Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why barefoot running? Part II: Ethical considerations, the sin of consumerism

I said that the next thing I would talk about with regard to barefoot running would be the spiritual dimension. However, as I began to write about that, I realized there was another aspect which I needed to address—the ethical.


When I started to move to more minimal footwear and to walk and even run barefoot, most of my focus was on the physical experience and benefits. I was (and still am) inquiring into my own felt experience—am I more or less comfortable, can I do this barefoot or that barefoot, what are the sensations on this terrain or that, what are my feet capable of? Simultaneously though, I started to confront ethical questions having to do with what I really need and the materialism and consumerism both within my own assumptions and beliefs about what is necessary and within the marketing hype in the running and fashion industries.


Living in Africa, one of the things I have become very present to is the constellation of beliefs about what is “necessary” to live. When I lived in the United States, I had a lot of ideas about what is “necessary”—everything from certain types of furniture to special shoes for running (and several pairs) to special clothes for everything to a certain amount of space. The list goes on and on. But then I started traveling to Africa regularly and noticing that people could live just fine without the things I thought were requirements. When I lived in Cameroon and was President of the Mezam Stars Athletic Club, my fellow runners wore whatever used running shoes they could find in the 2nd hand clothing market. They were particularly pleased if they could find a pair of shoes that were the proper size. And they ran just fine. In fact, they ran very well. And they were professionals, or at least semi-professionals. Lots of casual runners, and even contestants in the famous Mt. Cameroon Race ran in flip flops or “jellies” (plastic sandals that pre-dated Crocks).


This past December, I did a series of spiritual retreats during which I kept getting, in stronger and stronger terms, the message that I need to pare down my material possessions in order to be mobile. “Really? What are you saying? Everything? Down to nothing but a backpack?,” I thought. And the feeling that I had was, “yes, as far as you can go.” I’m not sure if that is just a romantic notion, but given my lifestyle (I’ve moved every 4-8 months for the last several years) it certainly made sense to let go of a lot of things. And the longer I sit with this idea, the more I am drawn to “going all the way,” as one might say. I recently read a blog by a guy who got down to having 100 things and I find that idea very intriguing. I am planning to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela after I am finished here in Namibia and I want to do that as minimally/lightly as possible. (I have never been in to “backpacking” and the idea of carrying 30 or 40 pounds on my back for a month sounds horrendous.) In my first minimal experiment, my pack was 14 pounds. Not bad, though I think I can do better.


We shall see how far I really do go. But I bring this up to say that there is a background context, a movement of the spirit in me, of which being barefoot is a part.


We humans are smart and creative. We love to make stuff. And a lot of that stuff is very useful. But not always necessary. Airplanes are very useful if you want to travel across a continent or an ocean in a short period of time. But they, of course, have their drawbacks, one of which is missing being with, learning about, knowing that continent or ocean you just crossed. Cars can get you from here to there pretty quickly. But do I need to travel in a car the 3.5mi to work? No, actually. And with a bicycle, the time it takes is the same (given that I have to wait for a taxi).


Further than that, however, are the things we have been convinced are “necessary” which are, in fact, harmful to us. Processed food is a good example. “I am very busy, how can I possibly find time to cook?” is the necessity argument. And yet processed food is full of sugar and artificial ingredients that are linked to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and all sorts of other things. “If you have low arches, you need motion control shoes” is one of the necessity arguments for running shoes. Yet, there have been studies showing that wearing a shoe “designed” for your type of foot does not prevent running-related injuries any better than wearing a general neutral shoe. (The Army did a study of 500+ soldiers, both genders, showing this.) And I think there is a growing body of evidence showing that shoes, particularly supportive or cushioned shoes, cause as many, if not more, injuries than they prevent.


When I was young, we only had “nice” shoes and “sneakers.”  I remember the late 1970s when there started to be distinctions among sneakers—“tennis” shoes and “basketball” shoes and “running” shoes. But then it really took off within the running shoe category. Even now, as far as I know, tennis shoes are tennis shoes and basketball shoes are basketball shoes. Within the sport-type, you would select your shoes based on comfort or fashion. But within running shoes, we have been taught to believe that we need “technology” to “keep us” from getting injured. As if injury were inevitable without the “right” shoes.


