Manifesto of a plastic bag washer

There are things that come naturally to me: turning off the water while I soap up my hands; saving a leftover potato to make dough, hording empty pickle jars, separating recycling from compost; making old clothes into washrags or drying ziplock bags. These seem to have always been habit.

I didn't grow up during the Depression, as some of my friends like to joke. I did grow up poor, but it was an odd kind of poverty. Some call it "voluntary poverty."

Technically, my parents could have pursued more prestigious careers earlier. We had a few good toys--legos and sleds--and the great wealth of a natural playground just beyond the door of our scrap-wood shack in Northeastern Oregon. But we also had old, faded clothes, socks that always fell down into the toes of our boots, nothing that matched, healthy homemade lunches or free school lunches and a TV twenty years out of date (when we had one at all). 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Living that way voluntarily is something quickly ridiculed today. I've heard it on-line, read it in popular new books, seen it in movies and recently gotten it from two fairly close friends. Voluntarily living modestly is considered naive, hypocritical and just plain stupid. 

The pressure is on in our society to get the most high-paying job possible, to pursue a major career and to use material bounty to keep you sane in the rat race.

I can hear the "buts" already and there is some literary and social lip service paid to frugality and "the simple things in life." However, those things fly out the window when it comes to a discussion of saving for your health care or your children's educations in the United Sates. If you don't have a near or above average income, that level of saving isn't realistic. And the excuse that you didn't save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you were living modestly and working at consuming less--which precludes high-powered careers with expensive clothing, classy social obligations and extensive travel and commutes--will get you exactly nowhere. 

I have the utmost respect for people who have worked their way out of poverty and don't want to ever go back. Immigrants, refugees and other disadvantaged people often work hard and focus on a career at the expense of everything else in order to gain a secure material life. To many people who came from poverty, the idea that those with the education and privilege to live a middle-class or wealthy lifestyle today might elect to live with less must appear ludicrous and, yes, hypocritical. 

And yet we know that it is not reasonable or sustainable for most of us (let alone all of us) to live the high-consumption lifestyle of today's western wealthy and middle classes. Environmental crises grow year upon year, setting new standards for a dismal new normal like clockwork.

The polar bears were threatened. Now they are simply dying. In a few short years, they will be gone. Hurricanes, droughts, desertification and wildfires set new records each year and claim more lives and more livelihoods. On the one hand, we know it cannot work for all of us to consume at the levels some of us have become accustomed to.

But acquaintances recently ribbed me for washing and reusing ziplock bags. Some because glass jars are a better way to keep food in recycled containers, others because they think one should just buy new bags. Both groups are wealthier than me, have greater storage space and don't store many leftovers in the first place. They can chuckle all they want. 

A friend of mine described how his partner insists on throwing out pasta that spilled onto the counter, not because it is dirty or contaminated but because it is a "poverty mindset" to spend time carefully picking something like pasta up. And I'm not even getting into all the people who refuse to eat leftovers or habitually buy new clothes simply because they have worn an outfit the requisite three times. 

Often the reason given is not even a desire for comfort, but an insistence that living lavishly is a matter of self respect, proof that one is not living in poverty. 

I have not appreciably drug myself out of poverty. I grew up in a family with very little monetary income. I pursued the work I loved and made ends meet but little more. Today my family lives modestly and does it well. We wear second-hand clothes more often than not. My children get new clothes when the old ones get too small. I get new clothes when the professional clothes get downgraded to gardening clothes and the gardening clothes fall apart.

And I still wash plastic bags, just like my mother did. I have no intention of stopping so long as plastic bags continue to invade my kitchen. I'd love to have shelves full of healthy and expensive glass storage containers and I agree that plastic bags are a modern evil, even when reused, but living well with less entails compromises.

I think there is special jargon for this in ecological circles and I do care about the environment, other living beings and the earth a great deal. But I am not doing these things to make a statement, to prove a point or even to make my own little impact on the environment better.

I do these things because not to do them feels wrong. To waste resources feels unwise and unethical. For a few years, when I lived in an Eastern European city without recycling or any place to put compost, I was forced not to separate garbage and it made me feel unwashed. 

