Site icon JESSICA HETHERINGTON

Frugality and Discipleship of Earth Healing

I like to be frugal. I try to buy things second-hand or, even better, receive them as gifts through the Buy Nothing group on Facebook. I don’t shop for clothes very often, and prefer to use scarves and jewellery to dress up a modest wardrobe. Our cars are older, and we hope to drive them until they wear out. We live in a house that could use a lot of cosmetic updates, but we save our money and time for other things. Some of my frugality is intentional, as I seek to live a life in life with my values as a Christian and environmentalist.

However, to consider frugality as simply a way of buying less, is to limit its potential as I, and others, seek to live a discipleship of Earth healing. I have discovered, in thinking about and confronting the challenges of consumerism and its role in the ecological crisis, that there is a greater potential for the virtue of frugality to play a greater role than just encouraging second-hand shopping. We have to begin, I have come to realize, with confronting the challenge of consumerism.

Consumerism and Being Frugal

The challenge of consumerism in our world is a well-known problem, especially in relation to the ecological crisis. Consumerism, the preoccupation with consuming more and more goods, having more and more, and our identities being defined by what we own or consume, has proven to be a fatal flaw in society with respect to the Earth. Indeed, the problems of consumerism are not only ecological, they are also social, psychological, educational, and more.

What is sometimes promoted as an alternative to consumerism is to become frugal. To be frugal is to be “sparing or economical; thrifty,” according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. It is to keep things “plain, simple, or provided in small quantity and with avoidance of excess.” This is certainly not what consumerism is about. Since, though, consumerism is one of the issues we must confront in responding to the ecological crisis, I decided to learn more about what frugality is, and its possibility as a means to Earth healing, beyond the small steps I have been taking. What better place to start, than Google?

Googling Frugality

When I Google the word “frugality” online, I discover that there is a certain cachet to being frugal; it is promoted as a way to say money and increase your bank account. There is also a ‘hip’ way of being frugal; of shopping at thrift stores and consignment shops for vintage clothing, for example. This is often promoted by people who have plenty of money to shop elsewhere but choose to buy used; little value is seen in those who, because of poverty, have no choice in being frugal. In addition to the lack of class consciousness, what is often missing is a component about being frugal in order to reduce consumption for the sake of the environment, or as a truly moral virtue.

That said, frugality is considered a moral virtue in some Christian circles. When I Google the term in relation to discipleship – how we live out our faith in our actions – I find plenty of evangelical resources that see frugality as one of the spiritual disciples, one of the things that Jesus did and so should be taken up by disciples of Christ in order to be more Christ-like. It is a discipline that is self-referential, in a way; the moral value of it is that Jesus did it, and so should you. Becoming frugal, in this sense, is meant to be about following a pattern of submission and obedience in discipleship. There is a lack of depth of explanation into why such a virtue was important to Jesus.

Frugality: The Subversive Virtue

Despite this lacuna of resources on frugality online in general, there are deeper resources to the concept of frugality that can guide us in our desire to respond to the challenge of consumerism and the ecological crisis as people of faith. Ecotheologian James Nash wrote an important article that, until very recently, hasn’t gained much traction.[1] It is called “Toward the Revival and Reform of the Subversive Virtue: Frugality.”[2] In this post, I explore Nash’s idea and the contributions it might make for us today, as we seek a discipleship of Earth healing.

James Nash is concerned about how frugality, an old and honoured virtue that used to be close to the heart of Christian economic ethics, has become demoted as a personal and social norm. This demotion, he suggests, is a serious moral issue because of the social and ecological implications of the lack of frugality in our time of widespread social justice and ecological crisis.

As mentioned above, frugality has, in recent times, been reduced to a personal virtue, an old-fashioned or eccentric idea that, in some circles, is hip again. Yet, frugality is about more than a private morality, or a good quality that one might adopt. Nash argues that, despite its current understanding, frugality is not a privatized virtue. As a virtue, frugality is about two intertwined aspects: character formation and setting social norms in the world.  

Defining Frugality

So, what, exactly, is frugality, in this larger sense? Expanding upon the simple dictionary definition I offered above, Nash defines it beautifully:

“Frugality denotes moderation, temperance, thrift, cost-effectiveness, efficient usage, and a satisfaction with material sufficiency. …As a norm for economic activity, both for individuals and societies, frugality means ethically disciplined production and consumption for the sake of higher ends.”[3]

In other words, contrary to what we might learn on Google, frugality is not an end in itself; frugality is not for frugality’s sake. It is not so that we are simply answering the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” or seeking to pad our bank accounts. As a virtue, frugality is a means toward living rightly in the world; it is not the end good itself. It is a norm that can guide us in making decisions at every level of society.

Frugality as a Social Norm

In this way, frugality moves beyond an individualistic understanding, and moves into the common good. So many of the problems of consumerism and other causes of the ecological crisis are systemic and structural; not only can we not solve the problem of consumerism through individual means only, but we must recognize the human nature of being in relationship, and the power of frugality as a social norm to guide us.

Frugality, thus, is a social norm in that it should become the basis for public policy that moves, for example, toward public sanctions toward businesses that make items to wear out (i.e., built-in obsolescence), and individuals who consume more than their fair share, etc. As a social norm, the virtue of frugality can also help communities and individuals to redefine what the ‘abundant life’ can mean outside of a consumerist model, in light of the reality of both ecological crisis and social injustice.

