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Sufficiency, Sustainability and the Dreaded Common Good

My Closet
My Closet (Photo credit: kian esquire)

Sufficiency: What is enough? A small closet of clothes that can be worn to the office, and a few things for the weekend—or a walk-in closet filled with fifty pairs of shoes and sweaters that still have the price tag dangling from the sleeve? I happen to love clothes. I like to dress up for work. I like to dress up to have lunch with a friend. In the past I have been known to tell my husband that a woman cannot have too many pairs of black shoes. Now I am asking, at what cost?

As my income increases, so do the contents of my closet. Some new summer clothes, even though the old ones are fine. Bags taken to Sister Carmen’s filled with fashion from a couple of years ago make me feel that I am doing my part. What is enough? Following the story about the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh with one eye open and the other closed, I began to wonder about the true price of my fashion jones. Nothing in my closet is made in America. Have you ever tried to buy clothes that are made in America? They are very difficult to find. Everything is made in China, India, Mexico and I, along with my fellow Americans have come to expect and demand quality clothing at a more than reasonable price, made by human beings who work 14 to 16 hour shifts, or more for .48 cents per hour in conditions that are neither safe or pleasant in any way. I don’t like to think about it, do you? There is someone literally slaving so that I can have more—someone with a mother and a father, maybe children; someone who goes to sleep at night worrying about taking care of their family. A human being.

I’d like to see jobs come back to America. We can make our own clothes, but they will cost more so maybe we won’t or can’t have as many things. Would that be okay? In this country, buildings have to be inspected to be safe and well ventilated. Workers need to take breaks for lunch. By law they can only work eight hours and some amount of over-time with extra pay. In other words, American workers, in most instances are treated like human beings and not slaves. I would feel better about wearing a skirt made by someone in this country who has a job in a safe environment for a decent wage. The question all of us should be asking is what is sufficient? Is it a small closet of clothes or a walk-in? Where do you really sit with giving up a little bit so that someone else can have a little bit too?

Sustainability: Aging teaches you a lot of things and one of those things is this stark recognition that no matter how much you have acquired in your life, you cannot take any of it with you. Right now my husband and I live in a big house that is both beautiful and comfortable and we are talking about purchasing a different house that is smaller and on one level, because taking care of a house this size and running up and down the stairs is not going to be sustainable as we continue to get older.

I open my cupboards and I see the dishes that we bought two decades ago and I remember how it was snowing and we were so excited about finding the right pattern to go with our newly remodeled kitchen. When I die, those dishes will be so much junk. Knowing my nieces, they will probably box them up and take them to Sister Carmen’s. My mother’s china, that I have never used, delicate and filled with roses will go as well and that milk glass olive dish that I remember at every single Thanksgiving dinner of my childhood may find its way to the dumpster. I can only hope that it is with a parade, a little bit of pomp and circumstance that honors its noble role of holding olives for so many decades. None of this is sustainable though—landfills are bursting with once treasured items. But how many of us would be willing to eat off of mismatched dishes that tell a story? Eventually wouldn’t we want to make a trip to Pottery Barn? That has become the American way.

Sustainability threads its way through our culture just asking to be felt. What we are seeing is what is unsustainable: oil, our current health care system, the banking system, the true cost of goods that involves the cost of human life, and waste. We are not asking ourselves what is enough or what is sustainable. Or if we are, more of us need to be asking more often.

The Common Good: Somehow Ayn Rand’s words of fiction have been twisted to represent a real life world of “winners” and “losers” that makes it oh so easy to turn a blind eye to factories collapsing in Bangladesh while we eat our salad for lunch and go for a mani-pedi. If you are a winner, good for you. You are therefore a superior person and it is not your job to worry about poor people or sick people or old people, because they are all losers and takers. And it you are a loser, then screw you. You did your life wrong. Go get a job and take that little brat with you. It’s an ugly, ugly consciousness that permeates a small but powerful segment of our society and its leadership. It says there is never enough for me, and you do not deserve any. It turns a blind eye to anything that smacks of compassion.

The common good is an inclusive term that makes all of us responsible for one another. Who am I and what have I become if I do not acknowledge and want to alleviate the suffering in the world?  Who am I if I need so much stuff in my closet to feel good about myself that I don’t stop to ponder who made the stuff and under what conditions?