Even if it doesn't matter whether we let the faucet run here and now because the local community has plenty of clean water, I can't abide it. The habit is wrong. The modeling for children is wrong. There is always reason to conserve, to reduce consumption and to live well with less. 

Those who belittle this may not understand. But it is my self respect that matters to me.

The budget conservative litmus test

You may support social justice politics, but that doesn't make you a spender and a waster. In fact, most people who know me personally would call me a fiscal conservative, especially when it comes to my own budget. 

My mom coined the phrase "doing poverty well" and I am an apple that didn't fall far from that tree. I take doing well on modest means not just as a necessity but also as a wise and sustainable plan. Part of that plan is a combination of a few state-of-the-art bits of technology with a generally low-tech lifestyle.

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

For instance, here is how the morning went at my house. At six a.m. I got up and sent the kids into the bathroom, where there is a small hot-air heater, to get dressed in their sturdy second-hand clothes. Most of the house is chilly in the morning. I went downstairs to prepare herbal medicines for my husband's cold, my daughter's special needs and my banged up leg (injured while fixing a storm-damaged greenhouse last week). Hubby made the kids' breakfast and school snacks of bread, cheese, homegrown carrots and homemade fruit roll-ups, while I made sure hair got brushed. 

After they left while the world was still navy blue with clinging night, I lit candles, built a fire to heat the house, put the tea kettle on, got a coat and went to let the chicken's out of their night seclusion. Then I settled down by the fire with the new iPhone that took two years to save for and started the day's writing and marketing work. The phone is already proving its worth with the added accessibility functions for the blind. 

There are a few sustainable investments (like solar panels and our own well) that I might spend money on if I had more, but mostly if I had more money I wouldn't really live very differently. And the only thing we have ever gone into debt for was a ten percent loan on building our house, which we paid off within five years. As a freelance journalist and then as an author, my livelihood has always been unpredictable and my spending doesn't change much even when I do make more. 

So, let's do away with the propaganda that says you are either a fiscal conservative who wants to cut services for the vulnerable in society and slash the economic safety net or you are a debt-happy "liberal." That s a mythical divide that has never existed.

With politics the way they are in Europe and America these days, there has been a lot of talk of financial restrictions. And yet inevitably, this talk comes from men (and the occasional woman) who own millions and are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars more for questionable work. They are people for whom the concept of balancing a budget is disconnected from functionality and has more to do with who they think "deserves" money than with what works. 

There is one simple litmus test we should apply to any leader or representative who says we have to cut health care, education and other basic needs for the public on the grounds that we can't afford them. They must first abolish the extra employee benefits that give them and their families access to top quality health care, education and so forth. .

I do believe there are times to tighten belts. And this is one of them.

Climate change is a serious threat and it requires the kind of concerted economic effort that pulled us out of the Great Depression or won World War II. We can and must invest in new technologies to move toward one hundred percent renewable energy, creating vast numbers of new jobs in new industries and significantly restructuring the economy. This will no doubt require some sacrifices. 

And the only leader worth the term is one who leads the charge into the breach. I am not against fiscal conservation. My household saves, invests and carefully manages every resource, both financial and otherwise. Mostly we live frugally, but when we see that something expensive would significantly aid the whole, such as specific technology, we make the investment. We do extraordinarily well with little. But this is primarily because those who set the budget risk their own comforts and luxuries first and no part of the whole is discarded or allowed to fall into deep crisis. 

If we cannot afford to feed and care for children, then we can't afford benefits for Congress or the president and the same goes for state representatives. If you're the captain, you risk yourself first, not your crew. This is basic ethics according to Star Trek. But it is also functional. There is a reason why the military model requires those with authority to take risks first and to ensure that no one under their command is left behind. It works over the long term. 

If we want an economy that is sturdy and healthy for the long haul, rather than spurting with unstable and unequal growth one minute and leaving whole cities homeless the next, we must change the concepts by which fiscal decisions are made. If and when the straits are dire, let the politicians sound the call by making their own sacrifices first. Then the need for hard work and conservation will be clear to all.