Buy Nothing Christmas

Today is Thanksgiving, which means tomorrow is Black Friday: an annual practice in economic indulgence where we stampede over one another to buy things we can’t afford and will probably never use.

Every year, a few people die from the violence of Black Friday, from stampedes running to the latest trendy item to people settling disputes over items with a gun. Blame the government for stroking our fears of the economic downturn and making us think that our overspending can save the economy. Blame the media that stands outside stores at obscene hours of the morning and makes us think we should be there too. Blame the mainstream culture which values things more than relationships.

Blame whatever forces you wish. But I think we can all agree that Christmas in general has spun out of control. I’d like to propose that tomorrow, and for this entire holiday season, that you buy absolutely, positively no presents.

Nothing at all.

There’s no better way to counteract the crass materialism of the mainstream culture this holiday season by simply refusing to participate in this madness. Buy Nothing Christmas started out somewhat strangely. Here’s how it happened, according to their About section of their website:

Q: Who started Buy Nothing Christmas, and what is its relationship to Adbusters?

A: It started all over. Like in Ellie Clark’s family, back in 1968, when her family decided to nix the whole Christmas splash. “By a family vote (unanimous) we decided it was not for us: no decorations, no wreath, no tree, no cards, no gifts, no big dinner, nada.” Her kids are now over 50 years old, and seemed to have turned out fine, she says. It also started with things like the Christmas Resistance website, The Center for a New American Dream’s Simplify the Holidays and Bill McKibben’s booklet, 100 Dollar Holiday.

This website and the name “Buy Nothing Christmas” first became official in 2001, when I rallied a small group of friends, who happen to have Mennonite backgrounds, and extended the momentum from Buy Nothing Day into the whole shopping season. Our first act was to launch full page ad in a national church paper, and then share the good news with the world through this website.

Since then, we’ve seen exponential growth of website traffic, we’ve gotten kicked out of shopping malls for carolling, nurtured a network of organizers, and put on a full-length musicall in seven different venues.

Fortunately, we have an excellent working relationship with Adbusters — it helps that I worked there for a couple of years, finishing in 2003 as managing editor. In 2002, Adbusters ran a full page ad – if you can call it that – for Since then, Adbusters has helped with links from their website and more promo, especially recently.

Now, I know many of you will be like, “My family will think I am just being a cheapskate this year if I don’t buy them something.” It’s true, the social pressures to buy are very, very strong this time of year. And some of you just may like giving presents to people you love. If this is the case, consider some alternatives to buying them from some corporate giant who doesn’t care about your traditions or your loved ones. Try making something yourself.

And, if you absolutely must buy something, remember the many talented Steampunk artists and makers who create for a living. If you must buy, keep it in the community.

Think before you buy. Believe in your own purchasing power and don’t forget your ethics this holiday season.

Guerrilla Gardening

Recently, I joined the advisory council for my work’s effort to put together a community garden (because apparently, I just don’t know how to enjoy my own free time). I’m really excited about this opportunity, though, because the possible community garden has such potential for improving the lives of our clients. Everything from access to fresh produce and supplementing the family’s diet to providing a place for people to garden, a community garden is an asset to all those who participate in it.

By becoming involved in the effort to establish a community garden through my work, I’ve learned quite a bit about gardening in all its forms, including its more subversive. I was introduced to the concept of guerrilla gardening by some of my co-workers, and while my nonprofit is not intending this approach in claiming land for our clients, many of my coworkers are motivated to improve society in any way they can.

Guerrilla Gardening is defined and described on Wikipedia as:

Guerrilla gardening is gardening on another person’s land without permission. It encompasses a very diverse range of people and motivations, from the enthusiastic gardener who spills over their legal boundaries to the highly political gardener who seeks to provoke change through direct action. It has implications for land rights, land reform. The land that is guerrilla gardened is usually abandoned or neglected by its legal owner and the guerrilla gardeners take it over (“squat”) to grow plants. Guerrilla gardeners believe in re-considering land ownership in order to reclaim land from perceived neglect or misuse and assign a new purpose to it.

Some guerrilla gardeners carry out their actions at night, in relative secrecy, to sow and tend a new vegetable patch or flower garden. Some garden at more visible hours to be seen by their community. It has grown into a form of proactive activism or pro-activism.

All of this relates to Steampunk because I personally believe Steampunk is political and the spirit of Talk Like a Pirate Day hasn’t quite worn off yet (It never does! :D). Guerrilla Gardening is all about reclaiming and beautifying the land around us  by planting vegetation in unused land. To me, Guerrilla Gardening is an extension of our commitment to our green practices. Why just stop at repurposing clothing and trinkets when we can reclaim unused land?

