The Subversive Virtue

Frugality as an expression of solidarity with all life-forms

by Claire Gilmore

Enoch and his family praying before taking a frugal meal while a maid gives alms to the poor and lame who approach the farm | Engraving with etching by J Sadeler after M de Vos | Public Domain

Think about borrowing a lemon, a cup of sugar from your neighbour when you were a kid: is that so unthinkable now? It seems to be… I mean, you don’t want to intrude on someone’s solitary privacy, and isn’t there an app for that?

The more affluent, and as a result, free and independent we are, the more alienated and socially atomized we tend to become. But we’re just now hitting a turning point where our modern, western, industrial civilization is running out of the planetary resources – including a stable climate – that have allowed us to keep propping up and growing our civilizational wealth.

With increasing resource scarcity, frugality becomes less of a choice and more of a practice of necessity. This is obviously true at the individual level, but it also applies – and is needed – at the societal level. Not in the sense of same-old neoliberal austerity politics, in which cost burdens are downloaded to individual citizens, resource extraction continues apace, and profits continue to flow into the private sector through bailouts – but in the very basic sense of just… producing and consuming less.

In his 1995 essay, Toward the Revival and Reform of the Subversive Virtue: Frugality, social-ecological ethicist James A. Nash highlights the frugality-love connection that was emphasized by early Christian theologians such as John Chrystosom, Basil of Caesaria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Ambrose of Milan. “For all of these interpreters,” he writes, “frugality ought to be practiced for the sake of just and generous sharing. In the absence of such sharing, frugality is something else: miserliness or hoarding.”

If love – for living things, present and future, human and other – is the feeling, frugality is the action, and to be effective, Nash argues, it needs to extend beyond personal practice to social norm. “Profligate production and consumption are anthropocentric abuses of what exists for fair and frugal use in a universal covenant of justice,” he writes. “Counseling careful usage and, therefore, minimal harm to other life-forms, frugality is the earth-affirming instrument of distributive justice to ensure enough goods for all species.”

Modern frugal movements are evidence of our basic human thirst for a life that makes sense, is scaled to our actual capacities and needs, and has meaning beyond the never-ending procurement, maintenance, and sifting of stuff.

The moral problem in excessive production and consumption is not only the damage done in the present but also the harm caused to future generations. “A portion of humanity is receiving generous benefits by living beyond planetary means,” Nash points out, “while future generations will bear most of the risks and costs – from nuclear wastes and possible climate change to species’ extinctions and soil erosion.”

Human beings have had to practice frugality as long as we’ve existed – it’s how we’ve survived and evolved. In most if not all traditional cultures, it is an inbuilt value – not wasting resources is not only extremely practical, it is the economic practice that naturally results from a deep respect and gratitude for the natural world and its gifts (which allow us human beings to survive).

In modern consumerist cultures frugality is suppressed, both as personal virtue and as social norm. But, as is often the case with suppressed ideas and practices, it has resurfaced in altered form. Perhaps you’ve heard of the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement, or encountered the multitude of blogs and social media channels devoted to a trendy “new” lifestyle – minimalism. These modern frugal movements, while not straying too far from our culture’s individualist orientation, are evidence of our basic human thirst for a life that makes sense, is scaled to our actual capacities and needs, and has meaning beyond the never-ending procurement, maintenance, and sifting of stuff.

Trendy or not, frugality – with its latin root signifying “fruit” – is an ethos with the potential to satisfy us in deeply human ways. It is de-alienating to have less and feel genuine gratitude for what you do have, to practice the skills of your grandparents to make do, to knock on your neighbour’s door to borrow a cup of sugar – for both you and your neighbour. It is especially de-alienating to feel – and have a means to practice – love for and solidarity with other life-forms and future generations. As Nash writes, frugality, while radical by current social standards, “is a positive, not a negative, norm, entailing sacrifices that are personally and relationally enriching. It is … a competing vision of the future – one that promises fullness of being in solidarity.”

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