I don’t have any easy answers. I just have the beginnings of a dialogue that I want to have with myself, with my friends and with those twerps in Washington who I occasionally email. What is enough? What is sustainable? What is best for the common good? What will give my soul peace so that I leave this world a better than I found it? No easy answers, but it is certainly time to start with the questions, don’t you think?

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Novelist, essayist, blogger, wife, dog-mommy, dancer, dreamer, grateful.

28 thoughts on “Sufficiency, Sustainability and the Dreaded Common Good

  1. At the end of the day, sufficiency in our lives is a function of the perspective we carry if life itself. Do we look outwards or are we inclined to look inwards? Are we swayed by what we “see” others doing or becoming or do we remain anchored to core values?

    While we may be tempted, it could be erroneous to link sufficiency to sustainability for there is the uncertain factor technology and its developments in the future. This is the aspect which has in fact kept the Malthusian prophesy from becoming a reality.

    I suppose it all boils down to the alignment of socio- economic developments with enhanced consciousness in a society.

    Loved the post, Stephanie. Great one!


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  3. Excellent questions. I believe you will keep looking for real answers, not easy answers.
    I don’t hesitate to spend more money on products made in my country (Canada) vs cheaper quality products from another country – but, I will also buy product from other countries when I believe my purchases are helping to build their country. I think there is much more value to my dollar when it is used for a ‘hand up’, not a ‘handout’.

  4. Important questions. The “buy local” slogan comes to mind. Not sure if it is used a lot where you are, but it is here. In the food business, more and more, buying local has great significance. Another way to word it would probably be, “Look out for each other,” like a mother telling her children to be mindful of each other’s well-being. Perhaps that’s it. If we act as though we were siblings, then we must make the best choices for each other.

    1. Yes, and I think the food market has a good leg up on this one! In our area, buying local food–especially this time of year is fairly easy. It supports local farms, reduces the carbon footprint of shipping, nurtures community and hey, are there anything better than tomatoes that came from a mile away and were picked yesterday? As for your comment on “look out for each other,” it is a mantra that cannot be repeated enough. Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  5. “No easy answers, but it is certainly time to start with the questions, don’t you think?”

    Yes, I do. I would go even further and say that the questions are the answers. Once we all start asking these type of questions the situation will already have changed. I’m a market fundamentalist. Right now the market delivers what people want. Change the level of awareness and markets will already have changed the world.

  6. Your comment is provocative…Would you tell me what a “market fundamentalist?” Also what do you mean when you say “change the level of awareness and markets will have already have changed the world?”

  7. Market fundamentalism is a belief that given the rule of law (meaning that everyone is treated equally) markets are the best vehicle for solving social and economic problems. If people want to eat organic food the market supplies organic food. If people only want to consume fair trade goods markets will oblige. If people are willing to pay for clean air and clean water then that is what they will get. It is no accident that the cleanest environments are in affluent areas. Forget vast schemes of social engineering designed to force people to adopt specific lifestyle changes, as they are unlikely to succeed. Your blog like many others is part of the voluntarist movement to bring about social change. Raise the questions and by doing so increase awareness of these issues one mind at a time and markets will deliver. By the time a critical mass of people are aware of sustainability issues markets will have solved the problem.

  8. Stephanie: Great post. You’re right about all the major points. There’s plenty that needs fixing in our systems for manufacturing and marketing clothing and food, especially. However, two comments:

    1) You imply that workers in America get to take breaks for lunch. I’m old enough to remember when everyone took a “lunch hour” as a matter of course. It was literally an hour! I’m serious! Then it became 45 minutes, 30 minutes, 20 minutes, or zero minutes.

    In the brave new economy, I’ve worked for a company were many workers were not allowed lunch breaks, either by pressure of work deadlines or peer pressure. It’s common for employees to eat at their work stations while they continue to work. It’s a by-product of our harried, multitasking, commuting lifestyle. The logic is usually: “If I don’t take a lunch break, I can leave a half-hour earlier and get to the day-care center before they close or charge me a late fee.” Is this any way to live?

