consumerism

the power of free

I’m trying to read a news story about some people whose lives were so desperate that they climbed into a boat and attempted to escape to Italy. The boat capsized and most of them drowned.

All the time I’m reading, there’s a flickering on the side of the screen: it’s a moving advertisement from an online shop where I bought a dress almost a year ago.

I want to focus on the article, the picture of coffins in silent, accusing rows; the doctor describing the Mediterranean sea as a cemetery. But the dresses won’t stop tickling at the edge of my vision.

There’s a battle going on inside my head now: concern about the the vanished migrants is actually having to compete with a whole load of worry about whether I’ve got the right clothes to wear for an interview next week.

Sometimes the endless battering from the god of consumerism just wears you down.

I’m reading about people who literally had nothing and now they don’t even have their lives, but I’m still managing to feel anxious about whether I’ve got enough clothes.

Last time I wrote about how growing food has helped me face down the god of consumerism and remove some of the anxiety that prevails in our society today, the anxiety of not having enough or even of not being enough: personally I’m quite vulnerable to a suggestion that new clothes will make me more acceptable.

Sometimes though I think we need to join with others to take a stand against these kind of lies.

And one thing that seems to work really well is when people get together to give out free food.

Last week, for example, the anti-food waste campaign Feeding the Five Thousand organised a free banquet in the centre of Edinburgh.

5kEdinburgh

Volunteers cooked 7,000 meals entirely from food that would otherwise have been thrown away. It was a powerful, prophetic stand against the mentality of scarcity. Apart from anything else it was a reminder of the excruciating irony that a system which is fuelled by convincing people they do not have enough, simultaneously creates the conditions for mountains of food to be thrown away.

On a smaller scale, there’s an organisation called – appropriately enough – Abundance, which started in my home town of Sheffield.

Every autumn, Abundance volunteers go out around our lovely city, harvesting fruit that would otherwise rot. There is literally tons of it.

Then they give it away – to people on the margins who find it hard to access fresh food, and to organisations that benefit the whole community, like libraries. Places that exist for the common good.

I went on my first Abundance harvest the other week. An elderly couple who no longer have the physical agility to cope with their enormous damson tree called us in. Younger, braver volunteers than me shinned up the tree and shook the branches and hundreds of damsons thudded onto an outstretched tarpaulin below.

tree climb

After we had given the couple who own the tree enough fruit for a few crumbles, we shared the softest among ourselves for turning into jam that night and sent the rest back to the Abundance offices to be distributed later.

damsons

The whole experience was fun, it built connections, it was nourishing in every sense of the word.

In his book Journey to the Common Good, the theologian Walter Brueggemann writes brilliantly about how the mentality of scarcity, a mentality that operates through anxiety and fear, militates against the practice of neighbourliness. It makes us defensive rather than generous and leaves us exhausted and cynical with nothing left over to contribute to our communities.

Brueggemann maintains that we have to make repeated, deliberate departures from the forces that want to trap us into this culture of not-enough.

Joining with others to give away food is, I think, one way of making that kind of departure.

Of course I’m not arguing that food should always be free, or that people shouldn’t be paid for their skills in food production. But there’s something about giving it away from time to time that releases us, if only temporarily, from the anxiety of not-enough and frees our imaginations to embrace the possibility that there might be a better way of doing things.

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garden rage

When I pledged to take our garden more seriously this year, I didn’t expect that I would end up full of anger.

We have had a proper old-fashioned summer here in Sheffield: long days of balmy sunshine and the odd torrential downpour have brought the best growing season for years.

And mostly I have succeeded in my goal of taking good care of our plot. The courgettes have flourished, the rainbow chard has been an endless parade of luminous, candy-shop brightness and for the first time ever we had enough raspberries for a proper pudding.

chard stalks ready for chopping

But when I decided to take more care over the garden it wasn’t just because I wanted us to have more food to eat, although that has been great. It was because I wanted to understand the land better. I was responding in part to the theologian Norman Wirzba, who wrote in his brilliant book Food and Faith:

Gardening work creates in us an indispensable ‘imaginary’ that enables us to think, feel, and act in the world with greater awareness for life’s complexity and depth. Gardens are the concentrated and focused places where people discover and learn about life’s creativity and interdependence.

lettuce

salad leaves in our garden

And this is the first lesson I learned: life is abundant. Nature’s default position seems to be excess.

Two packets of mixed salad seeds, for example, produced more than our family of five could cope with. For a few weeks in midsummer I took bags of lettuce everywhere I went, to give to anyone who would take them.

