Note: This is a lightly revised version of a post from ye olde blogge (actually ye older blogge, the original Casaubon’s Book). At the time I wrote it, I didn’t know about Dan Savage’s brilliantly funny book on the seven deadly sins _Skipping Towards Gomorrah_ and if I had, I probably wouldn’t have written this, since it seems so derivative in retrospect. But since I didn’t, and it was a fun one to write, I’m re-running it here.
I got a very funny email from a correspondant who asked that I not use his name when I write this. He tells me that he’s newly aware of peak oil and climate change, and wants very much to encourage others to make changes. The problem is that in doing so, he’s afraid he’s turned into his own worst nightmare – a moralist who goes around telling people not to have fun. He says that he has spent his whole adult life raging against people who worry about private sin, and here he is saying, “you really should use a cloth bag.” So he asked me to reassure him that even though we need to cut down on our emissions, there’s still hope for a life of sinful joy.
And I’m very happy to oblige this kind gentleman, because I think that’s a real danger – there are actual, powerful moral issues at play here, but I don’t really want the job of chasing people around their houses scolding them for using incandescent lightbulbs. I’ve never much liked people who sat around telling others not to have fun – and there is some of that in my writing – because some of the kinds of fun we’re having are so damned destructive. But I wish to reassure the gentleman in question that my own vision of the future does not, as Jedidiah Springfield said in _The Simpsons_ involve “endless hard work and a tasteless mush I call rootmarm.”
So in coming up with an answer for this, I thought I should reassure everyone that the big sins, the good old fashioned seven deadlies, are still not only available, but peak oil and climate change present us with some exciting opportunities for exploring their outer limits. Some of you may have ethical issues about one or all of these things, but moralities vary, and since none of these does ecological or personal harm to others, the rest is up to you and your moral code.
So, how shall we commit the seven deadly sins? What ethical lapses are left to us, once we clean up our ecological footprints? What forms of immorality can we blithely enjoy, knowing that our energy usage is down?
Well, there’s Lust. This one is my personal favorite of the seven deadlies, and one of the best options for post-peak sinning. Because, after all, in some religions non-procreative sex is considered lustful and therefor bad. But, in ecological terms, the more non-procreative the better – after all, reproduction has a heavy environmental impact. So exploring those alternative orifices? Good for the environment! Going gay or lesbian? Very environmentally sound, since the risk of accidental pregnancy is quite low! Ogling your lover? Better than tv or computer time! Orgies? Human powered! I admit, I’m still partial to plain old monogamous sex with the same person over and over again, and the thoughts of 50 or so more years to explore each other’s nooks and crannies. Sounds awesome to me!
Sex itself is by far one of the best forms of sustainable entertainment available to us. It requires few accoutrements, and most of those can be made of sustainable materials (lubricants, underwear) or serviced using solar batteries and renewable energies. Care must be taken, of course, but you can make about 50 condoms for the same amount of energy used in three plastic supermarket bags. Knock yourself out! It can be done in low light conditions, has the useful advantage of providing cardiac benefits and warmth in low heated rooms, and is the original low cost entertainment.
Home-style, solo lust is also very much environmentally sound. Masturbation is an excellent hobby that, if you spend enough time on it, can help you break any unfortunate, wasteful habit from smoking to collecting stuffed pigs. Good pornography (made by consenting, well paid grownups I assume we all know) is available at used bookstores, several of my local yard sales or can be downloaded from the internet and printed onto the back of recycled paper for regular reuse. Really, unless your particular taste runs to being wrapped in latex or the mile-high club, there’s just no way to make good old safe sex unsustainable.
Gluttony: You’d think I’d be against this one. After all, I’m always concerned about fair distribution of food. And there’s a point there, but I’d be a raging hypocrite if I focused on it. And the reality is that if you grow food, or enjoy local produce, there are some remarkable opportunities for gluttony. It is no accident that the word “glut” and “gluttony” are related. Growing your own food practically demands you overindulge in season.
Think about raspberries. You wade into the patch, getting pricked for your trouble, and brushed with red stains on your clothes. Of course, you could just fill your pail and put them virtuously up for the winter, but tomorrow you’ll be drowning in raspberries again, and it would be practically a sin to waste them. You *have* to eat them – there are just too many of the lush red things asking to be devoured. Then you take the ones you were too full to eat back to the kitchen and lick the jam off the spoon. By the end you are thoroughly sick of raspberries – until tomorrow.
And so it is with everything when you grow your own. One day you have the first six pea pods, and you say, “Oh, peas!” A week later you are groaning since you’ve eaten your weight in peas morning, noon and night. Plus, let’s be honest, home cooked food tastes so much better than commercial food – it may be better for you, but you are a better woman than I, Gunga Din, if you can resist home roasted asparagus, or if you can just eat one. The health consequences of this kind of gluttony are pretty minimal – you can enjoy all the fresh peas, raspberries and tomatoes you like, provided you don’t bury them in sauces, and still stay healthy. The work of growing them will keep you in balance.
How about Sloth? Oh, it is so hard to choose which of the seven deadlies I like best! This is another endearing one – lying around doing nothing is one of my best things! Here’s the thing that most people don’t realize – a low energy lifestyle, generally speaking, is one with a lot of free time for napping and reading trashy novels.
Seriously, we’ve been told over and over again that we’re about to be dragged back to lives of endless drudgery, when, in fact, as Juliet Schor observes in _The Overworked American_, historically no one ever worked as hard as workers have in the era of industrialization. We tend to think of our current era as englightened, giving us lots of free time, but that’s only in comparison to the 19th century industrial era, when employee hours peaked. Agricultural labor has involved extensive rest periods – there’s increasing evidence that many agrarian people basically spent their winters hibernating.
