Elizabeth Chin responds
I am heartened, challenged, and stimulated by the interesting and engaged discussion that has emerged around my short piece, “I Will Simply Survive.” It’s always so interesting to see the ways in which I have managed (or not) to be clear in what I am trying to say.
My aim was not to cast blame on anybody (except mostly myself, I think), but rather to encourage critical self-examination of what spurs each of us to attempt simplicity, simplifying, eco-whatever. Furthermore, my aim was to expand thinking to embrace those whose choices are constrained by poverty. Of course pro-environmental choices aren’t bad: I have a worm box, I buy organic, and my child has virtually never worn a piece of clothing that came new from a store. Even so, despite whatever environmentally friendly and thrifty things I do — consciously and with enthusiasm — the bald truth is that I, like most people in the U.S., have a ridiculously outsized environmental footprint compared to the rest of the world’s population. The worm box isn’t bad at all, but there’s no doubt it’s a drop in the bucket.
Because of my research and political commitments, I spend a lot of time with people who are truly poor. It’s easy to tell them to turn off the TV, but in neighborhoods where kids can’t play outside because it isn’t safe, what are the alternatives? In Haiti, where I do much of my research, the per capita annual income is under $300 a year and living expenses are not that much lower than they are here. These are people who, consumer-wise, have choices that range from hideous to horrifying — choices that literally include giving their children away because they will die of starvation if they don’t. And it doesn’t take a lot of analysis to see that these people’s grinding and dehumanizing poverty is intimately connected to our own wealth, and that certainly includes even those of us who are not wealthy by U.S. standards. By global standards, we are outlandishly wealthy, even if our incomes are at the official poverty level.
But one need not go to the poorest of the poor to engage these questions, which is why I started out by talking about Davy. The truth is, we live in a consumer society. I think it’s profoundly unfair to judge poor kids’ desires to participate in consumer society as false consciousness and empty responses to mass media. Part of the difference I was attempting to problematize is that of choice: the choice to disengage from consumer society is very different from not having the resources to enter that society in any meaningful or consistent way. In some distant future, not having our world be based on capitalist consumerism would be great. In the meantime, it’s what daily life is made of. That was the point about the Mother’s Day present. Of course Mother’s Day can be seen as a silly holiday created by Hallmark. But so are all of the holidays we celebrate. That doesn’t make gift giving unimportant. For kids (or adults) who cannot buy gifts, that lack is heavily loaded and deeply painful.
Regarding “milk” paint, I actually was not referring to old-fashioned milk paint, but the high-end chemical-free stuff that might be named “milk” as a color — bad editorial choice on my part. I probably should have said “buttermilk” or “cowslip,” except I have to admit I’m not sure what color a cowslip is!
Thanks again for all the commentary, it gets my gears turning.