The Call, Column 86 – ‘Do Not Store Up Treasures Upon the Earth’

12 12 2017

(December 10, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

‘Do Not Store Up Treasures Upon The Earth’

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing some serious cleaning. I’ve purged everything from clothes to extra project materials, from electronic equipment to the always-present “knick-knacks” – objects that tend not to be particularly useful, yet that I somehow can’t bring myself to part with.

This process has forced me to face the staggering amount of stuff that I have acquired and held onto in my short 25 years, much of it just in the past few. I’ve always fancied myself a bit of an anti-consumerist; and while I still hold that view more strongly than ever before, and act on it in certain, distinct ways (I do not conspicuously consume expensive things, on principle), purging my belongings has made me aware of more than a bit of personal hypocrisy.

So, what’s the best way to flesh out these difficult, uncomfortable concepts? You know, those aspects of our society that are damaging to the environment, our health, and our happiness, but are practiced by even the preachiest of critics, like yours truly? Discuss it in a public forum for all to read, of course!

And in light of the Christmas season being upon us once again, I think it’s an appropriate time to take a good, critical look at “the consumption of large amounts of stuff” as a normal operating mode for us in the Global West. Let’s go!

As with everything else, my first impulse is to look at this issue in the context of our transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, 10,000 years ago…and low and behold, that seems to provide us with some answers.

Prior to the start of agriculture, most human beings were basically nomads. We did not have permanent structures to live in or store our belongings; and anything we wanted to keep, we had to carry along with us as we moved around in search for food. That limited our stock of personal belongings to necessities – tools, short-term food storage, clothing, etc – and sentimental items deemed important enough to bear the burden of carrying.

But, like in so many other ways, the start of agriculture created a paradigm shift in our habits, as they related to accumulating goods. Agrarianism allowed human populations to settle down in one place, build permanent residences and other structures, and benefit from the implicit security that comes from a self-contained community. At base, this foundational shift to agriculture meant that we required vastly more tools, building materials, and food storage implements than while we were hunter-gatherers.

But it also gave a new meaning to the ideas of ownership and property. No longer was “my property” limited to whatever I could carry on my back. The start of agriculture, and civilization to boot, meant that a nice swatch of land, a house, a fenced paddock, some fields, and everything contained within were all “my property”. And with those, every tool, building, material, fiber, fuel, food, and feed required to maintain them.

And with the formation of civilization came the division of labor. This allowed craftspeople and artisans of all sorts to work off of the farm, creating goods that weren’t essential for survival, but which made life easier and more enjoyable. Modern-type economies arose from this, and people began to acquire and accumulate goods as they continue to do this day.

I believe it was this type of post-agrarian consumption pattern to which Jesus was referring in Matthew 6:19, when He said, “‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.’”

By that time, two millennia ago, the imperative to consume non-food goods was already ingrained in our collective psychology. It was motivated both by the understandable desire to provide for long-term need and security, and the much less noble one of wealth accumulation and fostering economic status.

And so it went. We were agrarians 10,000 years, up until sometime in the 1800s when human beings moved, en masse, off the farm and into the cities, to work in factories and industrial jobs. We lost the values implicit in agrarianism, which at minimum, grounded us by keeping us intimately aware of the primary production systems that yielded consumable goods (food and otherwise). We entered the 1900s and then the new millennium, our culture continued to shift. And now, the innate, animalistic, psychological imperative of seeking security through the acquisition and accumulation of goods is manifested in hoarding, conspicuous consumption of overpriced cars and property, and the behaviors which lead to television shows like Storage Wars. Oh boy…my oversized book collection is starting to look a little more innocent.

My question, like always is: what effect does this phenomenon have on our health, our happiness, and our local and global environments? Great, I’m glad you (I) asked.

The last part is the easiest to answer. Consumption of goods requires production of goods and (in most cases), disposal of waste. The disposal of solid waste is bad for the local environment, presenting the challenge of building landfills without poisoning the soil, water, and air. But solid waste isn’t the only output of excessive consumption. Our use of fossil fuels releases unprecedented amounts of fossil carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerated human-caused climate change and wreaking havoc on the global environment. What’s more, as evidenced by the exploitive, industrial production systems built around agriculture, forestry, mining, fossil fuel acquisition, and processing, production is pretty bad for the environment, too.

Beyond the environmental effects, though, excessive acquisition and consumption of non-essential goods clearly takes a toll on human health and happiness…on a society-wide scale, and also an individual one.

It goes without saying that there are negative public health effects that stem from the pollution, associated with the global production system. And the goods which tend to be marketed to people – because they are the most profitable – seem to be sort of unhealthy to consume (sugary and processed foods, objects of vice, expensive goods made for the purpose of defining socioeconomic status).

But there is also an implicit stress associated with the over-acquisition and over-accumulation of goods…something that I can attest to from personal experience. Like a lot of people, I do best when the scope of my immediate environment, the set of all things that I have to keep control over, is minimized. The more things I have to remember to clean and maintain, to organize, to read, to delegate, and to “do” in general, the more stressed I become. By purging a fair number of my belongings, cleaning up my living space and organizing my projects into a system that I will hopefully maintain with little effort, I can feel this stress lifted.