The Subversive Potential of Frugality

We can see, then, why Nash suggests that frugality can be a ‘subversive’ virtue; it challenges notions of who the human person is and what we seek that are so prevalent in the consumerism model that dominates today, and suggests a way to reframe our ways of acting in community. Both as individual virtue and as social norm, frugality challenges at least four dynamics that are at play within consumerism and the way it has shaped our worldview.

First, there is a dynamic at play within consumerism that constructs human beings as insatiable creatures. We become defined by our desire to consumer more and more – whether that be food, clothing, bigger TVs, houses, cars, etc. Consumerism assumes, and promotes the idea, that we are continuously and tirelessly seeking to acquire economic goods and gains, with a single-minded pursuit of pleasure seeking. Powerfully, frugality suggests instead that human beings live in relationship with others, and are equipped with “powers of responsible control,”[4] that allows us to make choices that further the good of others, both human and in the natural world.

Second, frugality is subversive in that it targets the myth that we must always have the bigger, better, faster things, and more of them. Our moral potential as human beings allow us to see through and beyond this myth.

Third, the virtue of frugality struggles against the psychological and sociological dynamics that have made overconsumption a reality in our lives today. Frugality challenges the ways in which our psyches, and the social constructs we have created, have led us to consume more than our fair share on the planet. Shopping addiction, the celebration of hedonistic impulses, the need to keep up with the Joneses – all of these are countered with a powerful vision of human beings seeking to be in relationship in a “purposeful and responsible society.”[5]

Finally, along with economists, ethicists, theologians, and grassroots activists, frugality as a virtue completely rejects the ideology of indiscriminate, material economic growth. Frugality recognizes the limits of finite growth, and that respecting these limits is part of the personal and social norm of frugality. This is subversive because the limit is recognized as a necessary part of how we grow as individuals and communities.

What Frugality is NOT

I mentioned earlier the lack of class and ecological consciousness of much of the material I could find on frugality online. If we are going to reflect on the potential for frugality as an individual and social norm that can help us in moving toward a discipleship of Earth healing, we have to be clear on what frugality is not. Nash is careful to point this out.

First, frugality is not about denying the poor what they need to consume. For many in our world, consumption habits need to increase in order to reach the standards for healthy living in terms of food, shelter, clothing, recreation, and participation in society. There is, for example, a large number of people in the world suffering from energy poverty, which is the lack of ability to access affordable, available, environmentally-friendly forms of energy power.

Second, frugality is not about austerity or a world-denying asceticism. This is not about reinforcing a body-spirit dualism, or the mental over the material. It is, instead, about appreciating material goods, and the comfort and joy they bring us, within appropriate means and limits.

Third, frugality is not one fixed formula; it isn’t about setting a fixed amount or creating legalistic rules for reducing our consumption. Nor is it about a total relativism; the idea is that we use the best of what science shows us about what we can consume, here and around the world, and using those finite limits to guide us.

Finally, as I mentioned above, frugality must not be seen as a strictly individualistic virtue or characteristic; it must be a social effort, as well. There is a powerful dynamism between our strengths, capabilities, weaknesses, and needs as individuals, and what the social collective is and can offer. The efforts of the individual must be supported by and constrained within the communities that we inhabit. Further, our communities are built up in the myriad relationships between diverse individuals. Frugality as a social norm recognizes this.

We must recognize that frugality is, contrary to popular conception, not simple. It is neither about a means to prosperity, nor a romantic return to a mythic former life. Learning the social and personal norm of being frugal in our era will be an incredibly complex endeavour, raising many questions. For example, what is the role of technology as we seek to live out a virtue of frugality? How do we understand frugality in a world of transnational corporations, globalized trade, and more? What are the pros and cons of immediate global communications? These questions, and more, point to the complexity of adopting frugality as a way to organize ourselves.

Considering Frugality for Ourselves

Perhaps you have tried to make frugal choices before, especially in your concern over the ecological crisis. Perhaps you already strive to live a frugal lifestyle. The idea of frugality as both a subjective virtue and social norm encourages us to think more deeply about its potential for us as we seek to respond to the ecological crisis as people of faith. Can frugality guide us in our discipleship? Can we draw upon it in our collective organizing? To what extent can it guide us as we seek to transform ourselves and the world?

Frugality and Discipleship

The guiding questions, I suggest, are these: What can the virtue of frugality, rediscovered and renewed as a personal and social norm, offer to those of us considering how we might act in the world? How can it influence our personal behaviour, social and political efforts, as a form of discipleship? If we understand discipleship as the way that we live out our faith in the world, through concrete action, how can a norm of frugality enable that? On what levels is it possible? Can frugality itself be a form of discipleship, or is it a means to discipleship?

Tell Me What You Think!

I’d love to hear from you; what do you think of the notion of frugality as both personal and social norm? Is it familiar to you? Have you seen it in action, already? What questions are raised for you in considering this idea? What concerns? Please let me know in the comments below, or send me an email to: jessica@jessicahetherington.ca.


[1] In updating my previous notes on this topic, I came across a very good article by George Bolt, called “Christian Practice of Frugality,” April 30, 2020, https://medium.com/sojourners-heart/christian-practice-of-frugality-45e1056260b4. There is also a short blog post by Claire Gilmore, “The Subversive Virtue: Frugality as an expression of solidarity with all life-forms,” April 7, 2022, https://watershedsentinel.ca/articles/the-subversive-virtue/.

[2] James A Nash, “Toward the Revival and Reform of the Subversive Virtue: Frugality,” in The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics 15 (1995): 137-60.

[3] Ibid., 144.

[4] Ibid., 141.

[5] Ibid., 143.

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