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December 08, 2016
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Simpler times

While many Americans bask in the afterglow of frenzied Black Friday shopping, others among us are forced to opt out of this post-Thanksgiving ritual. Caught between rising prices for life’s basic necessities—food, clothing and energy—and wages that fail to keep pace, many simply have less discretionary income and a reduced standard of living. Thus this year, Christmas will be more modest for many of us.

Interestingly, there are increasing numbers of people who voluntarily choose to practice more modest Christmastime consumption, finding consumerism as practiced in our present-day economy to be unsustainable for our world’s future. After all, what are we consumers, with our insatiable appetites for acquiring more “stuff,” consuming, if not our planet? While this good earth we live on has lots of natural resources, many are not renewable. Face it, ours is a finite planet, while our wish lists of the things we think we need are infinite.

It’s not as if we haven’t had any warning about where we are headed. Forty years ago, a think tank called The Club of Rome warned that there were limits to economic growth based on the ability of our planet with its finite natural resources to carry unrestrained population growth. (If you want to go back a lot farther, read what Thomas Malthus, an Englishman who lived from 1766 to 1834, had to say about this. It is pretty much the same.)

You ask: What might prudent people do? Conserve, conserve, conserve, might be a sensible answer. Yet we do not. We shop until we drop, literally consuming as if there is no tomorrow. And truth be told, if we continue depleting our non-renewable natural resources at the rate we are, where will that leave tomorrow’s generations? Probably not in a very good position. This, then, is the meaning of sustainability: to use what we need to survive without depriving future generations of what they will need to survive in the future.

So, here’s the challenge: how many of us are willing to consume less and to live simpler, most sustainable lifestyles, for the planet, for our children and grandchildren (and their children and grandchildren), and maybe even for ourselves and our own peace of mind? And if, just if, conscious conservation is the right thing to practice, here’s the real question: Could we learn to be happy without all that “stuff” we think we need?

That answer may lie in our past.

Our parents and grandparents certainly lived simpler lives with a lot less “stuff.” They worked harder, for sure. They were thrifty. They did not throw out something if it could be repaired. They turned out the lights when they left the room. Many knew how to grow some of their own food and preserve it. At Christmastime, they were happy with a simple pair of new pajamas, or some new socks and a new pair of shoes, or a winter coat, or a homemade toy left by Santa. They did not practice conspicuous consumption. Yes, those were simpler times. People did not have as much and apparently did not need as much. But perhaps that is the point. Despite living in those not-really-so-long-ago times, people still found joy and happiness in family and in community, in their accomplishments and in creativity, in nature and in taking time to enjoy it, in sharing with friends and with strangers when the situation called for it. Those seem like values worth living.

So, here are our questions following Black Friday and Cyber Monday: Isn’t consuming less “stuff” in order to conserve the earth’s limited resources also a value worth living? Isn’t sustainability a value worth practicing? As for learning how to be happy while consuming less stuff? Well that’s more of a personal challenge than anything else. Will we be up to it?