I think this is true in general for people. We evolved as hunter-gatherers, and were up until recently in our biological history. The scope of our environment was small: it was our nomadic tribe, our small number of transportable belongings, and the immediate locality in which we were searching for food. So while there is a comforting and perfectly justifiable security that comes with owning more – food, tools, fuel, textiles, books, art – than we need for immediate survival, I have come to believe that there is an implicit stress, a strain on our brains’ ability to process its environment, in owning more items than we can ever properly use.

This holiday season, all I’m asking is that we keep our overall consumption habits in mind. There is nothing wrong with buying things, especially not to show our love for others or improve the quality of our lives. But by taking simple actions – like recycling, like minimizing energy consumption, like buying high-quality goods from producers that provide for laborer and environmental health, like recognizing that experiences often bring more happiness than physical goods – I think in our consumption, we can help to produce a better world.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call, Column 61 – Bah Humbug!

15 01 2017

(December 18, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Bah Humbug!

            “I say, ‘Bah Humbug’ to these things! We don’t need these things to feel the holidays. We feel the holidays – the holy days – by focusing on the Kingdom of God, here and now!”

These words were part of a particularly fiery sermon, given by my Pastor, Lynn McCracken (of Arnold Mills United Methodist) a couple of weeks ago. Pastor Lynn was holding up a catalog that advertised Black Friday sales, rejecting its claim that the feeling and enjoyment of the Christmas season is dependent on buying the goods it was advertising.

I think you all know how I feel about consumerism. There are some goods that we need to survive, of course, and others that truly add meaning to our lives – I’m not talking about those things. I’m talking about the widgets and devices and cheap plastic stuff. I’m talking about the stuff that we have all, myself included, been convinced to buy by insidious marketing campaigns, designed to make us feel unfulfilled with our lives and then appeal to that feeling of insecurity.

I dislike consumerism. I dislike it, in no small part, because the very idea is based on cold economic models which define us not as individuals, with hopes and dreams and creativity and ingenuity, but as easy-to-manipulate consumers, lowly cogs in an industrial machine. The economic system built on the foundation of consumerism values our lives only insofar as they fit into a tight mold: repeatedly perform a highly-specialized task, buy as much as that situation will allow, have offspring that will continue to do the same, and die as soon as possible, after being unable to complete steps one through three.

I cannot respect – no, I cannot even accept as valid or unavoidable or somehow desirable – any economic system that produces this ugly mess; that reduces each of us to a dollar-figure and tally-mark, and doesn’t have much better to say about the natural world; that distracts us from the true purpose and nature and importance of life on this magnificent ball of rock. My Pastor was right-on in her condemnation of this, and her call to focus on the Kingdom of God. I’ve been thinking a lot about her ideas on this topic, and my own, and I want to bring it a bit further.

At the risk of sounding cliché, I have had some quotes from Charles Dickens’, “A Christmas Carol” bouncing around my head in relation to this column, at least as long as Pastor Lynn has been weaving references to the book into her sermons.

When first confronted by the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge is astonished by the fate that has befallen his long-dead business partner, praising him as “always a good man of business”. Marley’s Ghost responds with the book’s seminal quote: “‘Business!…Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’”

This, I think, is our first clue into what is truly meant by “the Kingdom of God”, “the Tao”, and so many similar references made by our religious texts. It is this idea that collaboration between human beings, of using our gifts towards the betterment of all and not just ourselves, should be the underlying driving force of human society.

This flies directly in the face of the western economic system as it is made to exist today. It is based on competition, on the idea that life on Earth – for human beings and every other creature – is a competitive struggle for limited resources; and that individual success is defined by control over the greatest amount of these resources, and societal success by achieving the highest rate of growth in their exploitation. We will discuss the disastrous environmental implications later on, but this mindset and the system that it brings about are DIRECTLY responsible for the poverty, inequality, and suffering, the ills of the world that Scrooge was so content to overlook from the safety of his Counting House.

In the Gospel of Mark (9:35), Jesus summarizes the Kingdom of God, explaining that “‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.’” This is no short order. To meaningfully celebrate the Christmas season, to focus on the Kingdom of God now and at all times during the year, we have to live our lives toward the betterment of all of humanity. Consumerism and competitive economics are incompatible with this goal.

I think this is a good place to leave off for now. In the next column, we’ll expand more on this idea of the true meaning of the Kingdom of God, and how it pertains to the human economy and the environment in which we live.

For right now, I’ll leave you with one last bit of wisdom. This season is one of the best opportunities we get every year to put our beliefs into practice, to spread the cheer and goodwill that exists in all our hearts, to our fellow human beings. It is the time of year, in yet again the words of Charles Dickens, “when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys”. With that in mind, may you all have a Merry Christmas, and a joyous Holiday Season!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.