Several years ago, I was on a plane to Indore, and sitting next to me was a young, educated fairly well off ( we were on a plane, after all) man. We got to talking and he asked me where I was going. "It's a village called Bagli," I responded.
There was a slight pause as this young man tried to figure out in his head why in the world a young Indian-American would be traveling to some God-forsaken place like Bagli. Suddenly, he hit upon it.
"Is your dad, like the prince of Bagli?" he asked me.
I stared at him a little confused. Then the pieces clicked. Of course. The only reason he could come up with for my traveling to some village called Bagli would be if I were a local royalty!! To unpack this a little, an affluent person would only travel to a village to exploit the people, not to help the people.
A few days ago, the second APLS Carnival was published on the topic of affluence. Though I haven't yet been able to read all the entries, it remains true that the word "affluence" is still a controversial term.
I've always been in favor of keeping the word of affluence, as most of you know. Affluence is a loaded term because so often, wealth has been used to separate people. To provide a gap.
But it is important to remember that affluence has also been used, and is perhaps necessary, to unite people. To bridge the gaps.
Where would Doctors Without Borders be without the help of affluent countries and individuals? Or the Peace Corps? Greg Mortenson built schools in Pakistan because he could do what the tribal people and the government of Pakistan could not. How did this happen? Because Greg Mortenson came from an affluent society. He had the benefit of the education such a society provides. He could afford the airfare to attempt the climb of K-2. And then he was able to find wealthy connections who helped pay for the school. Mortenson, even when he was sleeping in his car, had so many assets that the people he was trying to help lacked.
To me, my affluence is a powerful reminder of how blessed I am. Of how lucky I am. Of the opportunities I have been given. It is also a reminder of the responsibilities that fall to me, as a member of an affluent society.
My entire approach to sustainable living is guided by this. As a result, I think I approach sustainability in different ways from others. Rather than boycott goods made in China, I would prefer to buy Chinese goods made under ethical conditions. Rather than eat only locally, I would prefer to eat fair-trade foods. Rather than giving only to local organizations, I would prefer to divide my money between worthy causes in my backyard, and worthy causes in Africa and Asia. Many people live by the mantra, "Think globally, act locally." But personally, I prefer to think and act globally and locally alike.
I understand that not everyone sees things the way I do, of course. That's what makes our vibrant e-community so great. Where I believe the admission of affluence is a necessary one to have an honest dialogue with a subsistence farmer, my good friend Melinda sees the word affluence as a barrier. I see a bridge, she sees a gap. Still others see both sides, but figure, if affluence is such a controversial word, why bother to use it? Why not just drop it?
I see that point. I don't wish to offend people. I don't wish to push people away. But just because affluence is a touchstone, does that mean we shouldn't use the word?
When I first saw the group "Riot for Austerity" I felt a little "othered." I had no interest in rioting nor austerity. I still don't. And yet, I now consider myself a defacto member of R4A. I understand what they are trying to accomplish. I agree with the goals. And I even understand what "riot" and "austerity" mean in the context of the group. I understand the point they were trying to get across with the word "riot." That maybe the word riot turns me off, but that that's part of the point. That it's supposed to incite some emotion. That it's not a movement about people quietly sitting in their air-conditionless homes eating their local salads and drying their clothes in their windowlesss basements. It's about making some noise and hulabaloo and proudly showcasing your choices to the world. And it's the same with austerity. The word is specifically chosen because it's more dramatic. Imagine, instead, if the group had been called Non-Confrontationally Promote Living Simply But Not So Simply That You Want To Kill Yourself. Although NCPLSBNSSTYWTKY is what most rioters actually practice as opposed to rioting and austerity, it doesn't make a great title for a group. That and the acronym is a little unwieldy.
To me, what separates "APLS" from other living simply groups is that there is both a local and global focus. Yes, we focus on the local with regional coordinators. But there is also a reminder that the world exists outside the US and Europe. There is a reminder that there are children in India who need more electricity, not less. There is a reminder that affluent countries need to invest in poorer nations to develop clean energy sources. That we may need to forgive Brazil's debt in order to save the Amazon. That our community doesn't just extend down the street, but across the world to a poor child sleeping in the street. That those of us in the first world who live in relative affluence have an obligation to help those in the developing world.
I believe, that when you take away the word "affluence," that controversial word, you lose something of great significance and value. You remove a key point of the group's identity and mission. When we are "All People Living Sustainably" how are we different from any other sustainable living group? Would there even be a need for APLS given the sheer number of groups already in existence that promote sustainable living?
Either way, I believe in the work APLS are doing, day in and day out. Whether we are All People Living Sustainably, or Affluent People Living Sustainably, I still plan to participate in this wonderful community.
But I do feel, very strongly, that without the word affluent, a core piece of who we are as a group gets lost. Will it turn other people away? Definitely. It already has. But I hope, that those people might eventually come back, just as I, after many months, am proud to Riot even if I don't literally believe in rioting.
In any case, let's keep the dialogue going. Read more of the discussion at One Green Generation and Green Bean Dreams.