Something to think about…

paper test 3 3

True freedom comes from exercising autonomy over our lives. The consumer culture discourages us from thinking for ourselves, preferring that we adopt the cultural story about how to live.

Our challenge is to detach ourselves from the cultural story and look at the illusions surrounding freedom and choice.

  • Has the use of credit given you freedom or put you in bondage?
  • Is it an either/or question?
  • If it’s “both/and,” what makes the difference?

It’s something worth thinking about if we want to make our own lives.

Reference chapter: “Power and Money” in Conscious Spending. Conscious Life.

Like gift-wrapping a tap-dancing elephant…

Word cloud pdf 1 jpeg

My friend Maggie has a way with words. She says that attempting to describe my book is like trying to gift-wrap a tap-dancing elephant. She’s captured the dilemma perfectly!

In the early days, I struggled to wrap up my content in one or two neat sentences­—an “elevator pitch” as the marketers call it. This is essential, they advise. And of course I want to do things the right way.

Well, “right” didn’t happen. I have not yet found two sentences that encapsulate the breadth and scope of Conscious Spending, Conscious Life. I thought I might be able to distill them from the notes I use for making book presentations. I looked at my intention, my premises, and my approach but that didn’t get me very far. So I thought about tackling it another way. What if I started with the phrase “It’s about…”?  I stopped after the first eight:

  • It’s about money, and how we choose to live in relation to it.
  • It’s about financial sustainability (how we think) rather than just money management (rules and techniques about what to do).
  • It’s about personal growth, with money as the catalyst for conversations and self-awareness.
  • It’s about making the life we want, rather than reacting in knee-jerk fashion to the cultural story about what life should be.
  • It’s about deciding mindfully instead of blindly following roles and rules.
  • It’s about considering the bigger picture rather than having tunnel vision.
  • It’s about insights into the workings and dilemmas of the consumer culture, rather than learning a set of instructions about what to do.
  • It’s about self management rather than money management.

Way too many sentences and I couldn’t decide which six to eliminate. Clearly I’m too close to it because everything seems important to me. So I called on the impartial help of technology—in this case a word cloud generator. I fed in my manuscript and let it do its thing. You saw the result at the beginning of this post.

I like the word cloud… and it may be the most effective way of wrapping up the multiple interconnected parts and dynamic elements of my book. At the very least, it tickles my imagination…and that’s never a bad thing.

P.S. You’ll find the Amazon description here if you want more of the nuts and bolts. The book reviews posted here will give you perspectives other than mine.

Walking Our Talk in a Consumer World


Singer Neil Young has been in the news recently—first for his outspoken criticism of Alberta’s oil sands and then for not walking his talk. In a recent article, Licia Corbella of the Calgary Herald reported that Young’s five large tour busses were all left idling for an extended period even though only one was occupied. They were parked outside the venue where he was speaking at a press conference about man-made global warming. Apparently there is incongruence between Young’s talk and his actions.

The same could be said for most of us. As we’ve become more aware of environmental and social justice issues, our consumer choices have become more complex and not always easy to implement.

It wasn’t always so. When I started teaching my college course, the field of consumerism was focused on consumer protection and getting the best buy. It was a self-centered time. Indeed, social historians refer to the 1980s as the era of the “me generation.”

Only more recently have we started looking outside ourselves and our own interests. For me, David Suzuki was the catalyst with his passionate messages about the urgency of the environmental crisis caused by thoughtless and excessive consumption. He made me think.

Not long after that, I read Naomi Klein’s book, No Logo, in which she exposed and explained the prevailing social injustice for workers in developing countries. I could not ignore her compelling description of the race to the bottom, the quest for us to have ever-cheaper goods with no consideration for the disadvantaged workers producing them.

Somewhere along the way, I realized there is no going back. Once I knew about the ozone hole, global warming, acid rain, and sweatshops, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t. Would I change my habits? my curriculum? “Yes” seemed the only answer. Anything else would have been incongruent with my desire to make a difference in the world.

Congruence is important. It is what reinforces the finer points of our selves. “The world we live in and the lives we make for ourselves do not happen by accident. When you are conscious in your engagement with the consumer culture, you are more likely to end up living a life that is congruent with what you really want. Once we have recognized that what we think and how we act is important, it becomes a question of how could one do otherwise.”  (p 314, Conscious Spending. Conscious Life.) Congruent action is the cornerstone of conscious consumption.

In many cases, conscious consumption requires effort. Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable—when we are mocked by others for taking a stand, when we wake up in the morning in a chilly house because we turn the thermostat down at night, when we wait for a bus on a freezing winter morning rather than driving to work.