There’s a number of ways to go about Guerrilla Gardening, but one must always keep in mind that the cultivation of land that does not belong to you is generally illegal. As a result, most Guerrilla Gardening occurs at night. For those who cannot dedicate evenings to gardening, or for land that is under survellience, the best and quickest way to go about your activities is by “seed bombing,” which litterally involves throwing clods of clay stuffed with seeds into disused land. Here’s a video on how to make them:

You can put any sort of seed into you seed bomb, so be creative and do battle against the urban wasteland.

For more information on Guerrilla Gardening, different methods of seed bombing, or to join a local cell of Guerrilla Gardeners, visit the official Guerrilla Gardening website here.


Yesterday, in my tirade about Sarah Palin, I made the assertion that her incorporation into Steampunk symbolism was an absolute impropriety. I said that combining Palin and Steampunk didn’t respect any element of what political Steampunk stood for.

Politics in Steampunk is something of a touchy subject for some people. They want this to just be cosplay. They don’t want politics complicating the matter or their effort to have fun. And I can understand that. Politics is messy and divisive. Few people agree on all aspects of politics, and rather than drive a rift into a social group, many just avoid politics.

I’m not that type of person. I think politics is an important lens through which we interact with and understand the world. It is through the understanding of out political present that we are able to shape a better future.

When I first encountered Steampunk, it was through Steampunk Magazine, an overtly political publication. Through my initial introduction, I assumed that all of Steampunk was political. I’ve since learned otherwise, but I still hold very dear to my heart the notions that formed my initial conceptions of what Steampunk would mean to me. As a lifestyle Steampunk, Steampunk and politics are inseperable.

So today’s highlighted organization helps to frame some of what I think is political Steampunk. It’s an organization called Adbusters, and they aim to fight consumerism. Their mission, as stated by their website is:

We are a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age. Our aim is to topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century.

Here’s the TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) version.

Fight corporate consumerism. Change the world. Be a Steampunk.

More on the Maker Culture and DIY

A few weeks back, I wrote an article on why the handmade aspect of Steampunk is so important to keeping the movement for ourselves, rather than the corporations. As every corporation’s end concern is their profit margins, they have a vested interest in the production of cheap goods to sell at high prices to a growing Steampunk subculture.  It is a real threat to Steampunk as an organic movement. For a concrete example, please click here for my post on the theft of an artist’s original designs by Hot Topic.

And so you all don’t think I’m just one crazy Steampunk yelling out into the void of the internet insisting that his is how Steampunk should be done, I’d like to bring your attention to two other articles that do a great job of backing up and expounding upon my case.

Captain Robert of Abney Park recently published a post to his blog entitled, “Made By Makers – Save the World, Kill The Corporations.” In it, he talks about the band’s unique model of production. All of their goods, from their music to merchandise is produced by independent artists. This is one of my favorite examples of an incredibly Steampunk group that has made the conscious decision to go solely independent in their production, and has still enjoyed immense success in the Steampunk community. And, as an important aside, it is so evident upon meeting the members of Abney Park and experiencing their shows live, that are doing something that they genuinely love.

Why is this important? Why should you concern yourself with how things are made as long as you get the things you want? Captain Robert points out that when you buy from independent artists, you are allowing an artist to live their dreams. Rather than pouring your money into corporations that care nothing for your movement, the case for supporting the independent artist is a easy one to make.

The second article I would like to draw your attention to is one entitled, Making A Living in MakerCulture from The Tyee. This article covers the next question that invariably creeps into one’s mind when admiring the Do It Yourself lifestyle, “Wow, that’s neat, but I can’t do that! I have bills to pay!”  Turns out independent artists also have bills to pay, but are able to make a living by producing their own goods and this article highlights a number of artists, including a Steampunk, who are taking control of their production. There’s also a sidebar on the right-hand side with lots of clicky-links that can redirect you to tons of DIY resources.

If you are in love with the concept of the maker culture, you’ll adore The Tyee’s Maker Culture Series, a compendium of DIY articles that can serve to enlighten and educate.

So, DIY and handmade is really important to Steampunk. It’s about keeping Steampunk for the Steampunks, supporting artists and their dreams, and taking more control of your life and work. It’s not easy or for the faint of heart, but the rewards are great.

On the Importance of Handmade

One of the most important aspects of Steampunk is, to me, the handmade nature of our clothing and gadgetry. It’s absolutely stunning to see people’s latest Steampunk inventions or clothing and know that a true artist was behind the creation of the item. It’s a critical aspect of Steampunk to me, regardless of what you think about Steampunk as a subculture.

