Consumption leads to more consumption

October 30, 2008 | 24 comments

Wow, so many interesting comments to yesterday’s post! Follow-up posts are undoubtedly forthcoming. This is obviously a topic very much on my mind these days.

I was thinking about all the interesting thoughts you guys had as I cleaned up from lunch today, and it seemed like it was taking forever to take care of my part of the table. I made myself a cheeseburger leftover from last night, and it seemed like there were endless items to clear from the table: wrapping from the cheese slice, jar of mayo, knife, bread crumbs, ketchup, plate, empty milk glass — the list goes on.

It reminded me of something that happened a few months ago during Lent.

I mentioned that I came across an idea that made me see fasting in a whole new light, and that that was a subject that was on my mind a lot leading up to Easter. One Friday I skipped lunch as a fast, and after the kids ate I went on auto-pilot to clear the table. I was stopped in my tracks when I turned around to my place: it was perfectly clean. No wrappers, no smears, no crumb-covered plates. Just the sleek glass, still sparkling from when my husband Windexed it the night before.

That was the first time that it really clicked for me that the more I eat, the more I consume in other ways as well: there’s the money needed to buy it; the wrappings from any packaged food; the dishes that require heated water to clean; the chemicals and towels needed to clean the table; the time taken from my day to prepare, eat and clean up after the meal; and so on.

Shortly after that incident I saw the stunning movie Into Great Silence, and one thing that stood out to me was that all the Carthusian monks‘ meals were very simple. No crumbly appetizers requiring separate plates, no gooey desserts dripping on the table; just simple, unadorned foods that could fit in one bowl (the picture to the right is a shot from the movie). My first thought was, “That would be so easy to clean up!” I consume so much more food than those monks, and in doing so I don’t just use more resources in terms of the food ingested itself, but in the resources needed to buy prepare, serve, store and clean up after it as well.

While I was cleaning up after my little cheeseburger extravaganza this afternoon, it occurred to me that this exponential consumption principle is true for all consumption, and not just food.

I thought of the post I recently mentioned on my links blog which asks: how much of your mortgage is going to clutter storage? When we consume anything at all, whether it’s clothes or decorations or food or furniture or whatever, there’s always more consumption that results from it. We need to dispose of the packaging, make room in the house for it, keep it clean, use our time to purchase and then store it, etc. Once again I thought of the lives of the monks in Into Great Silence, and how clean and sleek and simple their living quarters are, mainly because they just don’t have that much stuff.

I’m not trying to suggest here that I think it’s necessary for everyone to live at that level of asceticism — the liturgical year includes feast days for a reason, and certainly those of us living in the world need at least a few more possessions than cloistered monks. But this has been an important thought exercise for me in that it’s made me realize that consumption is always exponential; whether it’s in terms of time spent, money spent, space used, resources needed to prepare or clean it, or all of the above, I’m always consuming more than just the object at hand.

I feel like God has drawn me to think hard about all this, particularly in terms of food, though I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to do about it. Obviously I’m not supposed to give away the entire contents of my house and start cooking from the Carthusian monk cookbook (boy, those would be some quick recipes! “Br. Paul’s Raw Apple Delight: Take an apple. Cut it in half. Eat it.”)

This might be part of the answer to my recent prayers about how we can cut back our spending. Rather than look at our currently lifestyle and ask, “Is there anything I could cut?” maybe I’m supposed to take it from a radically different angle, starting with the example of the great ascetics like the Carthusians, and, starting with nothing, ask, “What do I really need?”

I don’t really know, but I just thought I’d tell you guys what I was thinking about as I cleaned up from lunch this afternoon, in case y’all have some great insights (as you usually do). Meanwhile, I just had to share this trailer from Into Great Silence. Aaah, what a great movie:

photo: stock.xchng


  1. The Koala Bear Writer

    I’ll go read your other post, but a few quick thoughts come to me… first, I love one-pot meals–less to clean up! 🙂 two, how much money you have doesn’t depend on how much you earn, but how much you spend. Good luck with paring back the spending.

