We all have to consume; it’s a necessary reality of existence. However, in the ‘consumer society’ the most radical thing you can do is not to consume ‘as directed’ – by finding alternative options that meets your needs while enacting a set of principles in opposition to that overbearing and exploitative economic paradigm.
This principle was self-evident during one of Britain’s darkest consumer crises of late … the hummus shortage.
Honestly, I had to do a double-take. Given how simple it is to make hummus (see recipe below) how on earth could people get so worked up over a shortage of what, I believe, it a pretty sub-standard consumer product anyway.
That, in reality, is the whole point of ‘The Consumer Society‘.
By externalizing the creation of a product, the consumer cedes both economic and creative power to those who would control the market for their own gain.
Modern economics is based on ‘dependency’
The Harried Leisure Class, by Columbia / Yale University social-economist Steffan Linder, outlined the greatest challenge in modern economics – making people’s ‘spare’ time economically rewarding to business.
Writing in 1970, when people were told that new technology would create a life of ever-increasing leisure (have you heard that again recently too?), Linder’s book examined the contradiction between making people consume when they may not be working as much, and therefore not earning as much money to buy goods.
Creating a dependency on products is a necessary step to make consumption continue. Dependency provides the self-justification for the inevitable over-extension of personal effort, and finance, that continued consumption requires. On food, he outlined the state which existed in the USA in the late 1960s:
“We have no time to cook food. Actual cooking is a time-consuming process, and has been abandoned in favour of thawing and heating, which is not an unqualified advance. We have made the transition from appetizing food to acceptable nutrition.”
Does that sound familiar? Contemporary trends are not new, they just apply to far more people across the planet than they used to.
The ‘cult’ of consumption
The era that Linder described was engineered, deliberately, a decade earlier during the 1950s. Following in the wake of the Washington Consensus, creating economic dependency was a deliberate act by those seeking to create what we now call ‘corporate power’.
One of the most revealing reflections on this process was by written Victor Lebow, published in the Journal of Retailing in Spring 1955:
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption.”
“Rituals”? “Spiritual satisfaction”?
What he’s describing here are the roots of the modern practice of branding, perceived obsolescence, and the warped identity politics which flow from that – transforming shopping into a quasi-religious frenzy.
The apotheosis of Lebow’s idea is embodied in today’s ironic acceptance of our dependency on consumption, whilst at the same time our seeming inability to change that situation.
Hence why non-participation is revolutionary
Which brings me back to the hummus crisis …
The myth at the heart of consumerism is that it is economically and qualitatively better to buy a new product than to repair something, or to create it yourself.
While for most people that might be true for the most complex goods, such as a computer, that’s not true of hummus – and many other things which make up large parts of our everyday life. Food is at the top of that list of ‘easily do-able’ things – not just preparing it, but growing it too.
Gandhi, reflecting the ideas of ‘modern’ simplicity and frugality he took from Thoreau and Tolstoy, entreated us to “be the change you want to see in the world.”
Most importantly, you should find ways to take enjoyment from that proces – hijacking the momentary reciprocity embodied in acts of consumption by taking pleasure in your own daily acts of creation.
‘Active’ rather than ‘passive’ mindfulness
One recent movement attempting to find solace in this sea of stress is ‘mindfulness’ – the idea that you should be aware of and live within the experience of the moment.
Mindfulness is often portrayed as a passive, meditative act. But in my experience repetitive or ordered acts like cooking food are quintessentially meditative. More than that, the act of creation is a literal expression of our self-awareness … “I do, therefore I am!”
The case of food is also deeply symbolic.
It embodies a long human tradition surrounding the concept of sustenance, and of connection to those who will partake of the food. This is why food preparation was historically viewed as a quasi-spiritual ‘prayer’, or act of devotion, often surrounded by ritual.
Every act of creating food from raw, natural ingredients – in contrast to Linder’s “thawing and heating” – is a spiritual process beyond that which ordinary consumerism can achieve. That is why the modern pressures of life, by denying us that meditative ‘recreation’, demeans our human capacities.
Another popular movement is ‘voluntary simplicity‘ – attempting to respond to the crisis of consumption by consuming less. That’s ultimately my own response.
Lately though, given current economic realities, I’ve started to talk about ‘involuntary simplicity’. To express it in ecological terms, the current trend of rising inequality, and economic austerity, is ‘forcing’ simpler, less-intense patterns of consumption on the major part of the population.
People are protesting to reverse austerity. Likewise, the recent votes for Trump or Brexit can be seen as a protectionist call to preserve the heydays of the consuming lifestyle engineered in the 1950s.
Is this valid in ecological terms – given the pressing ecological limits to consumption? Or is it simply an expression of the material dependency of the addicted consumer? In my view, we need to embrace the ecological dimension that austerity creates; a ‘societal detox’ from the addictive lifestyles created by consumerism.
