The Overloaded Liberal

“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you hide the snack you brought to the playground for your five-year-old—even though it’s healthful and nonsugary—because, oh my God, you forgot you were supposed to boycott that food company.

“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you drive five miles out of your way and pay 30 percent more to buy a screwdriver at the little independent hardware store, just to avoid shopping at Wal-Mart.

“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you try to calculate your carbon emissions in driving that extra five miles, versus the carbon footprint you would cause by turning on your computer to order the same screwdriver online.

“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you stand in line for ten minutes debating whether to buy imported organic blueberries or local nonorganic.

“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you agonize over donating your old cell phone to someone in China, who will still get years of use out of it, because you worry it will end up in a garbage heap where kids will tear out its toxic parts for sale, breathing in poisonous fumes.”

“You might be an overloaded liberal:” sounds a little like Jeff Foxworthy material, but it comes from author Fran Hawthorne instead, in her excellent book, The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism. Fran Hawthorne is shining a spotlight on something that some or perhaps many of us here today have experienced personally: the challenges in breaking out of mindless consumerism—the complexities inherent in spending our dollars consciously in ways that serve sustainable living values. It’s an essential kind of labor, challenging though it may be; and we take a closer look at it today, on Labor Day Sunday.

Call it “lifestyle activism.” Almost two-thirds of America’s economic activity comes from consumer spending—what you and I do with our dollars in the marketplace. $8 trillion dollars annually. The sum total of countless little everyday choices, but the more they are in line with our values, the louder our values will speak, and politicians and business leaders will stand up and take notice. Government and business will do better in honoring the Sustainability “Big Four”: nature, social justice, personal wellbeing, the economy. If they forget one of these Big Four, we respond in such a way as to remind them that all four are required. Forget one, and you’re not building to last—you’re building on sand.

It’s lifestyle activism, and, as Fran Hawthorne points out, it’s been building over the last 60 years. “In the 1950s and 1960s,” she writes, “the bus boycotts and lunch-counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement proved that consumer power could be leveraged to tear down unfair laws. As the 1960s segued into the Me Generation of the 1970s and the 1980s, activism took a turn towards materialism, but it employed the same principle of consumer empowerment. Affinity cards and frequent flyer clubs taught shoppers to turn even the most mundane purchases into a twofer, first to buy the item at hand, then to rack up points toward another goal. Consumer power,” Fran Hawthorne continues, “exploded with the Internet a decade later. Information about corporate behavior, product ingredients, product availability, scientific warnings, investment returns, and international conflicts now was widely available, shared across the globe within seconds, making mass actions easier to organize.” Momentum has been building over 60 years, and today, perhaps the most visible success is that of environmentalism. The power of “green” in the marketplace is our power. Grassroots power. Lifestyle activism.

But the very mention of environmentalism takes us right back to the issue liberal overload. Complexity. Difficulty. Sometimes even agony.

For example, consider this story that Carroll Muffett tells. Carroll Muffett is deputy director of campaigns for the environmental group Greenpeace. He’s probably as green as you can get. The story is this: “One day, he and his family wanted to eat dinner with the family of his daughter’s best friend, whose father works for a labor union. ‘It was nearly impossible for us to have dinner together, outside of spaghetti or rice and beans,’ he says. ‘As an environmentalist, I can’t eat most kinds of fish, or beef, unless it’s local. They couldn’t eat grapes because of labor issues, or even some mushrooms. I’m pretty aware,’ he concludes, ‘but those are things I had no idea about.”

Ever been to a dinner party like this? The story puts its finger on a couple of the complications inherent in lifestyle activism, one of which is how labor issues are too frequently not on the liberal radar. Says Fran Hawthorne, “Among the issues we liberals juggle—the ingredients in the things we buy, the energy that was used to produce them, the companies that make them, the stores from which we buy them, the means by which we travel to those stores, the companies we invest in, the impact on the planet, the impact on animals, the impact on our bodies—we almost never think about the workers who manufacture, grow, fix, ship, and sell the stuff in our lives.” Is Fran Hawthorne right? Are we forgetting about Joe Hill? Is this what many liberals like you and I do? Two words: Whole Foods. For too many people, the fact that it is viciously anti-union is less irritating than the fact that it is so expensive. What’s up with that? Wal-Mart is right now setting up incredibly ambitious green goals, making this a selling point with the public, including no doubt the liberal public—even as it continues to be faced with major lawsuits alleging sex discrimination, together with illegally denying workers their mandatory breaks and forcing them to work without pay. Somehow, going green is seen as a more decisive selling point than going pro-labor. What’s up with that?

