The past few months have convinced me that there is no good way to move, at least in terms of low environmental impact. Moving is inherently a wasteful, unsustainable process. Obviously the transport of people and goods over a long distance requires the burning of a lot of fossil fuels, but beyond this, it seems to me that the chaos and upheaval implicit in changing and reestablishing your home obligate you to waste a lot, to temporarily take on habits and ways of doing that are much less sustainable than what you would do in a more normal, stable life.
First there’s the question of duplicates. Because my family and I are moving from one continent to another, we have had to ship our household possessions from Colombia to the Washington, DC area. This is a pricey undertaking—some $7000US or so, by my understanding, though luckily my company is covering this relocation cost. I was proud that all of our furniture and other stuff from Colombia (minus the couch and some things we’ve left there so our Colombian house isn’t totally barren when we come back to visit) weighed only 1000 pounds. It seemed like a lot of stuff to me, and filled up an entire half of our living room in Colombia. But we were far under the 18000 pounds allowed us by my company. I can’t imagine the amount of junk you’d have to accumulate to reach 18000 pounds!
The shipping process is also slow. Our stuff finally arrived at our new apartment in November, about two months after we came to the area. Because we didn’t simply put ourselves in suspended animation for these two months, we’ve had to figure out a way to have some of the essentials while we waited for our Colombia furnishings to reach us. We were lucky enough to stay at a friend’s furnished apartment in DC for the first week we were here, but once we moved to our new place, we had to start from scratch. We did without some things for a while, sleeping on our blessedly soft, carpeted floor for two days before transitioning to a twin bed into which my wife, her pregnant belly, and myself had to squeeze together. For a kitchen table we used a big empty box my mother had found in the alley behind her house in Chicago and used to send us some of my clothes. And we’ve been operating with four plates and few pots for two months.
The redundancy comes in when you start to resolve these scarcities. Even though we’ve got a bed coming our way from Colombia, we bought a twin stowaway bed for my wife and me (in addition to a twin daybed for Sam). This wasn’t so wasteful, since eventually our new son Paulo will use that second bed. We then bought a futon double bed for my mother’s visit, and another for ourselves. We made it a point to buy things that weren’t exactly the same as what we already have in the shipment from Colombia—for instance, even when we have our real bed, the two futons will serve as sofas and guest beds, so they aren’t a total loss. Likewise, the small folding table and chairs we eventually got for our kitchen will work nicely as lawn or patio or balcony furniture once our real dining set arrives. Still, there are some things that we simply wouldn’t have bought if our stuff had arrived earlier, like the middling-quality pots and pans we got from TJMaxx, or new blankets and covers. And whether redundant or not, buying all this stuff immediately upon arriving is stressful and implies a huge up-front cost that is certainly not what you are accustomed to nor look for when you are trying to live a low-consumption, sustainable lifestyle. The onset of winter, with its attendant wardrobe, implied yet another round of new purchases for our family from the mild highland tropics.
On top of this, the rush to live like human beings means that you have neither time nor inclination to bargain-hunt for these purchases. At other times in my life when I’ve had to buy a lot of things for a big event (like when I got diapers and bottles prior to Sam’s birth), I’ve been judicious in combing Ebay, second-hand stores, and even alleys for the stuff we need. When you have to find an apartment, get settled in, start a new job, be sensitive to the needs of your pregnant wife and toddler son, all while eating and sleeping and keeping warm as all human beings like to do, you don’t have time to bargain-hunt. We bought everything new, trying to go to the cheapest possible places like Marshalls or a local discount mattress chain, but in retrospect I’ve seen a lot of things we could have gotten for cheaper if we’d had more time and leisure. That said, it has been hard for me to find thrift stores at all in Washington, DC. Of course I haven't done a rigorous combing of all the area's neighborhoods, but it certainly seems to me like second-hand stores are less common than in Chicago. Maybe people here simply throw away their old clothes, or don't like the idea of buying used stuff. Or maybe I just don't know where to look, at least not like I do in Chicago.
A big part of our buying has been on Amazon.com, somewhat to my dismay. I have a few problems with Amazon. First off, it represents the ultimate triumph of individual consumerism over interpersonal contact. Where before you would go to one or various stores to get the things you need, and interact with the people working in each place, now with Amazon you can order, pay, and receive your goods, without any human interaction. Granted, it’s not like Amazon directly put small mom-and-pop stores out of business or undercut our contact with other human beings; the big chains did that long before Amazon, starting with the Sears and Roebuck catalog and culminating with Walmart and Costco. But Amazon represents another step in that progression, and if they ever do get off the ground their plans for drone-baseddeliveries, they might even end up putting out of business the US Postal Service (or at least its workers) that the company has bolstered for the past decade or two.
Perhaps more important than this first misgiving of mine with Amazon is what its business model implies for workers in the US and elsewhere. Like a high-tech Walmart on steroids, Amazon relies on a cheap, precarious, desperate workforce to staff its operation. As more and more of our workforce is occupied in such jobs, how will we maintain a more or less prosperous, stable country? Who will be earning enough, or have enough rights, to maintain a generally decent standard of living in the aggregate? Both a thriving economy and a robust democracy depend on a certain critical mass of people living with dignity, so if enough of the population is working these menial jobs with no chance of advancement or stability, the whole dream of development and prosperity falls apart, both in the States and the rest of the world.
Luckily, we're pretty well settled in by now. We've got our house furnished, we've established a certain routine of day to day life, and we're even coming to enjoy many aspects of our new life Stateside. I hope that after this first rush of buying a bunch of stuff, we will wean ourselves away from Amazon.com and new purchases in general.
One advantage of our two months living austerely was that we were brought together as a family in new ways. Our daily routine centered around time with our kids, eating together, bathing them, putting them to bed, taking Sam to school. Sam was forced to explore new ways of playing with the same few toys, and used his imagination to make kitchens and castles out of spare packing boxes. It was sometimes tiresome to read the same few books multiple times for Sam's bedtime (chief among them the "C" volume of a Sesame Street encyclopedia from the 1970s), but it allowed us to discover new subtleties, new details in these books. In short, having fewer things made us be more resourceful and appreciative in our use of them. Now we've got more books, more toys, more furniture. But I'd like to think that we've taken to heart our time of living sparely, and that we won't take for granted our big, firm mattress, or stop appreciating the creative play opportunities represented by a cardboard box.