“Thrift can take lasting hold of a consumer society, to disastrous effect.”
—The New York Times
I keep reading about how saving is the worst thing for the economy. The New York Times article from which the above quote is taken described Japanese savers as “dead weight.” The underlying assumption is that we must consume more and more to keep the economy growing. People produce things, other people consume those things, and as long as the numbers go up and up, everything is great.
A couple of things bother me about this. One is the matter of sustainability. The air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we farm is already being fouled as a result of economic growth. How long is this supposed to go on before we look for another principle around which to organize our lives?
The other thing that I wonder what it means to produce and to consume? When savers stop spending, do they really stop consuming? If I skip dinner out and movie, and instead talk with a friend, what just happened? Did the virtuous cycle of production and consumption just end? If I sing a song for you, and you listen to it, am I producing and are you consuming? To answer this question, I have to first take a detour into the subject of bamboo.
Seven months ago my wife and I left our lives in New York City and moved to rural Japan, where we live with our six-year-old son. We’re looking for an old farm house to move into, so we can grow our own food and live more simply. It’s a back to the land fantasy, I know, but we got a taste of it when we volunteered on a farm a year ago. It seems like a good life.
Since we landed in Japan, a man named Mr. Hatori offered to teach me how to play a bamboo flute called the shakuhachi. I didn’t have much interest in his proposal, but I agreed because it seemed crazy to turn down free music lessons. In the past seven months that I’ve been learning to play, I’ve discovered that this bamboo flute is considered by some to be the most difficult instrument in the world. I’m not surprised. It has been humbling, frustrating, and rewarding.
It’s taken me months to be able to produce any sound at all, and the sounds I can finally make are often completely out of tune. I learned that the instrument was invented by Buddhist monks, and the focus and dedication required to play even a single note well is a form of meditation.
My teacher is extremely patient. He spends an hour a week with me. Together we go over the same song note by note, over and over. I’m a long, long way from playing the thing correctly, or even coming close, but I really enjoy it, and the daily practice calms my mind. According to Mr. Hatori, it will be years before I can play the song with any facility.
This brings me back to production and consumption. If I learn this flute, and I play it daily, am I producing anything? If I ever get good enough that anyone would want to hear me play, is that person consuming my product? Is the knowledge that Mr. Hatori is passing on a product? If it is, it sure is easy to store.
When I moved to Japan, I had to get rid of a lot of products. Books, CDs, furniture, knick-knacks, souvenirs, bowls, knives, dishes, appliances, I’m talking about a lot of stuff, and that was just what we could fit in our two-bedroom apartment. As we sorted through each of our worldly possessions, the same questions kept popping up: What to keep, what to throw away? Do we need this thing to be happy? The answer was usually no.
Did we have to buy all that stuff to keep other people happy, the people who sold it for enough money to buy stuff to put into their own homes? Were these the artifacts of our participation in the economy, evidence of our good citizenship? Talk about dead weight, those piles of stuff were exhausting to go through.
I know that we need food and we need shelter. I love a good movie, a good book, some music, a nice plate to serve dinner on, a great table to sit at, and a handy gadget that helps me clean up after. But am I less happy without those things? Does my happiness, and the happiness of everyone else, rely on me buying all that stuff, or if I don’t have the money, to buy it on credit?
It takes a decade to learn to make a good flute out of a piece of bamboo. It takes a decade to learn to play that flute. It can take just as long to learn to write a novel, and it could take just as long to read one. One professor I had said we can never read great novels, we can only re-read them. Appreciation requires repetition. Is the third reading of a book still consumption, or have we become dead weight at that point?
What if, instead of spending so much time getting more stuff, we get the kind of stuff that we can spend more time with? We develop skills we can share, read good books over and over, buy tools that take a lifetime to master. What if we go deeper into life, instead of dabbling with a million different products? What would an economy like that look like?
I’ve taken so many assumptions about life for granted that I forgot that many of them were choices I made at one time or another. I chose to acquire disposable entertainment, to clutter my kitchen with gadgets and plates for every occasion. Now I’m trying to live with less, and have it mean more to me.
I want my garbage to go back to the soil, to grow the food I eat. I want to consume less, and to produce things that people don’t have to keep on shelves or put into boxes when they move. The way the economy is going, we might not have much choice. We might have to make more with less, why not make it a virtue instead of an affliction?
I would like to be of service to the people around me without just buying more stuff or making more knick-knacks, and I’d like this to happen in an economy where people who do so aren’t called “dead weight.” I’d also like to hit the right note on that bamboo flute. Both seem impossible, but the cherry trees are in full bloom, and with the sun shining on those pink blossoms in the morning light, it seems like anything can happen.