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Debra Lynn Dadd

The Soul of Living
by Debra Lynn Dadd

As spiritual beings, we share a commonality with Nature in that we are all created from the same spiritual Source, regardless of the name by which we call this Creator. Therefore, when we perceive our place in life from our soul awareness, we feel our interconnection with all life and sense our responsibility to act with care and respect as we go about our daily lives.

Home Safe Home by Debra Lynn Dadd

In order to do this, we need to rethink our role as consumers. My dictionary defines consumer as "one who consumes" and "one who uses a commodity or service." To consume is "to destroy or expend by use, to use up, to spend wastefully." Because the very purpose of our consumer culture is to destroy, expend, use up, and waste, to be a consumer is not a soulful activity, nor does it sustain life.

Several years ago, an article appeared in my local newspaper called "What's enough stuff?" It pointed out how, as a consuming culture, we're hooked on stuff--not even necessarily valuable stuff--just stuff. With every year that passes, it said, it takes more stuff to have enough stuff, and the frenzy is accelerating. The way people measure their success is in terms of material possessions. Piles of things, therefore, make consumers feel good about themselves; having only essential necessities make them feel like a failure. Instead of accumulating only what they need, consumers are now moving into accumulating more than they need: five televisions, twenty pairs of shoes, a dozen kitchen appliances (I'm not exaggerating). A professor of retailing and marketing at our local junior college, who has held countless class discussions on the concept of having enough said, "We've come to the conclusion that...what is enough is when your money runs out."

While environmental degradation has been going on in varying degrees throughout the history of the world, there has been no other time that humans have taken so many resources from the earth and created so much waste as we have since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and particularly since the creation of consumer culture. To be a consumer is not the natural state our souls--our passion for consuming has been deliberately cultivated in our minds and emotions.

In the 1950s, marketing consultant Victor Lebow wrote in the New York Journal of Retailing, "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction in consumption...We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-growing rate." Instead of buying items that meet our needs, the marketplace entices us to buy things we don't need. We consume because we've been conditioned by advertising to consume.

Many of us, myself included, were raised on this ethic--it's all we know. To be a good consumer was the lesson I learned from my parents. I was literally, in 1955, "born to shop." Quality time with my mother was spent shopping at the mall; she gave me my first credit card when I was sixteen, and it took me years to get out of debt. Going shopping was entertainment, a setting for social interaction, a way to see things that were new and different. I became so immersed in consumer culture that I made a career of it as a consumer advocate.

When I first became interested in living in a way that is in harmony with nature, I looked to indigenous cultures for inspiration. There is much we can learn from native peoples about living soulfully and sustainably in our places, but we can't go back to living in such a primitive way. Even though I could see we needed to make a change in both how we choose products, and the way we live, a basic piece of the puzzle of what we need to do to live sustainably now didn't fall into place for me until I started reading Wendell Berry, particularly his The Unsettling of America and Home Economics. Given that his writing has been motivated "by a desire to make myself responsibly at home in this world and in my native and chosen place" (a very sustainable idea), I was surprised that I had never been drawn to read his books before. The reason, I believe, is that his books are promoted as being about small-scale agriculture and preservation of the family farm, but his insights on being a consumer and keeping a household give solid guidelines for creating a sustainable home and economy.

According to Mr. Berry, a consumer buys everything they need for survival: food, water, clothing, shelter, and as a consequence, consumers need an ever-increasing, steady supply of money in order to survive. As consumers, we put our lives in the hands of those who sell the products and services we rely on because we do not produce any of our basic needs for ourselves. Our choices are dictated by advertising, salesmanship and the amount of money we have. We think we gain convenience and leisure, but in the process we forfeit our creativity, our individuality, our ability to fend for ourselves, our human relationships, our connection with the source of our sustenance, and our very souls as we "sell out" our lives in exchange for the money needed to survive in consumer culture. The whole idea of consumerism is disconnected from and therefore destructive of natural ecosystems and human needs. For a consumer, domestic labor consists of buying things, putting them away, and throwing things away; if they can manage it, all domestic work is done by someone else. Consumers need instant gratification and often live on credit. It's a vicious trap that depletes financial, human, and environmental resources. In many ways our environmental crisis is fundamentally similar to our consumer credit-based culture; we are living beyond our means "eco"nomically--both financially and environmentally.

What we have lost in becoming consumers is the very sustainable and soulful art of homemaking. Mr. Berry points out that, in contrast to consumers, homemakers or householders are in some way producers as well as users, providing some of their own needs out of their own resources, skills, and imagination. While homemakers do buy things, there's a better balance of contributing as well as taking. In learning domestic skills of cooking, gardening, sewing, building, home remedies and personal health care, householders become more able, valuable, self-responsible human beings providing the basic necessities of life, with something to give to others and the earth. Instead of being dependent on consuming, householders take pleasure in creating. Households can be places to grow and prepare food, create energy, work, socialize, learn, heal, amuse ourselves, our families and friends. These activities can be more meaningful and satisfying than working away from home all day to indulge in consumer luxuries like the latest fashions and new espresso machines.

