then because I was staying home with kids) and we’ve never had the luxury of being able to buy whatever we want without thinking about it first. I vividly recall once early in our marriage standing in a supermarket line and thinking, “If I could get groceries and never once have to look at a yellow label again (that was Dominion’s No-Name cheapy brand) I would be ecstatic.”

This is now our third year of both working full-time, and with the mortgage finally paid off and bills generally caught up, we have the luxury of breathing a little easier. Mind you there are still things like the new vehicle we’ll eventually need (because this one is falling apart around us) and renos on the house that must be done which will certainly suck up all that extra cash, but for the moment I enjoy the fact that I can agree to meet someone for coffee without having to dig under the car seats for loose change to come up with enough to buy a mocha. Just being able to get things, little things, that we want without having to think, “Can we afford this?” first, is a huge blessing.

Or is it? Because isn’t that the whole problem with consumerism, with over-consumption — buying things without thinking? I know there are lots of debates around this, and as a bear of very little brain (economically speaking) I don’t understand most of them. I have heard people make impassioned and reasonable-sounding defenses of consumerism and spending as the engines that drive our economy and fuel a better life for everyone, and I’m not well-informed enough to explain why I think this is wrong. But all my gut instincts are on the side of comsuming less. Not just because I am so inherently susceptible to guilt, but because I really agree with the goals of a campaign like Make Affluence History. It seems unlikely to me that a world of six-billion-plus people, with limited space and resources, can allow everyone to live their best life if each one of those six billion people is constantly going “More! I want more!! More stuff for meeee!!!!” I’m one of the six billion who has been born with the luxury of choice — one of the few who doesn’t have to scramble for basic food, shelter and medical care. Now that I don’t even have to scramble for loose change for coffee, it seems a good time to commit to thinking more about what I consume and being more intentional about it.

I’m such a flaming hypocrite about consumerism. I pretend to despise over-consumption and be Above All That, but I can find a million justifications for anything I really want to buy. I’m the kind of person who gasps with horror when I learn that the average Canadian family spends over $1400 on Christmas … and then tries to avoid doing any mental math to figure out how much we actually spent, because while I know it’s probably not $1400, it’s a lot more than I’d like to believe it is.

I can make some easy anti-consumer decisions (and announce them to everyone so I can bask in the glow of people’s approval), like deciding we can get by without a dishwasher, or realizing that my phone doesn’t really need to play MP3s. But, let’s face it, I make these decisions and bask in the glow of my own approval because they’re things that don’t matter that much to me. When it comes to something that does matter, I’m shamelessly North American in my willingness to lay down the cash.

Take travel, for example. I’m happy to say I’m the kind of person who has few regrets in life. Most of my life experiences have been good, and the bad ones have helped make me who I am, so there’s not much I’d go back and change. The only exceptions to this — the only regrets I do have — are all travel-related. Anytime I’ve had the chance to take a trip and didn’t, I’ve lived to regret it. Thus, even though I know that we probably spend far too much on travel, and even though I know that people flying on jets all over the world is a major waste of fuel and major source of CO2 emissions … I still believe that the ability to visit different parts of the planet is one absolute, positive good of the modern era. I will always spend money on travel if given the opportunity, and I will always find an excuse or justification to take a trip.

In fact, that’s how my whole thinking about consumption for the coming year got started — Jason asked me if we were going to do anything to offset the carbon dioxide emissions caused by flying a family of four to Australia and back, which we plan to do in March.

Well. Offsets. I kind of agree with the thinking that says the current craze for purchasing “offsets” is the twenty-first century equivalent of buying indulgences: a way of paying money to assuage your own guilt. Or, as I heard a comedian recently explain the concept of offsets, “I’ve paid some bloke on the internet to say he planted a tree for me.”

While there may be some value in purchasing offsets (and I’m researching it), I think I need to start by looking closer to home. If I am going to cling stubbornly to some luxuries, like travel (and don’t even get me started on the luxuries I’m going to find justification for later this year when we renovate our bathroom), then the least I can do is think about home-grown offsets — how can we compensate by making do with less, and sharing more, in other areas.

One thing I realize is that I often deal with consumption by trying to avoid thinking about it. As with the amount we spend on Christmas, I let my mind slip past how much we actually consume rather than really paying attention. So one of our first goals for 2008 is to start tracking our energy consumption — becoming more aware of how much we use and spend in the areas of gas for the car, furnace oil, and electricity. And then start looking for ways to reduce that consumption, month by month.

I don’t expect we’ll make much more than babysteps and it probably won’t offset the rather deep carbon footprint we’ll leave by flying to Australia. But instead of making a New Year’s resolution or hoping for a New Year’s revolution I am going to aim for a New Year’s evolution — a gradual but hopefully definite movement towards less. Using less energy, making do with less stuff.

For 2008, I wish you more of the stuff you want and need — whether it be money, love, friendship, creative opportunities, laughter or shelf space — and less of the stuff you can do without — whether that’s CO2 emissions, stress, weight, anger, or dirty laundry. God bless.

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4 thoughts on “Less: A New Year’s Evolution

  1. You write a deep, well thought out blog, and my only thought is, “cool, you get to go to Australia!”.

    I guess I need to work some on my resolutions!

  2. Very well put. While we pamper ourselves, people elsewhere are starving. But they’re someone else’s problem, right?

    Oy.

    Thought provoking and spiritually convicting at the same time.

  3. It’s all so overwhelming when you consider how quickly we accumulate ‘stuff’ and the money we needlessly spend. Less is a good resolution, I think – I strive to use the KISS principle in all areas of life .

    Resolutions may indeed be idealistic as the typical cynic in us will say but then again all good things must start somewhere!

  4. I like your idea of looking at one area where you can look at reducing consumption. It can seem so overwhelming to think about all the ways our lives leave a negative stamp on this world. But narrowing down to one or two things makes it seem more do-able, and if did that, it would make a huge difference.

    Thanks so much for your site! I came across it a couple of months ago and so enjoy reading your posts. They are funny and thought-provoking and frequently lead me to read and study further. I have come to the SDA church by way of marriage and although I love it in many ways and it is home for me, there are days when I feel I must conform myself into a specific traditional mold that doesn’t quite fit. Then I read your blog and realize that I don’t have to do that – I can just be myself and things will be fine. So thank you and I wish you a very happy new year (and fun in Australia!)

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