  2. Maria

    I loved that movie, too! Your post was very timely as my mother-in-law and I have been spending the past several days (well, portions of them) unpacking stuff into a new kitchen, including things from our old house that have been in storage for over a year and finishing the job of combining two households worth of stuff. A daunting task indeed! There were a few treasures that came out of boxes with good memories — special gifts, the salad bowl that came from a Hawaii trip. But plenty of items made me wonder why I had bothered packing them away in the first place. We're trying hard to fill the boxes dedicated to our upcoming yard sale!

    As far as trimming down on food prep & consumption, I'd recommend eating more local. I joined a CSA this year and have been learning how to use up the bounty of fresh vegetables and fruits we get each week. It comes with no packaging, hasn't been shipped across country and imposes a discipline of cooking and eating healthy food.

  3. Jennifer G

    Didn’t you recently post that you felt God was trying to prompt you to look at what you eat while you were at Adoration? Perhaps this is related then?

  4. Liz

    While simple meals are a great idea, I would remind you that those Carthusian monks were not carrying or nursing a baby. Women in childbearing years have greater nutritional needs than the monks do. Of course, you don’t need cheeseburgers, and you could make them with a cheese that wouldn’t have a single slice wrapper (we make ours with brick cheddar). However, you do need more protein and even a more consistent pattern of consumption than the stark diet of the monks.

    Similarly having kids requires some amount of just plain stuff (like diapers, multiple sets of clothing, stored clothing in other sizes etc.) that the monks also don’t need. However, I agree with you that most of us carry all of this to wild extremes. My dd has announced that her children will have very little in the way of toys since she thinks that modern toys inhibit children’s imaginations and she doesn’t want to deal with extra clutter. She’s thinking blocks, some play dishes, maybe a doll or two (and I hope something with wheels for a little boy), but not a lot of plastic junk. Now there’s an idea I can support. If she does decide she wants more than that she can always raid grandma’s attic because we’ve got a lot of leftover toys up there… Also she’s planning on using cloth diapers and nursing her babies, so no formula cans or disposable diapers to throw away.

    I married into a family of savers and sometimes it’s been frustrating to deal with the clutter, however, this week when I was able to lay my hands on the pattern book I used to knit booties for my own babies I was sort of happy I’d saved it. There is now an almost finished pair of pink booties to go to a benefit baby shower this weekend. There are also patterns galore awaiting my needles for future grandma projects. So sometimes storage isn’t a bad thing either. I paid a whole lot less for that pattern book than I’d pay for a new one.

    I think it is a matter of balance and awareness. I periodically cull books around here and take them to a shop where I get credits towards other used books. Or I may donate them to our local library sale. I’m about to donate a boatload of no longer fitting clothes to a clothing drive and I’ve already donated ALL of my size 18/20’s to someone else in that size range through our local recycle project. But being aware of the stuff as it comes in (or doesn’t) is the key to the overconsumption thing.

    One of the beauties of making my own bread, yogurt, cookies, cakes, pies, etc. is that there is no excess packaging involved. I may use a storage bag here or there, but those actually can be washed and reused. My mother did it all the time. Like you, I’m amazed at how much trash can be generated by a single meal.

    Good luck with your adventure in scaled down consumption. I would recommend from scratch cooking as one means to the overall end. I would also recommend remembering that kids needs (as opposed to society’s imposed standards) are actually fairly simple.

  5. SuburbanCorrespondent

    If people only knew what deep thoughts are occasioned by simple household tasks!

  6. bearing

    I hear what Liz is saying re: nutrition, but a good, wholesome meal can still be a simple one. Take protein for example — If you go googling around for estimates of daily protein needs in grams, and then consider how you might meet them, you might be surprised. Just as an example, I used to be worried about my 3yo’s protein consumption, then I did a little math and figured that 100% of his daily protein was obtained by a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread plus three ounces of whole milk…

    Jen, you must be channeling me lately. Last night I decided that the biggest work-maker in my house is too much stuff. The first and easiest step is to let go of the things that aren’t actually used and loved. It’s remarkable how much of that there is around here.

