A few weeks ago Teresa from Thoughtful Eating recommended that I read Living More with Less by Doris Janzen Longacre, a book about the connection between social justice and simple living from a Mennonite perspective. This book illustrates a few of the many reasons why if I was ever going to go back to church it would almost certainly be a Mennonite congregation.
Most of the books, articles and blogs I’ve read about simple living are focused on the benefits of those things for us as individuals. There’s nothing wrong with choosing a more frugal lifestyle for personal gain but Longacre’s focus on the often mindless waste of resources in the west and her description of how changing these habits can benefit others as much if not more than it helps us was a breath of fresh air.
My favourite section of the book involved a list of imaginary development problems that were commented upon by people who lived outside of the United States. Topics ranged from building energy-efficient public transportation to connect small towns across the U.S. to living without disposable goods to using fewer kitchen appliances and less energy when cooking. Their suggestions for these problems showed how difficult it can be to offer realistic solutions for systemic problems in cultures that you know little or nothing about. Yet people in the west often give similar well-meaning but misguided advice about which seeds to buy or irrigation systems to use when the people who actually live in that society already know that those items or ideas aren’t going to work for their community. I had never thought about this before and it was a section I re-read several times.
The second half of the book contains tips on getting the most out of what we do use whether it is the clothing we wear, the food we eat, the homes we live in or the celebrations we have for weddings and baby showers among other events. These tips ranged from how to use vinegar to get rid of soap scum to how to build your own home in the side of a hill or out of recycled materials.
One of the biggest drawbacks to many the techniques described in this book, though, is that they require a lot of time and skill. Maintaining a vegetable garden, preserving food safely, cooking every meal at home from scratch, sewing your own clothes, building or retrofitting an eco-friendly home out of recycled materials…none of these things are easy to do when one is already working a full-time job elsewhere. This is something that is feasible for families who live in a rural setting and can devote at least one adult to learning and doing all of these activities. It is more difficult, though, for the 79% of Americans who live in urban areas (80% in Canada) or the 61% of women who work outside of the home. (59% in the US).
I recognize that this is partially a matter of cultural differences between 1980 and 2010 and (to a degree) cities and rural communities. To be fair, the introduction does say:
Approach this book as if it were an invitation to a treasure hunt rather than a summons to a final exam. Doris Longacre has no interest in legalism or works-righteousness.
One of the things I respect the most about Longacrue is that she isn’t dogmatic about the application of every suggestion in this book. I don’t know if I’m romanticizing the Mennonite community or if I have just happened to continuously meet people from that background who approach even their most strongly held convictions with humility and grace but this is something that I deeply admire about them.
I do wish, though, that one of Longacres descendants would write a sequel to this book that addresses the societal shifts of the last generation or two and offered more examples of simple living for the sake of others for everyone outside of the breadwinner dad, stay-at-home mom and several young children model of life. I can only imagine what sort of creative solutions have been hammered out over the last three decades.