The Restoration III: Sustainable Living

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Four Marks as part of a series called "The Restoration." "The Restoration" is a monthly column dedicated to restoring Christian ideals in our modern culture. For more information on The Four Marks, please click here.

We don’t have curbside pickup for recycling in Overland Park, Kansas. I keep Rubbermaid tubs in my kitchen which I fill up with glass bottles, cardboard, egg cartons, aluminum cans, and paper. Being a single guy, I don’t have to go to the recycling facility more than once a quarter, but when I do, it’s quite an exercise. I trundle the six tubs down the stairs from my apartment to my car, which I fill to the brim. I then drive six miles south to our city’s recycling facility, where I, with my other save-the-earthers, fill up large metal containers with our now feel-good consumables.

I drive home, feeling like I’ve done my part to keep our life sustainable, and I know that if it was cheap and easy, everyone would do it. Yet, it’s precisely cheap and easy that has gotten us to our current disaster of civilization.

I wear Birkenstocks a lot, so while this choice of footwear along with the extra effort to recycle might make me seem to be a tree-hugging liberal, I’m rabidly pro-life, abhor taxes, prefer a limited government, and have three guns (a Glock-17, a Winchester 12-gauge, and a Ruger .22) in my house. Some would call this Rod Dreher’s “crunchy conservatism.” I call it “being Catholic.”

Sometimes I try the thought experiment of explaining Catholicism to a total alien. I’d tell the alien that God became man in order to save us from our own sins that we committed against Him, that He established a Church to help us get there, and that the Church possesses 7 sacraments – visible signs of invisible grace – to help us on our journey. Along with these sacraments, one of which involves bread becoming the Flesh of God, we have sacramentals – objects that remind us of the joy that should be within us – like holy water, scapulars, and medals. We have a rosary – a type of prayer – that was given to us by an apparition of God’s Mother. We believe in invisible angels and demons, but we don’t believe in Dan Brown, and we believe in a final judgment in which all mankind will be judged by God Almighty.

Fact: Catholics live in an enchanted universe. We know that our fight is not with flesh and blood alone, but against principalities and powers. Because we recognize this enchantment, we realize that all of creation, including our bodies, are gifts. Given that they are gifts from God, we have a particular obligation to treat them with respect and honor.

This is really much simpler than we make it, and I propose to make it even simpler by speaking in terms of food, clothing, and shelter.

Food

It seems that the last 50 years in food “engineering,” as it might be called, has seen an increasing distinction between “food” and “food products” though this has been done so subtly that most of us never noticed. For those still unaware, food is what you will find on the outside edges of a supermarket. The most profitable stuff (and the least nutritious), food products, will be found in the aisles.

Too many in our society have taken the cheap and easy way out, citing “cost” as the reason they don’t buy more food than food products or why they don’t buy organic food.

This objection is false for two reasons. As Newton’s third law of motion states: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When we put cheap, processed, de-nutrified food into our stomachs, our nervous system reacts accordingly. Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food pointed out that fifty years ago we spent 20% of our disposable income on food and 5% on healthcare. Now we spend less than 10% on food and over 18% on healthcare. I, with him, see a correlation.

Further, buying in bulk doesn’t always save money. If you look at buying fresh foods on a weekly basis , you are likely to spend the same amount of money, if not a little less, when you’re buying a week at a time instead of a month at a time. We’ve come to see buying food, like anything else that doesn’t soak us in somatized amusement, as a nuisance.

Some of us might even overlook the sacramentality of making a meal, so beautifully discussed in Leon Kass’ The Hungry Soul. Sometimes on weeknights I tutor until 9pm, so I don’t start cooking until then, but every time I do, I get the opportunity to think through how good God is to us to provide food for us to live, and how even the simple fact of making and eating a meal helps us realize how powerful creation is. Quite different from zapping a Banquet meal in a microwave (and having done that before, I would know!).

Some might object that there are big corporate organic farms, and this is true, though the vast majority of organic products come from small family farms. But the reason to buy organic is not solely to make a statement that big agricultural farming is unsustainable and reliant on unjust government subsidies, destructive of the nitrates in soil, and impoverishing to the American family farmer, but that organic products recognize that we live in an enchanted world. God’s animals are not “nuisances” to be sprayed with industrial sop that has unknown effects on food. Nature finds a way, and even Monsanto’s demonic GMO seeds routinely have to be updated to deal with new “spray-resistant” pests. Nature has to be dealt with on nature’s terms. Did DDT teach us nothing?

Clothing

Again, in America, cost is king, so people buy cheap clothing that wears out quickly. The clothing, while trendy, is often not classic or truly stylish, and is tossed away like so many of the child laborers who worked 18-hour days to make them. Want a geography lesson? The next time you’re at the Gap simply check out the labels to see the parade of Third World countries that make the clothing of this style empire. The simple math of buying more expensive clothes in classic styles that will last longer seems to escape most of us in the day-to-day hustle of buying from Payless. Pay less. Again, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

And what kind of clothing are we buying? Are we buying clothing that respects our bodies and treats it with the dignity that an entity made from dust by a sovereign, omnipotent God deserves? Or do we buy simply what is trendy and will make us fit in with everyone else?

Shelter

Winston Churchill once said something to the effect of “When we design our buildings, we define them. When we move in, they define us.” Where is it that we live? What way does our dwelling recognize that every creature on this planet must rest, recreate, and be sheltered from the elements? Does the television, the very antithesis of “living” reside in our “living rooms”? Do we allow unreal things like video games to dominate our recreation?

How do our cities and buildings recognize the enchantment that is daily life in which we work out our salvation in fear and trembling? Can we be surprised at Columbines when schools look like prisons or can we be surprised when people “go postal” when they live in a Dilbertian existence? Suburbia, our great lie to ourselves that you can live in the country while living in the city, has produced incredibly bad architecture, fractured communities, and cookie-cutter homes that will not even stand a generation.

Life is not compartmentalized, but our neat commute to work from the suburbs pretends that it is. We have dead office parks during the evenings and weekends and dead suburbs during the day. Why is it so alien to Moderns that for millennia people have lived where they have worked and worshipped and played and walked? Why do we have to be so apart from each other? Why do we worship the automobile so much that we define our lives by its existence?

I wish there were easy answers to these questions. But perhaps there are easy answers. Perhaps part of the problem is that we are so distracted by big problems that will never be solved (like worrying about overturning Roe v. Wade) that we forget that the most important task that we have is to save our soul, and that we can do that best, as Russell Kirk so often said, by brightening our little corner of the world. Maybe then we’d support farmer’s markets. Maybe then we’d rediscover clothing of worth. Maybe then we’d let someone other than owners of car dealerships sit on city planning commissions. And perhaps then, we would begin to fire again the moral imagination that reminds us that we live in enchantment.

And at the end, perhaps we can begin again, for the first time, by thinking on these lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh:

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.

Live as though you live in an enchanted world. And thank God for His Creation by the way that you live, in the simplest of things.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, France, where he attends Mass celebrated by the clergy of the IMBC. He founded True Restoration in 2006.

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2 Responses

  1. Irenicum says:

    A friend sent me an email with your essay included. Now I know why! A wonderful essay indeed. You ask very similar questions as I do. God bless you and be well.

  2. Le Chouan says:

    Mr. Heiner,

    I'm glad to find another Catholic who reads Michael Pollan. I was beginning to think I was the only one.

    Part III is just as superb as the other two, by the way.

    Your faithfully,
    Daniel