The Common Good
December 2010

Simple Living Becomes Sexy

by Valerie Weaver-Zercher | December 2010

In an age of 'eco-awakenings,' the vision of 'more with less' abides.

Christians concerned about poverty and the environment aren't used to sitting at the popular table in the cultural cafeteria. So when Cindy Crawford waxes poetic about her "eco-awakening" in Vanity Fair and a Proctor & Gamble advertising circular shows a smiling woman icing a cake beside the words "Do more with less" -- well, we can be forgiven for not knowing whether to applaud or grimace. Beg your pardon if we ask questions about the monetizing of our values, or if we doubt that Zac Efron's use of an "eco-limo" has anything to do with what we've been talking about all these years.

By now, many Christians are accustomed to being branded "green" because they freeze corn or bike to work. The corporate hijacking of the environmental movement is old news, writes Lauren Weber, author of In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue. What is new, Weber claims, is the extent to which "cheap is the new green." Stories about the new frugality have hit most major news outlets, and what Weber calls the "eco-cheap" economy -- the world of secondhand commerce, bartering, and freeganism -- is drumming up increasing attention.

So when simple living becomes sexy, what's a Christian to do? It seems a little priggish to insist on drawing distinctions between the pop-culture iteration of living more with less and "our" version. Besides, many different environmentalisms and movements toward thrift are afoot today, and Christians are often at the forefront of both, making the comparison between Christian "more-with-less-ness" and popular movements a little muddy. And despite the More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre and its companion volume, Living More with Less, Mennonites (and other Christians) don't own the phrase any more than Proctor & Gamble does.

Plus, isn't this exactly what we've been hoping for -- more people detoxing from their consumptive and earth-destroying addictions? Who cares whether people are motivated by authentic concern for the poor and the planet -- or by how gorgeous Cameron Diaz looks in a YouTube video about the environmental crisis when she tilts her head and asks earnestly, "How do you get people to care?"

On the other hand, an uncritical embrace of all things touted as thrifty and green could weaken the kind of rigorous approach that more-with-less living can entail. Is it really possible for Hollywood to contribute to the cause without cheapening it?

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I offer three things that the fashionably green and cheap movements might learn from Longacre and the contributors to her more-with-less books, most of whom were living eco-frugal existences long before Cameron Diaz hit the big screen.

Styles Pass; standards have staying power. Doris Janzen Longacre couldn't have seen it coming. Longacre, who died in 1979, knew her cookbook about eating responsibly in light of global hunger was selling wildly (200,000 copies within the first two years), and she wrote Living More with Less in part because the oil crisis and stagflation had readers scrounging around for practical tips on how to live with less in all areas of life, not just cooking. Longacre knew the planet was being stressed by human habits of extraction, consumption, and fuel-burning, and a few other folks did too, but their concerns remained marginal to the still-ballooning American dream. Eco-couture items such as $350 sweaters of cashmere and spun milk protein and 400-thread-count bamboo sheets -- part of what Jeff Yeager, author of the The Cheapskate Next Door, calls a "cause de stuff" -- were still decades off.

Still, Longacre had a hunch that her ideas might someday become chic. She avoided the word "lifestyle" because it "bears the stamp of the new, the distinctive, the fun," choosing instead the term "life standards" to describe a "way of life governed by more than fleeting taste." It's as if she foresaw -- and rued -- the day that Matt Petersen, president and CEO of Global Green USA, would gush, as he did at a celebrity-studded Oscar week fundraiser: "The solutions [to global warming] are ... fashionable. They can be fun! They can be sexy!"

The language of Longacre's five life standards -- do justice, learn from the world community, nurture people, cherish the natural order, and nonconform freely -- may sound frumpy to contemporary ears accustomed to a vernacular of fashionable, fun, and sexy. But they interlock to create what theologian Malinda Berry, in the 30th-anniversary edition of Living More with Less, calls "a more-with-less theology." And while theologies and standards aren’t as appealing as styles, they also don’t topple over when the winds of public opinion change direction.

Because here's the thing: As author Lauren Weber reminds us, Americans' commitment to frugality waxes and wanes. "History shows us that in hard times, we hunker down and make do with less," Weber writes. "It also shows that as soon as the danger passes, we cheerfully reset our appetites a notch or two higher than before." Only when (or if) the economy rebounds will we know whether the new frugality is a durable virtue or passing fancy.

Chaning habits may require -- are you serious? -- hard work. Despite chirpy checklists of five simple ways to save the planet, it’s not always easy being green. Hanging up laundry takes more work than tossing it in the dryer. Biking takes longer than driving. Making food from scratch, repairing broken items, and taking care of your neighbors might mean sacrificing recreational or even vocational pursuits.

Of course there are pay-offs in contentment and spiritual health -- those constitute the "more" in "more with less." But frugality for the sake of the environment and the poor isn’t some accessory value that you can splice onto a maxed-out, harried lifestyle. It's a set of practices that displaces some priorities and disrupts others. It's not always convenient, and it's not always easy. Expecting it to be either means that, when the going gets tough, you'll be more likely to throw in the organic cotton towel.

Living more with less is about more than personal -- and even planetary -- health. When it is not moored in concern for those with less, commitment to sustainability and simplicity can fold in on itself. Local living can contract its way toward narcissism, or at least provinciality. Being cheap saves me money. Eating organic lettuce helps me be healthy. Growing a garden feeds my family.

Even though such actions are inarguably good for the planet and often for the poor as well, self-interest can sneakily supplant concern for the poor or for the earth’s crisis that is endangering the most vulnerable first. Books such as Living More with Less, rooted in Mennonite Central Committee's relationships with the global poor, can remind a movement in danger of navel-gazing that sustainability has at least as much to do with the climate refugees crowding into the slums of Dhaka because their coastal villages are being flooded as with the fact that asparagus and morel quiche tastes lovely in the spring.

So if cheap is "the next cool," as Jeff Yeager of the Cheapskate books predicts, so be it. The fact that U.S. and Canadian citizens are wasting less, borrowing less, building smaller homes, and staying around home more, as Yeager claims, is undeniably a good thing. Perhaps the role of more-with-less Christians is to gently support adherents to the new frugality if or when thrift once again moves from chic to passé. Perhaps then we can remind them that, when the planet and the poor are concerned, responsible living never goes out of style.

Valerie Weaver-Zercher is a contributing editor to Sojourners and editor of the 30th-anniversary edition of Living More with Less (Herald Press, 2010). Additional resources are at www.mpn.net/livingmorewithless.

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