Choose the simple life

Living in harmony with the Earth is a matter of simplicity

Fresno Bee, April 21, 2017


The recipe for living in harmony with the Earth is simple. We should reduce consumption and minimize our impact on the ecosystem. This is not easy to do in a culture of mass consumption.

We enjoy fast cars and air travel. We fill our large houses with manufactured goods. We have closets full of clothes, garages full of toys and an appetite for imported foods. We like comfort and pleasure.

Consumer culture is fun. Our economy is based upon the expectation of continued growth. New gadgets and gizmos create needs we didn’t know we had before. Marketing and promotion manufacture desires and leave us wanting more. It is hard to say no to consumption when everyone else is enjoying the goods of consumer society.

It is counter-cultural to talk about decreasing consumption. But simplicity has long been advocated by prophets and philosophers as a pathway to liberation. As an added bonus, a simple life is also good for the environment.


Thoreau and simplicity

In the American tradition, Henry David Thoreau is the great advocate of simplicity. Thoreau thought that enlightenment grew from simplification. He claimed that civilized people would “leave off eating animals.” He said, “water is the only drink for a wise man.” He thought that we often live like ants, our lives being “frittered away by details.” The solution is simplicity – a word that he repeated as a mantra in his book “Walden.”

It turns out that the vegetarian diet that Thoreau advocated is also environmentally friendly. Reduced meat consumption decreases the size of your carbon footprint. The same is true with regard to other exotic foods. Coffee, alcohol and imported foods have ecological costs.

Thoreau was not in favor of eating as a recreational activity. We eat more than we need to survive. Extravagant variety makes for delicious dining. But this is not healthy for us or for the planet. Obesity, diabetes and heart disease are problems, as well as climate change.

The solution is to realize that what’s good for the body is also what’s good for the planet and for society. Simple foods – raw and local fruits and vegetables – are nutritious. Vegetarian cuisine can be delicious – and fun.

There is adventure in experimenting with the variety of meatless foods. Sharing with others can spice up our lives. Happy dining has less to do with what you eat than with who you eat it with.

Walking or biking

Another Earth-friendly step is to drive less. Driving is easier and often more convenient. But there is adventure in riding the bus, including an opportunity to have more intimate contact with people in your community.

A walk or bike ride is good for the heart and the mind. Walking and biking show you the the world from a different perspective and a different pace. Broaden your horizons by leaving your car at home.

We can also reduce our use of consumer goods. Big homes inspire us to fill them. Big-box stores encourage mass consumption. And big cars are perfectly constructed to carry all of that stuff back home.


But there are activities other than shopping that can provide satisfaction. Have a picnic or visit a park. Join a sports league. Participate with a political group. Or visit a library. You’ll make new friends, learn new things and see the world in a different way. You will also save money.

Consumer capitalism provides pleasure. But it does not produce lasting happiness or a good life. Technological innovation makes some things easier. But there are diminishing returns. Cars are great. But traffic soon becomes a problem. Email is great, until we experience inbox overload. Easy access to delicious food is wonderful. But obesity and diabetes are dangerous. And so it goes.

Inner peace and spiritual growth cannot be generated by external means. This is the common teaching of the world’s philosophical and religious traditions. Simplicity was taught by ancient Greek philosophers, Asian sages and Christian ascetics.

Our consumer culture is not sustainable in the long run. There will be 8.5 billion people on Earth by 2030. We can’t all live as mass consumers. But we would be happier if we would reduce consumption. And the Earth would benefit if we would learn to find satisfaction in simple things.

You’re a Foul One, Shopping Season

You’re a Foul One, Shopping Season

Fresno Bee, December 3, 2011

I watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” the other day with my children on television.  Every fan of the cartoon knows that the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes when he realizes, “Christmas doesn’t come in a store.”

But this soft Seussian message was drowned out by the ads that interrupted the show.  Nearly every commercial was promoting Christmas shopping!  Even my kids noted the irony.  The network was using Seuss to sell us the idea that Christmas really does come in a store.  It is easy to feel Grinchy at times like these.

Consider the odd degeneration of the Thanksgiving weekend.  Thanksgiving day is overshadowed by the next several days of shopping.  These shopping days now have names that can seem like something from Seuss: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday.  This silliness got serious this year, when Black Friday frenzy turned bloody, as sleep-deprived shoppers competed for door-buster ads with elbows, fists, and pepper-spray.

Even the President got into the spirit of the shopping season. Obama went shopping with his daughters on “Small Business Saturday,” buying books at a local bookstore.  He said, “This is Small Business Saturday.  So we’re out here supporting small business.”  Holiday family time is now oddly connected to a patriotic duty to go shopping.

Shopping is an American hobby.  We shop when we are bored or lonely.  And some shoppers treat it as a competitive sport, vying for bargains.  Or they try to be the first to buy something, even if that means standing in line in the middle of the night.  This is not just confined to Black Fridaybedlam.  Shoppers camp out for new video games and the latest iphone.

Our culture appears to be built upon Grinch-like values such as envy, greed, and—to use a good old-fashioned word—covetousness.  It used to be a sin to covet things in this way.  But now it is built right in to the holiday season.  Children are encouraged to give Santa a list of what they desire. Adults write up holiday wish lists.  And many of us use the holidays as an excuse to buy ourselves things—even going through the ruse of wrapping these “gifts” and putting them under the tree.

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to get a deal.  From the housing bubble to “Antiques Road Show,” it seems that we remain obsessed with finding bargains and turning a profit.  We are fascinated by stories of “extreme couponing.”  And the Seussian term “shopaholic” has entered our vocabularies.

“Shopaholism” can be a serious problem.  A syndrome called “Compulsive Buying Disorder” afflicts about one out of twenty of us.  A more technical term for this condition also rings Seussian: “Oniomania,” which literally means “maniacal buying.”  This occurs when shopping becomes a primary way to deal with stress, boredom, and anxiety.  As with gambling addiction, a downward spiral can result for the shopping maniac: as debt increases, anxiety increases, and the desire to shop grows.

We might think that obsessive shopping and compulsive buying are peculiar to modern capitalist societies.  But Biblical writers routinely condemned covetousness.  Even a Roman philosopher such as Seneca understood the problem.  Seneca thought that the inordinate desire to buy things can leave us unhappy and indebted, especially when hucksters try to make a buck by manipulating our desires.  He cautioned that we must “see how much we must pay for that which we crave.”

For Stoics such as Seneca, the cost of owning things is usually more than they are worth.  Our craving for new things and the desire to make a good deal can leave us deceived, miserable, and indebted.  Seneca concluded, “We should belong to ourselves, if only these things did not belong to us.”

You don’t have to be a Stoic sage or a Christian saint to understand that many of the things we buy end up owning us.  Just ask anyone who got swept up in the housing bubble and left underwater.  And most kids understand the message of “The Grinch.”  The Who’s down in Whoville didn’t mind that the Grinch had just stolen all of their Christmas loot.  They knew that Christmas was about the community they shared.  And they recognized that Christmas doesn’t come in a store.