On Abundance, Scarcity and Idiosyncrasies
It was the Saturday before Christmas, not a particularly eventful one. We were mentally preparing for the long holiday break from work. I was busy cooking in the morning. It was chilly and quiet outside and warm and noisy inside. The babies were crying, while the mom and the grandmom were singing to soothe them. There was the loud noise of the blender crushing coconut and chillies for the chutney, there was the pressure cooker whistling while steaming the potatoes for the masala and there were mustard seeds spluttering on the stove. There was also the exhaust fan running at full speed. We had some friends coming over for lunch and we had planned to feed them Masala Dosas prepared at home. It was not a Christmas celebration, but we were using the holidays as an excuse to meet close friends.
As immigrants in the US, I feel like we could look at our holiday celebrations through two different lenses, based on whether you look at the glass as half-full or half-empty. One way to look at it is that we are too far from our family back in India to have any real Indian festival celebrations, and too foreign to be celebrating the festivals of the US. The other way to look at it is that precisely because we're far from home, we appreciate the spirit of holidays more and so we now find joy in all kinds of festivals, both native and foreign. I'm not a stickler for the rituals anyway, so festivals to me mean socializing and food more than the traditions and rituals.
If you are familiar with what goes into preparing Masala Dosas, you'll know that it's quite a bit of work, and that it leaves a messy kitchen behind. Not to say that it's not worth it, it totally is, but you spend about as much time cleaning afterward as you do cooking. As I swept the kitchen counter and the floor and opened the trash can to pour the dirt, I saw that it was almost full. So I pushed the trash that was inside, with my bare hands, to make room for more. It went to about half the volume it had occupied. Fairly content with what I had done, I mentally patted myself on the back, emptied the dirt into the can, and moved on to other chores. I felt a tinge of positive emotion not because I had saved myself the job of throwing the trash out, but because I did not waste the trash bag when it had more space to fill. It's a small pleasure, I know, too small, some would say, to dwell on. But I think that's one of the things we get wrong in relationships – not appreciating the little things like that, the idiosyncrasies, in others. A quote from George Carlin comes to mind, "Have you ever noticed that other people's stuff is shit and your shit is stuff?" While he says that in the context of material possessions, the same can be said about our qualities, and behaviors. The idiosyncratic behavior, in other words, are features and not bugs. People care about and are moved by different things. Some obsess over organizing things. They can't stand when things are not in their right place, or when things that are next to each other are not arranged in a perfect line. Some care deeply about cleaning, and can't stand dirt. In some sense, we're the sum of such idiosyncrasies. So when they are ignored, misunderstood or looked down upon, we feel ignored, misunderstood and insulted, because they are us. They are the units upon which our personality, our identities are built. One of mine is that I care a lot about the optimal use of resources. That is to say that I do my best to make sure that I don't use more than what I need, and make the most use of what I do. That's another reason why rituals are not big on my list. Some of them conflict with the values and principles I hold dear, like conservation and empathy for other beings. Firecrackers, for example, during Diwali are a nightmare for animals, pets mostly, but also other people, and contribute to air pollution. The idols that are left in public water after Ganesha festival are utterly wasteful and pollute water. And the list goes on. Rituals have a way of making it through time long after the contexts in which they were created have passed. In that way, they are not different from the words that make up a language. Words morph their meaning over time well beyond the original idea they were created to capture. Humans often tend to stick to rituals without making an attempt to know the reasons, or purpose behind them.
It's hard to tell whether something about you is from nature or nurture. I don’t know where some of my qualities come from. Is there a gene that's responsible that makes me conserve resources, and if there is, did it inherit that from my parents? Or is it merely my upbringing and the values taught to me that makes me like that? Later that night, I found myself wondering about it, and this post is my attempt to shed some light on it.
In the book Geography of Thought, the author, Richard Nisbett theorizes that geography plays a vital role in the cultural differences between the East and the West. That it affects how we see and think about the world. In a more general sense, we know it to be true that the context and constraints define our thoughts and choices. Geographical elements of nature are both the ultimate resource and constraint, from which you can derive every other resource. If you had fertile land and fresh water, you built your society around agriculture and stability. You collaborated with others and valued harmony in the tribe since agriculture requires things to be done that's too big for any one person. If all you had were the oceans and tough mountainous terrain, you'd prize courage, innovation, trade, and autonomy. Individualistic traits and interpersonal competition would become more important for your survival, more so than harmony. It explains the differences in collectivistic and individualistic societies.
When I talk about resources, in the context of constraints, the total amount of it hardly matters at the individual level. Only the fraction that's accessible to you, does. If the resources are plentiful and sources stable, the tribe will procreate more, leading to an explosion of the population. For a given amount of resources, the more the people the smaller the share per individual. India has a third of the land, and three times the population of the US, which means that Indians know scarcity like Americans can never do. How do I know? Because I have been on the opposite side of that, where I knew scarcity without knowing scarcity. It was so interwoven into life that you didn’t see it as such. You don't know what could be, if all you have ever known is what is. If all you've known is food without salt, you don't know what's missing, and what adding it would taste like. The last few generations of Americans, unless they've traveled abroad extensively, have not seen or known anything but abundance, which makes me think that they don’t know it. Anyway, back to scarcity. Scarcity leads to numerous interesting side-effects. You're pressed against the wall to make the best use of what you have, which means that reducing, reusing and being mindful about your use of resources becomes paramount. It’s how you get by, it’s how you get along. I read somewhere a few years ago that most problems in the US -- depression, anxiety, loneliness, obesity, drug abuse and mental health issues -- are “problems of abundance". In societies like India, most problems are of scarcity. Although there are exceptions in both the nations, that distinction captures its essence quite well. Riding bikes in the US, for example, is typically done by affluent people, as a means of fun, competition and physical and mental well-being. In India, you rode bikes if you could not afford any other means of transport. In other words, you have to have a certain amount of money and time on your hands to afford and ride bikes in the US, whereas you would have less of those exactly to own and ride bikes in India.
