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Unshopping for Health and Wealth

I'm taking a class at my church called "Voluntary Simplicity." Admittedly, it's not a catchy title. You could definitely take it the wrong way. Choosing to be stupid? Rejecting technological advances in favor of a rural life? Well, that's not what the class is about at all. It's actually about refining our life goals and values, making the most of whatever situation we're in--urban or rural, at any income level--and taking control of our lives, free from pressures to consume things we don't need and don't really want, things that might actually decrease our quality of life if we purchase and own them. It's about living SMARTER, not bigger, and increasing mental and physical efficiency to get the most out of what you really want in life.

Today, I read through an environmental e-newsletter and saw this list of ten things to avoid purchasing. It's very reasonable. I don't buy most of the things on the list, myself, and I've found that my life has been easier for it, not harder. It's really nice to make short shopping trips and peacefully glide right past entire aisles of the supermarket because I know that I will never, ever (or almost never) need a single item for sale there.

The list includes:

Paper towels and conventional household cleaners. I learned this trick from Martha Stewart: You can clean almost anything in your home, better and with less damage to surfaces than conventional cleaners, using white vinegar and baking soda. And those things are non-toxic, so they're safer for kids and pets and don't emit harmful fumes. I do all my general-purpose cleaning with washable rags and washcloths using vinegar, baking soda, a little dish soap, and/or water infused with essential oils. The essential oils actually smell good. Many of the same oils used for aromatherapy and asthma/allergy therapy are also used for cleaning. They kill bacteria, viruses, and mold while emitting therapeutic essences instead of toxic fumes. Oh, and cleaning with all of these substances is far cheaper than buying nature-destroying crap in the cleaning aisle. Safer, cleaner, more pleasant, and cheaper. Why buy the chemicals in the cleaning aisle? Just because they're in commercials? I don't have TV, so I don't even understand the appeal.

Styrofoam cups. It's easy to keep a mug at work and carry travel mugs to events that will serve hot beverages. I have two kinds of espresso makers and a coffee pot at home, so I never have to bother with drive-through coffee orders or waiting in line at a cafe for a $4 latte. I have artist friends who make sculpture and pottery, so I'm lucky enough to have a stash of gifted or "throwaway" earthenware cups and mugs. They're much more stylish than Styro. You have to rinse them out, but you also don't have to worry about disposing of them. And they don't squeak against your teeth.

Bleached coffee filters. Speaking of coffee, which I love love love, mine is all filtered through a metal screen. My espresso makers have no disposable filter needs, and I can't even conceive of buying into one of those loony "pod" scams. I have the super-low-tech stovetop espresso maker, which brews with an even richer flavor than my electric model and can be used on the home-heating woodstove for no additional energy. Then I have the convenient plug-in espresso maker with its stainless filter and my plug-in coffee pot with a "gold" filter. It's a rinse-and-go kind of thing. an old hand-me-down from a friend that's much nicer than most brand-new coffee pots I've seen. My parents have a different type of stovetop coffee maker. The point is, there are lots of ways to brew a good cup without disposable filters, bleached or not. I don't see the point.

Overpackaged foods and other products. Food that comes in a lot of packaging also tends to be bad for you. Mr. G and I shop mainly around the perimeter of the grocery store and in the produce section. There is nothing cheaper than cooking for yourself, so if you can make the time at all, it's essential. We discard so little trash that it takes about a month to fill up the smallest-size curbside trash container our disposal service offers. We also recycle and compost with a vermicompost bin tucked into a corner of the kitchen. Sounds gross, but nobody even notices it. We haven't smelled anything from it all winter. And when I open it up for harvesting this spring, I'll have some glorious, rich soil to add to my garden beds!

Teak and mahogany. I am 27 years old, and never in my life have I purchased a piece of new furniture. Never. Every piece of furniture in my house is hand-me-down or purchased from a resale shop. Used furniture does not have to be junky, shabby, or ugly. There is SO MUCH used crap clogging up our world. Just look around. You can be very picky and find pieces to suit any decorating style. Besides, I find new furniture to be a rip-off. It's usually shoddy quality for the money you pay. The same amount of money can buy a far higher-quality piece if it's used. For more expensive items, refinishing or painting a used item can be well worth the effort.

Toxic pesticides and herbicides. There is nothing like the summertime pleasure of wandering through a homegrown garden, picking peas and green beans and tomatoes right off the vine and nibbling at them or carrying sweet corn straight to the grill. Mr. G even eats the wild strawberries and dandelions that grow free in our lawn. The health and environmental harm of toxic chemicals are not worth a slightly higher short-term yield. Besides, I don't know what chemical pesticides would do to the great variety of native bees that pollinate my vegetables and fruits, or to the songbirds that eat bugs in my yard. Or the butterflies that inhabit my wildflowers. Nothing in the world could induce me to poison my tiny little suburban Eden. Someday, I want to have a child at this house, who will also eat my vegetables and play in the grass. There's no contest when I ponder whether a healthy child (and husband, who cannot be dissuaded from eating things found growing on the ground) or a weed-free lawn would make me happier.

High octane gasoline. Sporty driving can be fun, yes. But a low cost at the pump is nice, too. Mr. G and I now have two cars, but we keep one in storage most of the time and try to carpool or bike whenever possible. The City of Lansing recently passed a "Complete Streets Ordinance," which will make cycling safer and simpler. It's a fine example of local community organizing paying off with quick and dramatic results. Speaking of quick and dramatic results, people who add cycling to their methods of transportation usually drop 50 pounds in a hurry. Mr. G lost 80 when he started cycling. And a hot guy on a bike is sexier than a doughboy in a sports car, in my humble opinion.

Toys made with PCV plastic. We don't have kids yet, but I am intensely aware of the toxicity of toys. This is America, not Europe. Our toys contain lead, arsenic, chemicals that affect hormones and development, and carcinogens. My future baby will have no TV hawking the latest piece of tainted, plastic garbage. I hope I'll have the money to spoil my kid, but the money would be spent on things like music and riding lessons, travel, camping, and only a few but high-quality, safe material possessions.

Plastic forks and spoons. When we have an outdoor barbecue or picnic or something, we bring a bag of cheap, but washable, utensils and dishes from the thrift store. If they get lost or broken, it's no biggie. And we have a dishwasher, so cleanup is also no biggie. Another disposable option not mentioned in the article? Wooden chopsticks. Come on, you can learn!

This post's "Moment of Zen" comes from Rammstein. The song and video for "Keine Lust" (No Desire, or I Don't Want) describes the band's realization that they had surpassed even the most diminished returns on things they once desired (money, cars, groupie sex, food, etc.) and found that the more of those things they consumed, the less happy and healthy they became. In the video, only one band member is not "fattened up" because "what he doesn't want, he doesn't do." The band has explained in interviews that after they reached this point, they took a long break and returned with a renewed focus on music making and performance, which are their truest pleasures and the only benefit of fame that doesn't become empty, tiresome, and damaging.

Uhm, most of us don't get to experience those tiresome byproducts of excess and fame (oh, the hardships of the wealthy!), so I suppose we should take their word for it.

Happy unshopping!


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