Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Affluence: The Debate Rages On

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.


Jen said...

I am one who is uncomfortable with the term affluent. The thing is, though, I am affluent. I think the part that sticks in my gob is that I do not aspire to be affluent and so I do not wish to associate myself with 'the affluent.' Especially since so many here in the States seem to hold affluence up as a marker of success.

I too think 'affluence' should stay in the name. Not only because we in the Western World are, in point of fact, affluent compared to the rest, but because it is useful sometimes to confront the things that make you uncomfortable in order to evaluate what is important to you.

This is the crux of it--"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." Well said.

Joyce said...

Arduous, you just climed inside my head, grabbed all my thoughts on this subject, and wrote them out far more articulately than I ever could. Thank you.

I'm keeping the word Affluent. I think it's the most important word in the group's name, and it's the reason I joined.

Green Bean said...


So great to hear your voice, read your thoughts especially echoed across the globe.

Absolutely it is our affluence - as it manifests in Mortenson's efforts, in Goods 4 Girls, in Doctors without Borders and so on - that enables us to bring change. And it is this affluence that sets us apart. As much as I might work to understand people on the other side of the globe and them me, as much as we might find commonalities, we are NOT the same just by virtue of the privilege to which I was born.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out but I think it important that we continue to talk about it.

EJ said...

Yes, its good to remain real. Keep affluence - it makes us sit up and pay attention.

amy.leblanc said...

great post and great subject!

as a reader note, i just found it really frustrating to try to find FIND the "carnival of affluence" ; i had to use the word clues in this post and go through 2 different sites before i found the proper link and to be honest, if i wasn't so interested in the subject and was just an average web surfer, i would've given up. first to the APLS blog, then to the green bean dream site, and the APLS site should also have a link directly to the green bean post instead of just saying it's there in a post from august 18. might you consider providing links in your text to these things instead of just referencing them?

Natalie said...

Hi Arduous!! I'm so glad to hear your voice (read your words?) again. It sounds like you are getting lots of great fodder for Grad School.

Affluent is a keeper in my book too. I mean, yes, I consider myself monetarily affluent - in the middle class sense of the word. But I also count the richness of my life (education, friends, leisure time, etc) when using that term.

I always took the meaning of "affluent persons" to be "people living modern lives in affluent nations". (As opposed to those who find it necessary to remove themselves from society to feel that they are living "sustainably".) In that sense, the word "affluent" really has little to do with how much money the "persons" have, in either absolute or relative terms. I feel I am APLS; I am living a modern lifestyle but making choices that are sustainable. Well, sustainable is where my head and my heart are. My actions are doing their best to catch up.

To be honest, R4A has alwasy *sounded* a lot like those who think we need to go back to the barter system and live in the woods. I can only imagine it's not totally that way, but it *sounds* like it. OTOH, APLS has a connotation of engaging - rather than disengaging - from modern society.

Here we are, living in this wonderful nation, awash in affluence (in the many meanings of the word), trying to live our lives sustainably. Not only do we need to work on our own lives to make that happen, but we need to make changes to our greater communities too. Part of living sustainably is trying to affect positive change on a larger scale.

So there you have it. Affluent Persons Living Sustainably. I've decided. It's staying! (I'm being silly, of course.)

ruchi said...

Jen, I think you make a good point about confronting things that make you uncomfortable.

Joyce, you're welcome!

GB, I agree that it will be interesting to see how this pans out. I'd be interested to see if someone might come up with a word that might not be so culturally loaded but that is not as dilluted as the word "all" is for me.

E- thanks for your opinion!!

Amy, excellent point. We'll make sure to do that for the next carnival. Of course we want our carnivals to be accessible to people!!

Natalie, I see what you're saying about R4A. That was my initial reaction as well. But as time went on, I realized that the goal setting of 10% of the average American's carbon usage was just so helpful from a motivation point of view. At base, that's what R4A is about. It gives you a goal to reach for. Of course other connotations are there as well, but the truth is, that when you come down to it, R4A has been very helpful to me and has pushed me to lower some of my usage. I don't think I would have ever started commuting by subway and bus if it hadn't been for R4A telling me that my transit usage was 90% of the average Americans and seeing other peoples much lower numbers! In the same way, it's the same for APLS. At base, APLS is a community building group. Even if you disagree with some of the APLS connotations (and we can't all agree with everything) I would still hope that people would feel free to join the regional groups etc. I guess that was my point. I disagree with some of R4As connotations, but I still participate because at base I find it helpful. I would hope that people who disagree with some of APLS connotations would feel the same way.

Anonymous said...

Arduous/Ruchi, a very well thought out post.

I actually have argued with the leaders of the Riot for Austerity to change the name, because it also turns people off. It has been a matter of discussion in the group from time to time, but there isn't much leadership there so the discussion just dies, old members fade away and new members join. Honestly, I think it hurts the group pretty substantially. I can't really ask my mom to be a part of the Riot for Austerity... just doesn't sound good to a lot of people and it makes us sound a little batty. The title is a weird inside joke that nobody gets.

And when the goal is widespread change, the niche created by the title cannot be too small or the change just won't be widespread.

So, I guess I believe there is a lot to a name. It is a big part of branding.

I think that "All People Living Sustainably" has an implicit goal of working together to get all people to live sustainably. Just as many Americans' lives are unsustainable for how many resources we use, people in the developing world do not necessarily live sustainably because they don't have enough food or water or other basic needs. To bring those two groups of people together is a very powerful thing. Which I think you can do when you bring the world's people together. But when you divide us, it is more difficult. People are more apt to throw money at the problem for a while, and leave it at that. There is no exchange, there is no interaction.

Putting all that aside, though, I think you all still have to figure out what it is that the group will do. There aren't a lot of groups revolving around sustainability out there. There aren't any groups out there that focus on the things that we have all started to write about on our blogs. At least not that I know of. But if you know of one, let me know because I'll be all over it!

And just as a post-script, it seems that different people visit our blogs, yours and mine. The comments are very different at my blog (the comments from regular readers, that is). And there are several people that are normally vocal, but who have been very silent on this issue. I wonder (honestly) what that means.

Natalie said...

Melinda - that was well put. I read your post about the influence of affluence and why that's such a tricky term for you. But after reading this, I totally see your point clearly.

As a replacement acronym for YAWNs, I think Affluent Persons works better. I feel some sense of identification with my interpretation of it.

But, as an organized group, I'm really excited about your idea of All People Living Sustainably. Bridging the gap. (I can even see the little logo in my head.) Changing our own lives. Changing our own infrastructure here. But also, changing the lives and communities of those with less, because certainly that's not sustainable either.

Anonymous said...

Ruchi, you know that I agree with you on this point, and I'm happy to see you post about it on your own blog. I do want to keep the word Affluent in the group name, and I just commented further on Green Bean's APLS carnival post.