Economic factors also play a huge role in the availability and accessibility of resources. In general, the more money you have, the more that's at your disposal. I come from a middle-class family in India, which is to say that my ancestors climbed up the ladder from being poor not too long ago. While the poor have real problems of scarcity, people in the middle-class are a league of their own, perpetually sandwiched between carrying the burden of memories, feeling or the collective stigma and pain of being poor, and the desire to be rich. That's why it's often said that middle-class is a mindset, because my generation, although financially well off, still carries the same framework in their psyche. Since my parents' generation worked hard to afford a comfortable living, my upbringing was a big lesson in how not to waste resources. You only took food on your plate that you know could finish. If you took more, you’d sit through and finish it anyway, because that'd teach you a thing or two for the future. Throwing it would be an easy way out, and one that doesn’t incentivize you to be mindful the next time. You used old newspapers, or tree leaves, rather than plastic, as a way to package things. Street food was served in similar containers, made of either reusable, or compostable materials. You turned off the lights, fans and other electrical equipment around the house when not in use, mainly to reduce your bills, but also to save electricity. Electricity, unlike here, wasn't a perennial resource. There'd be power outages, sometimes between a few hours to a few days at length. In those times, you studied with a candle or a gas lamp, when it was dark. You wore footwear and clothes until they either lost color or tore. In either case, you'd then use them for cleaning purposes, until you rendered them completely useless. If they didn't fit you anymore, you'd find somebody younger who could use it a few more rounds. To take a bath, you'd collect water once in a bucket and that'd be it. Running water the whole time, as we do with showers, was unusual, and if the thought ever crossed your mind, the immediate next thought was about the consequences of doing that. If you wanted something, anything, you would think about why you wanted it, a notion that now, only a few decades later, seems foreign to people. You now shop because you can afford it. I guess at some point, the order of events reversed. You now buy things and then decide if and how to use it. You were also taught to discern between needs and wants. You replaced your toothbrush, not every few months, but when the bristles started to fall apart, and got stuck in your mouth. You wore your footwear until their bottoms were so smooth that you could skate with them. There were plastic toys in childhood, but for the most part, the source of fun was playing outdoors. When you were sick, you'd change your diet, rather than jump on pills as the first resort. You'd rather walk, or bike to places than burn fuel. Because of constraints in physical space, you'd fit your family, sometimes up to five to six people, on a motorcycle, you'd have at least a few more people on a bench than it could handle, a couple more people in the elevator or a car than was allowed, and public transport filled with people until somebody's nose pressed against the door.
I take pride in that kind of an upbringing because, at the core of it, it's about being respectful and grateful for the bounty that you have. It's also a responsible way to conserve the resources for people and beings that we share the planet with, now and in the future. There's a scene from an old Hindi movie, where a lawyer goes to the top of a high mountain to interrogate a senior military leader. The military base is one of the highest situated. When the lawyer refuses the coffee that's offered and requests to leave, the military leader refuses his plea and recalls all the hard work that has gone into bringing that coffee at that elevation – the land and water used to grow it, the labor that went into picking them, grounding them, and the fuel and other costs that went into carrying it to the base. He instructs him not to leave until he finishes his coffee. While wasting without much thought is a poor choice in general, wasting meat has to be the worst. When I see people throwing meat, I’m enraged at the hubris and the collective sense of entitlement of humans. You take away something as sacrosanct and miraculous as life, utterly inhumanely, and in scale that’s beyond reason or comprehension, only to throw it into trash.
Things change when you look at the world that way. Buying stuff now has become so integral to life that as soon as you start questioning the need for something, you'll find yourself at odds with the choices at every step of the way. I'm annoyed by people in my generation and background who have forgotten those values and fallen into the trap of hedonism, materialism and capitalism. From my conversations with other people, and their perception of me – boring, disciplined, weird, like somebody from an older generation – I feel like I'm in the minority and that those like me in that respect are fading into extinction. I feel like I'm the little hut on the edge of the ocean weathering strong winds and ocean currents, that will eventually fall from the forces both bigger and persistent than it has been built to stand against. It takes a toll to stick to your values and principles in a world that's moved by invisible forces that constantly erode those.
The abundance in more industrialized societies like the US is not merely of the amount of resources, but also of the choices. You don't merely get more things, but also more kinds of everything. It's been proven by various scientific studies that more choices, beyond a certain point, actually hinders our decision-making capability. But more choices do one thing well – they teach you, subtly, and implicitly, to not compromise for anything less. If you know what could be, you'll never be happy with what is.
But what makes it difficult, the choice between living minimally and luxuriously, is that it’s not a binary one. There's no line that separates one from the other. It's a continuum. What also complicates matters is that humans are masters at justifying their actions. They can go to great lengths to bullshit, not merely to others but also themselves, about why their wants are in fact needs, and how their choices are sensible. And because how you think about resources – food, money, material goods – is so fundamental to how you make choices – it’s essentially a framework of decision-making – there’s potential for huge conflicts when you and your close ones don’t see eye to eye. But the question is this – When is it worth it to compromise on that value system? How do you place that value of yours, about the optimization and conservation of resources, relative to other values and priorities, like harmony in your interpersonal relationships? The answer isn't obvious. I'm not even sure there is a right answer. There's probably an answer, or maybe more, but none that is clearly the best.