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Peace, Love, and the Gift

by James Magnus-Johnston

“You can’t have community as an add-on to a commodified life” Charles Eisenstein

Johnston_photoFor many Westerners, Christmas Day is one of the most sacred days of the year. Perversely, perhaps, the holidays are also marked by excessive materialism, consumerism, and the creation of false needs. Today happens to be “Boxing Day” in Canada, Black Friday’s Christmas equivalent, marked by mad and even obscene rushes for the best post-holiday deals. How have we reached such a disconnect between the meaning of our traditions and the way we practice them?

It might be hard to see with our consumer lens, but there is a deeply important connection between the sacredness of December 25th and the practice of gifting. As Charles Eisenstein has eloquently and passionately argued, gifts are an expression of love that begins with the gift of life itself:

We didn’t earn being born, being fed as babies, having an earth to live on, air to breathe, water to drink. All came as a gift. Ancient cultures often recognized this explicitly; theirs was a gift cosmology that was echoed in their economic systems.

Therefore our natural state, he says, is gratitude. And therefore, we have a built-in desire to give and be generous.

An obsession with money, on the other hand, has contributed to “alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth.” Today, money acts as a profane separator when seen as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Rather than understanding money as a tool that helps facilitate the exchange of goods or truly improve our quality of life, we tend to see money–its accumulation and growth–as the ultimate end. Undoubtedly, money is required to move us towards a level of material sufficiency, but beyond sufficiency, more money won’t make you happier. Are you dissatisfied with your life regardless of how much money you’re making? Will the growth imperative behind the accumulation of money improve the planet’s life support system?

Millennia of ancient thought–including that of the Christian tradition–reminds us that traditional gift practices are expressions of love. Expressions of love aren’t luxury items any more than the planet’s life support system is. Expressions of love keep human beings connected, because they remind us that we actually need one another! Eisenstein writes,

One thing that gifts do is that they create ties among people–which is different from a financial transaction. If I buy something from you, I give you the money and you give me the thing, and we have no more relationship after that. . . But if you give me something, that’s different because now I kind of feel like I owe you one. It could be a feeling of obligation, or you could say it’s a feeling of gratitude. What’s gratitude? Gratitude is the recognition that you’ve received, and the desire to give in turn. And that’s why we are driven to give. Because everything we’ve received is a gift.

Gifts - Andy Noren

Let’s take a step back from the excessive materialism of the holiday season to think about why we really give gifts. Photo Credit: Andy Noren

Peace, love, and community are fostered through the gifts we provide for one another not only on December 25th, but throughout every day of the year. In the grand cosmic scheme of things, gift practices can make us more aware of the miracle of life itself, and the gift of existence we received–and continue to receive–from planet earth and the universe, or God, depending on your inclination.

The purpose of our existence can’t be quantified in monetary terms. Perhaps as this year comes to a close, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the gifts you received at birth or the gifts you have honed and developed throughout your life. Why are you here? Are you able to express your innate gifts? Do you need to unplug from the formal economy to explore and give of yourself more meaningfully?

If you can’t make more money exploring your gifts and skills, embrace the challenge. If we are to degrow the economy towards a steady state, we’re going to need to be a whole lot more generous, a whole lot happier, and more grateful for what we have already. Gift practices might shrink the formal economy a little, but they will engender precisely the love and community that we often feel is missing in modern life.

Charles Eisenstein’s full book “Sacred Economics” is available on his website at http://sacred-economics.com.

An Open Letter to Peter Kent, Canada’s Minister of the Environment

by James Johnston

Regarding Your Modest Proposal for Preventing Canada from Remaining Cold

Dear Minister Kent,

On December 12, from the foyer of the Canadian House of Commons, you irrationally rationalized why it is a good idea for Canada to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol. I would like to congratulate you on your cheeky display of hyperbolic satire — there was so much cognitive dissonance and misleading rhetoric in your statement that it couldn’t possibly have been serious! I can’t wait for the day when you reveal that your government’s position is one big elaborate hoax designed to taunt the world into acting on climate change. I want to point out where your satire was effective but also give you a little bit of advice on how you could have made your statement even better.

First of all, you could have come right out and given the “real” reason why the “Harper Government” (TM) is getting out of Kyoto: because global warming is in Canada’s national interest! Developing the tar sands and pumping out greenhouse gasses to the max has the obvious benefit of improving Canada’s national temperature.