Meanwhile, down on the new allotment, our neighbour had us in stitches describing how she has battled to cope with the courgette glut: lasagne, cake, pickles – her family has forbidden her to have more than four plants next year.

It might sound as though my conclusion that nature tends to be abundant is based rather solipsistically on one good growing season. Not so: Enough Food If, a campaign supported by more than 200 organisations in the UK, is based entirely on the premise that if we can tackle the unjust structures that dominate our food system, then there is no need for anyone to go hungry. Anywhere.

Growing my own vegetables has brought the issue of food justice more sharply into focus than anything I have ever read or watched on the television.

Harvesting bowl after bowl of raspberries from just a few canes in the back garden has made me both more grateful for the food that I have and more angry about the fact that so many are not able to do even this very little thing.

Giving away lettuce to anyone who would take it and still feeling that we would never get to the end of it exposed for me like nothing else the lies that dominate our consumer culture and fuel a system where around 4 million people in one of the richest nations in the world do not have access to a healthy diet.

The lies are perpetuated by the god of consumerism, a god that needs us to be fearful of not having enough, because otherwise we might stop buying things.

This god works tirelessly to make us feel anxious, distorting language to encourage more and more purchasing. Can we really not live without double cream? Because that is what is implied when it comes packaged with the word ‘essential’.

cream

The offer of ‘buy one get one free’ that we see in so many shops is not generosity: it’s yet another way of tapping into an anxiety that says you’d better take a bit more than you need just in case there isn’t enough tomorrow.

When our whole experience of food is mediated through large corporations and industrial agriculture, it is almost impossible to stand up against these messages about scarcity.

On the other hand, reconnecting with growing and harvesting food can help us recognise them for the lies that they are – lies that, once perceived, can be beyond ridiculous.

I have four kilos of blackberries in the freezer, all gathered for free from some wild brambles. That same quantity would cost me FORTY POUNDS to buy in Tesco today. Someone’s having a laugh and it’s presumably not the people who are buying them.

blackberries

When we move from scarcity thinking to an awareness that abundance is possible, all kinds of things can happen. Like sharing. Like finding that our minds are calm enough to recognise the lies of a consumerist culture for what they are.

It’s a simple thing to grow a few vegetables in a bed or a pot. But it seems it has the power to give us a whole new way of engaging with the world.

 

watershed

If someone asks for directions to your home, how do you respond? Our house is some way from the city centre and if I ever get a cab from the railway station I usually have to give the driver a rough indication of whereabouts to go. I generally say something like ‘near the Co-op’ or ‘not far from the shops’.

I do it without thinking. Or I did until I read this very challenging post from Leah Kostamo at the A Rocha conservation group. ‘Where on Earth are you?’ she asks – and ‘near the shops’ is definitely not the right answer.

Kostamo breaks this big question down into ten smaller ones designed to challenge the reader to see how well they really know the area where they live. Getting to know your own place, she says, is the first step towards caring for the natural environment.

Her first question is: ‘What is the name of your watershed?’

Excuse me? I have a watershed? And it has a name?

The question hit me as extraordinary – despite the fact that I walk almost daily beside Porter Brook, the stream at the bottom of our valley.

porter brook

Stupidly, I had never consciously linked this stretch of water, which I love, to the wider context of the landscape that surrounds it.

Yesterday I set off to discover ‘my’ watershed. I pulled out the Ordnance Survey map, traced the Porter Brook to its source and arrived at a place called White Path Moss.

Stanage Edge and White Path Moss

As is the nature of watersheds, it’s a big, boggy area and while it may appear to lack exciting features, it turns out to be the source of three watery landscapes to which I have a huge emotional connection. As well as feeding my beloved Porter Brook, the waters from White Path Moss also flow down to a reservoir where I used to run with a lovely neighbour who has now moved from the area.

IMG_3776

To the south, ‘my’ watershed feeds Burbage Brook in the valley below Higger Tor, a gritstone hill that I have climbed countless times, often in the company of precious people, some family, some fleeting visitors from overseas.

IMG_3811

kite

I wandered in the valley for a while yesterday, enjoying the contrasts of dark green reeds and almost neon moss against the rich, peaty water.

burbage brook

bubbly

As I walked, I realised that understanding how this stretch of water was linked to the one near my house had made me feel more connected to the entire area. I was beginning to see what Leah Kostamo meant by saying that the first step towards caring for a place is to really know it.

What I hadn’t expected was that the discovery would make me feel differently about myself. When I tell people I live ‘near the Co-op’ I am unthinkingly buying into the dominant culture that would define us all as consumers. I situate myself with reference to shops.

