- In Defense of Frugality:Insights from “Green Contemplatives” across Traditions
In 1995, James Nash, a Christian ethicist, wrote a seminal article discussing the decline of the virtue of frugality. Not only is frugality demoted by our society, but it is also met with ridicule and depicted as “unfashionable, unpalatable, and even unpatriotic.”1 In contrast, argued Nash, frugality needs to be defined as an “earth affirming and enriching norm that delights in the non- and less-consumptive joys of the mind and flesh, especially the enhanced lives for human communities and other creatures that only constrained consumption and production can make possible on a finite planet.”2 Seen as such, frugality becomes a subversive norm revolting against the norms prevalent in our consumerist society. Today, frugality continues to be a radical virtue, yet a virtue that receives a growing attention from the religious and secular alike. This is due to the spreading ecological deterioration, the increasing gap between the poor and the wealthy, and the mounting dissatisfaction with life among the well-to-do. Psychologists, sociologists, economists, and environmentalists call for a life that rejects overconsumption, a life that is satisfied with what is enough.3 Scholarly voices from diverse disciplines point out that restraint in our lifestyle choices is necessary to ensure sustainability for all life forms and the planet itself. This is so because the health of the environment is endangered largely due to human consumption aimed at increasing one’s well-being. Furthermore, the research on happiness suggests that the prosperous in our society might be happier when practicing some restraint in consumer spending.4 Thus, it appears that frugality can bring health to the planet and its various inhabitants and make human beings happy.
Based on an interdisciplinary assessment of the consumerist lifestyle, I will argue that contemplative Christian and Buddhist traditions offer one way of restoring the subversive virtue of frugality. By examining contemplative resources present in their respective theologies, practices of meditation, and environmentally friendly lifestyles, I will suggest the relevancy of these for secular as well as religious communities and the well-being of the planet. Given our growing social, environmental, and psychological costs driven by consumerism, it is important to revisit strategies present in living frugally.5 [End Page 147]
Zygmunt Bauman, a sociologist and philosopher, defines consumerist society in the following manner:
Consumer society manages to render non-satisfaction permanent. One way of achieving such an effect is to denigrate and devalue consumer products shortly after they have been hyped into the universe of the consumer’s desires. But another way, yet more effective, hides from the limelight: the method of satisfying every need/desire/want in such a fashion that it cannot but give birth to new needs/desires/wants. What starts as a need must end up as a compulsion or an addiction.6
Of course, there is nothing wrong with consumption as such. Our very survival depends on it. What is problematic is the kind of consumption that turns into an end in itself so that other concerns, be they social, economic, or psychological, are dismissed. In a society that often measures personal achievement by economic success, the nonsatisfaction with one’s current status is rendered permanent. This is particularly noticeable whenever the updated versions of popular products appear on the market, whether iPods, iPhones, or computers. Purchases of such products are rarely motivated by “needs,” since the older versions of the products are still functional, but by hyped-up desire created by a multibillion-dollar advertising industry. We want what we are told we should want because we are caught in a cycle of compulsion that aims at satisfying every desire. In such a cycle, wants become identified as needs. More than 70 percent of the electronic products end up in our landfills, and they contribute 70 percent of the heavy metals found in US landfills.7
Wendell Berry, a Catholic contemplative, characterizes this consumerist approach to life as consistent with the culture of the one night stand. We are after pleasure rather than lasting commitments; we do not probe into the practices of various businesses; we choose not to know true names of our...