Priorities, Compromise and The Privilege of Doing Good

Thursday’s post on Fair Trade was a soap box, no two ways around it. This whole Quiet Riot is going to involve a lot of soap boxing. Worse, because we are (most of us) inescapably consumers, a lot of living more responsibly involves spending more money. Let me assure you, as a born cheap-skate, it seriously disturbs my soul to be up here, looking down beneficently at my gathered crowd, telling you all to go out and spend more money.

A woman commented on the Bank Transfer post the other day wondering how to choose priorities from the endlessly long list of things a person really ought to do. Especially when responsible choices often cost more and, in the real world of limited incomes, conflict with her highest priority of staying home to raise her kids.

I can word out a few seemingly sensible soap box responses to this, like– ‘well, what kind of world do you want to be left for those children to live in’ and ‘don’t you want to set the example to your children that you do the right thing, no matter how hard?’ Etc, etc. But as convenient as that kind of black and white thinking is, I know full well about the incredible gulf of gray between.

I suspect everyone reading this blog cares deeply and honestly about the future of our world, and is doing what they can. But the devil is in the details, ‘doing what we can’ is a tricky statement. We could all do more, no doubt. We could probably survive with less sleep, spending those precious kid-less hours gardening by headlamp. We could certainly do with quite a lot less food and more ruthless austerity. We could… And those of us with overactive guilt complexes instilled by Catholic/Jewish/Baptist/privilegedwhitepeople backgrounds are sometimes consumed by that needling ‘could.’

But what value do we place on living a joyful life as a part of our particular community of humans? How much margin do we allow ourselves in that ongoing effort to be a part of our world, while also trying to change that world for the better?

Fair trade is a perfect set for this confusion. All jokes aside, coffee, tea and chocolate are far from necessary to our actual survival. A person could afford to buy ethical luxury items simply by treating them as luxuries, which is to say reserving them for special occasions. You can have a chocolate cake on your birthday, the other 364 days of the year you can eat a second helping of locally grown vegetables for desert. And haven’t you heard of roasting the dandelion roots you weed out of your garden for a local, sustainable coffee substitute?

I lived that way for a handful of years in my rugged youth. We ate plain oatmeal for breakfast, beans, rice and foraged greens for dinner. No sweeteners, no butter, and hell no coffee. We were austere, in the first degree. After a year or so, I started finding reason to go visit our neighbors strangely often. Who, coincidentally, would always offer me a cup of coffee. And, if I was lucky, a piece of pie. I am quite certain that better people than me are capable of maintaining a hard core rebellion against the western world’s interpretation of luxury as standard, without becoming neighbor junkies. Those years proved that I am not.

This is a theme I want to explore over the course of this Riot. How to keep doing the hard thing when everyone around you does the easy thing. How to maintain a poverty standard in a world of flagrant excess. How to feel okay about holding your children to that ethic. Not that I have any answers, understand, only a sticky ball of questions and personal failures.

After accepting that I didn’t have what it takes to live the ascetic life, it boiled down to a matter of priorities and consequently compromise. Which is the quagmire I have been slogging in ever since. To get back to that original comment– how do we choose the most important things to do with our limited energy, time and funds? How do we balance ethical (read: expensive) consumption with our decidedly low family incomes? I think the answer is intensely personal. I don’t mean personal as in emotionally yours, though that is also true, but so completely based on every particular situation and family that there’s hardly any generalized objective truth.

It seems to me that we mostly choose our battles based on what we’re good at and what we want to do anyway. And when you think about it, isn’t that the best way after all? We all have our inborn talents, our callings in life. We will work hardest, most passionately, most effectively doing what we are drawn to do. Hopefully the community at large will cover the rest, right? Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean, and so between the all of us, we’ll lick the platter clean.

As you all know, my calling in life is food. I work very hard at it, and if I may say so myself, have fair natural talent. I’m also really good with systems, which I think is an extraordinarily helpful skill to keeping a home. I do hope that this blog lends a hand with some specifics of Sustainable Housewifery on the Cheap, because if we can’t do it on the cheap then most of us simply can’t do it.

