Klodt’s chapter “The Leisure of Abundance” sounded strangely reminiscent of a conversation another birder and I had at Nisqually the last time I was there, two old guys wondering why cheaper goods didn’t result in people having to work less. After all, when I was young, way back in the old days, the dream was that modern machinery would free man from having to work, or at least work so hard or so long.
As Klodt points out, this dream has largely been sacrificed in the name of consumption:
To be sure, the emphasis on efficiency in the workplace has resulted in tremendous increases in productivity. Yet productivity gains have not been translated into increased leisure but have instead gone into increased consumption. In her excellent book, The Overworked American, Juliet Schor notes that if Americans today enjoyed the same standard of living they had in 1948, they could work every other year or take six months off. Today we have a variety of “labor-saving” devices and entertainments unknown to earlier generations. In 1948, Americans didn’t own dishwashers, home air conditioners, microwaves, or automatic dryers. They didn’t have televisions, computers, compact disc players, or VCRs. Fewer Americans owned their own homes, and the typical single-family dwelling was smaller (roughly the size of today’s three-car garage). Yet we could well ask if the material: things and comforts we have gained in the last fifty years are worth six months of the year, or half of the time of our lives.
At the very least, we should ask how things might be different if we had opted for more free time rather than greater consumption. It is pretty clear what things we wouldn’t have, but what would we have that we don’t have now? Would marital relationships be stronger? Would our children be better cared for and feel more secure? Would we have greater opportunities to express ourselves creatively? Would communities profit from increased participation in their social, cultural, and political life? Would we feel relaxed and enjoy the simple things of life more fully? Would we be friendlier and take more interest in our neighbors? Would we be healthier in body mind and spirit?
Obviously, all we can do is speculate about what might be if we weren’t driven to consume so much, but what better time to think about our values than amidst the Christmas season which increasingly seems dedicated to Mammon rather than to Christ?
Of course I’m already biased this way. Leslie and I long ago gave up giving gifts to each other, and last year our family decided that the only gifts adults would give to each other is homemade gifts, which is really quite simply the gift of time. That, of course, explains why my leisurely approach to blogging has been temporarily interrupted by a hectic rush to finish Christmas projects, but at least all of the things I’m doing are things I like to do.
I’m sure early Taoists, just like early Christians, could never have imagined how addicted modern Americans are to their things, but it’s clear they would consider us hopelessly addicted to our possessions.
Klodt comments on this passage from Lao Tzu:
These are my three treasures,
Compassion, frugality, and humility
Being compassionate one has courage,
Being frugal one has abundance,
Being humble one becomes the chief of all vessels.
Lao Tzu said, “Being frugal one has abundance.” In a society in which social standing and even personal worth are measured by our possessions, frugality is hardly a value. Yet if we trace the origin of the word, we find that it is derived from the Latin frux, or fruit. To be frugal is to be fruitful. To save, to conserve, to mend, to repair, to do without what is unneeded – surely these are virtues. Yet Madison Avenue has convinced us that these behaviors are neither sexy nor desirable. We go ’round and ’round in a cycle of work and spend, in the interest of preserving the social, which is to say the economic order.
To those who say that society would fall apart if people thought a little more before they bought, or bought a little less, we could well ask if it is not already showing ample signs of breakdown? We could ask what our commitment to ever-expanding production and consumption are doing to our humanity. Moreover, sooner or later, we are going to have to face the fact that there are limits to the earth’s capacity to support runaway growth.
Better that we confront and deal with this problem now than cover our eyes and wait until we are forced by major ecological and economic crises to face it later on. It’s up to all of us to explore alternative visions of abundant living, with a view toward creating a social order that is ecologically responsible and committed to preserving, and indeed nurturing, human- heartedness.
Obviously much of what Klodt discusses here has more to do with our contemporary world than Taoism, but one could certainly argue that most great religious leaders have offered the same advice, which just shows how difficult it is to get people to see beyond material possessions.