Recently, I was reminded of just how important the ethics of handmade is while I was at work. I was training a volunteer on procedures for our donations closet and during the quiet moments, we exchanged some small talk. The woman, who was from Algeria, told me a lot about life there, but one of her stories stuck with me more than any other.

She talked about the influence of globalization upon traditional Algerian markets. Foreign competitors were slowly permeating the nation’s economy, learning how to make Algerian goods cheaply, but poorly. She spoke of how fashion was especially affected: foreign companies would take the patterns of traditional Algerian dress and make badly constructed, mass-produced replications of the garments from cheap material. No care was taken to respect the traditions that the garments suggest; the only interest was profit.

And, unfortunately, because the desire for cheap goods seems to be near universal across the globe, Algerians were turning away from clothing produced by Algerian tailors and turning to the cheaper, foreign alternatives. The art of properly producing the garments the “Algerian” way is under siege by globalization and foreign companies that don’t care about the purpose or intent of producing a good.

Now, please read that story again, replacing all relevant references to Algeria with Steampunk. To keep this movement “ours” handmade is the way we must go. Self produced or bought through a Steampunk artist (like on Etsy), to keep Steampunk for the Steampunks, it’s important to steer clear of the mass-produced. Not only do you do your part to take resources out of corporate America, but you also support a starving Steampunk artist if you have a piece commissioned.

As an aside to this argument, however, I would like to make a few notable exceptions to the general handmade rule: antiques, though may not be hand made can be easily employed to ethically enhance the Steampunk wardrobe. If one cannot find an item that has been hand made, but absolutely must be obtained to complete your desired look, at least buy from a locally own business.

And last, but certainly not least, is the case of gifts. My mother attempts to understand Steampunk by buying me various pieces she sees at the store (like the necklace I wore to A-Kon) and asking me if the particular item is “Steampunk” and then proceeds to gift the item to me. Because she’s sweet and well-meaning, I accept and wear these gifts because it truly is one of those situations where it is the thought that counts, and for me it is the exception rather than the rule to my wardrobe. Rather than act like a jerk and dispose of or return non-handmade items that were given to me by people who support my Steampunk lifestyle, I think it’s important to honor their intent.

So, what do you all think about this?

On Cosplay

I know that this post is likely to irritate some members of the Steampunk community. I know that I will likely be accused of making Steampunk into way too srs bsns. But, quite frankly, I don’t care. This is a movement for which I care deeply, and this particular topic is one that I sincerely spend a lot of time thinking about.

This post started as an amalgamation of events, both virtual and otherwise, that were called to my attention. The first of which was a post, Stop Punking the Genre on the blog Worlds in a Grain of Sand.

While this post likely annoyed many people associated with Steampunk, I think that the author does have a valid point: many participants in the Steampunk subculture view the “Punk” aspect of Steampunk as a powerless suffix. As a member of the Punk movement, it bothers the writer that -punk gets affixed to new and fashionable subgroups without regard for Punk as it’s own set of ideologies. And you know what? It bothers me too.

What’s the difference between Steampunk and Neo-Victorianism? In my view, it’s the Punk in Steampunk that indicates our ability to draw from, but disdain replication of, the past. The Punk in Steampunk allows us to turn all sorts of Victorian conventions on their heads: gender, government and politics, race, culture… it’s all up for redefinition in the Steampunk I love.

The deeper I get into Steampunk, the more I realize the rift between the lifestylers and the cosplayers. As a lifestyler, I believe that the Punk aspect of Steampunk should mean something. I believe in incorporating Steampunk into as many aspects of my life as is possible. To a lifestyler, Steampunk becomes part of their identity.

Cosplayers, on the other hand, see Steampunk as a purely aesthetic notion. It’s a costume and an identity they assume for the period that they wear their Steampunked garments.

Which is why, when the local Steampunk community was invited to the Crow Collection’s Next Top Cosplay Model Competition, I became somewhat distraught by the notion of Steampunk being viewed simply as cosplay. I understand that there are many Steampunks, perhaps most, that are cosplayers over lifestylers. But what’s a lifestyle Steampunk to do in a situation like this? On one hand, I’d love to go out and represent local Steampunk, but I would be troubled to do so under the label of cosplayer.

So, for all those cosplayers out there, I really sincerely want to know… what is the disconnect in your mind between the Steampunk aesthetic and Steampunk culture? Why do you feel you have to “act” Steampunk when there is a respectable community of Steampunks who are Steampunk? Are you just not that into it? Are you not aware of the other aspects of Steampunk? Do you prefer Steampunk without politics?

