Saturday, April 21, 2018

Simplicity, Complicity, and the World We Are Creating

Last month, a talk I gave in January 2017 was included in a Best of the Left podcast, "#1173 Think transgenerationally, act simply (Culture and Environment)."  In light of its re-surfacing, I thought I'd share the text here, lightly edited, in honor of Earth Day. 


I grew up in gardens, a jungle of string beans and tomato plants, peonies and lilacs. 
The year could be marked by trips with my dad to buy seed potatoes and onion sets. I helped grandma pick grapes from the vine and watched for weeks in anticipation as she made wine that I was not allowed to touch. I can’t remember a year without the whistle of my mother’s canner or the slow simmer of a new batch of apple butter. And when we visited great-grandparents, we inevitably braved the briars to collect pails of blackberries and gooseberries, soon to be pies. It was natural to move between the gardens and our childhood games, back and forth. There was never any question for me of the connection between the soil and the plants and our own lives. Our health was bound up together. 

As a teen, I became less interested in gardens and more interested in the solitude and beauty of our woodlands and glades. I loved to hike, and, with no one to guide me, I would labor, many times in vain, to learn the names and ways of plants and trees with dichotomous keys. I would also carry books of poetry and short stories to secluded places, climb a tree, settle in, and get lost in the words. There was never any question of the connection between these places and the need to experience beauty and wonder. And these themes persisted in my life, and, since 1995, in my shared life with Holly, shaping our perspectives and guiding our decisions. They guide us still, because we understand that our health is bound up together. 

Those decisions have taken us to places we couldn’t guess when we first started out on the journey. For a while, we lived in the woods, learning carpentry with another family on a small farm. We lived simply, without electricity or plumbing, building a workshop and cabins with hand tools (with the exception of a gas-powered lumber mill), while helping tend small gardens and an organic dairy, and helping another local farmer with his pastured poultry operations. We learned a lot, about how wonderful it was to walk together through the woods to and from our chores, how cold a winter could really feel, how reclaimed materials from abandoned houses could be turned into a new home, how the misused and overused earth responded to attention and care and exploded with good food from good soil, and how the rhythms of each season brought us a rhythm of work, play, and rest, in balance with the earth itself. It was exhausting and dirty and beautiful and hopeful at the same time. 

We moved on from the cabin in the woods to remodel an old farmhouse in a tiny town, population 565, and learned the joy of making something of our own. We were quite poor, but we had the energy and, perhaps, the foolishness to tackle the project of turning a neglected house into something beautiful. That experience was all about learning from the mistakes of others and how to correct them, and then realizing, even as we worked to make things better, we were adding our own mistakes. We also began to better understand the nature of things: no matter how good of a job we did, no repair and no addition could last forever. We realized, too, that we already learned this in the garden, but, somehow, we had also learned to forget it when it came to most of the rest of life. There was always something to distract us from the fact that our society’s obsession with competition and consumption pulled us away from the attention, love, and wisdom it takes to actually care about a person or a place that is part of the cycle of living and dying. In fact, consumption and competition were poor substitutes for this kind of caring, but they were also more easily obtained, or at least pursued, in a culture that made true simplicity, contentment, community, and care difficult to sustain. 

Skipping ahead to 2007, we landed in Cambodia. Based on the pastoral work we had been doing over the years, we had been invited to work with a local peacebuilding NGO. Our efforts focused, first, on supporting the development of a research-based, culturally appropriate training curriculum addressing family conflict and violence, and, second, on providing training and services in conflict transformation, nonviolent action, and mindfulness practices. While we were there, we again lived what most Americans would consider a very simple lifestyle. But the context had changed. We had felt it before in our travels to and work in other countries, but living in Cambodia stripped away any last delusions we had that what we were doing was somehow noble. It’s no secret that much of the ecological devastation and human exploitation are hidden from most middle and upper class eyes in the United States. Among the poor, more is revealed. And living among the global poor confronts you with uncomfortable realities; you understand viscerally, and not just statistically, at just what cost we obtain our favorite clothes, electronics, foods, and other items that fill our time, our homes, our closets, our storage sheds, and even our dreams. 