    2) Your mother’s fine china, your own dishes, and the heirloom olive dish — I’ve been burdened by similar items. The fine china may be (to some people) beautiful, irreplaceable art. The olive dish may be viewed by others as an antique, preserving a tiny part of history. I know from experience that such items accumulate almost by magic over the years. They shouldn’t be taken to a landfill. They have value and may bring a needed touch of beauty to someone’s life. Many charities, thrift stores, second-hand stores will gladly accept such treasures. Homeless shelters and soup kitchens will be happy to take the everyday dishes that you no longer need.

    I’m an advocate of simplicity and have written many posts about the subject. I’ve been reducing the number of my belongings (and the space they require) for more than five years. I’ve come to regard most material objects as excess baggage. Generally speaking, the less stuff I have, the better I feel. But I do think we’re all entitled to keep a few items purely for their artistic beauty, craftsmanship, or sentimental value. Or simply because they bring us joy.

    Regarding Malcolm Greenwell: “Market fundamentalism” assumes a perfectly functioning free market based on supply and demand, with informed and honest buyers and sellers.

    Such a free market is rare — if not impossible — in the modern world. Most of our major markets are so corrupted that they simply increase the concentration of wealth.

  9. John, I did say “Market fundamentalism is a belief that given the rule of law (meaning that everyone is treated equally) markets are the best vehicle for solving social and economic problems.” Consequently, I agree with you that many markets are corrupted but the solution is to reintroduce the rule of law to enable markets to work effectively. If you disagree with me please suggest your alternative to market based solutions.

  10. John and Malcolm, I appreciate the comments and the dialogue. I too have some difficulty wrapping my head around “market fundamentalism.” I like the ideal of it, but I don’t see that being a market based society is the best way for solving all social and economic problems. Capitalism, when it is healthy and balanced can be a good thing. What we are seeing these days is an unhealthy capitalism held hostage by greed that continues to corrupt–thus the question: what is enough?

    As for my mother’s china, I think I will part with it and allow someone else to enjoy that may appreciate it more. In my home, it simply lives in a cabinet, taking up space. I may hang on to the olive dish, however.

    A society based on market alone cannot nurture the compassion that helps us to be better human beings. There has to be a value in what the Christ directed as “help the least among you.” Within that context, perhaps market fundamentalism best works.

    Thank you both for your thoughtful and insightful comments.

  11. Malcolm, I agree with you that free markets could theoretically work under the rule of law and equal treatment for all.

    But I doubt that equal treatment for all has EVER existed in recorded history. Rule of law has been more or less effective over the centuries.

    But in the 21st century, we are entering a post-government era. We may soon have little more than the shell of governments, or governments as figureheads. The world is moving toward rule by international corporations, which actively OPPOSE the rule of law. Do you think Walmart wants to abide by ANY law regarding safety and fairness in its legendary supply chain? Does Walmart want to treat its “associates” fairly at home?

    The continuing drive for DEREGULATION is a continuing attack on the rule of law. Corporations don’t want their actions limited in any way by regulations or laws. They want freedom to plunder.

    I will continue to work for effective government, equal rights, and fair regulation of economic activity. However, I’m afraid we may already be too far along the road to economic tyranny. It will not be an economic tyranny based on free markets. Whatever economic order remains will be dictated by monopolies, oligarchs, and plutocrats.

    Stephanie, I agree completely with your point of view. However, I must say that modern society seems to be more and more resistant to compassion for the poor. I need to work on my ability to be optimistic.

  12. Modern society IS resistant to compassion for the poor. Washington has made a career out of denouncing the “losers” and the “takers.” Still, like Anne Frank, “at heart I cannot help but believe that people are good…” More than ever I think we need to remind each other of what Lincoln called our angels of better nature. Thank you for sharing your point of view.

  13. “The world is moving toward rule by international corporations, which actively OPPOSE the rule of law.”

    John, thank you for your detailed reply but I think you are ‘flogging a dead horse’ as the Brits like to say. Adam Smith said the same thing over 230 years ago in ‘The Wealth of Nations’ when he stated:

    “”People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

    In other words big business will always try to capture big government and use it to obtain special privileges. You say that you “will continue to work for effective government, equal rights, and fair regulation of economic activity.” Unfortunately this is more of the same that has got us into this mess in the first place. The more powerful government becomes the greater the incentive to capture it and skew legislation in favor of special interest groups. The answer is to reduce the size and power of government while ensuring strict enforcement of the rule of law. So, yes, deregulation is the answer as long as the courts are willing to uphold the rule of law and make corporate elites responsible for crimes in the same way that other individuals are held responsible for their actions.

