I grope my way up the stairs in near-complete darkness, unaccustomed to the uneven concrete floors and unexpected corners of the building I first entered only a few hours earlier, following a seven-hour bus ride from Jaipur, India.
My only guide through the dark, labyrinthine hallways is the flowing, spotlessly white robe of the young Jain nun walking ahead of me. Finally she leads me onto a small balcony that is dimly lit by the streetlight on the narrow alley next to the building. Insects are dancing in its orange light.
“This is where we come to read in the evenings,” she explains as she sits down and gestures me to sit next to her, pulling out a small book of Jain devotional verses and chants. We have come outside to read under the light of the streetlamp. But it’s not because the building — the temporary lodging for the group of nineteen Jain nuns whom I am visiting — lacks electricity. It is because the nuns refuse to use electricity. Ever.
Most of the electricity in India comes from hydroelectric dams, the nun explains. Not only are innumerable fish and other aquatic creatures crushed by the water turbines, but human communities along the riverbank are also displaced because their villages are submerged.
“People switch on the light, the TV, without thinking twice about the suffering that incurs in the process of generating that power for their convenience and comfort. But in the Jain tradition, we ask: why should other beings be injured just so that we can have our conveniences? We try to refrain from using anything that is generated by violent means.”
Jainism is a minority religion in India, practiced today by only about four million people. Arguably older than Buddhism, it is best known for its central principle of non-violence or ahimsa towards all creatures: any act of injury, even towards the smallest insects, is thought to accumulate karma, which prevents the soul from attaining liberation.
Laypeople can make compromises because they are not even expected to attain liberation in this lifetime: they can use electricity and engage in a number of other acts that kill life-forms. In contrast, Jain monks and nuns choose to live lives of utter simplicity and total nonviolence: they are strictly vegetarian and celibate, give up all their possessions, beg for their food, and walk barefooted instead of using transportation, even under the scorching desert sun of Rajasthan.
The Jain mendicant walks through the universe knowing that the ripples of her actions are consequential, even if invisible.
In considering a light switch, she sees more than just a light switch. She imagines the electricity lines running across the vast, parched landscape of North India to the very source of the power, to the source of human convenience: to the river dam that grinds waterborne creatures to death and displaces some of the most vulnerable communities in the country.
The dark side of comfort
What would it mean to live in this way? What would it mean to take into account, in making our everyday choices, not only the most obvious and immediate factors and consequences, but the invisible price of our high standard of living? What would it look like to consume and use resources in a way that does not look the other way?
Mark Boyle, activist and author of The Moneyless Man, thinks that part of the problem is the distance — geographical and figurative — between the consumer and the place where the consumer product is made.
In the modern world, Boyle wrote, “I believe the fact that we no longer see the direct repercussions our purchases have on the people, environment and animals they affect is the factor that unites [many world] problems. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased so much that it now means we’re completely unaware of the levels of destruction and suffering embodied in the ‘stuff’ we buy.”
For Boyle, the conviction that money is the “global enabler of disconnection” led to a year-long experiment of living without money.
Fred Pearce, the author of Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff, chose a different strategy: he traveled around the globe tracking down the sources of the consumer products and food items that he uses on a daily basis. The journey took him to Kenya in search of the coffee in his mug and to Australia in search of the aluminum in his beer can.
He traveled to computer factories and giant knick-knack markets in China, cocoa plantations in West Africa, and prawn farms in Bangladesh. Equally importantly, he tried to find out what is “downstream” from him – where his stuff goes after he is finished with it.
Ascetics in apartments
It is unlikely that most of us will ever adopt the ascetic life like Jain nuns, or choose to live without money like Boyle, or traverse the globe tracking down the ingredients of our first-world privilege like Pearce. What does consumption with eyes wide open look like for the majority of us?
Perhaps Boyle’s comment about the “degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed” points to a different alternative. If we are complicit in the injustices and waste of the consumerist system precisely because we are so far removed from the source of our food and other resources, one way of amending the situation might be to get closer to that source again.
That would mean re-educating ourselves about the processes that were so natural to earlier generations that they did not even have to think about them.
Processes like how a seed turns into a plant and then into food. How fiber is harvested from fields or sheared from an animal and turns into clothing. How natural materials around us can be used to build shelter. How the properties of our local plants can yield fragrance, or medicine, or dye, or nutrition, such that we do not need to resort to artificial and toxic versions of these resources produced on the opposite side of the globe.
Reacquainting ourselves with these processes makes us intimately familiar with the sources of our comfort and convenience. We ourselves become witnesses to the environmental and human cost of what we enjoy. We ourselves come to know what went into the making of a thing, and therefore will also be more likely to be able to fix it if it breaks, or know how to safely dispose of it.
Freedom in your own hands
In a world as mind-bogglingly complex as ours, choosing to provide for some of our own basic needs — making from scratch — is a radical political act.
With every food item and consumer product that we learn to make ourselves, or source locally, we become better able to say to the manufacturers and corporations whose sustainability policies we find wanting: “No, thank you.” Because I suspect that what they are afraid of more than anything else is a consumer who will say, “No, thank you.” Or, “I already have enough.”
If anything is going to start undermining and unraveling the frightening and destructive power of the global consumerist system, it is a consumer who ceases to be a consumer and instead becomes a producer.
Or a consumer who ceases to be a consumer and becomes an ascetic.
Few of us are going to pursue the path of India’s Jain monks and nuns. Yet, I think that something about the Jains’ life of radical discipline deserves to be incorporated even into the more moderate path of “responsible consumption”: namely, their willingness to look unflinchingly and honestly at the ways in which human comforts and conveniences are costing somebody somewhere something.
It is not unimaginable that we, too, could do that. Shortening the distance our conveniences travel to get to us certainly makes it more difficult to look the other way. But bringing the crafting of some of our daily consumables into our homes, into our gardens, into our own hands also allows us to connect even more intimately with that which sustains us.
Not only is it purely magical for someone who grew up disconnected from many of these processes to learn to transform one substance into another like an alchemist — milk into cheese; flour, water and yeast into bread; fiber into clothing; oils and lye into soap; roots into medicine; wax into candles.
It is then our own hands that can tell the story of what’s on the dinner plate, what’s warming the body of a loved one, what’s keeping us entertained, what’s lighting up the room.
— Mari Stuart, Transition Voice