Over at Mastodon Jason shared this article about living a simple life. The post offers up some helpful, worthwhile suggestions about being more thoughtful in life choices in terms of the usual practice of keeping up appearances, consumption-based living, etc.
I looked at a few other posts from the site which offered similar good advice. But it is the packaging of minimalism and simple living that has become a bit of a meme on the internet. And while such sites might serve as an introduction to questioning consumerism as a way of life they often have something to sell. I wasn’t too surprised to see that, indeed, these folks offer a paid course. Even the simple life has a price. 😉
But yes, it’s increasingly obvious that our modern way of life is putting strains on our mental and physical health as well as on the ecosystems of the planet. In the developed nations the top 10% have built a way of life based on hyper consumption of resources which requires constant work and a focus on income. For many the vision of the “American Dream” is playing out as something else entirely.
We’re living in a time of persistent crises. The climate crisis serves as the background and it alone represents an existential crisis. But on top of that there are many others that surface as a result of the world we’ve built. The “simple life” and “minimalism” offer up a glimpse of something else. They hint at a calmer, quieter life with reoriented values like time spent or experiences a relationships rather than stuff. On the surface this sounds good because want to feel better, we want relief from the crises of modern life.
But let’s not just go for relief. Too often our drive is our physical and/or mental comfort and often that means a quick fix or band aid. So, let’s not just stop at the notion that our problem is too much stuff. Yes, acquisition of too much stuff is a problem but really, it’s also a symptom of a deeper cultural problem.
Let’s dig deeper.
Capitalism is the basis of modern, western nations. For decades it’s been sold as congruent with democracy, almost as though it is the other half of democratic society. It’s been assumed by many to be normal, natural and the way that economy should function. Certainly this is the commonly held view in the United States. But at the base of capitalism is insecurity, the never ending drive for increased profit through increased growth and consumption. These are fundamental, foundational to the “American Dream”.
The problem with simple living and minimalism as commonly discussed is that they serve is a temporary balm but leave us with problems. And so we just continue in long crisis. We experience it personally as perpetual longing for the unknown thing that we think will help us feel more secure, happier, content. It’s always there over the horizon. It’s to be found in documents like the US Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Happiness. Dare I say that perhaps a part of our problem is our focus on our happiness? It seems normal enough, to want to be happy and to search for what makes us happy. But happiness is ephemeral. It’s not a permanent state. And we live in a time and culture when it’s a fairly common message that what brings us happiness is the purchase of that next thing. Or, even, that next new experience. It might be a concert, movie or a trip. But no matter what we consume, the “happiness” is fleeting and within hours or days, we’re onto the next thing we want.
My suggestion is that we consider shifting our focus away from our pursuit of happiness. And don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to be happy, to experience joy. But I would suggest that we need to go deeper in our search. That it would be more helpful and meaningful to ask other questions. To begin, what is our purpose as humans. How can we contribute to the well being of not just our families but our communities? Will our life on the planet leave a it degraded or even severely degraded to the degree that future life will suffer?
I’m not going to claim to know all of the questions we should be asking or to have the answers. But, rather, that we should be asking more of ourselves than we have been.
I’d like this to be a series of posts because it’s the kind of exploration that can and should branch off into side explorations. For example, what is the result of a culture that encourages a focus on the nuclear family as many of the wealthy nations do?
Thinking living simply, there are practical considerations of how we think of exercise and physical labor in a time when many work in offices. Which is a subject can then branch off into the tools we use and how they may be measured in terms of longevity, repairability, carbon footprint, and requirements for use.
There’s a lot to explore and I’m planning follow-ups.