I mean this all in the nicest way possible. I’m sincerely trying to understand, because to me, it seems so strange to cosplay something that is so much more than just  a visual style.

The Great Steampunk Debate

The latest edition of Steampunk Magazine is one which focuses on the politics and identity of Steampunk. Challenging questions like how or if Steampunk is political, how we understand and interpret our inspirations, and the “scene” of Steampunk is only the beginning of very serious questions a new subculture must ask itself. What does being a Steampunk imply about who we are and what we believe? Why does it matter? Is there a unifying Steampunk identity?

It’s not often that a person can take an active role in the discussion and shaping of one’s subculture. Most are too old and well established that when you adopt a label like “Goth” or “Prep” or “Punk” there are certain things assumed about and ascribed to that person. Steampunk is too young to have these conventions imposed upon its practitioners quite yet, but there certainly seems to be a desire to understand who we are and why we do what we do.

To answer this demand, the makers of Steampunk Magazine have put together The Great Steampunk Debate, a forum for all things culturally Steampunk. Here, you can read the insight and opinions of Steampunks from all over the globe as we try to make sense of our subculture and try to find some unifying parts that make us all inextricably Steampunk. It is certainly more than just polished wood, brass bits, and watch parts, but what exactly is precisely for the debate to decide.

Join the forum and chime in or just read what others have to say. Either way, I know you will find something here which will intrigue you.

DIY Education

Now, there certainly is something to be said to the merits of a formal education. As a fortunate holder of two undergraduate degrees (and a minor, all in four years, thank you very much), I can attest to the value of having a formal education in the job opportunities afforded to me and the theoretical better salary (still waiting on that one). Overall, if you can get a formal higher education, it is a good idea.

I was, however, reading the most recent edition of Education Life in the New York Times, and I happened upon an article all about free online learning, and I immediately thought of you all here.

The article, An Open Mind, talks about the new movement of placing educational resources and lectures online for free consumption. What an exciting idea. If you want to know more about that movement and how it came about, go ahead and read the article.

But what I discovered specifically for your delight was a small additional information box nestled in the printed article called, How to Learn Something for Nothing.

This article reveals the best of today’s online resources for learning something new. I’m particularly excited about this because I sincerely miss going to lectures and listening to the professors as they challenge my preconceptions of the world. Plus, through this, I’m able to round out some of my education that was not so thoroughly explored for fear of damaging my GPA. I wonder if they have a course on basic Burmese I could watch…

Of these, Academic Earth is my favorite. I tend to respond well to video material when I am learning, so its nice to just kick back and listen to a professor chat while I’m at home in my PJs with a cup of hot tea.

Pull up a lecture and learn something today!

DIY Culture

Today, I was sitting around reading the paper while I was having my breakfast and I happened upon an article in the New York Times from April 18th that I just got around to reading today in their Arts and Leisure Section (It takes me a while to get through a Sunday edition of the Times).

The leading story is about the powers of globalization and how it’s power is being resisted by the very forces expected to squelch difference and promote cultural homogenization. Things like the internet and cable TV, once thought would bring the world together and promote a sort of cultural global norm, has to some extent succeeded in doing that, but the reaction to it has also been the return to localism, tribalism, and subcultures.

The article, called Do-It-Yourself Culture, never explicitly mentions Steampunk, but I thought it a very significant explanation as to why Steampunk exists, why it is gaining in popularity, and why I personally believe that Steampunk will be a powerful subculture for the foreseeable future.

Steampunk economics and politics places high importance on the ability of the individual to conquer the behemoth multinational corporations that attempt to feed us mass-produced garbage made through the exploitative labor of overseas workers (who, mind you, often live and work in deplorable conditions). That’s why I love Etsy and Instructables; it gives us the power as Steampunks to choose a more ethical and greener path to direct our economic power.

Steampunk is about more than just what you buy, though. It’s a subgroup highly influenced by it’s rebellion against authority and it’s respect for, but not reverence of, the past. As a retro-futuristic movement, we can take those gems of Victorian society like fashion and etiquette and integrate them into a modern world where we understand the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism. Imperialism is a key idea here, because many would argue that globalization is just a new word for cultural imperialism. And to me, the reaction to that fact is why the world is more fractured than it ever was.

Steampunk had its supposed peak in the 1980’s. But I an assure you that the internet and its wealth of information is only fueling the fires of the the current Steampunk Renaissance. The demand to conform that globalization has pressed on all of us has resurrected Steampunk and the rebellious spirit in us all.