We have been back in Missouri since 2010, and I can affirm that it is challenging to live and work for change here in the direction of a sustainable and just world. There are many barriers to simple lifestyle changes, and systemic change moves at an even slower pace, if it moves at all. So I’m sharing all this to emphasize that our decisions have always been, and must always be, works in progress. Learning to live simply and sustainably, both as individuals and as a society, with attention to social and ecological justice, is a practice that must evolve with our circumstances, with our understanding and abilities, with our convictions and aspirations, with our vision and an ever-broadening scope of that vision. It is a practice that must deal honestly with our limitations, and with the terrible and heart-breaking truth that I was not born merely into a world of gardens, of abundance and beauty. My life has also been bound up with the destruction of this earth I love, and of the people who could otherwise be my friends and neighbors. For our actions for justice to be authentic and effective, they must deal honestly with the ways people, including those of us in the United States, benefit from environmental destruction and human exploitation around the world, and especially with the ways white folk have benefited and continue to benefit from the ransacking of the earth’s resources and profit from the bodies and blood of fellow human beings.  

I know it can feel difficult to criticize a system that has brought more comfortable standards of living to many people, and we can quickly become defensive of our own enjoyment of favorite conveniences, pleasures, and luxuries. But this is exactly why we must bring our attention to these issues, because our defensiveness cannot be allowed to shield us from the reality that our consumption has been both unbalanced, creating heaven on earth for the few and varying degrees of hell on earth for the many, and unsustainable, extracting, consuming, polluting, and destroying at a pace that threatens the future of countless species on earth, including us humans. Just how intense is the situation?  The World Wildlife Federation’s “Living Planet Index, which measures the health of forests, oceans, freshwater, and other natural systems, shows a 35 percent decline in Earth’s ecological health since 1970.” (“The State of Consumption Today,” WorldWatch Institute - ) In case you think you misheard that, it is indeed a 35% decline in ecological health in less than half a century of time. In practical terms and according to the World Wildlife Federation, this also means that:
  • “Human activities contaminate ecosystems around the world—from pole to pole, from the highest mountains to the ocean deep. Toxic chemicals can be found in pristine forests and the blood of Arctic animals. Litter floats beneath the surface of oceans miles away from land. Even excess noise and light are interrupting natural patterns and disrupting the lives of animals and people.” ( )
  •  “Humans are behind the current rate of species extinction, which is at least 100–1,000 times higher than nature intended. ... wildlife populations of vertebrate species—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—have declined by 52 percent over the last 40 years.” ( )

As these statistics hint, this decline has just exacerbated a system in which those who are most vulnerable to poverty are also most at risk to the impacts of environmental decline and destruction. As Jess Zimmerman has expressed,  
“You’ve probably noticed that factories, power plants, and superfund sites tend to cluster in communities already burdened with social stresses; it’s a vicious cycle where being poor means your environment is terrible, and poverty plus the terrible environment makes you more sick, which in turn can keep you poor. … [And] minority, low-income, and tribal populations are disproportionately harmed by environmental woes. Not only are they exposed to more pollution, they’re also more affected by it — research suggests that the health effects of pollutant exposure join forces with other poverty-related factors like poor nutrition and stress from unmet needs, exacerbating health effects.” (Jess Zimmerman (January 13, 2011). “Does pollution lock people into a cycle of poverty?,” Grist. Available at:  )

It is this terrifying cycle of ecological and social injustice that caused the United Nations Development Program to release a report in 1998 called “Consumption for Human Development.” Although the numbers have changed, the conclusions are still relevant: 

“Today’s consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating. If the trends continue without change — not redistributing from high-income to low-income consumers, not shifting from polluting to cleaner goods and production technologies, not promoting goods that empower poor producers, not shifting priority from consumption for conspicuous display to meeting basic needs — today’s problems of consumption and human development will worsen. ... The real issue is not consumption itself but its patterns and effects.” (“Human Development Report 1998: Consumption for Human Development.” Available at: )
But this isn’t news, is it? I think it is a truism by now that we are using up the earth at an alarming rate. According to a 2014 report on the National Geographic’s Greendex, the percentage of consumers around the world who “say they are very concerned about environmental problems” actually rose 5% from a 2012 survey, and is now at 61% of the population. Further, since tracking began in 2008, “sustainable consumer behavior has increased in nearly every country ..., suggesting consumer behavior across the world is improving, albeit slowly.” But the survey also revealed how stuck some consumers are: 
“More and more consumers are embracing local and organic foods and lightening their environmental footprint in the food category. Nearly all consumers believe that we need to change the way we produce and consume food in order to feed a growing population, and many say it is very important to know how and where their food is produced. Yet, relatively few people report that they do.” ("Increased Fears About Environment, but Little Change in Consumer Behavior, According to New National Geographic/GlobeScan Study.” Available at: )

