Steps Towards a More Sustainable Life of Less

Today's article comes from the inspiring Leo Babauta, founder of Zen Habits and advocate of simple living.

When my grandparents were young, none of the appliances (let alone hi-tech gadgets) in our homes were in common use — not the refrigerator, electric stove, dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, toaster, television, computer, air-conditioner, microwave, etc.

None of it. They had cars, but they walked far more often than we do today. They had telephones, but not cell phones or Blackberries or iPhones, and they weren’t using phones all the time. They had stores, but they didn’t order things online and they didn’t buy all the time. In fact, during their Great Depression childhood, they bought very little and used very, very little technology.

And while the last 70-80 years have advanced our lives in amazing ways, and there’s no doubt that the comfort and convenience of our lives have improved tremendously … we rarely stop to consider whether technology and consumerism have always changed our lives for the better.

I mean, I am as big a proponent of the miracles of the Internet as anyone, but have we given up too much of our lives that used to exist offline and outdoors? It’s great that we have such comfortable cars that can drive incredibly fast and take us anywhere we want to go in minutes … but have we thrown away the joy and the health benefits of walking places?

It’s great that we can communicate instantly from anywhere with our mobile devices, but have we given up personal face-to-face conversations and the pleasure of being outdoors, disconnected from the world?

It’s great that food is so convenient these days, but have we given up the pleasures of slow eating for fast food, the joys of cooking for microwaving, the wonders of real food for processed food?

It’s great that we can buy pretty much anything we want these days (and often do), but have we allowed the abundance of cash we’ve had (until recently, but even now we’re still pretty rich) to force us to have bigger houses just to store all our stuff?

I propose a life of less. A life that’s more sustainable.

And yes, some will wonder if that will hurt the economy even more — buying and consuming less will mean people will lose jobs, no? Not necessarily. Scaling back our lives means we need to find jobs for people that are based not on producing more goods, but on producing more value — valuable information, valuable inventions that require fewer resources, valuable contributions to the community. But how will all of this be paid for if no one is buying stuff? There will be less wealth produced because less is being consumed … but if we consume less then we actually need less wealth. We just need to get off the escalating cycle of consuming and producing more.

We work more than ever before, despite advances in labor-saving technology that mean we should be able to work less. We do so to support a lifestyle that has become more expensive than ever, because of the new levels of convenience and abundant consumer goods that we’ve become accustomed to. We can break out of this trap, by consuming less and then needing to work less.

I’ve thought these things for awhile now, but it struck me most as I was walking to a meeting with a friend and business partner. Most people where I live don’t walk — cars are used all the time, even if the destination is just a few blocks away. I’ve been getting into the habit of walking places — for traveling, not exercise — but I’m a weirdo for doing so. And it struck me that only 50 years ago, I would have been normal — everyone walked back then.

And I wondered how we lost this valuable activity — walking to get places.

We lost it because convenience and speed have become more valuable to us than health and frugality and the enjoyment of the world around us.

I propose a life of less. A life that is more leisurely, a little more spartan, a little less expensive, a little less heavy on consuming the Earth’s resources.

I don’t think we can change the economy overnight. We can’t even change our lives overnight. But we can make a gradual change in that direction, with small steps.

Here are but a few ideas — I’m sure you could contribute some of your own:

  • Can we walk to more places and drive less? We’d get fitter and use less fossil fuel. We’d have to loosen up our schedules to do this, but I think that’s a good change anyway.
  • Can we start building more livable communities, where things are less spread out, so that we can walk more instead of driving everywhere? Where everything we need is a 10-20 minute walk away, or at least reachable by bike or public transportation? You might already live in a place like that, but not where I live, and not in lots of places. Even work should be close by. Again, this is a long-term change, but I think a good one.
  • Can we start living in smaller houses, so that we need less heating and cooling and land and maintenance and cleaning? We can if we buy less stuff, which leads to …
  • Can we start buying less stuff? We don’t need all the stuff we buy.
  • Can we start celebrating things like birthdays and Christmas without spending sprees? We could do nice things for each other instead, or make things, or bake something.
  • Can we start buying locally more? I know a lot of people already do this, but it would be great if this trend continued. It supports local farmers and drastically reduces the amount of resources needed to get food to our homes.
  • Can we start packaging food less? Even non-food items (like toys) come with ridiculous amounts of packaging these days. I’d like to see a return to olden ways, when you scooped flour out of a huge bin into a container or something like that. Packaging we throw away (or even recycle) is so wasteful.
  • Can we stop buying so much processed food? Real food is so much healthier, requires fewer chemicals and resources, and tastes better once you wean yourself from the addiction to processed foods.
  • Can we eat slower, and enjoy the food more, instead of rushing through meals?
  • Can we stop our addiction to mobile devices and being connected all the time, so that we can enjoy the pleasure of other people’s company without interruptions, or enjoy solitude or a nice quiet walk without being connected?
  • Can we design cities and towns so that they aren’t based on the automobile, so that perhaps private vehicles parked at the outside of cities, and then people used public transportation or walked within the cities? We’d reclaim the streets for the pedestrian, make them alive once again with street markets, cafes, parks, children running around without fear of death, people exercising and doing tai chi and jogging and walking and enjoying a fume-free outdoors.

Again, these are just a few ideas. There are thousands more.

And I’m not saying we should give up technology. I love connecting with people from around the world! I love being able to access information instantly that I would never have had access to just 15-20 years ago! I love the ability to express myself online that is unprecedented in human history!

But I also think we need to keep the good things that have come with the advances in technology, and throw out the bad, the things that have made our lives worse.

Read more about simplifying your life in Leo's book, The Power of Less.

MusingsEleanor Cheetham