Which leads me to the elephant in the room.


Privilege comes in all sizes and shapes, but for now let’s talk about economic privilege. Neither My Man or I were born into money, but his folks have made a goodly stash in their mature years, and are very generous with us. Sometimes so generous that my teeth hurt. Many years ago they took out the mortgage for us on our house back in Alaska. We are slowly buying it from them as they buy it from the bank. All very convuluded, more than you can even imagine. At present, they are loaning us more than half of the money we burn through here in New Orleans, while I stay sweetly home to watch my angels grow up and nobly shop at Whole Foods (the other half is student loans, we didn’t have any savings at all). They also loaned us their car to use during our 3 year stint here, so we do not have car payments. They gift us big, nice, useful presents at Christmas and birthdays. Just about everything we own either came off the side of the road or was given us by My Man’s folks. It’s a motley collection.

Admitting this all, in print, to the wide world, is nothing short of excruciating for me. I grew up with hippie parents who scraped together $12-15,000 year, total. We lived extremely frugally and always by the skin of our teeth. I was endowed with a fierce spirit of individualist pride. Doing it yourself. Never accepting, or even deigning to need, help from anyone.

I have come around, intellectually, as an adult. Even before I married accidentally into money (hey, he was living in a moldy plywood tipi at the time, how could I have known?) I was beginning to realize the importance of interdependence, of accepting help and yes, even needing each other. I see now that family is meant to help. Our situation looks new and fancy, but the bones of it are ancient– parents establishing themselves, passing on what they can to their kids as they take out into the world.

Another important kind of privilege is less tangible– knowledge, attitude and expectations. I didn’t get any economic privilege growing up, but those anti-materialist DIY hippie parents gave me all kinds of essential mental tools to pursue this life. They also encouraged me to skip college and debt, and I spent those formative years instead learning more specific homesteading skills, living without butter, and hanging out in moldy tipis with suspect young men.

I don’t reference tv much and I’m not about to start a regular thing of it, but I did see a good Michael Moore interview on the Colbert Report a few months back. Colbert had quipped something about him “making bank” and that his sweat pants and ball cap didn’t fool us. Moore blushed deeply but countered with, “Yeah, you’re right. And that’s exactly why I think it’s our responsibility to do something with ourselves.”

I certainly wouldn’t say My Man and I have made bank– we live on about $40,000/year. We are very frugal in some ways. I rarely buy clothes at all, and always second hand. I don’t buy any kind of lady potions, handbags, or other female paraphernalia. We don’t drive much, so save quite a lot on gas. My money sink is food, both quality and ethics. On one hand you could say I make it my priority, I scrimp in other ways to pay for better groceries. I make everything I can at home, I work hard in the kitchen. I brew my fair trade coffee one cup at a time so that none is ever wasted, and I drink one or two perfect cups a day instead of a whole pot of mediocre cheap coffee.

On the other hand, I know plenty of you do the same and still can’t afford to spend $16/lb on goddamned coffee. I know I am lucky, very lucky to be able to be home with my kids and spend my few spare hours blathering on about responsible consumerism. It is a privilege to be able to ponder what is right, a privilege to be able to do it.

We all know we shouldn’t compare ourselves to one another. Do what you’re passionate about, push yourself as often as you can, ease up when you need to. Feel good. But in case that old dog comparison creeps around in the dark of night– don’t ever forget that, for the most part, those of us standing around on soap boxes had a boost up.

Related Posts: 
Is Your Sustainable Life Sustainable?
Why We Do What We Do
Master of Fine (Homemaking) Arts

16 thoughts on “Priorities, Compromise and The Privilege of Doing Good

  1. Kindness and generosity are a gorgeous gift that become contagious. This is the beauty of it. Your parents in law do something nice for you. In turn, you see that it feels good when someone does you a good turn so you pass on that kindness in ways that feel right for you. Others benefit and pass on that kindness to other people, who in turn pass it on and on and on. Love spreads baby! One kind action therefore, is like the parent in a whole family tree of kind actions. It’s so easy and nice to give and receive and if you give freely to others and receive freely from others you put yourself out there in the universe and understand that what goes around comes around, and it’s beautiful!!! :-) :-) :-)

  2. I always say I have the luxury of choosing this ‘lifestyle’ (to be more frugal, eco & ethically aware). We have been in the position of living very frugally by circumstance, and though we rose to the challenge, it was a lot more challenging than any level of ‘frugal’ living we do now!

