I’d like to tell you about my new pets. I brought them home toward the end of summer, and now that winter is drawing near they’re a warm and cheering presence in our apartment. It’s strange how quickly some creatures can work their way into one’s heart, but it’s also beautiful.
Or should I say… worm their way into one’s heart. My pets are worms, and they live in our kitchen, in a cupboard next to the baking supplies. These little wrigglers eat roughly a cup of fruit and vegetable scraps every three days, and in return they make us some nice rich compost. All they need is a little TLC (food, fresh newspaper bedding every week or so, and care that their bin doesn’t get too damp or too dry).
In an outdoor ecosystem, worms like these are working hard all the time to transform leaf litter and other dead things into living soil. Soil teems with creatures too small for our eyes to see, creatures that transform and maintain critical balances. This allows plants to take root and draw up nourishment from soil, nourishment which the plants in turn pass on to plant-eating (and plant-eater-eating) creatures like us. Between the soil creatures, the plants, and the plant-eating creatures, nutrients in an ecosystem move through a three-stage cycle.
So what does all this have to do with consumerism? And why is it that consumerism has come to feel like a dirty word? It’s for the same reason that the word ‘dirty’ has negative connotations for us, when in truth ‘dirt’ is what nourishes us and keeps us alive. Both words have been severed from their roots in ecology.
The three components of the nutrient cycle I described above go by other names: decomposers, producers, and consumers. That’s right- we humans are consumers not because we use up cheap junk, but because our role in the world is to eat other organisms, build their nutrients into the fabric of our being, and later return those nutrients to the soil when we die. For me, that’s a powerful twist on a word that otherwise makes me feel like a mindless receptacle for commodities and advertising.
I think this reframing is especially powerful at this time of year, when consumerism of the negative kind takes on extra fervor here in North America. In past years, I’ve often felt disengaged during the Christmas season because it seems to embody so many of the things I dislike: needless packaging, shiny new toxic gadgets, and the way advertisers manipulate our sense of tradition and familial duty. Now that I see myself as a key player in life-giving cycles, both ecological and economic, gift-giving means much more to me.
When we consume using our wallets, we build into the fabric of our being the physical or emotional nourishment of whatever it was we bought, but we also contribute financial nourishment to the producers we buy from. Consuming isn’t an unfortunate reality; it’s an opportunity to nourish those who will best sustain the teeming economic soil we depend on.
That’s why last Saturday I went to the annual local crafters’ sale down the street from my apartment, hosted by the Working Centre and featuring members of The Local Exchange. This is a network of individuals and businesses in the KW area who are practicing producerism: making useful things to sell or trade with their neighbours. When so much economic activity these days is extractive rather than nourishing, it feels empowering to be on either end of a transaction in which the participants not only share an interest in fair exchange, but are committed to the same community- the same soil, you could say.
I look forward to consuming the beeswax tea lights I bought; one of my friends, scheduled to fly to India tomorrow, will think of KW as he consumes the homemade fruit leather I purchased for him. This is what I call taking back consumerism, and it’s one of the reasons I decided to start a business myself. Money doesn’t have to be about greed. It can be about reclaiming our roles in cycles that nourish rather than destroy communities, soil, and life itself.