I've been reading some heated discussions elsewhere in the blogosphere about marriage, housework, capitalism, patriarchy, how to make social change, justice for immigrant workers. Of course these things are all related, and more and more people are trying to become aware of the relations and make changes in their lives and in our society. The particulars of the arguments are interesting in and of themselves, but I often get sidetracked in these discussions by how some folks like to think in the abstract and others prefer to think in the particular, and how few people move comfortably between these two kinds of thinking. We often talk at cross-purposes and get frustrated with each other, even though we might agree on some common goals (we should change our consumptions patterns to save the planet, for example, or exploiting other people's labor is a bad thing, whether that person is a wife-type person or a minimum-wage worker). These kinds of conversations can oblige us to stretch our empathy and solidarity muscles in ways that are painful, and also to do some soul-searching about values.
Anyway, it got me to thinking about my own passage through various stages of economic dependence and independence, and my own efforts to both live well within my means and to make more ethical choices as I do so. For years, I lived without a car. I did not get my driver's license until I was 32. Arguably, it was because I lived in a location (the SF Bay Area) and in circumstances (walking distance to excellent transportation services, work, school, etc) that meant that I did not need a car. And while I was in college and graduate school, I simply could not afford a car or car insurance. Any extra money I could get went into long distance travel instead. Therefore, accidentally, I also ended up saving a large amount of money by not owning a car, and reduced my carbon footprint, although neither of those two motives was uppermost in my mind at the time. Looking back, I know I wasn't unaware of these facts, but I just didn't sit down and decide that, as a matter of principle, I should not own a car for these reasons. Looking back, I also realize that I refused to learn to drive for many years because driving/riding in cars with my rage-aholic father was deeply traumatic, but that's another story. Did I live without a car because I was too poor to buy one? being frugal? virtuously thrifty? responsibly sustainable? too lazy to get my driver's license? able to live well without one by accident of geography? Who cares?
I finally did learn to drive and bought my first car after living for two years in a different city where the public transportation is only OK, and bike-riding can be extremely difficult for several months of the year due to weather extremes, both heat and cold, although I did gut it out for 2 years, and relied on walking, biking, the bus system (such as it is) and the kindness of friends. I also was finally earning enough money that I got my very first credit card, and had finally established enough of a credit record to be able to get a loan. For years before that, I had lived in a strictly cash economy because in California at the time, if you didn't have a credit card and a drivers' license, no business would accept your checks. I was turned down in my application for a credit card, even though I had a job, because of "choice of major" (Comparative Literature students were not good credit risks!). The only checks I could write were for rent and utilities; everything else was cash or recycling (other people's castoffs, garage sales, Good Will, trading).
I'm well aware of the degrees of privilege from which I've benefited over the years. On one level, as a student I was living on very little money, but I also had a safety net (family would put me up) and was working toward establishing a position as a credentialed professional, albeit in a field that does not pay the big bucks. As a white, well-educated woman, I also had access to opportunities that meant that if suddenly I needed a different job, I'd get my foot in the door more easily than many. So although I lived extremely frugally, I never felt poor or classified myself as living in poverty. Then again, I also made the deliberate choice not to merge my financial life with that of a man through marriage (self-reliance and economic independence above all) or to have a child (couldn't afford it and accomplish the goal of more stable forms of economic security). As I was the only one of my father's three children who received his financial support for my BA after high school, I was keenly aware that I was lucky. If my brother and sister could be kicked off the middle-class ladder to security by divorce along my mother just because they happened to be born after me, then I needed to make sure that I could provide for myself (and any children I might have) in the future, no matter what.
I've preserved many of the habits of frugality and thrift taught to me by my mother (who grew up in an immigrant family working its way toward the middle-class dream), and cultivated over fifteen years of living as a student. Now that I have a car, I find that I use it more than I absolutely need to because it makes so many things so much easier. I could take the bus to work, but I rationalize my choice to drive by saying that I need to be able to transport my child to school, buy groceries in larger quantities than I can carry on foot, etc, and this is because the time I would otherwise spend on these activities without the car could be better spent on work. This is true to some extent, but it is also true that the freedom and convenience of using the car enables me to do many pleasurable things, not just more work. When I had a broken foot and couldn't drive, many people helped me out, but I also got back on the bus once I was more mobile. I have next-door neighbors who work where I do who live without cars (but they don't have a child). I could take the bus more often, but I don't want to and I don't have to. I'm trying to refrain from qualifying these activities with judgmental language, but y'all can supply your own.
So, here's what I'm going to be thinking about today: what does it mean to live sustainably? Be a freegan? Be thrifty? What's the difference between being thrifty and being a tightwad? between being a tightwad and being too poor to eat without food stamps?
We do things to survive (eat out of dumpsters); we do things to be virtuous (waste not, want not, or, eat out of dumpsters); we do things to amuse ourselves (Look what I found in the dumpster!); we want to be responsible (we have to remove ourselves from the exploitative cycle of consuption, and rescue food from dumpsters); we do things to be mindful (I'm grateful for my food and all the labor that went into it). We do things because that's the way our family has always done it (clean your plate! those kids in Guatemala have to live in the dump!). We do things our families couldn't afford to do because now we can and that's why America is great (clean running water in your house. It's a good thing).