» Articles Index    

James BullSaving Nature:
In Praise of Frugality

James L. Bull


I've always thought of myself as an accomplished firewood gatherer. I have gone camping all my life—as I write this I am sitting beside the campfire—and cooking, as is my custom, on a small open fire. On arriving in camp, a first task is always to gather fuel. (I have childhood memories of tying a rock to a rope and throwing it over a dead branch to bring it down.) This is the sensible harvesting of a limited resource.

I have noticed that frugality is sometimes associated with scarcity. Since I grew up during the Great Depression, people have sometimes suggested that my frugality is scarcity-driven. The threat of not having enough, or scarcity anxiety may be a powerful force that makes frugality necessary. But according to Wendell Berry, frugality may be appropriately paired with abundance. This notion may strike us as odd, in today's commercial world—frugality and abundance? Properly considered, frugality is simply the sensible management of limited resources. It is through frugality that we can achieve sustainable abundance. All freedoms exist within boundaries, and sensible abundance takes into account the natural limits of resources.

Of course the commercial world wants no part of frugality. An important distinction here has to do with needs and wants. Frugality has to do with filling our legitimate needs; the commercial world would have us not only indulge our wants as well as needs, but expand our wants and buy even more. The purpose of advertising, after all, is largely to persuade us to want things we do not need. This constant and unlimited expansion of wants (and purchases) is the driving force of modern capitalism. There is no acceptance of limits in this way of thinking.

Because the earth itself offers limited resources, our prudent use of them is necessary. The use of land by small farmers, as compared with industrial agriculture, is an example. According to Wendell Berry, industrial agriculture regards small scale family farming with contempt and insults. Peasants who save a part of their crop as seed are similarly regarded as standing in the way of progress—and profits, since they do not need to purchase new seed every season. In the eyes of industrial agriculture, many who protect the earth are obstacles to "progress."

Another casualty of global commercial development has been small-scale craftsmanship. Satish Kumar has pointed out that local craftspeople produce objects that are beautiful, useful, and durable, reflecting local styles and history. Such products become more beautiful with age and are often repairable when damaged, although in the world of commerce such items are regarded as old-fashioned. They have been replaced by mass-produced products which are often disposable. So much, these days, is disposable. (When was the last time you darned your socks?) We have come to regard our own possessions with the same disdain with which we view the original resources.

Global capitalism is built on the twin assumptions that growth (to be pursued without limit or question) equals progress, and the planet we live on is available for our exploitation. Taken together, these assumptions form an arrogant and chauvinistic mind set that saturates commerce and the media. Those who object are thought to be old- fashioned, obstructionist, or simply out of step, yet what we need is for many others also to be out of step.

To realize how much the idea of progress has become an unconscious part of our thinking, consider the fact that all economic thinking is growth-oriented. When was the last time you heard anyone promoting steady-state economics? Regarding the exploitation of the planet, consider, for example, the common assumption that all petroleum reserves should be extracted for our use. While it is true that the ethics of consumerism are being questioned and that many individuals and groups are consciously working to change our direction, it would be naive not to recognize the power and momentum of the global juggernaut now gathering speed, especially when driven by the combined force of government and corporate power. Countless native cultures are being undermined. The sweatshops of the working poor have been exported to distant lands, far from our worried glances.

In contrast to the commercial ethic, consider the statement by Gandhi that we should "Live simply so that others may simply live" and the Native American idea that "The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth." The two opposing ethics, the global commercial ethic and that of frugality, locality, and voluntary simplicity create what may become the defining polarity of this new century. The survival of countless cultures and languages, in addition to whatever wilderness which has not been destroyed already, is at stake.

The current national policy of relentless use of limited resources puts us on a collision course with some very significant economic consequences. There are warning signs already evident which should alert us, should we choose to heed them. First, there is global warming; second, the end of oil. We can think of these as messengers who have come to tell us that we must change our way of living on this planet. (How fortunate that oil reserves are limited! How disastrous the outcome if they were not!) Both of these developments call to our attention the necessity of frugality. These warning signs may be blessings, as sometimes blessings come wrapped in very strange packages. And although it may take a while to recognize the blessing for what it is, we should bless—not shoot—the messenger.