And where was the biggest sticking point? You probably can guess that consumer behaviors in the USA still ranked as “the least sustainable of all countries surveyed since the inception of the Greendex study in 2008.” A 2012 reflection by EarthTalk in Scientific American noted that people living in the United States “create thirteen times as much ecological damage over the course of [a] lifetime than a [person] in Brazil” and “drain as many resources as 35 natives of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than someone from China”. For this to happen, the growth of our rate of consumption had to outpace our population growth. 
“‘[B]etween 1900 and 1989 U.S. population tripled while its use of raw materials grew by a factor of 17.  ‘With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper’ … .” (“Use It and Lose It: The Outsize Effect of U.S. Consumption on the Environment,” EarthTalk. Available at:  )
So, if we want to live full, comfortable, beautiful human lives, we must move our culture from an orientation around consumption to contentment. And yet we are stuck in socio-economic systems that assume that unlimited growth and insatiable consumption are virtues and that resist oversight of impacts. Why is this so? Walter Wink, in his book, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, wrote: 
“The pain of living a life so alienated from what is natural and pleasurable exacts a psychic cost: numbing. Most of us, winners and losers alike, are profoundly unable to grasp the severity of our loss. Numbness in turn produces amnesia about what a fully human life would be like, and even a fear of remembering. We internalize the ethic of productivity, the constraints of patriarchy, the imperative of success, the drivenness of modern life, the obligations of machismo, the laws that prevent our achieving for ourselves what the powerful achieve at our expense. We become complicit. And so we leave unopposed the world that injures us, restructuring ourselves to appease the Powers we depend upon. To achieve peace with the world, we declare war upon ourselves.” (Walter Wink (1992). Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress), 42. )
I have found this to be a consistently powerful insight into how I experience the world. We are conditioned into the way things are from infancy. The more we become aware of the cruelty and tragedy that exists in the world, the more we have to choose what to do with that knowledge. But with this awareness of injustice comes an awareness of how difficult change can be, and how small our lives are in the face of it all. Complicity is a survival strategy, one that is easy to criticize but harder to escape. Wink’s description of complicity as declaring ‘war upon ourselves’ is descriptive of this whole process of internalizing oppressive cultures and systems, of normalizing oppression. How does one handle the rage and grief over the state of the world, and over the never-ending parade of heartbreaking stories and photos that bring the statistics to life? Especially when one feels powerless in the face of it all? And what if you never develop the skills to truly understand it, and are simply left with vague conceptions, confusions, and frustrations about it all? 

Wink points out that most of us are not even aware of what we have lost. We have doubtless caught glimpses along the way, but it is difficult to nurture those experiences into something substantial. Numbness we can understand. Numbness is so standard that we have created aphorisms and stereotypes about how we go through life in a resigned way, hating Mondays, working for the weekend, surrounded but lonely, angry but impotent, ready to distract or medicate ourselves so that we can forget about it for a little while. We must make the best of it, after all. So we go along, and “we leave unopposed the world that injures us, restructuring ourselves to appease the Powers we depend upon. To achieve peace with the world, we declare war upon ourselves.” 

What is necessary is to find ways to heal and restructure ourselves so that, out of this growing wholeness, we can meaningfully and wisely oppose the world that injures us. In terms of spiritual traditions, these practices have been considered under the principle of simplicity. What is meant here is not an obsession with austerity, but an attentiveness to right relation and balance in our lives. If complicity is a reduction of human life to submission to, as Wink described them, the “ethic of productivity, the constraints of patriarchy, the imperative of success, the drivenness of modern life, the obligations of machismo, the laws that prevent our achieving for ourselves what the powerful achieve at our expense,” then simplicity is an enriching of human life in recognition of interdependence and the cultivation of wonder, joy, care, and wholeness. Simplicity is oriented around the conviction that we can live fully joyful and human lives without depending on the destruction or exploitation of the earth, other creatures, or our selves. We might describe it as an ethic of care, rooted in equality and the imperative of sustainability. Its pace is measured and reflective, adaptable to the needs of the community. And its power emerges in that community as an expression of wisdom and love. 

Typically, the cultivation of simplicity begins with an examination of one’s life, then making changes in a step-by-step way through ordinary decisions, routines, and opportunities we encounter. Each change leads to deeper reflection and more change. Especially for those of us accustomed to numbness, these choices can offer an important form of resistance, or an opportunity to begin learning to resist, by inserting meaningful decisions into everyday routines that otherwise would simply reinforce our complicity with the status quo. They can help us become more aware of the issues involved and how those issues interact with our daily lives. They can bring insight into both our limitations and our passions, so we can learn what we care about and where we want to wisely and strategically invest our time, energy, and money. They can help us strengthen our resolve to act, giving us confidence and experience in our ability to engage with issues and join with others. And these decisions also can help build social capital, community relationships, skills, and habits that will be essential in the just, equitable, peaceful, and sustainable world that we are working to make possible.

