Friday, 7 May 2010

Sustainable Luxuries

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

Originally uploaded by FoundryParkInn

I've been thinking lately about luxury, indicators of wealth in our society, and other ways we spend money purely to gratify ourselves.  Of course, it's important to remember that even the very poor in the United States are wealthy by global measures.  But modern media and the advertising field have combined to portray an absurdly high standard of living that we're all meant to aspire to.  The fallacy of this consumerist lifestyle is already transparent to many of those who read here.  This modern conception of "wealth" does little to bring happiness to those who pursue it, nor is it ethically sound.  We'll leave aside the stark reality that the majority of the US population, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, is priced out of acquiring the material trappings of this illusory lifestyle.

Still, I think humans are hardwired to seek pleasure, comfort, and yes, even luxury items as markers of social status or just sensory gratification.  We like beautiful things, though our definitions of beauty proverbially vary.  Although advertisements manipulate our desires and convince us that material things will make us better, happier people, marketers didn't create those desires and impulses in the first place.  Not everyone wants a diamond necklace, or live-in servants.  But I suspect each of us has a weak spot for something.

This line of thought leads me to question what forms of luxury might be possible in a sustainable, low-energy future.  Being a foodie and a gardener, good food is the first and most obvious example that comes to my mind.  Good food is really, really important to me, and I live in an area blessed with good soil, a moderate climate, and plenty of water for growing my own food.  So I've been doing that.  But here's where the concept of "luxury" runs bang up against human nature.  We've put in the effort to produce and find excellent sources of high quality local foods.  We changed our habits of cooking and eating to use these foods.  And now, though we savor our meals and appreciate what we have, it's become almost a self-discipline to remain mindful of just how good our food is.  The vexing truth is, we now take it somewhat for granted that we have our own eggs and vegetables, and grass-fed meat and dairy.  Although we intellectually know this quality of food to be extraordinary, we often have to remind ourselves how well we eat.  It's no longer really a luxury in our minds, but an ordinary part of daily life.  The fact that we put in so much work to produce this food also makes it a hard to think of this good food as a marker of "wealth."

So what do I consider a luxury in my life?  Massage. If I could justify the expense, I'd have a massage every single day.  For me there's just nothing like having tired, sore, or tight muscles attended to by a talented masseuse or masseur.  Physical touch is a primal pleasure.  The chance to completely relax and take time out for myself feels positively decadent.  And I always sleep really well after a good massage.  If I have a one-hour massage more than once a month, I really feel like I'm indulging myself.  The nicest thing is, massage fits within my rubric of sustainable values.  When I pay a masseuse, I'm spending money within my community. Other than the fuel I use to travel to her place of business, there's not much consumption, nothing to throw away.  She works in a dimmed room, and most of the energy expended comes from her own muscles.  I run multiple errands on the way to my massage so that the car isn't being used for just one purpose. 

So what things are out of the ordinary luxuries to you?  I'm speaking here of things that feel to you like genuine treats or special indulgences.  Much as I love a good book or a great meal, they have become (for better or worse) staples of my daily life.  What goods or services make you feel indulged?  Are those things sustainable?  Is sustainability a relevant issue for you in the things you consider luxurious?  Or do you indulge so rarely that you make a sustainability exception for your luxuries?  What luxuries do you think could be part of a lower-energy future?