Perhaps the answer is that it appears impossible at times to juggle pro-environment and pro-labor values simultaneously. Far easier to juggle bowling balls and chainsaw. A clear example: “If you want to preserve natural resources and limit the use of fossil fuels, you should buy as few brand-new items as possible. The environmental mantra tells us to reduce, renew, recycle. However, workers (both in the United States and overseas) will lose their jobs if no one purchases their output. What’s more important, saving resources or saving jobs?”

Green jobs are one way of cutting through the Gordian knot, for sure—but that’s an economy of the future, a separate question of what we do now for the economy of the present, real jobs now. Sustainable living is about affirming the Big Four all together—yet the more you get into it, the more you see that the Big Four aren’t necessarily one big happy family, and you have to make choices. You build to last as best as you can, and there’s always gonna be some sand at the foundation.

Besides contradictions, the dinner party story also highlights problems around information: either not enough, or way too much, or general confusion. It’s going to a restaurant but the menu says nothing about which foods are local, or organic, or what farming methods were used. Unless, of course, you go to places like Farm Burger in Decatur (I mention this to get on my wife’s good side: she’s addicted to the place). Eating at most restaurants poses exactly this kind of problem. Not enough information to make a values-based decision.

Then there’s the opposite problem. I mean, it’s Carroll Muffett, deputy director of campaigns for the environmental group Greenpeace, saying, “I’m pretty aware, but those are things I had no idea about.” Too many balls to juggle, even for the experts. 100 Everyday Ways You Can Contribute to a Healthier Planet. 250 Tips for an Eco Lifestyle. 1001 Ways to Save the Earth. “Wait a second,” says Fran Hawthorne. “Am I supposed to do ONE HUNDRED or TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY or ONE THOUSAND AND ONE things just for the environment? And that’s not counting all the other causes I care about.” Can you relate? Don’t you just sometimes want to scream?

It’s overload. It’s Jessica Phillips at Trader Joe’s, staring at egg cartons. Jessica says, “One carton said organic free-range. One said organic cage-free. Some just said cage free with DHA. I asked the store’s customer service manager about the labels, but he could explain only some of them.” She ended up choosing the free-range. “I’m a vegetarian,” she says, “and it seemed to me that free-range meant a better treatment of animals.” But, a few days later, checking her refrigerator, Jessica realized that she had previously bought yet another carton of eggs, this one labeled cage-free and free-roaming. “There is only so much time you can spend on this,” she groaned.

There’s other dimensions to the overload we could go into here as well. A big one is cost. Is sustainable living only possible for people with money to afford it? And then there’s in-group dynamics. The smugness liberals can feel for living a purer lifestyle, looking down at those who shop at Wal-Mart for the (apparently) cheap prices, or because it’s an all-in-one store and they are simply too busy and too tired to go from one small independent retailer to another small independent retailer to another and yet another to get all they need. Looking down at these people, who are also us. They are us. Wal-Mart shoppers in our midst! Just like our video for today. You didn’t bring your re-usable shopping bags? Suddenly, you can feel all the upright liberal eyes upon you, judging you. “Paper or plastic?” The only way out, the only way to save face, is to turn the tables right around, on them. Shame them. It’s a vicious circle.

It can get ugly. Overload. But now, let’s apply what the Tao Te Ching calls “subtle perception.” If you want to get rid of something,” this classic of Taoism says, “you must first allow it to flourish.” Let the overload flourish—even if it happens just by reading Fran Hawthorne’s book yourself, and hearing all the stories she has to share—and this can put us on the path towards a place of greater clarity and empowerment. The only way out is through.

Of the many practical pieces of advice that Fran Hawthorne shares, here are a few to consider.

One is to prioritize. Find a focus area that resonates with you. No one can juggle every ball that’s out there. But that’s doesn’t mean it’s OK to let all the balls drop. What’s your ball? For some, animal rights will be the core issue. For others, labor. Fran Hawthorne herself sees the environment as her number #1, and she explains why in her no-holds-barred, no-nonsense way: “[T]he earth and the human race will survive even if millions of people and animals lead miserable lives. It’s not so clear, however, whether the earth (and we humans) could survive the combined onslaught of climate change, deforestation, water and air pollution, soil depletion, rising ocean levels, melting polar ice caps, and mass species extinction. Before we can worry about the treatment of sweatshop workers, the pain of battery chickens, the pesticides in our children’s bodies, or the rights of women under shari’ah rule, let’s make sure those workers, chickens, children, and women have a planet to live on.” Blunt words from Fran Hawthorne, but definite food for thought. One thing she does add is the insight that environmentalism is a multifaceted cause, so very often you can find a way in that touches on several of the sustainability Big Four simultaneously—as in the case of green job creation, or incorporating meaningful outdoor experiences in the education of young children, which has been shown to lead to environmental concern and action as they grow up.