To say ‘I live near Porter Brook, which flows from White Path Moss, which also feeds the waters at Burbage and Redmires’ is quite a different thing. It is to situate myself with reference to the landscape and particularly to the water that is so essential for life.

I doubt I’ll be using it as a direction for cab drivers any time soon but I will definitely be saying it to myself. I want to assert my identity as a creature at home in a landscape, not unthinkingly accept one that places me as a consumer whose primary connection is to shops.

In another piece I read this week the outdoor learning specialist Dr Robbie Nicol spoke of the importance of emotion in spurring us to make ethical decisions about the environment.

Few things make us more emotional than a risk to our very identity. I hope that as I gain more understanding of the importance of the land to who I am, so I will be quicker to respond when it comes under threat.

UPDATE: This morning I received an email from Steve Dumpleton, who lives not far from me and clearly knows far more about geology than I ever will. He gently corrected my statements about White Path Moss and then explained how the waters near us actually travel. I thought the sequence of place names read a bit like a found poem, so have copied his words exactly and also included one of his beautiful photographs.

“As you have said, your local water flows via the River Porter into Sheffield and beyond, but you need to think of Stanage Edge as the true watershed divide.

stanage after rain

View NW along Stanage Edge. The photo was taken just after a shower had passed over and everything was sparkling wet and clear.

“Here are two contrasting routes for raindrops depending on exactly which side of Stanage Edge they fall:

“1. East side of Stanage Edge (River Don catchment)
White Path Moss/Hallam Moors -> River Porter; flows into River Sheaf near Midland Station; flows into River Don at Blonk Street bridge; flows into River Ouse at Goole; flows into River Humber at Trent Falls; flows into the North Sea at Spurn Point/Grimsby.

“2. West side of Stanage Edge (Derwent/Trent catchment)
Various streams into Ladybower Reservoir or directly into River Derwent near Bamford/Hathersage; flows into River Trent near Long Eaton (between Derby and Nottingham); flows into River Humber at Trent Falls; flows into the North Sea at Spurn Point/Grimsby.

“Route 1 is the fairly direct route, about 100 miles ignoring minor river ‘wiggles’.
Route 2 is much longer, about 190 miles.”

Thanks, Steve!

Picture of White Path Moss copyright John Topping and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Picture of Stanage Edge by Steve Dumpleton, used under Creative Commons Licence.

the Magnificat and the shopping centre

To prepare for Advent this year I read the Magnificat, that famous song of Mary that is recorded in Luke’s gospel. Soon after that I went to Broomhill, an area of Sheffield almost halfway between where we live and the city centre. I hadn’t been for a few weeks and I was shocked by the changes I found.

Together, the two experiences combined to convince me (and I know I’ve been slow) that it’s impossible to take Advent seriously and continue to shop like a typical Western consumer.

This is what I found in Broomhill.

on a roll

This used to be an independent sandwich shop.

Blackwells

This was a bookshop.

Williamsons

This is an excellent hardware store which has been trading in Sheffield for fifty years. It’s moving to the bookshop premises because they are smaller. Not because it is short of things to sell but because the landlord refused to renew their lease, preferring to hand it to Sainsbury’s instead. (I do not know why Broomhill needs a Sainsbury’s only a few doors away from Eurospar in one direction and Tesco in the other but that is what it will get.)

Cream

This was a coffee shop.  It had, a seasonal menu that changed regularly and it stocked local food, such as the excellent Our Cow Molly ice cream.

Our Cow Molly is part of a family-run dairy farm that was set up in 1947 and now numbers eighty cows, which graze on top of one of Sheffield’s famous seven hills. When the current owner’s grandfather started the business sixty years ago, a bottle of milk had the same value as a loaf of bread or a bottle of beer. Now the big traders have forced the price of milk so low that hundreds of dairy farmers are going out of business. ‘We didn’t want to be next so Our Cow Molly dairy ice cream was born!’ explains their website.

The owner of Cream has sold the lease to Costa Coffee, a global chain that already has several branches in Sheffield, each serving an identical menu. Just to be sure, I emailed Costa and asked them whether individual branches were allowed to stock locally sourced food. They replied: ‘The store will have to stock the same products as the rest of our stores in line with our company policy.’