    Compared to many of our ‘peers’ my husband earns good money, so do I really, and I feel blessed to have education and employment BUT we have worked damn hard to go to uni, to balance my part-time work, and we both work hard at the jobs we do, which have ongoing professional development & registration responsibilities. We came from ‘middle to lower class’ families in socio-economic terms, but in resilience & gratitude, we were raised high class all the way!! I don’t apologise for having savings, for having only one (big) debt, for being able to afford Fair Trade foods, organic dairy and meat and other items considered expensive, because again, we work hard at it. We are not frugal-saints, but we ‘do without’ things many of our peers seem to consider ‘normal’ or ‘their right’ such as, soda/ soft drink, take away once a week, cafe-bought coffee & treats, seasonal new clothes, movies and dinners out, pay TV, two cars, holidays away a couple of times a year, huge houses, heating/ cooling at will, the latest gadget. Am I judging them for their choices? No. I am saying this is how we afford to ‘choose’ better foods. That is important to us.

    There is a lot more we could be doing, but as I said in my comment on your last post, we do what we can, how best *we* deem we can live, doing better when we can.

  3. Yes this is a topic to be explored over many, many cups of coffee. And homebrew, though that’s not so much your thing.

    As someone who works her ass off in the same manner you do, and has been really fortunate as well, I sometimes look around at the purchased topsoil in my raised beds and two freezers and $2k chicken coop and say, “Is this all the worlds biggest f’ing conceit? Is this me playing little suzy homemaker in a slightly dirtier manner because I can, because I have a man supporting me while I indulge the home economics phd program that is my life? And because, let’s be honest, I find negabucks on the homefront way more satisfying than megabucks out in the big world?”

    There is so much that goes into stacking our priorities. How to balance frugality with a pot-a-day coffee habit? How to balance that with visions of 8 year old cocoa-brown fingers picking coffee beans instead of flipping the pages of a book at school? How to not become paralyzed into depressive inaction nor jaded into “ah fuck it, dino-chicken-nuggets-from-Walmart are fine, then,” hopelessness when you realize that your hard-won individual actions personal actions, on a global scale, slump to nothing in the rounding.

    I don’t know – like you I have no answers, only a forum to explore the questions and the privilege of time that allows me to think on them. I asked Harriet Fasensest once if this life was all a conceit and she commented that those of us with the economic ability are forging a market for fair trade, organic, grass fed, etc. products. We are early adopters, clearing the path and sustaining those producers until more and greater demand for the good stuff allows prices to become more competitive. So that’s something.

    Of course, a political subsidy system that picks huge agribusiness as the winner every time will have to be undone first, but that’s another pot of coffee for another day….

  4. oh CJ, I’m so glad you are back. I am sitting here, budget for the month broken like a moth that got herself trapped inside and keep bangin into the laundry light, sucking back a nasty cup of instant from my stores cupboard that sees us through these exact hard times. And the hard times are really self-induced, because I am the one with the same budget as last month, I am the one with a car, a kid in private school, a nasty habit of knitting and sewing, and a penchant for scouring secondhand websites on f*ckbook so I can give my kids the groovy stuff I see.