Why bother? Because even our small actions contribute to the greater good. One person turning off unnecessary lights is a small thing. But there is a cumulative effect if half the households in a community do likewise.

The other benefit: our caring requires accountability from corporations. We have seen this more frequently over the past few years. When Anita Roddick founded The Body Shop in 1976 on principles of environmental and social responsibility, she was taking a radical stand. Today, corporate social responsibility (now dubbed CSR) is much more the thing to do.

Corporate conscience has come a long way since the days when Nike was lauded for its “clever” strategy to distance itself from the appalling workplace conditions of people making its products. 2013 was “marked by audacious goals, new industry support, and unexpected partnerships” according to a report by Cone Communications. Their list of ten top trends in corporate social responsibility includes a focus on food transparency, viral visual storytelling, and guerilla cause marketing.

We may be cynical about such corporate initiatives because some companies undertake them just for good optics. But, you know what…it creates more choice for those of us who want to consume in alignment with our values.

I don’t know where Neil Young stands in all of this. Perhaps, as Licia Corbella suggests, he is a hypocrite. On the other hand, by speaking out he is doing something. And that is the least any of us should do—something.

Looking for connections…

Book in Vegas

My book is travelling again thanks to Nollind and Teresa, who recently left it in this lovely library at the Las Vegas RV Resort. Over the next few months, they’ll release several more copies of Conscious Spending, Conscious Life “into the wild” under the BookCrossing program.

BookCrossing puts books into public places with an invitation to take the book, read it, and then release it somewhere when you’re finished with it. Each book has a unique identity number which facilitates following its travels from reader to reader. BookCrossing currently has 2,445,823 BookCrossers and 10,099,359 books travelling throughout 132 countries. Their aim is to connect people through books and they describe BookCrossing as the “World’s Library.”

I love that my book is part of a worldwide library. The free-form, serendipitous nature of BookCrossing tickles my imagination. It allows me to believe that I can put my book in unexpected places where it will be found by people who need it.

Who are these people? Who might benefit from reading Conscious Spending, Conscious Life? Certainly the young­­—those who are just starting out. At this stage of life they don’t fully understand how the system works and are also subject to peer pressure. These two factors make them particularly vulnerable to the persuasive pitches of credit card companies and product marketers. It’s a combination that leads many to a lifetime of perpetual consumer debt. My book gives them a leg up by helping them quickly gain some consumer street smarts. Parents and grandparents tell me it’s the kind of book they’d have written for their kids if they were inclined to write a book.

Age, though, isn’t the defining factor. Many of life’s experiences challenge us to look at how we live our daily lives­­—the systems, the habits, and the thinking behind them.

We encounter many transitions and changes in a lifetime: Starting over after financial disruption such as bankruptcy, business collapse, or job loss. Regrouping after difficult personal experiences such as divorce, adult children moving back home, and death of a spouse or partner. Rethinking when we reach midlife—assessing what we’ve accomplished and taking another look to see things in a new light. Because Conscious Spending, Conscious Life offers fresh perspectives, it helps in that process. For some people, the value is that it confirms their own good sense.

My first job was to get the book written. Now comes the fun part—making connections. Ideas are welcome.

A book I’d have written if I hadn’t been writing mine


Part 4 of my book Conscious Spending, Conscious Life is about health, safety and integrity of the future. It covers food and toxics, among other things. People are often surprised that I included health in a book about consumerism. But the truth is, food has become the ultimate consumer good—commercially grown, highly processed, and heavily marketed.

Navigating the consumer culture—unharmed—is a tricky task these days. Remaining healthy is one of the challenges. Despite relative wealth and an abundance of food products in North America, we continue to become more and more unhealthy.

Much of what we call “food” really isn’t. The dictionary defines food as “material that is used by the body to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes, as well as to furnish energy.” In a consumer culture, it is so easy to make poor choices and eat a lot that fills us up but doesn’t support our bodies in carrying out vital life processes. The choices we make can end up haunting us sooner or later.

When we become conscious of what we eat and try to do the right thing, we’re faced with confusing and conflicting information to sort through. While I was writing my section about food and toxics, I was frustrated by not having enough space to say everything I wanted to.

So I’m happy to tell you about a book I discovered recently. Undiet: Eat Your Way to Vibrant Health gives more detail than I was able to—not just the theory, but practical guidelines and strategies for incorporating real food into your life along with 40 recipes to get you going.

Author Meghan Telpner is a certified nutritionist who comes at this from practical experience. At age 26, she was told she had an incurable autoimmune condition that would require major surgery. Instead, she decided to take her health into her own hands and reports that within a month she was free of symptoms. In a recent television interview, she said that she’s been well in the seven years since. When you see her, she exudes a vibrance that is striking.