Today commerce rules. However, if we are to live in harmony with this planet that hosts our existence, commerce, although necessary, must no longer rule. We have been graced to live on this exquisite and rich planet, but we have developed an economic system that treats this sacred ground with disdain, greed, and exclusivity. Fortunately, the earth has its limitations, and we may be about to receive a lesson.

Consider the consequences of continued and unlimited development (i.e., destruction). Are we to allow the exhaustion of all wilderness areas—except a few token islands? Are native animals in their own territories to be extinct—only to be found in zoos? (What if all humans were reduced to living in prisons?) Does a lion in captivity continue to be a lion? What about the soul of the lion?

Americans have a love affair with technology, and it is easy to think that new technologies will solve our problems. I realize that there are technologies out there that may assist us in being less wasteful such as wind generators, solar panels, and straw bale houses, but technology alone will not save us. Only a shift in consciousness, in attitude, will change our way of life. Otherwise, we will simply have found more sustainable methods to carry out the same addiction to consumption and our appetite for speed, greed, and growth will continue unchecked. We would resemble the alcoholic who runs out of money but finds other ways to go on drinking. And consumerism has become very addictive indeed.

After all, the problem was not technological in the first place. The issues of global warming and the end of oil themselves are not the problem; they are indicators of the problem. Corrective technologies, therefore, will fix the symptoms, but not the cause. Just as endangered species are a symptom of encroaching development and the destruction of habitat, so global warming is the canary in the mine. Let us not just change the bird.

Thomas Berry has described our chauvinism extremely well:

The deepest cause of the present devastation is found in a mode of consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the human and other modes of being and the bestowal of all rights on humans. The other-than-human modes of being are seen as having no rights. They have reality and value only through their use by the human. In this context the other-than-human becomes totally vulnerable to exploitation by the human, an attitude that is shared by all four of the fundamental establishments that control the human realm: governments, corporations, universities and religions.

It would appear that there are two kinds of questions to be raised here. One is the macro, or economic question: how can the economic system reverse itself to become a steady-state, sustainable system, allowing for population growth only until zero population growth is achieved. The second is the micro or individual question, which I believe is primary: how can each of us separate ourselves from the false values and the addictions of the marketplace?

With regard to the first question, I suggest it is very unlikely that the leaders of global capitalism will just change their minds and decide to stop growing and developing new international markets, stop advertising unneeded products and promoting false values. Only the collapse of global capitalism seems to have the possibility of triggering a basic re-evaluation of values necessary to bring about systemic change.

The second question is important: how can we as individuals slow down and become attentive to the small, the local, the particular, and the here and now? How can we calm our inner urgency and become quieter and less needy? Only then can we generate a cultural shift which forces economic change and find a way to live collectively in harmony with the planet.

The solution may be found in the contemplation of Nature. It is fitting that the counter-balance to our frantic lives is found in the opposite conditions of silence, the blessing of natural sounds alone, and solitude. Here we encounter the source of all life and the opportunity to heal ourselves.

Alone with nature, I am closest to my soul. Indeed, solitude is necessary to the appreciation of nature. When we encounter nature on a soul level with open arms and a quiet spirit, we may, from the source of all healing, heal ourselves.

As I write this, I sit on a cottonwood log and watch the autumn seed pods spiral to earth. A wisp of smoke from my campfire drifts upward. Birds sing; a hawk screeches. It is, of course, necessary to stop writing in order to be attentive and really present to what surrounds me. There is, after all, only one primary blessing, to which all others are secondary and derivative. It is that I am blessed to be here, in this place, in the natural space of this planet.

From Quest Magazine, March – April 2007, published by the Theosophical Society in America.


Top | Articles-index | Homepage

To Home Page