We all know that international forums are talk-fests that amount to non-binding statements of procrastination, but I laughed out loud when you pretended not to understand the symbolic value of forums like Kyoto and Durban. This rings especially true for a government that has proven its media savvy by virtue of authoritarian-style message control. Indeed, Kyoto has become a misplaced symbol of climate justice. But standing before a global audience and shamelessly teasing the world with such irresponsible nonsense! Priceless!

You were pretty convincing each time you conjectured that it is possible to create “jobs and growth” while also reducing emissions. Surely someone of your intellect and stature knows that at no time in history have we had economic “growth” without a corresponding increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Certainly not when the figures are adjusted to track the export of pollution at the planetary level. Development, maybe, but not growth! Man, I have to tell you, the joke became more cruel each time you repeated it (which happened a lot). Use it sparingly next time.

Your goal to reduce emissions via a “legally binding agreement to address global emissions that allows us to continue creating jobs and economic growth in Canada” hints at how elaborate the government’s hoax must be. At present, the Canadian government is shaping an economic agenda where more and more “growth” is coming from unsustainable oil production, natural resource extraction, and real estate inflation. No sane person thinks this is a good trajectory for the planet. Talk about wanting it both ways! Must be Christmas (well not quite, but almost — a few more sleeps!!). The world will be so shocked when you reveal the truth — about the Canadian position, I mean (not about Christmas).

Speaking of Christmas, I had an idea when I saw you pretend to stand up to big emitters like China and India. Way to goad them into action, by the way. But you know what would have been even better? Declaring that you are “standing up to preserve the Canadian holiday tradition of consuming an excess of cheaply manufactured Asian goods.” Then, when emissions go up in Asia as a result, you can stomp and huff that it’s “all their fault.” You missed a few opportunities like this to set yourself up for future satirical tantrums.

There were a couple of moments when your sense of humour went a little too far. Like when you repeated the government’s nonsensical target for emissions. The promise that you will focus on “reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent over 2005 levels by 2020” — effectively doing less than the previous government and pretending that it will save us from climate disaster — that’s so funny it hurts (my children). You can’t keep that joke up forever. But I double over with laughter each time you say your target is somehow the previous liberal government’s fault. Those genetically incompetent liberals!

It was cute how you pretended that “Canada’s position” is shaping a global consensus among the “EU… the United States, Australia, New Zealand, [the] least developed countries and the group of 43 small island states.” Cute, because Australia’s Minister for Climate Change implied they were leading the way by instituting a carbon tax, and don’t tell me that you’ve changed your “position” on that one! That would ruin the hoax! Beyond that, judging from how irked tiny Tuvalu was about your statement, you must have known that you were pushing a few buttons. Ian Fry, Tuvalu’s lead negotiator at Durban, said that “it’s an act of sabotage on our future.” Seriously, though. Tuvalu? Who knew that was even a country, right? ;)

Just when I thought you were going too far, you made a point so absurd that it reassured me of your comedy genius. The pièce de résistance was when you quipped that Kyoto would require Canadians to remove “every car, truck, ATV, tractor, ambulance, police car and vehicle of every kind from Canadian roads; or, closing down the entire farming and agricultural sector and cutting heat to every home, office, hospital, factory and building in Canada.” Well light my hyperbolic pants on fire and sound the alarm. Sure it would… if we choose exclusively to develop the tar sands instead! You’re such a drama queen. I’m glad you know Canadians aren’t stupid enough to believe such misleading statistical play. Who could ever dream of taking their ATV off the off-road anyway!?

And finally, regarding your plea at the end for “an agreement that works” for jobs …and growth …in Canada …and China …and Tuvalu …and for emissions reduction. Frankly, it was getting a little convoluted. Next time you should just let out a loud fart in front of the press, apologize for the emissions and then, in a fit of despair declare “what’s the point!? By the time global warming starts wreaking havoc, I’ll either be out of government or dead. What a waste of time. Stupid liberals.” Boy would that ever ignite a global response!

Anyway, you’re cutting it pretty close. It’s just about too late to stop runaway climate change and it’s making us all very nervous.You’re going to have to reveal your true position pretty soon and stop taunting us with these clever hijinks.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing more of this precious, mind-bending stuff. And soon. It’s truly a joy to watch.

Storage Nation

by Rob Dietz

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
Everywhere you go.
Take a look in the storage hut,
Where doors roll open and shut,
And piles of pap and useless crap do grow.