    And it is about priorities. It’s about having common priorities, as a family, also, and you obviously have all your ducks in a row with your Man to have yourselves set up this way. I know the other side of the coin, the parents who don’t give a f*ck how hard you’re doing it, there is no social, emotional and definitely no financial assistance from ours at all, and never will be, despite the fact that ours are in a very able position to do it.
    But the main point I wanted to make, is that again it feels like we are all living on the same street, chatting over our cups of coffee, each knowing that although we have different start points, different current points, and different priorities, that the respect is there, the totally giving a f*ck about the others’ point of view, but knowing that soapbox or not, all we ask of each other is to do what it is you can do, and what you feel you’re passionate about, and what you want to do, because those that matter don’t mind, really. So thanks, because although I know that I should have at all times the fairtrade and ethical and organic stuff here, sometimes I have to delve in to the cupboard of tins, mix up the cheap stuff and make do. And so does everyone else, and that’s ok.

  5. CJ, I appreciate the time and thought you put into your posts. I also, appreciate that while you strongly encourage (soap box is your term) your readers to consider doing more, you lack the elitist tone I find elsewhere. Which is why I continue to seek out your posts.

    Look, I’m new at this gig..the whole SAHM deal, the tight budgets, the informed consumer purchasing and growing and preserving your own food. A year ago, I’m was the chick getting her fancy coffee everyday on my way to work, driving a newer car, updating my wardrobe seasonally and pining over the last electronic gadget.

    I got inspired by a book to consider living differently and it struck a cord with as I was already unhappy with our families lifestyle. Fast forward a few months, our family experienced a major crisis and the end result was that my husband and I made a choice to live on one income and redefine what we really needed to live comfortably and happily.

    I love the idea of making informed purchases and choosing to fill your cupboards with organic and certified fair trade goods. The problem is, my grocery budget won’t allow it. So, like many readers here, I’m making choices on every trip to the grocery store and trying to move baby step by baby step towards my ideal. Growing a larger garden and adding in more edibles to our flower beds is going to help allow for more $$ of my grocery budget to go for the items from manufactures whose products and values I support. It won’t happen overnight though, it will be a lifelong work in progress.

    I do consider it a privilege to be in this space and time. I left employment as a social worker and saw first hand what it is like to be poor and without skills or education (be it formal or informal) to consider leading a different lifestyle, one devoid of mass produced, chemical laced and genetically modified foods. A life where the art of self learning and push for betterment is not sought after. A life where the circle of influence are both the generations around you who have lived the same way and the marketing ploys pushed at you via TV.

    Privilege comes in all shapes and sizes, and from my experiences thus far in life, this lifestyle is one of them.

  6. Another brillient post…. we are the priveleged set aren’t we? THanks for reminding us thought that that does not proclude us from soaking up a life of happness and joy…indeed that it complels us to do just that … whilst at the same time growing our own, sharing where we can, realising the vast gap between what we have on offer to us in this vast world of consumerism and what little we really need to have that darn lovely happiness and joy. Here’s raising a cup of Fair trade to you, you lovely soul.

    x Katj

  7. Ok just want to write a bit more here. As I sit here writing this, my beautiful man walks in with a plate of scrambled egg topped with smoked salmon, which he has fashioned into the shape of a heart, with a hand picked flower on top. In these austerity times that is a pretty rare thing. On one level we are doing all right. We can still afford holidays, nice clothes, my book habit, days out. I am mega frickin’ lucky. As someone who never knew growing up if there’d be $5 to see us through the last week of every month, it is quite comforting now, an adult, to not have to worry. My husband’s parents came from very poor backgrounds. They raised Pete and his brothers as vegetarians, living pretty frugally, forgoing central heating, and loads of other luxury trapping – but bought themselves a modest home in an expensive postcode. His mum worked a 60 hour week, setting up the charity Rainbow Trust, setting an example of selflessness, love and care. His dad stayed at the same company from 16 to retirement. He left his job quids in and now they’re very comfy. They have lent us money on various occasions, and as it stands we owe them £10k. But they have taught us the what goes around comes around thing by being uber thoughtful and sharing with others. They are forever coming up with plans, schemes to make someone’s life easier – on a micro and macro level. It may be small decisions or biggies. They are generous with their assistance, problem solving skills, and hard cash if need be. To everyone they know.
    This is the best thing about privilege for me. Abundance as a way of life – by endlessly giving to others. The singer Ian Brown sings “Keep what you’ve got – by giving it all away….” This is pretty much my philosophy. I lend out all the books I am lucky enough to be able to afford. I lend out all my CD’s. I pass on my seasonal clothes to the teens at our local home Ed group. I give money to charity in bundles. I prefer abundance over frugality any day, but it’s not really about money, it’s about attitude and heart :-)