Learning the art of simplicity is not easy, and I don’t want to make it sound as if it is. Stressors in modern life often come one right after another, especially for the poor. But we have to start somewhere, if we want to build momentum that can provide space for all of us to live, thrive, and enjoy life. So, as usual, I am speaking first to those who have privilege, who have allowed marginalized communities to bear the burden both of suffering the ill effects of our insatiable consumption and of acting for change to confront and change those patterns of consumption. We must proceed with the realization that a move toward simplicity and sustainability does not make us especially virtuous. We are simply rising to the level of basic human decency, recognizing that it is not sustainable, ethical, wise, or compassionate for our well-being to come at the cost of the well-being of others or the earth. Because this is not about blame or guilt, but about honesty, responsibility, and mutual care and kindness. 

But we must also proceed with awareness of the easy ways we can become stuck. For example, if we are really paying attention to our lifestyles, we will realize that these unjust systems are very skilled at absorbing the impacts of our individual decisions. It can easily feel like and even be an exercise in futility. Whether intentional or not, unjust systems thrive on these feelings. Injustice benefits when, in our frustration and exhaustion with never being able to accomplish enough, we break down into a cycle of despair, asking, ‘why bother?’ Alternately, we may become obsessed with our lifestyle choices, losing awareness and concern for the larger issues and concerns. If we want to enact true and lasting change, we must keep our personal choices in dialog with our communities and our world, so that our choices become gateways to understanding and to action. This is why I consider these choices to be part of my reflective and spiritual practices, part of the praxis by which I can continuously learn from the world, act upon that learning, and then reflect, learn, and act again. 

All I can offer this morning are some of the principles that guide our own reflections and actions. 

First, begin by doing less. Consume less. Buy less, eat less, use electronics less, drive less. By doing less, we immediately lessen our burden on the environment, while we also open up space and time in our lives for learning, reflecting, and acting in new ways. For me, this has evolved to mean having habits like buying used goods, eating a vegetarian diet, and focusing on hobbies and volunteer activities that are free and that bring me into relationship with others. 

Second, do at least one thing slowly and mindfully each day. Be present and attentive with something or someone each day. Simplicity requires skills in living intentionally, carefully, attentively, even lovingly. Often we are in a rush to get through the little routines of life; we forget that life is actually made up of these moments. For me, this includes a meditation practice, as well as doing normal things mindfully and with my full attention, whether it is drinking tea, brushing my teeth, or playing a board game. In all these things, I remember that the world we envision, the world where true peace and justice is the norm and not the exception, will still be filled with these moments. We get a taste of the world we are creating by bringing our attention to the moments that make up our days with the same kindness, wisdom, and gratitude that will make a new world possible and fill it with goodness and grace.  

Third, learn about what you consume so you can make conscious and intentional decisions about how to consume. Pick one thing a week, or one thing a month, or one big purchase you might make, and find out answers to simple questions. Where does it come from? What are the human and environmental impacts? What business practices ease or exacerbate these impacts? How are the people who do the work treated? How much do they get paid? What differences are there between different companies? What would it take to do or make this myself? Let the answers sink into your mind and into your decisions. For me, this inevitably loops back to buying less. Usually, the more I know about the trust costs of most of what we buy, the less I want to buy it. 

We can’t learn everything at once, and we can’t do everything at once. As you bring attention to your life, take note of the inclinations of your heart, and to the needs of our times. Find where things match. Simplicity not only frees up your time, energy, and money, it also brings clarity. Begin asking, how can my simplicity give birth to justice? From little to large, our actions become the raw materials for new habits, new relationships, new insights, and new actions. 

And, along the way, we need to take time to be grateful, because the heart of simplicity is gratitude. As often as possible, be grateful for the things, people, and experiences that you encounter during the day, and for all the processes and people that made them possible. Notice the things that have to go right in order for us to live our lives. This doesn’t diminish the difficult and negative things in our lives, it doesn’t erase the oppression, but gratitude does energize us and sustain us so that we don’t give up the fight. We have to know what we are fighting for, we have to know what we are organizing for, to keep up the courage and wisdom to fight against. Gratitude helps us do just that. 

I’ve stressed that simplicity is a practice, and a practice is not a checklist. It is a living process that grows with a person’s or community’s knowledge, understanding, and skills. Our repertoire grows, even as our interests and goals evolve. So our goal is not to simply change our light bulbs, recycle more, become vegetarians, or eat food grown locally. It may include those kinds of things, but the goal of a practice is to deepen our understanding, transform our attitudes, and equip us with both the skills and the insight we need to engage with our needs, circumstances, and difficulties in a wise way.