Three things I’ve learned about the connection between economics and ecological (and ethical) awareness
I read David Asch’s informative piece on “10 Painless Ways to Live Below Your Means” and its sequel, “10 Mostly Painless Ways to Live Below Your Means”, and they got me thinking about a book I’d just read. It’s called Sustainability, and it ends with the memorable injunction that as good a place as any to start learning about sustainability is in your own household budget. I thought a lot about this, because I’ve worked on sustainability and social justice issues all my life, volunteering in the global South for a number of years, studying forced migration, and doing a PhD in environmental philosophy. But I never actually managed to balance my own budget.
I’m embarrassed about this and I didn’t realise how ashamed I was until I got a letter from the Irish Revenue a couple of months ago reminding me that I have to do my own tax returns before mid November. My first reaction was panic. I started working for myself in February 2020. My business plan impressed my mentor. “It’s niche. It’s different,” he said. I got some cards printed and negotiated a deal with a psychotherapist who owned a beautiful “big house” in the west of Ireland, and since I had some students already, I mustered up a few willing to sign up for my first full day event. It was a modest retreat but, as ever, I spent more than I made, and apart from the physical exhaustion, I felt a familiar pang of monetary failure. I’m sure I’m not the first well-meaning environmental activist to experience this sensation: we have a view of money that means it’s tainted with materialism, and we tend to want to avoid having to think about it at all.
And then Covid came along.
My work, such as it is, moved online, and I beavered away, creating courses, getting a contract for a book (an academic book — they don’t pay well), recording videos and audios and uploading them. And earning almost nothing. But hey, it was a pandemic. Everyone was in the same boat. I didn’t mind. Much. I was so used to feeling as though money and me were oil and water that I simply gritted my teeth and did what I always did when I watched the figures in my bank balance waver, and slowly descend: I looked the other way.
Until I found myself huddled in a ball, sobbing, after spending a week attempting to enter figures in the online Revenue form, and failing. Failing to understand, failing to know clearly enough what I had actually earned. Desperately afraid that I would do something stupid and end up owing a chunk of money from my fast dwindling supply, simply because I was unable to attest successfully for the activities of the previous year.
It’s not that I don’t work hard. I do. I get up early in the morning, I meditate and stretch, and then I write. I research, and I write articles and chapters for books, pieces for my website, correspondence with colleagues and potential clients and of course friends. I make videos and audio content and I teach online (for donation, or for free). I practice, and I cook, and walk and garden, volunteer, do things for friends and family, and my days disappear in the banked layers of tasks that mount with vigorous haste, just at the edge of vision.
Listening to Thompson and Norris on sustainability was supposed to be comforting, mainly going over old ground, getting things from a different angle, but not learning anything new. I’m always looking for ideas that people, including me, can bring into their own lives and make a difference with. Small changes to our lifestyles that we can do without too much difficulty, but that will add up to something significant. It’s the holy grail, isn’t it, this quest for change that won’t cost too much of us, but will stop us costing the Earth?
The idea that if you can’t balance your own budget, you haven’t a hope of balancing the human collective demand on the planet was a revelation for me. I have to admit, I feel a bit stupid. Of course I must have realised it at some level, that each of us must live within our means if we’re to do so as a species, but it’s humbling to have to look at your own books and know that you have a long slog to understand the intricacies of prepayments and accruals before you can account for what you’ve earned. Or spent. Of course I could get someone else to do it for me (and for years, that’s what my husband and I did) but now I’m on my own, a sole trader. It’s time I grew up a bit and opened this particular Pandora’s box.
The first thing I did was take a crash course in bookkeeping. I’m not saying I won’t get someone to check before I submit, but it did force me to go back painstakingly through every work-related transaction over the year and write it into a spreadsheet. I’m doing it all by hand. I have ledgers. I have written in one column where the money came from, so all is traceable, and I have written where it went. It has taken a large bite out of the last three months, and there is still a huge amount to do. It is horribly humiliating. But I am no longer afraid.
If you like, this first lesson has been that confronting fears can be done as a period of reflection, and if I had advice to give to my former self about this it would be, confront what you fear, but do it kindly. It is terrifying. It will open all types of cans of worms. But the sooner you do it, the sooner you will be able to let the worms make their way back into the good earth, to aerate the soil, and the sooner you will be able to make connections between that part of your life — in my case, economic activity — and everything else, very much of which relates to ecology.