This globalised, one-size-fits-all way of doing business is wrecking our world. It’s destroying individuality, creativity and local resilience. It places power in the hands of a few and forces the rest of us to do things their way. The global food industry in particular is one that screams injustice, whether that’s in the treatment of small scale producers, the conditions in which animals are kept to ensure low prices or the terrible havoc wreaked on the land by large scale agricultural practices.*

In the Magnificat, a pregnant teenager sings of themes that recur throughout the Bible: of justice and equality and of God overthrowing the power structures of the world. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,’ cries Mary. ‘He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’ **

When I read the Magnificat this year, I felt more than ever the dissonance between joining in Mary’s celebration and continuing to spend money without thinking about where it is going. I buy more stuff in December than at any other time. I don’t want my money to contribute to wrecking the environment and putting more power in the hands of people who have too much already.

So as a family we have drawn up some criteria for our shopping and present-giving this month. As far as possible, we will try to buy and give things that meet at least one of the following criteria, things that are:

:: locally produced, or
:: recycled, or
:: sold by an independent retailer, or
:: organic, or
:: fairly traded or
:: hand made originals

We won’t be shopping at big retailers that shirk their responsibility to pay corporation tax. In general I won’t be shopping at supermarkets but I’m making an exception for our local Co-op. That’s partly because the Co-op sells more fairly traded goods than any other supermarket, and also because there’s a small branch only five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m absolutely convinced that if it went out of business we’d get Tesco or Sainsbury’s moving in and tightening still further the grip they have on our buying choices.

I know this isn’t perfect. I know to my shame that we’ll probably still consume more in one month that some families in other countries do in a year. I know loads of people of all faiths and none have been doing this kind of thing for ages and we have been slow to get going. But it’s a start. It’s only by beginning that we’ll find out where to go next.

Joanna Blythman’s books are especially helpful for understanding more about the food industry.
** Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone really helped me understand the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song.

eight

A sheep is a good thing to have on an Advent calendar but the weather has been far too horrible for me to go out and get a picture of one. So hurrah for these badges from Felicity Ford’s Etsy shop – they arrived today, beautifully presented with this lovely sheep stamp.

Felicity Ford wrote a really thought-provoking blog post yesterday about the relationship between wool and time. As I admired my new badges and thought about how I would write about them, I suddenly realised that her post that had already raised so many issues was particularly relevant to the Advent season.

Felix writes: ‘Wool is produced through the slow activity of grazing, and the alchemy by which grass is turned over weeks and months into the fleece of the sheep

You can’t hurry wool.’

She then raises some searching questions about how, in that case, it is possible for chain stores to sell wool items at knock-down prices.

‘I went to the High Street last weekend and I saw 3 for 2 offers on knitwear in a well-known retail outfit, and I realised that – however much their storefront alludes to ancient knitting traditions – their 3 for 2 offer markedly does not. For … sheep cannot be fed on a 3 for 2 basis; … wool cannot be baled on a 3 for 2 basis; … in the UK at least it is not possible for a scarf to be produced as part of a BOGOF deal unless you are hurrying wool to the shelves. And what do we know about wool? That you can’t hurry wool.’

So the high street tells us a lie and the lie is that you can have wool cheaply and you can have it when you want it. And then it presents the lie in cheerful colours scattered with words like ‘joy’ and ‘gift’ (see Felix’s photos for the proof) – and therein is another lie. Which is that if you acquire this discount wool, you will be full of joy and you will be able to spread joy and you will have a gift in your hands, either for yourself (presumably because you’re worth it) or  – marvellously – for somebody else. What’s not to like?

Well, the fact that all this is nonsense. There are a variety of ways to get real wool from real sheep onto the shelves at this price, as Felix points out. Either someone has not been paid at all, or everyone involved in the slow process of producing wool has been paid less than the minimum wage, or the garments on display don’t actually contain much real wool.

Where is the ‘joy’ in this? Who wants a ‘gift’ for themselves or for others that is wrapped up in a tissue of lies and injustice?

The word ‘advent’ means ‘coming’. It is a season in which Christians wait expectantly for the birth of Jesus.

You can’t hurry a baby.

Yet somehow over the years this once holy time of waiting and preparation has morphed into a season of rush and over-consumption. And the more we accumulate and the faster we want it, so the more the injustices pile up

And in the run-up to Christmas, these injustices increase in the name of the one who said:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Luke 4: 18-19

I have been a Christian for quite a few years and I have been slow to grasp this, but if I could wish for one thing right now it would be that more people both inside and outside the Church could really understand that the Bible reveals a God who gets angry when farmers are forced to sell fleeces at rock-bottom prices so that high street stores can provide consumers with cheap products to give as gifts.

Especially, I would dare to suggest, at Christmas.