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.
I woke up this morning thinking about the word solidarity. There was the time of my life when I thought about it every single day. A kind of daily meditation.
An awareness of shared interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies creating a psychological sense of unity of groups or classes…
It refers to the ties in a society that bind people together as one.
I long for a world where humans care for one another regardless of their differences. And where humans care for their planet as a whole.
Sunday morning reflection on our moment in the cosmos
On a clear night, we are blessed with a wonderful view of a star filled sky. Tonight, just before turning in, I stopped to stair up at the glittering patterns above me, and the vastness of heavens that our tiny planet sits in. I find something quite calming and humbling viewing that site.
It really is calming and humbling. We’re so, so tiny in the vastness of it all. With just our eyes we can only see perhaps 6,000 stars in our night sky. But our galaxy contains billions! And then to consider the vast space between each star, that the photons from those distant stars have traveled for thousands of years only to end their journey when they strike the eye of a tiny little mammal on a tiny little planet.
The more I’ve learned of the cosmos the more insignificant I’ve felt within it. But in a good way. To feel in size and temporality like a rain drop in a brief moment falling to the Earth. And the Earth, in the cosmos, just one planet around one star amonst 200 billion other stars in our galaxy alone. And to think there are 200 billion other galaxies? We are infinitesimal. Insignificant and yet significant.
Several years ago I was in the habit a spending lot of time with a telescope looking at stars, nebulae, galaxies and our nearby planetary neighbors. It was a kind of meditation on the above, trying to understand, or, to just begin to grasp, the reality of our existence in the vastness of time and space. Those long nights in the dark, looking up at stars thousands of light years away and the faint galaxies that were millions of light years away, letting my mind imagine the many possible worlds that might exist. To consider the possibility of other life forms, some possibly intelligent also looking up into the vastness of space just as I was, brought a strange mix of emotions. My mind would slowly vacillate from a kind of deep peace and sense of belonging even as I felt and acknowledged the indifference of the cosmos. That my life was the single momentary flicker of a summertime firefly and so too is that of humanity, just a moment. Night after night I both rested and grappled with these thoughts and the realizations that drifted from them.
We humans have only existed on this planet for 300,000 years (in our “modern form”). Just a blink of an eye in Earth history and even less in the history of the cosmos. For most of our existence it might have been difficult for a off-world visitor to even know humans were here. We fit into our landscape quietly. Just thousands slowly growing into millions. And then of course things changed. Our industrial civilization with its various conflicts and social forms has only a few hundred years. For all of our intelligence, we’re not very good at living our lives in the larger context. For the most part we’re not able to hold in our minds and daily lives a reverence for our moment in this larger continuum. As animals we react to what’s in front of us right now. It would seem our brains, in terms of evolutionary biology, are tuned to exist only in the moment as it exists in the much smaller context of our lived time and space. It makes sense for short term survival.
And yet, that moment-to-moment instinct to survive works against us. In some ways, not all that different from a bird or a squirrel, we focus on the immediacy of our days. The human dramas that play out in front of us in our homes, schools, and neighborhoods. And not content with those physical, “in real life” connections, we’ve created ways to interact via small glass screens with people all around our planet. Connecting but not connecting. War and conflict continue despite our increased ability to communicate. Planetary-scale problems, most notably climate change, deepen into crisis as we fail to grasp the imbalance we’ve imposed upon the delicate and fragile biosphere.
And so here we are. Tiny and alone on a planet that has, over 4.5 billion years evolved an incredibly diverse life support system. As a species we have simultaneously come to understand the complexity of our biosphere even as we’ve increased our exploitation of it. And so it is that with more than 8 billion of us, we are slowly coming to grasp the full scope of our crises. We have pushed our life support system to the edge. And yet, as I type these words, just outside my window everything seems normal. I hear a variety of birds going abut their lives, singing to one another in the forest. My impression at this moment is that everything is okay. There is no obvious crisis to be seen in my world in this moment. It would be easy to say that this planet is resilient, that it has been here for a long time and will go on.
And you know what? It will. It will. But we have changed it. Our planet is now caught up in a process from which there is no turning back. We are in it. My morning thoughts are of both the special significance of life on our planet, of the long evolution our complex biosphere but also of our place in the universe. Whatever happens on our planet in the next few months and years, whether we rise to the challenge of changing course, the planet will be here in a hundred years. A thousand years. Despite the havoc we have unleashed, life here will evolve to adapt. Much will be lost. In this tiny, tiny corner of the galaxy a species of animal that called itself Homo sapiens lived for a short time. To some degree came to know itself and its place in the larger cosmos. And then it flickered out. By its own hand or some other larger, cosmic event.
I struggle daily trying to come to terms with what we’ve done. But when I look up into the vastness of the night sky, at the thousands of nearby stars or the distant galaxies millions of light years away, I settle into a kind of understanding, an acknowledgment of the moment. As many others have said, we are made of star stuff and we’ll return to that one way or another. The universe doesn’t care. Whatever happens here, today, our planet will continue to spin on its axis as it revolves around the sun which will continue its journey around the galaxy. Our sun and solar system take 200+ million years to make one full orbit around the galactic center. For perspective, the last time our sun was in this place in its orbit the dinosaurs roamed the planet. They lasted millions of years.
I’m not sure how long humans last but this is our moment.