For what is economic austerity in the developed world if not an unplanned and chaotic form of the ‘contraction and convergence’ process – which many talked of in the 1990s as a solution to many of the world’s ecological ills?
If we could provide an ‘ecologically civilized’ alternative to economic austerity then we’d be addressing many of the globe’s current environmental and social ills.
Making hummus is a symbolic act towards a greater change
I love making food. It’s deep; primal. It speaks not only to my own need for simple, non-processed food, but also to my need to create. Bread, pies, cakes, nut burgers, soya milk and more besides.
The point here is not simply to make hummus. The point – in consciously reversing the process described by Linder or Lebow – is that by extricating ourselves from our economic dependency we simultaneously develop the skills of resiliency.
The act of being involved in preparing your food can, if you live that as a personally creative process, become a profound and basic statement of your greater world view.
How far you go down that route is up to you. Even if we don’t do it all the time, by developing these skills we learn the capacity to ‘do without’ and create our own alternatives. And as mainstream economics fails, enforcing ‘involuntary’ simplicity’ in an desperate act of self-preservation, such skills can be a vital survival tool for us all.
Recipe: ‘Own-made super-strength hummus’
This is my recipe to make five kilos of hummus. I make a five kilo batches and freezing them in small containers as it is far more efficient in terms of time and resource consumption.
You can scale the figures for whatever quantity you require (e.g. to make 1 kilo, divide everything by 5). Note also that this recipe does not use ‘power tools’.
In my view the physical exercise, the smells and textures of the process are an important part of the ‘producer’, as opposed to ‘consumer’, experience.
If you want to make hummus like that in the shops you will need to add another litre or so of water, and use an electric liquidizer to get the same texture. Likewise, use about a quarter of the garlic and about half the amount of tahini – although that will significantly reduce the nutritional quality.
Recipe (main ingredients in bold)
Take around 1.25 kilos of dried chickpeas and soak them for 12 to 15 hours (unless you can grow them, dried pulses are less impacting on the environment than canned). Add 10 grams/1 tablespoon of coarse salt, dissolved in water, and then add more water to cover the chickpeas with at least 50% of their depth in the container. This is because the chickpeas will swell, almost doubling in size, and doubling in weight – to roughly 2.4 kilos.
Drain and refill the water in the pan. Make sure the swelled chickpeas are well covered in water, add another 10 grams of salt, bring to the boil and then simmer until soft enough to mash. This might take 1½ to 2 hours in an ordinary large saucepan. It is more efficient to use a pressure cooker. At 12 pounds pressure they cook in about half the time (roughly 1 hour) using about the same amount of heat – hence why pressure cookers are more energy efficient.
If you can chop garlic and squash the lemons quickly enough you can do the next two steps while the chickpeas boil – otherwise you’ll need to prepare them before.
Peel, squash and chop around 6 large bulbs/400 to 450 grams of fresh garlic. It’s important to crush the garlic first before chopping in order to extract as much of the oil as possible.
Squash and sieve the pips from 10 to 12 lemons to produce around half a litre of lemon juice.
When the chickpeas have boiled drain the water – then rinse with cold water and drain again. This is important not only because it stops you scaling yourself on boiling hot chickpeas, it also stops the heat driving off the nutritious essential oils from the crushed garlic and lemon juice. Then roughly mash the chickpeas, not to purée them, to ensure most of them have burst.
Add the garlic, lemon juice, and 150 millilitres of olive oil – then give everything a good mashing to mix everything together.
Add 1 kilo of tahini. This takes some effort as the oily tahini doesn’t mix easily, but this can be helped by slowing adding around half a litre of warm water at this point. Add more to create the consistency of hummus you desire. Keep mashing until you reach either the ‘crunchy’ (with lumps) or ‘smooth’ texture you want.
Spoon the hummus into small containers. To keep for more than a week or so you’ll need to freeze them. Allow the containers to air-cool until they reach room temperature before putting them in the fridge; then allow them to cool for a few hours/overnight in the fridge before putting them in the freezer. This avoids using excess ‘mechanical’ energy to cool the hummus.
Last, and most importantly, eat the hummus. To defrost a container just take out out of the freezer and leave for a couple of hours before returning it to the fridge. Note, if you follow my ‘super strength’ recipe, while all those garlic oils might make you very healthy you might also find that you’re eating alone☺
Buying the ingredients from superstores the cost is around £3.60/kilo – in contrast to the roughly £5/kilo from shop-bought hummus. However, due to the much higher quantities of garlic and tahini, this recipe creates a qualitatively richer, tastier and more nutritious product.
Paul Mobbs is an independent environmental researcher and freelance author. He is also the creator of the Free Range Activism Website, FRAW
A fully referenced version of this article is available on FRAW.
The video accompanying this article, entitled ‘Hummus and Mindfulness’, can also be found on the ‘ramblinactivist’ YouTube channel.