  14. The very nature of deregulation is less law, less regulation. So what then will the courts uphold? I do think we could see some reasonable changes if we could get the big corporate money out of politics. It would certainly increase the gene pool with regards to viable candidates.

    1. While I don’t agree with some of your views, I do respect your erudite articulation and you courteous presentation, giving me pause for consideration. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  15. Malcolm, I agree with you that we have too many laws. Constantly churning out thousands more doesn’t help.

    What I find hard to wrap my brain around is this: “deregulation is the answer as long as the courts are willing to uphold the rule of law and make corporate elites responsible for crimes.”

    Are you suggesting a system with no legislative branch to make laws, and no administrative branch to monitor and enforce laws and regulations?

    Only “Courts?” Where would the courts come from? And what laws would they enforce? How do you establish courts willing and able to “make corporate elites responsible for crimes?” What is the definition of the word “crime” under such a system? What would make these imaginary courts more powerful than corporate elites? Wouldn’t the corporate elites control the courts? In truth, corporate and wealthy elites already have influence bordering on control over our existing government.

    How do you uphold rule of law if there are no laws and no regulations, and no police or regulatory agencies to take note of their violation?

    Stephanie, I guess we need to more fully examine the suggestions of you and others for workable alternatives to Malcolm’s anarchist vision.

    1. Here is something that the music teacher of my youth impressed upon me: “order is basic. Without it, there is no freedom.” Actually, it’s a Karl Marx quote. The way my teacher meant it was this–he meant that I could not learn or develop improvisational skills without first knowing all of my scales–order is basic. Having the basics then allowed me to have the freedom for improv and interpretation–where music really gets fun.

      Food Regulation: order is basic. Without regulation to assure that our food is bacteria free, there can be no freedom in our eating. Now that is not to say that regulations, like everything else in life can and do fail, but for the most part I don’t worry about the applesor oranges I purchase being poisoned.

      Banking Regulation: order is basic. If you have certain regulations in order to make the playing field level, you are more likely (from my way of thinking) to have a system that prospers more people, rather than less.

      Sometimes I think we regulate the wrong things, while other times we don’t regulate enough of the right things. My heart and my faith direct me to believe to help the least among us. I see the spiritual edict to do such as less than a directive and more as a “clue” for how we grow in God’s love. In this way, I know that I am my brother and my sisters keeper.

  16. John, anarchy means without rule, not without order. If you doubt this is possible think law, language, money, mores, cities, customs and culture. They are all the result of human actions but no one person or group of persons intended for them to come into existence. Most statute law is simply a codification of the common law that evolved spontaneously from the settlement of actual disputes since Anglo-Saxon times. Most tort law, property law, contract law, commercial law and even criminal law evolved in this way. John, this was pure anarchy in the sense that no one organized it :-). If you still have problems with this concept think about a traditional army organized on hierarchical lines and then think about the internet. Both the army and the internet possess order but it is a completely different type of order. The army has a top-down order but the internet has a spontaneous order. Nobody is in charge of the internet (yet) but if you behave objectionably you do face real consequences, so there is an order just a different type of order.

    Stephanie talks about the need for food regulation and seems to be assuming that if the Food and Drug Administration (representing top down order) disappeared overnight we would all start being poisoned by dangerous bacteria. But do you really think major food chains have no incentives to make sure that their food is free of dangerous bacteria? Even if a retailer did not have such an incentive its insurance company definitely would. In the absence of the FDA do you think independent consumer media publications and watchdogs might step up to the plate to monitor and report on such things? What about competitors trying to win points by demonstrating the lengths they will go to ensure food safety if the FDA no longer guaranteed a minimum safety standard? I don’t have all the answers, I’m just asking you to acknowledge that there is another way of looking at these complex issues which does not involve an army of indifferent regulators creating paperwork-producing bureaucracies more interested in self-preservation than innovation..

  17. The survival of our species can be attributed to finding more. Survival in the modern age is knowing when enough is enough.

    Love the post

    Mr simple

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