Sacrifice in the Spirit of all Seasons

The mtb trails in Wauwatosa are in prefect condition for my single speed with Nokian Mount and Grounds. One of the great things about living in Milwaukee is the single track is only a 15 minute bike ride from my door.

 I’m on vacation all week, which means no daily bike commute.  Lack of exercise plus too many Christmas cookies means I am packing on a few unwanted pounds.  My buddy Russell is in a similar situation and the Facebook photos of his new trainer guilted me back onto my old winter trainer.  Most people complain about sweating when they ride their trainers in the winter.  The only thing I could complain about was my toes got a little cold.

Seriously, winter is really ski season, but as much as I like cross-country skiing in the nordic paradise that is the Kettle Moraine, I have to drive to ski.  I still plan on skiing this winter, but I am going to do it less so I drive less.  It is really not much of a sacrifice given the awesome mountian bike trails I have so close to my house, but it is a sacrifice.

The holidays are supposed to be the season of giving, not overindulgence, but with all the spending on gifts and going out with friends, it sure doesn’t feel like it. Instead, we are almost guilted into buying more than we need. The news media inundate us with stories about how the retailers need consumers to consume for the economy to recover.

In our American culture sacrifice almost implies poverty. We are taught through advertising and social norms that we are all entitled to whatever we can afford and even borrow.  More, we seem to be defined by how much we earn and what we own. We are somehow un-American if we don’t strive to fulfill our every want and desire since.

As I slide my single speed mountain bike from in between the 7 other bikes hanging in my basement, and slip on the Finnish-made studded tires so I can go for a mountain bike ride in the winter, I see that my family and I am are as caught up in this as anyone.  As a low-level bureaucrat married to a public school teacher, we are solidly middle class by today’s economic standards.  But by the standards of a generation or two ago, our lives are filled with largess and luxury. Even by the standards of other cultures around the world today, my family has far more than our share.

Photographer Peter Menzel illustrated a wonderful book called Material World that made this point better than I can.  Here are two of the images from that book:

Ahraura, India

Pearland, Texas

Looking at his photographs, I wonder if the size of our homes has something to do with how much we buy.  In the same way our supersized soda cups fuel the expansion of our waistlines, even our “modest” 1920 Milwaukee bungalow has way more room than my family of three (plus two dogs and two cats) needs.  But like good Americans, I have fulfilled my consumerist duty and purchased things to fill our house, from the remodeled upstairs attic to the rec room in the basement and out to the garage.

As friends and regular readers know, I buy much of what I purchase used, from bikes to clothing to lawn mowers, but I still purchase way more than my share. So is it hypocracy for me to even suggest that I am making a sacrifice by mountain biking when I would prefer to drive to go ski at Greenbush?  Am I blind to the true meaning of sacrifice when I  forgo the fresh California strawberries in December from the grocery store and choose instead to pull from my basement freezer a quart of raspberries my family picked last summer? 

I’m working on a New Years resolution for 2011, but having trouble with this concept in light of the relative comfort in which I live.  Given the obvious excess in our lives, do small sacrifices have value? Is there a better way to frame this discussion? What do you think?

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

6 thoughts on “Sacrifice in the Spirit of all Seasons

  1. Welcome back, Dave!

    What a moral dilemma you’ve posed. I can relate to your questions on a number of levels (I am a minor government functionary married to another minor government functionary; I live in an 1100 sq. ft. Cape Code house with a second floor that only gets used when my daughter is home from college or when I have guests, etc…) How do we define sacrifice? Or, more importantly, which sacrifices are worth making and which are merely symbolic and not substantive? Sacrifice is defined as giving up something prized or desirable for the sake of something with a higher or more pressing claim. If desirability is qualitative, who chooses the relative worth of things? The easy way to decide the value of your sacrifices is to make them quantitative – how many pounds of CO2 for this versus that. But for things we would do anyway, is it really a sacrifice? Am I really making a sacrifice by programming my thermostat to 60 degrees when I’m not home? I’m not cold. Am I making a sacrifice when I buy CFLs instead of incandescent? I still have light. These are still contributions to a larger problem, but they don’t rise to the level of sacrifice – of giving up something of value. Perhaps the way to define the question is to list those things that make an impact but don’t require a true sacrifice, and then to list those things wherein we have to give up something which possesses true, or perceived, value. If you would have ridden your bike anyway, what thing of greater value have you given up? I find myself asking these same questions: How can I make a difference? Are the things I’m doing enough? Can I do more? At what point am I giving up more than I am receiving? Can a lifestyle be both responsible AND comfortable, but not extravagant? I can provide only this small insight: if you can look yourself in the mirror and not have to try to justify the things you have done, then you’ve done right by your conscience. And that is the measure by which we must all judge ourselves…

  2. Definitely food for thought as we roll over to the new year.

    I guess I look at it as steps on a journey. By analogy, if you overeat yourself into morbid obesity, can you take the weight off overnight? No. But, you can cut down and work off that excess slowly. In a sense, our consumption has made many of us morbidly obese consumers. We need to strip some of that off. Just as a dieter has to be reasonable if they expect it become a lifestyle change, I think we have to take reasonable steps in consumerism in order for it to become natural and no longer sacrifices.

    Slowly we’ve been changing our lives. Sometimes there are fast spurts where we drop a lot of baggage; sometimes it slows down. For instance, we started doing some of the grocery shopping by bike and next year, with a new job, I’m hoping to include work commutes.

    Perhaps I’m unrealistic, but I think you take it in steps and not view it as hypocritical that you’ve reduced in one area of your life, but not another. Instead, view it as an opportunity to fine tune something in that other area.

    Find a reduction. Take it. Make it part of your life. Repeat. Steps.

  3. Great questions. The thoughts generated in response are progress toward a goal as well, so thanks for posing them. I think a lot about energy usage, for instance. If we were to quantify lifestyle in units of energy consumed, we know that for most Americans the change with the biggest impact that an individual can make is to reduce energy used in our daily commutes and errands, followed very closely by reducing energy used to heat, cool, light and run the appliances in our homes or apartments. But for a lot of us, these acts are more symbolic than anything else because our individual actions are such a small part of the whole – the scale is all wrong. I strongly believe that the symbolism of these acts is important, though, as it shows the way. It’s part of leadership…advocacy, making our meaningful consumer choices known, and – most of all – voting. Your blog, Dave, is a really important piece of advocacy because it spreads the word that a lifestyle that is much less reliant on fossil fuel is possible, nay even enjoyable!, here in Milwaukee. It helps others make the slow changes that TosaGroupie talks about above….and if enough of us make these choices then we’ll really have something.

  4. My wife and I are about to take one of those fairly major steps in life. We are looking for a smaller living space. After 28 years in this beautiful 1896 Victorian that we have put a lot of living into, and raised a son in, it seems to be time to find a smaller space – without so many stairs! It’s full of CFLs, and all the leaky windows get caulked every year. There’s a high efficiency furnace chugging away in the basement and rain barrels on all the downspouts. And on and on. So I am feeling like we have been fairly good stewards. But it is becoming clearer day by day that it’s time downsize. Quite looking forward to this next big step.

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