  7. SursumCorda

    This very morning I had one of those stunningly obvious revelations — obvious, but I apparently need to learn it again and again.

    God wants us to enjoy the wonderful things he has given us in this world, from sports and sex to cheeseburgers and chocolate. “In [his] right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16) and he delights in our enjoyment of his gifts as we delight in watching our children enjoy the gifts we give them.

    But — and this is the key — he doesn’t want us to be slaves! When he calls us to fast — to diet, to reduce, to go without, to abstain, to cut back — it’s because we keep selling ourselves into slavery, and he wants us to let him to break our chains. Simplifying our lives feels so good, not because cheeseburgers and automobiles and university degrees are bad, but because we all too eagerly cross the line from enjoyment to worship, enslaving ourselves to gods that are not gods.

  8. coffeemom

    how come the women want to get rid of the stuff and clutter and the men, panic about that?? or maybe it’s just me….but this thread is right up my alley…much to think about here. thanks jen!

  9. Wonders for Oyarsa

    Hi Jen,

    The movie had a profound effect on me as well. I wrote my own reflections on it here.

  10. Sandy

    One of the books that influenced me about consumption was Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. While not from a Christian perspective, the authors desire to live simply so they could do other things with their lives except work intrigued me. They lived on something like $6,000 per year each and have great insights into how it can be done. One example I remember is they didn’t buy new clothes or shoes unless their existing ones were truly worn out. No fashionistas there! Also, they had a chart on the real price of groceries in the 1970s vs. 1990s (when the book was written) and show that basics haven’t gone up at all after adjusting for inflation. What’s gone up is our desire for convenience, variety, etc.

    We have a lot of migrant farm workers in our area in the summer and it’s interesting to watch what they buy at the grocery store: whole chickens, onions, potatoes, rice, beans. No convenience foods, no junk food. Cooking from scratch and cooking more simple meals saves a LOT of money and there’s much less packaging.

    When we were in our lean years, it became almost a game to see how well we could eat for how little. I learned to cook Mexican and Chinese food from scratch and also to cook many other things at home that we had enjoyed in restaurants. It is an exercise that I still cherish because I know we can live on much less than we are currently spending if we have to.

    I’ll be looking for that movie.

  11. a square peg

    The change of seasons always puts me in this mindset. Nature throwing off the excess of summer or something along those lines, I suppose, and the approach of winter, when we are sequestered indoors more (at least we yankees are).

    I think about this kind of stuff all the time–possessions and how they end up possessing us, and food, always food. Which is the healthiest? Vegetarian? Low carb? Whole grains? No grains? I have to say in the past I have tried vegetarianism and felt horrible on it (bloated, tired). In fact I personally feel much better (both physically and emotionally) when I do a more low carb diet, but I have issues with the whole corporate agriculture approach to raising and slaughtering animals, and the choices we have made financially to this point don’t allow us to spend the extra money for locally raised and processed animals (though I do spend $3.50 a dozen on local, Amish eggs), so I do low carb and resign to feeling guilty about it. I could probably start a whole blog about my food issues alone! I am an expert at taking simple things and complicating them impossibly;-).

    Your post, and the video, and the thoughts resulting thereof, remind me of a quote from “The Seven Storey Mountain,” in which I get an unappealing glimpse of myself:

    The whole result of this [a diet given to Merton by a doctor, for treatment of an ulcer] was to teach me this trivial amusement, this cult of foods that I imagined to be bland and healthful. It made me think about myself. It was a game, a hobby, something like psychoanalysis had been. I even sometimes fell into the discussion of foods and their values and qualities in relation to health, as if I were an authority on the subject… now I was reduced to… worrying about a lot of imaginary rules of health, standards of food value, and a thousand minute details of conduct that were in themselves completely ridiculous and stupid, and yet which haunted me with vague and terrific sanctions. If I eat this, I may go out of my mind. If I do not eat that, I may die in the night.

    I don’t think I’ll die in the night from eating this or that, of course, but the whole “food cult” idea, I think, is especially true in our time, and how we obsess over it.

