Value is not made of money, but a tender balance of expectation and longing.
–Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
This beautiful expression reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad a while back about spending and saving money. We both enjoy watching money accumulate, and tend not to buy things, even though we can afford them. We were talking about what luxury means, and how it can be easy to become jaded by what once seemed a luxury, unless you make a conscious effort to avoid that.
When I was a kid, my stocking always had an orange in the toe, and although I understood it was tradition, I never really knew why. I just figured that it was supposed to balance out the candy.
The quotation comes after a description of Kingsolver’s daughter Lily eating one of the tangerines they bought for the winter holidays after an eight-month hiatus on citrus, which isn’t grown in their local area and wasn’t in the high season anywhere nearby until then. Eating locally, citrus returned to being the luxury it was in the time when it became a tradition to have it in the Christmas stocking. It once would have been as treasured as the candy, maybe more so. But with the trend in shipping everything everywhere, it became an everyday thing. I don’t think I knew where oranges came from until after I was an adult, much less that they have a season.
Since I’ve been buying most of my produce at the farmer’s market, I’ve been incidentally eliminating a number of things that aren’t in season now, or aren’t grown at all near here — like bananas, also once a daily or weekly part of my diet, also once fruits that I didn’t recognize as denizens of a faraway place, possessed of their own season.
Bananas that cost a rainforest, refrigerator-trucked soymilk, and prewashed spinach shipped two thousand miles in plastic containers do not seem cruelty-free, in this context. A hundred different paths may lighten the world’s load of suffering. Giving up meat is one path, giving up bananas is another. The more we know about our food system, the more we are called into complex choices. —AVM p. 225
There’s something worthwhile about making sure that our ideas of everyday and luxury items, or everyday and luxury behaviors, don’t get too out of whack. The more we see as everyday, the less we have to get excited about on special occasions, the less excited we can get, and the more boring life seems. Or we keep seeking out greater and greater thrills, until our consumption and behavior become extreme. I’m happy to put limits on my everyday choices, both food and otherwise, if it means I gain more pleasure on the occasions that I allow myself to step outside those limits. And if it means the world will still have some resources available for all of us down the line.
This is a difficult line of reasoning, though, because where do we draw the line? Every day of my life is profligate luxury compared to some, yet very moderate compared to others. I don’t eat only beans and rice and live in a hut without running water; I don’t live in a multi-bedroom house, drive a Hummer, and wear diamonds.
What are we called on to do? This question is not academic in these early days of serious thinking about climate change and fossil fuel limits. McKibben raises the same question in Deep Economy: what are we all called on to do? We obviously have to give a great deal up, because right now our country of 5% of the world’s population is using 25% of its resources, but those in other countries want some of the benefits we’ve gotten from our cheap-fuel economy. Where in the middle do we meet? For now, I’m going to I hope it’s someplace where all of us choose some moderation, and we all also enjoy a few luxuries. And I’m going to keep looking for the place on the the scale where I feel like I’m doing the right thing by myself and the world.