Undiet  is a book after my own heart, taking a holistic perspective. It’s an excellent guide to what real food is, why you would want to eat it, and how to consume it daily, even if you are a busy person. It includes crucial information about what not to consume, including BPA and food additives. This is a book about health, not just food, so it also covers making non-toxic personal care products and being happy in how we live our lives.

Meghan Telpner writes in a lively style, backing up her statements with both personal experience and research references. Her book has useful information for all of us, and young people will find it much more interesting and relatable than many nutrition books. I highly recommend Undiet as a valuable resource for navigating the food-related areas of the consumer culture.

Recycling is not enough.

Recycle Bin

Recycling has become a license to waste, allowing us to avoid taking responsibility for our consumer choices. We soothe our consciences by dropping our excesses into a recycle bin and having them carted away. End of story; nothing more to think about.

That wasn’t the intention when the 3Rs of environmental responsibility were first introduced. They were Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle—deliberately presented in that order—and were meant to deal with the environmental issue of wastefulness.

Unfortunately, recycling has become the first instead of the last step for most people. I suspect that’s because it is the easiest, especially now that we have recycling programs that pick things up from a bin or bag placed at the curb. Reducing and reusing require more effort and greater consciousness. They are the high road of environmental responsibility. Walking that road can be challenging and it takes courage.

My last blog talked about courage in the context of buying nothing beyond well-defined necessities for a year. This life experiment has several objectives including living in alignment with their values of community and sustainability.

Today I read an article about Taina Uitto, who is also living in alignment with her values. She was deeply moved upon learning about the accumulation of huge plastic garbage patches in the world’s oceans. The shock motivated her to stop using plastic—completely. A courageous act for sure, since plastic is ubiquitous in a consumer lifestyle. Among other things, she was challenged to find alternatives for plastic grocery bags, plastic produce bags, and plastic containers for personal care products. These are all things that many of us routinely drop into our recycle bins, all the while feeling virtuous for doing the right thing.

Rather than recycling plastics to make herself feel better, Taina went down the path of reduce first. This led her to rethinking and refusing. She has expanded the 3Rs to 6 and lists them in order of priority on her blogsite: 1. Rethink 2. Refuse  (+Reduce, Reuse, Repair, and “Recycle”…if you must).

Taina Uitto has issued a “REFUSE! Challenge” and offers some tips for getting started:

  • Armed with awareness, get disciplined about refusing single-use disposable plastics.
  • Start with the easy things, refusing coffee lids, straws in drinks, plastic bags, cutlery, wrapped muffins, etc., etc.  So easy.
  • Then, move onto the “harder” things, sourcing one alternative at a time.  Be creative!

Participants are invited to send pictures of their refusals and these are posted in a photo gallery. It’s a fun way to encounter and remember possibilities for action to reduce use of plastic.

So here’s the question rolling around in my head: Is there something more I can do?

What about you?

Image courtesy of digitalart at

Courage to change

Laurana with Julie-001

I recently met a young woman who is buying nothing for a year. Julie Phillips (photo) was giving a talk about how this came to be (serendipity, like many of life’s most remarkable moments) and about her experiences during the first six weeks of being propelled into a #DIYLife.

Julie Phillips is certainly not the first person to spend less money and do more for herself, but I was struck by several defining aspects of her story: It’s a commitment for a full year, not just an exercise in postponing spending for a month or two. This experiment is structured to require fundamental change, not just giving up some of the superficial niceties. And she’s doing it by choice, not from necessity.

It’s a big change for someone who admittedly is attracted to shoes, jewellery, and pretty dresses. Julie isn’t a back-to-earth do-it-yourselfer who was basically well prepared when she agreed to undertake this experiment. She didn’t spend a lot of time stockpiling things and otherwise preparing for it. This was a case of one thing leading to another and suddenly, there she was, embarking on a year of rigorous “commercial fasting.”

It takes courage to do that, to dive in without knowing the answers. Brené Brown, in her wonderful book The Gifts of Imperfection, says: “Courage is like—it’s a habitus, a habit, a virtue: You get it by courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging.”

The original meaning of courage is “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Brown’s book is a guide to Wholehearted living, which we do by engaging in our lives with authenticity, cultivating courage and compassion, and embracing the imperfections of who we really are.

Living wholeheartedly challenges us to let go: of certainty, of being right, of having all the answers, and perhaps of some of the “things” that have been defining us. It’s our chance to discover who we really are, when not propped up by our possessions.