Another practical bit of advice relates to that classic dilemma: local vs. organic. What to do? Local is good because, in buying it, you reduce carbon emissions; less fossil fuel is used to transport it. You are also supporting small farmers and merchants. As for organic—that’s good too, since “organic” means no chemical pesticides and fertilizers are involved, thus maintaining the soil and preventing the further breeding of “superbugs.” But what happens when local and organic don’t coincide? Local is non-organic, and organic is from thousands of miles away?

To cut through the dilemma, keep in mind the insight that sometimes importing food from far away actually uses less over-all energy than buying local. I know it sounds counter-intuitive. However, it’s been shown that food transportation is responsible for only 11 percent of the total energy involved. 89 percent is related to non-transportation factors, like cooking and preparation, or processing. Or what’s involved in just growing the food: fertilizer, electric power for irrigation, heat and light for hothouses, and refrigeration. Fact is, a country three thousand miles away might—because its climate is more suitable, for example—might use far less energy in growing and producing a food than a local producer, and this, remember, relates to 89 percent of the energy we’re worried about. Local is not necessarily equivalent to a smaller carbon footprint.

Another way out of the dilemma is to consider that the majority of the small, local farmers at Farmer’s markets are organic or almost organic, even if the official USDA certification is lacking. They rotate their crops; they use pests as natural pesticides; they use compost instead of chemical fertilizer. Where it really counts, they are organic. However, they don’t go for official USDA certification because it’s extremely expensive and time consuming. A hurdle that they just don’t care to leap.

Local or organic? For Fran Hawthorne, if she has to choose, she goes for local everytime. It’s fresh, and it tastes better.

Lots of practical advice in her book: check it out. A great place to go if you’ve been engaged in lifestyle activism and it’s been wearing you down. A great place to go as well if you want to get started and learn about some pitfalls to avoid. Her last words: “All I can do is to try, and to care.”

Did I tell you, by the way, how I ended up buying this book? It was at General Assembly this past June. General Assembly is the annual business meeting of our Unitarian Universalist Association: thousands of religious liberals together, all so very busy, leading or attending programs on practically every congregational-related issue imaginable, including justice issues. I wandered around, caught up in the swirl of all the busyness, sensitive to all the things I do not know, shamed by all the things I am not doing. In the midst of all this, I found myself reflecting on our religious liberal roots.

Some of you may know that the two source traditions of our present faith were in important respects quite different. The Unitarian side—particularly in the 19th century—used to have this slogan: “Salvation by character.” Salvation was something you earned by good works, including going to all the right schools, reading all the right books, making all the right friends, shopping at all the right places. Develop good character, said the Unitarians, and this is what will save you. If you don’t you will be condemned. Sounds elitist, doesn’t it? And it was. It was religion for the middle and upper classes of Boston.

On the other hand, you had the blue-collar, Wal-Mart-going Universalists. Not from Boston, but from the sticks. And their view was far more radical, far more egalitarian, given immortal expression by one of its finest thinkers, Hosea Ballou, who, in response to hearing about the Unitarian slogan “salvation by character,” wrote an article entitled “salvation irrespective of character.” Salvation was not something anyone could earn by works; salvation was a gift of a gracious God, a gracious universe in which every person has inherent worth and dignity no matter where they do their shopping. You do your best in life not because you’re trying to escape hell and trying to earning your right to deserve love (either here or in the hereafter) but because your actions, however frail and flawed, make life on earth better for all. All we can do is to try, and to care.

This is what I found myself reflecting on, as I was caught up in the swirl of activity at General Assembly, caught up in the swirl of my own sense of limitation and shame. Both of our ancestors account for why we religious liberals risk becoming overloaded, in service to our values. But, for me, only one gives the best answer. I think the real reason I bought Fran Hawthorne’s book—the deep reason that I am only now uncovering—is that, beyond all the practical pointers I was interested in learning, I was feeling so caught up in a Unitarian works mentality that I needed someone to help me remember that I am loved no matter how much or how little I do, that my ultimate self-worth and the worth of another is not about class. It’s not about organic vs. local. It’s not about any of that stuff. It’s about who you are, or, rather, whose you are: a child of the gracious universe, a child of God. “Let tomorrow come tomorrow,” says poet Wendell Berry. “Not by your will is the house carried through the night. The love and the work of friends and lovers belong to the task, and are its health. Rest and rejoicing belong to the task, and are its grace.”