Not so.


It is a basic principle of marketing that your purpose is to convince your target audience that they need your product. Simply wanting the product is not enough. In the “developed” world, most people live far beyond the real necessities of life. However, if your society is built upon consuming, you need to convince the population that their job is to consume. If times are good and people are feeling flush, then you can get them to consume things because they “want” them. But when times get tougher and people are feeling pinched, they will pare down to consuming what they believe they “need.” Hence, if your product is a “need” you are going to make more money. This has been going on for long enough now (50 or so years), that it is pretty automatic for marketers to be able to come up with a “need” that their produce fulfills and it is pretty automatic for consumers to believe that they have this “need.”


For me, there are two basic issues with all of this. The first is that I am not a “consumer.” I am a human being, I am a woman, I am a runner, I am a Deacon, I am a citizen. I gladly take on a variety of roles and identify myself as such. But I do not choose to be identified as a consumer. I think one of the fundamental problems with the Western world, particularly the United States, is that the population has been defined as, and have now taken on the identity of, consumers rather than citizens. (Takers rather than givers, relatively passive rather than active.) Notice the difference in the response to 9/11 vs. Pearl Harbor. In response to 9/11, our President told us to go out and shop. In response to Pearl Harbor, the President told people to pull together and sacrifice for the war effort.


The second major issue is that the consumption of the “developed” world, and again, particularly the United States, is unsustainable and is ruining the planet.  I am shocked when I see people say that population growth is the problem (so easy to say when you are already born and living!). It is not population growth that is the problem, it is consumption.


So, for me, pulling back from that marketing hype, running in minimal shoes (which don’t have to be replaced every 500 miles) or barefoot (no shoes at all), helps me to regain my identity as a RUNNER rather than as a CONSUMER of running-related paraphernalia.


By Western standards, I probably live a very minimal lifestyle. I can definitely say that living in Africa will likely reduce your carbon footprint more than most measures you can take while still living in the US (though I realize this is not for everyone). Yet, by African standards, I still have an astounding amount of stuff. Not just “nice” shoes and “sneakers”, but several pairs of each! When teenagers here go off to boarding school (very common since secondary schools are only in towns), they go with a suitcase the size of a carry-on plus a blanket. All their worldly possessions. I am definitely not there yet.


For years now, I have been a “shoe hound.” There was a time in my younger, poorer days when I had one pair of “work” shoes, one pair of running shoes and maybe one pair of casual shoes. Then I needed two pairs of running shoes, because it is better to switch them. Then there were winter shoes and summer shoes. Then there were shoes to wear with a suit and more casual everyday work shoes. And there started to be shoes on the market that I loved. Somewhere along the line, I totally gave up the idea that a pair of shoes should “wear out” before they are “replaced.”


So for me, a big part of barefooting is being confronted by my consumerism. I do also have some attachment to material things, but not that much. I do like and appreciate many of the things I own and there are a few things which I would feel quite devastated about the loss of. However, that is not my primary sin. I am much more guilty of the sin of consumerism—of wanting to have/buy/try this or that because I think it will fulfill/satisfy/solve some “need.”


But if I don’t need shoes to run, or a running bra, or special  shorts or shirts (I am reminded of the guy who showed up at the recent 12K I ran here in Katima, signed up, took off his shoes and socks, and ran in his regular pants and shirt) or any of the other paraphernalia that I have thought that I need, then the only reason I buy or have those things is because I want them. Okay, that’s not necessarily bad. But it puts them on a different level. Then, when I am looking at paring down my life so that I can move anywhere, anytime I want to, it leads me to ask, “do I want that enough to carry it around? Or pay to put it in storage somewhere?” How much of my life—my time, my energy, my money, my thought-processes—do I want to spend on these wants? And what is the impact of my indulging my consumerism in this way—what is the cost to the planet, to other human beings, to the soul of the planet, to my soul?


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