    Oh. This was about your food issues. My bad;-) I think your main goal has to be providing proper nutrition for that baby you’re growing. That’s really all you can do. And I think a lot of that is going to have to be intuitive, because it seems the “experts” can’t agree on much in terms of nutrition. Stay away from highly processed foods as much as possible, make sure you take your prenatal vitamins, and get enough calories for you and your baby. Get lots of rest (ha ha, not so easy with little ones, I know), and get out in the fresh air and move.

    I read another food book a while back, “In Defense of Food,” by Michael Pollan. I liked the tagline, which was something like, “Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not too much.” I think that about sums it up. If only it were that easily done!

    btw, this is the third place i’ve seen the film “Into Great Silence” recommended. i’ll have to rent it sometime. Okay, this is turning into a novella. What I meant to say was, “Great post!”

  12. Marian

    Looks like a great movie. Onto the Netflix queu it goes for that great Someday when I sit down and watch a whole movie!
    I don’t have time to dig out my most profound and awe-inspiring thoughts on the subject at the moment =), but just wanted to say that I agree and think about this A LOT. Every little thing or even thought that comes into my home and life requires so much more than the space it initially seems to take up. Cluttered homes,bodies, minds ans spirits all divert us with subtle idolatry and slavery from the Best…

  13. Sandy

    I remembered another source for great ideas on living with less. This site has letters from a Christian mother of 4 who was able to pay off her house early on her husband’s salary which never exceeded $29,000. This letter summarizes the things they did to economize:

  14. Otter Mom

    I have been simplifying my family’s life for the last few months. Part of it is decluttering, I have always donated to Goodwill, etc., but now I’m finding that there is a lot that I have but don’t need and it’s being donated as I clean out. We’re taking steps to reuse and recycle what we can, as well as not spending so much on junk that we don’t really need or want. It’s an ongoing process, but it is working very well. I find that if I just listen to God and let Him guide me, I’m much better off. And this is a big part of why we’re simplifying.

  15. Kristin T.

    I’m very glad I’ve found your blog. I hadn’t made that mental leap from one type of consumption to other types before.

    You’re hitting on some very timely, important topics. I’ve been writing about food and budgeting lately, too. I think being conscious and deliberate about your menu planning and shopping is the most important step.

    I also think it’s critical to remember the other ways we are “fed” when we sit down with others to enjoy a meal. We shouldn’t undervalue or forget about rich conversation and fellowship, even when the food is simple.

    Thanks again for your blog! (I just started following you on Twitter, too.)

    If you’re interested in my related posts, one is “Learning to love leftovers (again)” and the other is “Calculating the value of dinner”

  16. Maria

    If you haven’t read it yet, I highly, highly reccommend Fr. Thomas Dubay’s “Happy are You Poor.” It really changed the way I view my lifestyle, my finances, my stuff, and most importantly, my faith. Seriously it is the most spiritually challenging book I’ve ever read. Here’s a taste, a little examen from the book:

    1.By what standards do I determine what is necessary?

    2.Do I collect unneeded things? Do I hoard possessions?

    3.May I, on Gospel principles, buy clothes at the dictates of fashion designers in Paris and New York? Am I slave to fashion? Do I live in other peoples’ minds? Why really do I have all the clothes I have: shirts, blouses, suits, dresses, shoes, gloves?

    4. Am I an inveterate nibbler? Do I eat because I am bored? Do the weight charts convict me of superfluity in eating and drinking? Do I take second helpings simply for the pleasure they afford?

    5. Do I keep unneeded books and papers and periodicals and notes?
    Do I retain two or three identical items (clocks, watches, scarves) of which I really need only one?
    Do I spend money on trinkets and unnecessary conveniences?

    6.In the winter, do we keep our thermostat, at a setting higher than health experts advise: 68 degrees?

    7. When I think of my needs, do I also think of the far more drastic needs of the teeming millions in the third world?

    8. Do I need the traveling I do more than the poor need food and clothing and medical care?

    9.Am I right in contributing to the billions of dollars spent each year on cosmetics? How much of this can be called necessary?