Belonging hand-in-hand with householding is the concept of sustenance. Sustenance is, according to my dictionary, a "means of sustaining life, nourishment"; it is that which sustains us. Just as we need to learn how we need to behave to sustain the earth, we also need to learn how to behave to sustain ourselves. By being consumers--destroying, using up, and spending wastefully--we cannot even begin to hope to sustain ourselves or the earth. What we need to sustain ourselves is clean air, clean water, fertile land, fresh wholesome food simply prepared, practical and attractive clothing, shelter that is appropriate to where we live and what we do at home, meaningful and profitable work, creative expression, loving relationships, participation in community, intellectual stimulation, spiritual growth, and probably a few other things I haven't thought of yet.

Our needs for sustenance are basic and simple. But in our consumer culture, we sacrifice our sustenance for a fantasy of material fulfillment. Whatever it is we hope to gain by eating packaged foods, wearing the latest fashion, and buying electronic gadgets cannot satisfy the emptiness we have inside when we give up the purity of our air and water, our forests, and biological diversity in exchange. It's having real sustenance in our lives that makes us feel fulfilled and brings us happiness. Consumerism makes us pursue more and more "luxuries" when we lack our basic necessities. I'm not suggesting that we give up shopping entirely, but rather that we take a different attitude toward how we sustain ourselves--with sustenance instead of consumerism.

*Sustenance is a hand-sliced loaf of chewy organically-grown whole grain bread, made at home or purchased from a local baker in a recycled paper bag; consumerism is a plastic-wrapped loaf of sliced bleached white bread full of preservatives baked on an assembly line in a factory.

*Sustenance is saving and investing a percentage of all the money you make; consumerism is using credit to spend more than you make.

*Sustenance is fixing a special meal at home for your friends; consumerism is meeting friends at a trendycafe.

*Sustenance is exploring every part of your local area--getting to know the people, the wisdom, the arts, the flora and fauna, the weather patterns; consumerism is a first-class trip to Europe.

*Sustenance is playing the violin in a quartet with your neighbors or being in the audience at a community performance; consumerism is buying CD's.

*Sustenance is working at something you enjoy for the amount of money you need, plus a little extra; consumerism is doing whatever it takes to get as much money as you can.

Again, I'm not suggesting that one shouldn't take a trip to Europe or eat in a restaurant, but rather that focusing on providing our sustenance will lead us to make choices that sustain ourselves and the earth in ways that making choices based on consumerism does not.

Sustaining a home and creating sustenance includes having a living relationship with the land you inhabit and the others who live in your community--the intent being to be responsible for and take care of yourself, your family, friends, and neighbors and the piece of earth you own or share.

Sustaining ourselves means sustaining our health, our families, our relationships, our communities, our land, our money, our culture, and everything else that makes life move forward. Material possessions are prescribed by fundamental human necessities and responsibilities to each other and the earth, rather than advertising and cultural conditioning. Living in this sustainable way builds strong local economies that add up to strong national economies, and eventually build into a strong world economy.

To live sustainably requires developing the same virtues in ourselves that contribute to living soulfully: self-restraint, thrift, frugality, nurturing, prudence, wisdom, responsibility, an appreciation of quality over quantity, cooperative relationships, creativity, commitment, and love. Not an impossible task, but one that requires fortitude, thinking for oneself, and responding appropriately, instead of following the dictates of consumer culture.

I've given up being a consumer, and both my husband and I are working together to become householders. It's a gradual process that we practice every day. We buy less, prepare organically grown food at home instead of buying packaged food or eating out, we've planted vegetables and strawberries. We also make some of our own products at home like cleaning formulas and pest controls. We're built deer fences and remodeled our kitchen--I've learned so many new skills doing things I used to pay people to do, and it actually takes less time for me to just do it than it takes for me to earn the money to pay someone else! We both work from home on a variety of income-producing projects, both self-employed. Because we can set our own work hours, we can choose to work for money, work around the house, or work with friends and neighbors on community projects--each has their own value toward our well-being. As we take care of each other and our home and the cultivated corner of our acre of land, we feel a sense of pride and fulfillment that comes from creating that is missing from consuming.

We happen to live in the country, but these principles of sustainable householding can be applied also if you live in a city or suburbia. Suburban lots certainly have plenty of room to grow food, and even in the city there are community gardens. Everyone can learn to cook and learn to make all kinds of household items from resources that are locally available.

The most gratifying part for me of living more sustainably has been a new level of involvement in my community. By talking with others about my interest in sustainable living, I now am working with friends to explore how we can foster sustainability in our community. One local project you can take on is to make and use your own lists of sustainable products that are produced or sold in your area (businesses that sell them, and services that use them--such as nontoxic cleaning services or hairdressers that use natural hair care products) and share them with your friends and neighbors, or publish them in your local newspaper. There's no point in everybody having to start from square one about this. Join with others in your community to learn what are the most sustainable options where you live.

In our consumer culture that values money to buy consumer goods over all, the basic skills required to sustain our home life have been undervalued in favor of skills that can be marketed outside of the home for money. As a result, we spend our time pursuing money instead of creating a nurturing home. Our success is measured in dollars, rather than quality of life. For us to live sustainably in our places, we need to restore the value of caring for ourselves, our families, our communities, and the earth--at home. And the guidance and courage to make these changes comes from our souls.

© Copyright 2000 Debra Lynn Dadd. All Rights Reserved. 

Debra Lynn Dadd has been a pioneering environmental consumer advocate since 1982. Called "The Queen of Green" by The New York Times, Debra is the author of six environmental consumer guidebooks, including Nontoxic, Natural & Earthwise, The Nontoxic Home & Office and Home Safe Home. She also writes a feature column in Natural Home magazine.




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