Ok, so here’s a sincere question: If we spend more time acquiring goods locally and ethically, doesn’t this mean we are becoming more materialistic, not less? We are definitely thinking more about stuff and probably spending more money, to boot. This is a question that’s been bothering me on and off since AP Environmental Science in twelfth grade, and most especially since a Dorothy Day-inspired private lecture on distributism got me thinking about consumer ethics again in a special way.
Since then, I’ve been reading in a sort of spastic way all over the place: Joel Salatin, old favorite Wendell Berry, and, with the most fortitude and sticktoitiveness, Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America, which has such a long and silly title that it almost reconciles me to considering myself a political conservative.*
I think part of the key is realizing that there isn’t a crunchy, green, ethical substitution for every mass-produced item, and even if there were, you couldn’t afford them all. An internet friend points to this absurdity when she writes mockingly, “Of course zero waste require a whole new set of implements. Glass jars, reusable produce bags, more wooden brushes, a drying rack, reusable straws.” And that’s not the point, I think, in Crunchy Cons. (There is, after all, no such thing as consumerist shortcuts.) We have to pare down and simplify: one pair of pricy wool long underwear instead of three pairs of synthetic, a smaller thrifted wardrobe instead of each niche filled by a painless fast fashion online order. There are some things you won’t be able to source ethically; some you’ll buy anyway and some you’ll decide you just don’t get to have.
I do not, on the whole, enjoy this process, which does not involve a lot of artisanal wooden brushes for me, but does involve trying to explain to my kids why are scaling back the fast food stops.
Dreher argues that “Most of all, crunchy conservatism is about shoring up the family” (23), and I get that. In being more deliberate about where we shop and what we shop for, we are helping other families to live the way we think is best: supporting small farmers who homeschool their kids, Christian thrift shops that house homeless women, Costco’s commitment to fair working conditions for their employees, etc.
Dreher doesn’t directly address the tendency that gives me pause with all this shopping-as-politics stuff but he does allude to it:
“We also have lived through a cultural revolution that firmly established the principle that self-expression is a virtual human right. And there has been a simultaneous commercial revolution that taught us to think of shopping as a form of self-expression” (44)
I don’t want to feel entitlement to infinite cheap choice as a way to express myself, but neither do I want to fall into the trap of building an identity of Instagram squares: here are my expensive farmers market heirloom tomatoes; here’s my son’s wardrobe of fair trade-certified, absurdly expensive and yes, very hip clothing he will instantly destroy; and look, a flat lay of my Etsy finds for a totally ethical Christmas! The message here — and maybe this is my insecurities speaking — is: I am cool. My life is lovely and serene in a way only money and taste can allow. I am worthy.
The homespun phrase “More money than sense” comes to mind.
And yet I was appalled years ago when I witnessed a class of college freshmen, reading Martin Luther King, Jr., argue that your faith shouldn’t impact your shopping habits. And Dreher’s not wrong when he argues, “Cheap chicken is not worth a compromised conscience” (177). I’ve seen the overstuffed turkey trucks rattling down the highway on the way to the slaughterhouse, and whether that day is their worst or their best (fresh air! new views!), it’s certainly dampened my enjoyment of factory-farmed turkey.
And here, the characters of Parks and Recreation help to clarify the distinction. In small-town Pawnee, a lifestyle blogger appears, spouting a host of ludicrous trends: “First of all, Mozambique cashmere is the new cast-iron stove. I have found some amazing new conflict-free paella recipes. And, finally, my favorite fishmonger makes house calls.”
We clearly aren’t supposed to approve of Annabelle Porter’s frivolity and vanity, and practical Ron Swanson is appalled when she champions his lovingly handmade chairs. Ron is no left-leaning treehugger, but he’s a conservationist who eventually becomes a park ranger, a committed family man, and a woodworker driven by a love of quality craftsmanship.
In a neat bit of overlap, Ron Swanson is played by Nick Offerman, and Nick Offerman has been involved in producing a documentary on Wendell Berry, who is himself cited frequently in Crunchy Cons. In a recent interview, Offerman is asked about the film and responds:
[W]e earthlings are all […] complicit in doing ourselves, our progeny and our home places a disservice by complacently succumbing to rampant consumerism. By offering our devotion in the wrong direction, or by failing to practice devotion in the first place. Through the eyes and artistry of Wendell Berry, the audience will have plenty of food for thought around Wendell’s adage: “It all turns on affection.”
Maybe that’s the distinction. Annabelle Porter is a flake; she doesn’t actually care about Mozambique cashmere, and has no connection to the place or people who produce it. Perhaps affection as the motivation is what separates responsible consumption from just another consumerist trend.
Ron Swanson isn’t a perfect crunchy con — he’s a ruthless capitalist, a patron of Food ‘N’ Stuff, and not notably religious, but that’s hardly the point. I’m not a perfect crunchy con, either, or even a entirely responsible consumer. (For starters, I will never cloth diaper again, barring zombie apocalypse.) But I am trying these days, I guess, to feel my way toward a more Swansonian ethos. Unfussy, untrendy quality, one baby step at the grocery store at a time.
*I kind of feel like the conservative/liberal and especially Republican/Democrat labels are unhelpful for thoughtful Catholics of our generation, right? And this book is from 2006, so things have changed even more, but at one point Dreher assures us “crunchy conservatism is primarily about cultural traditionalism and the way you live, not the way you vote” (211).