    10. Is smoking necessary for me?

    11. Is drinking necessary for me?

    12. Do I need to examine exactly what I mean by saying to myself, “I need this”?

    13. Can I honestly say that all I use or possess is used or possessed for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31)? Would he be given more glory by some other use?

    14.Do I in the pauline sense “mind the things above, not those on earth” (Col 3:1-2)?

  17. Beth_nc

    Your posts of the past two days have led me to think more about the concepts of stewardship and gratefulness. Consuming too much prevents us from being grateful. We can stop and savor something special — but having excess makes us take those items for granted.

    In addition to the movie about the monks and the book “Your money or your life” mentioned in a comment,
    I’d recommend

  18. Melanie B

    A timely post for me as I’m currently packing and moving everything we own. We have too much stuff. And yet I have such a hard time getting rid of any of it.

    Our move will also make me much more aware of our consumption in another way. We’re going to have to buy each and every trash bag we put out at the curb from the town. At a hefty price per bag. We’re going to be analyzing everything we throw away to see whether it can be recycled.

    While packing the other day I found the copy of Into Great Silence that we received for Christmas. Still unopened and unwatched I think I can count the movies I’ve watched . since having babies on one hand. But I do want to watch this one. And you’ve convinced me it will help on my quest to reduce my attachment to stuff.

  19. Michelle

    I’ve been mulling over your post. Something that sort of jumped out at me when I read your post was actually about baby showers. I don’t know how related the two are but that’s just what popped in my head. Since I found out I was expecting my second child, I was planning to recycle as much as I can from my son. Obviously the new baby being a girl means she’s going to be getting a new little wardrobe (but I even managed to go through his clothes and pick out a bunch of things that she will be able to wear also). One of the things I’ve noticed with my friends and relatives is that they get all new stuff with every baby. I’ve been told it’s nice to get new stuff and I think it is too. I have a hard time feeling like I should go out and get a new diaper genie when the one I have works. So I’m focusing on the new being stuff like some new clothes, pacifiers, and bottle nipples. I have to admit my friends had me convinced I was both cheap and crazy. I was beginning to think my plan to use what ever I have that can be used again was going to scar my baby for life or something (that’s the way people were acting about it). Even my sister, who is also expecting, had a whole baby registry of things that I know she already owns (and she doesn’t have room for the stuff she already has). Fifty years ago having a baby shower for each child (after the first) was not very common. These days it’s expected and I’m not sure why. It just seems very wasteful to me (I’m not planning to have one as of right now). Especially now when people are looking for ways to cut back and save money. But really in thinking about my own space and storage issues and in just wanting to make things simple, I have to really thank you for your post. It has really reinforced to me that I am doing the right thing. Thanks.

  20. Jess

    I got Into Great Silence from my library a few months ago and had very low expectations. It was amazing, very soothing to watch and I loved that there was no voice over or music to ruin the ambiance of monastery life.

  21. Tami Boesiger

    Very interesting post, Jennifer. We Americans believe some of our purchases make our lives easier, yet how much extra attention does it require? Hmmm…you got my wheels spinning.

  22. Anonymous

    On consuming consumption …

    Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods.
    Richard Klein, Cigarettes Are Sublime
    Juliet Schor, The Overspent American.
    James Twitchell, Lead Us Into Temptation.
    Susan Strasser, ed, Getting and Spending: American and European Consumer Society in the Twentieth Century.
    Gary Cross, An All-Consuming Century.
    Carolyn Wyman, Spam: A Biography.
    Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas.
    Stewart Lee Allen, The Devil’s Cup: Coffee, The Driving Force in History.
    John Freyer, All My Life For Sale

  23. Anonymous

    This made me think, feel and act:

    For me, it was seeing ‘what I do’ in light of ‘what everyone one does’ – and those who have nothing …

    Consumerism is liberty by choice in variety; Christianity is choices: life in Christ and to others before ourselves.


  1. Boat Sales - really agreed with what they were saying and thought I would share it with you all... was surprised by this…

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