My orange skirt and the idea of true wealth

Juliet Schor
Juliet Schor, author of Plenitude and this author’s intellectual crush.

The skirt I’m wearing right now troubles me. It’s bright and summery, but its flashiness is like a warning signal. I didn’t need it. I didn’t want to buy it, but it cost $10 and so I did. And that’s a behavior I’d like to change. As I write, my dresser drawers are overflowing but my income is limited, and I’ve got these monster ideas about my life and future and the whole entire planet floating around in my head. Here’s why:

When I worked at Freelancers Union, we had a little lunchtime “book” club to give us a chance to read and discuss ideas about transforming the economy and workforce. We read about parmesan-cheese cooperatives in Italy, union-built housing in New York, and communitarian politics in the UK. But Juliet Schor’s Plenitudespoke straight to me. And it spoke loudly.

In a nutshell, here’s what I heard: we Americans work really hard to earn money, and we spend a lot of that money to support a lifestyle that’s geared toward supporting our careers (an apartment close to work, dry cleaning, and frozen food).

All that spending — on Chinese takeout, gasoline, cable — takes a big toll on the environment. The more we screw up the planet with our consumption, the harder it’s going to be to keep up our super-productive economy. Basically, the planet can’t support our current pace of working and consuming. There’s a great but disturbing graph in the book with a simple rainbow-like curve representing how productivity and natural resources eventually both peter out to zero.

But after scaring the bejeezus out of you, what does Schor suggest? That we work less, earn less, and buy less. Now,  “work less” isn’t what it seems. She suggests diversifying your labor, much like you’d diversify financial investments. Instead of putting all your eggs in the full-time-job basket, where someone else pays you and you spend that money to provide for yourself, invest some of your labor in self-provisioning: entertain yourself with a hike, grow some of your own food, sew your own skirt. Invest, too, in social capital — friends and community both enrich your daily quality of life and give you greater stability.

The most exciting and transformative of her ideas, though (because I was already dreaming about the Four-Hour Workweek), is to move past the idea of sacrificing the things you love and stay enthralled to whatever indulgent, good-life pleasures that most of us say we’re working to achieve. Embrace an even purer kind of materialism. Lust after real luxuries like leather boots . . . just enjoy ecologically smart consumption by buying (fewer) expensive, high-quality, repairable boots and taking care of them, instead of bingeing on (loads of) cheap disposable treats. Are you cringing? I was at first. But ask yourself why. Can we separate real value from its false twins, status and fashion?

In other words, put down that Hershey’s kiss ’cause you’re going to have homemade red velvet cake tonight. And stop getting sucked into H&M’s seasonal sales — you’re saving up for one great cashmere sweater that’ll last you years.

Of course, millions are already experts on living with less. And some people earn so much per hour that they kind of overshoot and break the economic model. Lastly, I know my efforts will make less-than-no impact on the environment (I’ll get to that in a future post). But “plenitude” is about self-preservation as much as environmentalism, and if you suspect that our economy and planet are headed for rough — or rougher — times, it can’t hurt to get prepared.

I’m not thinking about stockpiling canned food and ammo, just about creating a life that . . . makes sense. I say this while wearing cheap clothes I snapped up from a recent sample sale. This is no how-to guide, no evangelical pitch. This is an experiment, and my already-pilling cotton skirt tells me it’s going to be a colorful one.

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