Why is it so important to take only what we really need? Because everything we take harms another life. I included this Native American teaching as one of the Nine Touchstones I offered as a counterpoint to the Ten Commandments in Rebirth of the Goddess.
Recently, I have begun to realize that the concept of taking only what you need is the heart* of sustainability ethics, an ethical system that can orient us to living in harmony with others and the natural world. The practice of great generosity is its counterpoint. When you have worked for, received, or accumulated more than you need, you should give it away.
The reason these principles are important is because “taking what you need” is “taking” from the web of life. We “take” other lives (whether plants or animals) in order to eat, to clothe ourselves, to build houses, and in agricultural societies to clear land to plant, to remove unwanted plants (weeds) from cultivated land. In our industrial age, we “take” so much more to fuel our cars and to provide electricity. To take more than we need is to do unnecessary violence to the web of life. When we give away what we don’t need we help others to survive, and we also help to ensure that no more lives than necessary are taken.
On the first Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, we decided to incorporate the give-away as part of our closing ritual. It is nice to give and receive a gift at the end of an intense two weeks spent with other pilgrims. However, I am coming to realize that in comparison with the deeper meaning and intention of the ritual, our give-away, like the practice of giving presents in our wider culture, is superficial. When we give gifts to friends we try not to give too much or too little. When we give to children we often do so without regard to what they really need. When we receive gifts, we may feel burdened with one more thing we don’t want or need.
Being raised in acquisitive and throw-away cultures, it is not surprising that few of us have any real idea what the principles of taking only what you need and giving away mean. In traditional cultures, there are constraints on accumulation. If women in your family had to weave and sew and embroider all of your clothing, and if this process was time-consuming and involved time taken from other tasks, you would not be likely to have been given or to have learned to demand more clothes than you really need. Similarly, if all of the food for a clan is produced by its own labor, people would be unlikely to grow more than they needed to eat and store for the winter.
I suspect that all of this changed when wars of conquest became integrated into social structures. When other groups were conquered, their precious goods, including ritual items and ritual clothing and jewelry, were appropriated by the victors as “the spoils of war.” Land and people too were “the spoils of war,” and with the introduction of slave labor and the acquisition of lands that belonged to others, an excess of everything could be produced for the benefit of the ruling class, or to be more accurate, the war lords. This is another story, and I have discussed it elsewhere.
To return to the question at hand, I am suggesting that if we wish to live sustainably on planet earth, we must return to the values of our ancestors, distant and not so distant, who practiced taking what you need and sharing what you don’t need. These values are not the exclusive property of Native Americans, but are the values of the ancestors of all of us, if we go back far enough. As I have discussed, these values are still practiced in rural Crete. And they are the foundation of living matriarchal cultures. Many of us who have traveled have met people in rural cultures who have little, yet seem happier than anyone we know at home.
At some level we know that accumulating things does not make us happy. At the same time, prodded by advertising, we continue to shop compulsively and to buy things we don’t need. It will not be an easy task to change our patterns of consumption. If we could do so, our economic system would collapse, because it is based on creating needs for more and more things. This is why chosen or forced “austerity” threatens the capitalist system. You and I may not need all of the things we are used to buying, but if large numbers of us stop spending, the makers and sellers of goods suffer. On the other hand, the world will not survive if we carry on as we are, because we are depleting the world’s resources.
What would happen if each of us, like the subjects on the popular reality programs on hoarding, went through each of the rooms of our homes and designated the things we really need and gave the rest away? What if we then took a good look at our homes and asked if we really need the space we have. I presume this would be a long term process in which we would continually discover that we don’t need things we have always thought we could not live without.
What if we stopped buying what we do not need and gave a large portion of our income and savings to others? Would we discover what it means to live in harmony with others and the whole web of life? Could we learn how to flourish with others, not at the expense of others?
*I am not saying these are the only ethical touchstones we need to build an ethics of sustainability, but I do believe they are at its center.
Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter). Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Explore Carol’s writing.