The second thing was to realise that you need to invest in order to get a return. And you may well need to invest much more than you think you do. I had to get a new laptop, new phone, new camera and mic for recording, new yoga mat (mine literally ripped apart after overuse). Another great phobia of mine has been building an online presence, but I’m learning Wordpress, although I’ve invested heavily in my site by employing others. It took ages for me to convince myself that I’m a professional, with a PhD, and that I am not, in fact, a sham or imposter. I joined a professional body, got professional accreditation for my courses, and certified the students who qualified.
I’d call this second thing ‘deep materialism’, in the sense that it is a way to value my physical and virtual presence in the world, and also the things I own. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be very thoughtful about the things I buy and use. I think a lot about where things come from. As pressures to meet needs with a limited budget have arisen, I haven’t been able to honour that as much as I’d like to. I don’t have enough money to make really careful choices about what I buy. I am largely constrained by the cost to choose between a few products that will serve my needs. I try to ask about, and research, the ethical standards of the companies I buy from, but honestly, it’s sometimes impossible either to find out, or to know if they’re even telling the truth.
I am a really careful owner of all the things I have. I keep them very clean (without using chemicals to do so). I am very conscious of protecting them, and I want to make them last. I take great care because I cannot do what I would really love to do: extract myself entirely from this chain of suffering. You see, I know that the cobalt in the battery in this machine and in my phone was very likely mined in the “Democratic” Republic of Congo by children who are effectively slaves. Not only the human suffering, but even the land itself is grotesquely scarred, the ecosystems and species destroyed, all for my convenience, and, indeed, so that I can earn a living doing what I think is work worth doing.
Deep materialism demands that I confront the discomfort of being part of a system that will not let me act with integrity. I am implicated in the oil-slicked soil of Ecuador and in the barren wastes of Canadian tar sands. We all are. Deep materialism is a determination to make these conscious choices.
My choices are further constrained when I buy books, or other products online. The third lesson is to reflect on what you need. Buying less of everything has been a watchword of mine since I was a student — or so I thought. Except if you never really examine what you buy, and why, you can hide behind fine words and ignore the realities of your own consumption.
I’m now aware that I’m addicted not just to the act of buying, but to giving gifts to others in an attempt to assuage my sense of guilt and shame at not being a success in other areas. But it really doesn’t help to have a vicious jibe poking me inside my head, giving me further grief. I have to find a way of allowing myself to be a student of all of this. So I am determined to keep account, kindly, and develop better relationships, where possible, though of course I will still send money to my family if there’s a real need.
The ironies we have to live with in this system are myriad. It’s like a maze and we don’t even have much control over which fork to take any time the path divides. If I want to buy books, often the cheapest way is via Amazon. The irony is that this amounts to the accumulation of unimaginably vast wealth by one sector of the population through the attempts to save costs and accrue just a little less poverty by the rest of us. I try to buy fewer books, and get them from Better World Books which has raised $32,626,395for literacy & libraries, reused or recycled 385,558,713 books, and donated 31,526,631. That’s a lot of books.
Medicines are really expensive in the States, no doubt, and no doubt either that there’s a crisis of addiction there and in large swathes of the rest of the global North to opioids and other painkillers, sedatives or means to dull the ache. So finding out that Amazon is the cheapest place for Americans to get medications online is another agonising irony. Is there anything we can do about this?
No one of us can make all the difference. Gabor Maté is superb on addiction, as is Marc Lewis: the traumatised brain withdraws from the knowledge that it must protect itself tomorrow, and escapes just for today. We live in the now and here, except if you put those two together, you realise we live nowhere: the past is constantly creating the present and the future is a mirage we are hard pressed to predict. So, first, no judgment. If you need to go to Amazon Prime to save money on medications, let me admit to you that I’ve joined Amazon Prime before and I might well do again. We’re not so different, you and me. We might have different phobias and diseases to confront, but I can assure you, we’re dealing with different threads of the great entangled mesh that we’re all embroiled in.
So the third lesson is less about restraint, and more about telling a different story. If you got this far, you’re a trooper, a survivor. You’re someone who keeps going to the end. To that end, I salute you. You, like me, don’t have infinite time to deal with our ghosts and the whole horror of what keeps things ticking over. But if we all do something small, we might well be amazed at the changes that reverberate. After all, everything is undoubtedly connected. Which reminds me: I’d better get back to my books. Economy and ecology are all about housekeeping. Until I draw the final line under my time, all I can do is keep being willing to find out how to sustain a life worth living, despite the impossibility of saving anyone, including, fortunately or unfortunately, myself…