It’s so easy to be mindless and unconscious in a consumer culture. There are products to meet all our needs, even needs we don’t know we have! The consumer system is set up to encourage knee-jerk reaction to cultural values instead of thinking for ourselves to create the kind of lives we want to live. Julie and Geoff’s lifestyle experiment is a grand adventure in becoming conscious and crafting a life. She’s sharing her insights through her blog and I’ll be watching with great interest.

My book is on the move

underground first copy released

Conscious Spending, Conscious Life  is travelling the London Underground. Really! As the above picture shows, it entered via West Kensington Station to participate in an imaginative program to turn the London subway system into a library for commuters.

An article by Tyler Brockington in “Campaign Brief” describes it this way: “Books on the Underground is as simple as it sounds; books travelling around the London Underground network waiting to be read. Says Hollie Belton, who established the movement last year: ‘I started it by leaving my own books, or raiding charity shops. The idea is to take an incredible book you want to share with the world, sticker it up, and leave it on the tube, where it can be taken, read, shared, and most importantly, enjoyed. Think of us as your local library, but without the late fees. Just be sure to put them back when you’ve finished.’ ”

I’m delighted to be part of it. Here are some of the things I hope London commuters will gain from reading Conscious Spending, Conscious Life :

  • Inspiration to create their own lives rather than reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to the agenda of the consumer culture
  • Information to help dodge pitfalls inherent in the consumer culture
  • Insights into consumer issues, and questions to ask before making decisions
  • Common-sense perspectives that will lead to financial sustainability

In a consumer world, it’s incredibly easy to make poor choices that haunt us for years. Commercial interests and sophisticated strategies do not take our well-being into consideration. I hope this book will level the playing field.

Excess & Chaos

I recently arrived at the end of two relentlessly and unexpectedly chaotic years. It was all I could do to keep my head above water. I coped by hurriedly chucking things into cupboards any which way, abandoning cleaning routines for a lick and a promise, stacking files on surfaces (floor included) instead of putting them away—you get the picture.

Finally I gained some breathing space and have spent the past couple months bringing order out of the chaos. As often happens, what’s going on in my life prompts me to think about the bigger cultural context. Consequently, I find myself considering our relationship to “things” in a consumer culture.

This experience has reminded me that acquiring and maintaining possessions isn’t easy, and that harbouring excess becomes burdensome. This is ironic, since most of us accumulate material goods to make our lives easier and more satisfying. At least, that’s the cultural story. The way to evaluate the truth of that story is to check and see if it holds up. Are your possessions making life easier, simpler, and more satisfying? Or is it all too much?

What is “too much?” It’s an individual determination, so I can’t say what is too much for you—that’s your job. But I can suggest ways to assess your situation. Start by thinking about the physical management of your things. Are they easy to contain or have you had to rent a storage unit to hold the excess? Have you bought a multitude of plastic bins in an attempt to keep things orderly. Are your cars parked outside the garage because it is piled to the rafters with “stuff and junk,” as my mom used to call it? Does your house or apartment feel too crowded, even though there are only two people living in it? Are you thinking about buying a portable clothing rack to accommodate the overflow that refuses to be stuffed into your closet? Do you have mystery boxes, unopened since your last move?

None of this makes you a bad person, but it does suggest that your things have gotten out of hand. Chances are they are running your life rather than contributing to it. For one thing, there are financial implications when we have too much—storage rental fees, extra costs for insuring our belongings, higher monthly payments for larger living quarters, money sunk into products that are rarely (if ever) used, money paid for duplicate items when you can’t find the originals amidst the clutter. Spending to maintain an excess of possessions drains away money that might be better used to create the life you really want.

Excess belongings drain more than money; they deplete mental energy. Looking after our things, and earning the money to acquire and support them, siphons off a lot of vitality that might be used for other life activities (such as having fun with family or friends).

Furthermore, when our surroundings are in a muddle, it requires a lot of energy to keep from also being in a mental muddle. Disorder and confusion around us distract our mind from the focus we would like to have. As a result, mental clutter that is fuelled by physical mess makes us inefficient and leads to poor decisions.

Worse yet, we may find ourselves feeling buyer’s remorse—unsatisfied in spite of having so much. That’s no fun, especially for those who followed the cultural story and did what they thought they should to be successful and happy.

So how much is too much? How can you decide? Here’s what I’m thinking…

Too much for me is anything I cannot care for exquisitely. That would include a lot of what was shoved willy-nilly into my storage room these past two years. The storage room is my last “order-out-of-chaos” challenge. I’ve been avoiding it because it’s so hard to decide what to keep and what not to.  But I think this new filter is going to work. At least that’s the theory! For certain, it will challenge me to come to grips with just what it means to take “exquisite” care. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, I’m interested in your observations about excess and chaos because I need all the help I can get for thinking this through.