Many lower consumption, lower energies societies provide evidence of this. 11th century serfs before the Norman Conquest worked only 176 days per year, spending the rest on sabbaths and holidays. Helena Norberg Hodge describes the Ladakhis as able to meet all their needs by working about 4 months of the year, with the rest of the time spent partying. Eric Brende in _Better Off_ describes peak labor among the Amish as less than many white collar employees. We persist in believing we’re really, really lucky to live a society where we work long hours and our bathroom breaks get timed – but this isn’t necessarily true.
The reality is that it can be very challenging to find the time to do the work of creating a sustainable society *and* doing the work we have to do right now to make money to pay our mortgages, but in a lower input society as a whole, we might get a great deal of time back – time to be spent on indolent pursuits. In fact it should be. Because sloth is great for the environment. You aren’t driving anywhere. You aren’t writing things on the computer. You aren’t bustling about running the vacuum cleaner. You are simply lying there, dozing, drinking a beer, reading, or talking, trying to remember who sang “Jesse’s Girl” or just scratching your behind. If you reduce your food consumption to match your energy level then you’ve found the perfect environmentalist activity.
Envy – When I first wrote this piece, I said I couldn’t think of good ways to make envy fun – and my readers rightly took me to task, arguing that there was definitely a place for envy – that the kind of envy represented in fantasies, in escapism that doesn’t expect to be fulfilled, but enables you for one moment to covet the glorious life of someone else – that experience of escaping into envious imagination can be pleasurable. Thanks so much to Brian M. for pointing this out – I’d hate to have to give up the super-spy fantasies or the winning a million ones entirely!
Pride: Pride is about feeling yourself better than other folk. And moralism of any stripe, including environmentalis, comes with a hefty risk that you’ll feel some pride and self-righteousness. I think anyone who wanted to shoot an arrow at me on the sin front could get me here.
But there’s one sort of pride that may be a sin, but has some virtues too – it the kind of pride that leads you to give money away even when things are tight, and the kind of pride that drives you to take care of yourself even when times are tough, and you could use some help. This has a down side too, but it also creates strong, self-reliant people who have a right to be proud of what they accomplish. And that kind of pride is something we will see a lot more of as time goes on – because as things get more difficult, those of us who do get on as best we can will have more and more reason to be proud of that accomplishment.
But we can’t mistake the kind of pride for the idea that everyone is in the same circumstances, or that only bad people need help. That’s the pathological version of the sin – instead, we take pride in our own ability to help others, and to get by when we can, without sitting in judgement.
Anger: I have to tell you, this one is in no danger of going anywhere. As the old saying goes, if you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention. The reasons for anger and outrage are multiplying, and if you want to rage against the machine, the dying light or anything else, there’s ample territory for that rage. Just aim it somewhere useful.
Ok, Greed is bad. We know that. We’re in this mess because of greed. A whole lot of this mess comes because we’ve got problems with greed mixed up with envy. But let’s be honest – we’re all a little bit greedy. It is just a matter of what we want. I have a list – trees and perennial plants for a larger forest garden, more goats, sheep, a hoophouse, a James handwasher, enough cashmere yarn to knit a really nice sweater, the walking wheel in the antique shop next to me. I’m a pig, I know – I have a beautiful home, plenty to wear, a big garden, a nice spinning wheel, and all I can think, in the immortal words of Tom Lehrer speaking of pornography, is, “More, more I’m still not satisfied.” Mea culpa.
But here greed is mixed up with ambition. More, as Bill McKibben puts it, is roosting on the same tree as better. And sometimes it really does take something else to make things better. The question is can we be greedy, avaricious people, and manage our greed, learn to live with “not now” and one present under the tree instead of sixteen.
Because greed itself isn’t the problem – it is how we relate to our greed. Every small child has a mental list of presents they want, things they’ve seen they’d like. But what differentiates a normal kid from an extreme spoiled brat is their relationship to the reality of constraint. The brat resists constraint, the normal kid whines about it for a couple of minutes and then gets over it. The brat has never been taught that he doesn’t have the right to everything he wants. The normal kid has had that lesson pointed out a few thousand times. It isn’t like one of the kids doesn’t want a giant Deathstar with real ray gun – the normal kid has just been told he’s not getting one and that he’d better behave about it, and he’s recognized that he might as well get over it.
So our future is one of greed, I promise. But it doesn’t have to be one of self-destructive greed. It is perfectly possible for us to turn the pleasure of avarice to acceptable sources, to sit around and be greedy for that new sweater or the yarn to make it with, for the cool tool or beautiful decorative item. It is possible for us to take exquisite pleasure in our greed, nursing our anticipation of the big thing for a long time, enjoying the fantasy of having and the pleasure of wanting.
The difference is the object of our greed. Instead of 5 sweaters, we can be greedy for one nice one. Instead of dreaming of a fancy car to make ourselves look spiffy, we can dream of a lush garden. Instead of greed for more money, we can be greedy for more time for sloth or lust, for writing angry letters to our editor or cooking to feed our gluttony. Greed, after all, isn’t so bad.
There are a few things we’re all going to have to give up. Monster car races. Weekends in Paris (for those not living in the city’s vicinity). Cholesterol fest at the Outback Steakhouse. But really, sinnin’ is here to stay, I promise!