  8. Hi CJ. Thank you for your thoughtful musings. This is such an important dialog.

    My husband and I have been living a homesteading lifestyle for over 30 years, inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing’s book “Living the Good Life.” We have been able to do this through hard work but also with the (earlier) support of parents who could provide us with some things. Some very BIG things, like holding a mortgage, and preschool tuition for our kids. Long ago ;-)

    We have struggled with exactly this question of privilege, for many years and from many angles. I have no answers, of course. But my sense of things is this. Some of us, by chance mostly, do have an abundance, more than we need to get by. What better to do with this abundance to than to educate ourselves and do our best to live simply, frugally, and responsibly. And thus to hopefully have more left over… food, money, energy…to give to others.

  9. Hey how do you brew your single cup? Cone brewer, French press, what? I’d like to afford locally roasted stuff, but I’m still buying Starschmucks every week.

  10. We also buy the $16/lb stuff and it is a very necessary luxury for us. We brew one cup at a time as well. There happens to be a local coffee outfit here in Ottawa, Canada called Bridgehead that believes heavily in educating people about organic and fair trade coffee. Their milk and cream is also from an organic cooperative of farmers in the area. FURTHER – they support local programs to educate people about the importance of where their food comes from and recently made the endeavour to support a local organic farm. So, this year we received a very healthy sum of money from Bridgehead to help us with a packing shed for our organic vegetable business. Our efficiency and sanity has tripled with this money and we will be forever grateful to them. I buy the $16/lb stuff from that kind of an outfit and the circle can link back up again a whole lot easier.

    I have also pondered the importance of a support system when living a land-to-mouth lifestyle such as we do. Having relatives nearby or a community of friends who can offer hands precisely when they are needed – or willing to support in whatever way they can is key to making it work. We’ve been making a go all on our own. One couple taking on the weight of the farm, the kids and all that entails on our own. It isn’t sustainable. So without the ‘cash’ help, we would have to pack in the business. I never want to lose our ability to grow the food that comes to our table – but growing for the larger community requires more hands than our two sets. Look at the support Shannon Hayes receives from her family. They are a large unit. This is key to the success of a ‘family farm’. Nobody ever said it was meant to be just one married couple and their gaggle of kids making a go of it. Or did they?

      1. Mmmm… comment came out weird. And I’m not sure if it’s good or bad.

        The big riot is overwhelming right now. I’m realizing the quiet riot is more realistic for me, and I’m eating some crow when I say it. I was actually to the point of throwing in the towel completely, but your posts lately are spurring me to not give up. Things like our $16/lb coffee and me getting overwhelmed while the hubs was out of town to the point of breaking down with my food convictions with the kids. And then the guilt. And realizing that I can only do so much and that has to be enough and then deciding to not care and cranking the heat up to 69 instead of 67 and then more guilt and then feeling ridiculous. Anyway – this is coming out all spastic and jumbled (and that’s why it’s taking so long for me to get posts up at my place). But I wonder why I’m doing it sometimes and there isn’t a real answer. Our lifestyle teeters precariously on the edge of choice and necessity… But when I read your stuff (this is where the “you keep writing” part of my previous comment comes in) I feel a little saner, a little calmer, and it helps to know I’m not the only one who thinks about all this stuff.

  11. love this post, and your thoughts.

    we have a conversation with our boys regularly about “what we can afford” – and what those words mean *to us*. they don’t mean be afraid because we can’t afford shelter or food; they do mean, we choose a certain lifestyle and that means we can’t afford x, y, or z – *if we want to have **this** life*.

    it’s about choices and priorities, and i think, now that they’re older, they really do get it.

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