It’s hard to know where to begin a rant about the materialistic mess that our culture has made of Christmastime in the United States. An easy target is the Thanksgiving midnight-madness sales at big-box retail stores. And there’s always those devious marketers who use nostalgia to turn December into a month of mass consumption. But there’s one industry that, more than any other, epitomizes materialism and our seemingly limitless propensity to consume: self storage.

Self-storage businesses are warehouses where people rent garages to hold their excess stuff. In the not-too-distant past, a small number of self-storage businesses catered to homes in transition (for example, when people were moving from one place to another). On the pop culture scene, if self storage made any appearance at all, it was in a macabre role. For instance, in the film The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling searches a storage unit and finds a pickled head in a jar.

Oh how things have changed! Over the past few decades self-storage facilities have popped up faster than Starbucks outlets. The U.S. has over 2.2 billion square feet (78 square miles) of rentable space, more than 3 times the size of Manhattan Island.[1] One out of every 10 American households now leases a unit.[2]

What’s going on here? Two separate currents have come together to form a riptide that drags people under the sea of self storage. The first current is the credit-card-fueled shopping frenzy that has put many Americans in a position of owning too many possessions. The second current is the promotion of self storage as an investment opportunity for entrepreneurs. The first current is pretty well documented,[3] so let’s float along with the second current for a bit.

The place to get started is a bookstore or your local library. There you might be able to find How to Invest in Self-Storage by Scott Duffy and R. K. Kliebenstein (2005), Self-Storage Investments by Richard Stephens (2008), or Rent It Up! Four Steps to Unlocking the Profit Potential in Your Self-Storage Business by Tron Jordheim (2009). Of if you prefer fiction to how-to books, there’s even a novel titled Self Storage (2008) by Gayle Brandeis.

Here’s a quote from the opening of Rent It Up!:

But if you are trying to create as much profit as you can and build a sustainable business, as well as a real estate asset that will increase in value far faster than your competitors’, then you are in the right place and should keep on reading.”

Maybe a row of self-storage units could hold all the books about self storage.

It’s not that easy to define the word “sustainable,” but one wonders what meaning the author ascribes to this term when he refers to building a sustainable self-storage business.

One thing’s certain about sustainability: it doesn’t result from continuous exponential growth. The Self Storage Association (SSA), the trade organization and lobbying arm of the industry, reports that self storage is a $20 billion industry. It has been the “fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the last 30 years and has been considered by Wall Street analysts to be recession resistant based on its performance since the economic recession of September, 2008.”[4] What has made the industry recession-proof? One answer is that foreclosures encourage the newly homeless to move their stuff into temporary storage. In the age of uneconomic growth, when overall growth is making the U.S. poorer rather than richer, the self-storage industry appears to be an uneconomic leader.

Not everyone has the means to start a self-storage business, but would-be entrepreneurs have another way to get in the game. A cottage industry has developed around auctions from failures in self storage. When a tenant fails to make payments on a self-storage rental, the storage company can auction off the contents of the unit. Another trip to the bookstore or library can catch you up on this trend. These books explain how to exploit such a circumstance: How to Make Boxes of Cash with Self-Storage Auctions by Barbara Rogers (2007), Making Money with Storage Auctions by Edwards Busoni (2008), Mini Storage Auctions: Uncover the Cash Within by L. S. James (2010), and Making Money A-Z with Self Storage Unit Auctions by Glendon Cameron (2011).

It’s a surprise that no one has written How to Make Money Writing and Selling Books about Self-Storage Auctions!

Moving from the unreal to the surreal… self storage has rebounded from its lowly pop-culture status in The Silence of the Lambs. The cable channel A&E broadcasts a program called Storage Wars about people competing for profits in self-storage auctions. A&E’s website says that Storage Wars, “which follows teams of bidders looking to score it big in the high stakes world of storage auctions, ranks as A&E’s number one series of all time among adults 25-54. During its first season, the series averaged 2.8 million viewers per episode and peaked at 3.8 million.”[5]

In the spirit of regaining a positive attitude during this holiday season, I’d like to propose a New Year’s resolution for the nation. Let’s ditch our storage units. It should be a snap for the third-most-popular type of self-storage customers: people storing items they no longer need or want.[6] And for other customers, downsizing can be downright liberating. This Christmas season, the best gift of all is the gift of less cluttered lives.

[1] Self Storage Association Fact Sheet.

[2] Jon Mooallem, “The Self-Storage Self,” New York Times Magazine, September 2, 2009.

[3] For more details see sources such as the Center for a New American Dream and the Story of Stuff Project.

[4] See note 1.

[5] A&E.

[6] See note 2.