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Make a Compact With the Environment
[Opinion] How and why simple living makes sense, and pays off
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
  Published 2007-03-24 12:27 (KST)   
In 2005 a group of friends ("The Compact") in San Francisco decided to buy nothing new except food, toiletries and essential medication. They started a blog and have since signed up over 8,000 members. And the trend is spreading.

I also went "a year without" something, and it's gratifying to hear that other people have attempted similar lifestyle changes/experiments. There are people who have committed to living without all sorts of things we consume without thinking about. The most basic version of this, in my opinion, is the vegetarian.

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Some people call this conversion to simpler living "daft" and "ineffectual." For those who have committed to this simpler, harder life, it is about an inner desire to minimize their personal footprint, their private impact on the planet.

I found myself in this group, and was simply sickened by the underlying reality of our collective consumption. Masses of consumers seem to be sleepwalking towards the next thing, the next kick, the next amusement, but we've long since stopped being happy, and we leave behind us a trail of tears, and debris and environmental brokenness.

Colin Beavan, 43, a historical nonfiction writer recently featured in a New York Times article ("My Year Without Toilet Paper") sums the sentiments of other conscientious objectors (against rabid commercialism) on his blog very succinctly:

"According to Martin Seligman, Ph.D., founder of the relatively new field of 'positive psychology,'...the hedonic treadmill...'causes you to rapidly and inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted...The deeds and things you worked so hard for no longer make you happy; you need to get something even better to boost your level of happiness...but once you get the next possession or achievement, you adapt to it as well.'

"If we want to be happy, Seligman seems to suggest, then setting our sights on getting more money and stuff is the wrong direction. Meanwhile, on a societal scale, that self same consumption plunders the planet's resources and chokes it with waste. What interests me about this, from an environmental point of view, is that, if you believe Seligman and his crew, we're wrecking the world with our consumption for reasons that aren't even making us happy."

Meanwhile Beavan himself, and Michelle Conlin, 39, also a writer, have given themselves wholeheartedly to what can only be called "Wholesome Living." They've made the following rules for themselves:

- Do not use transportation that is carbon-fueled (this included elevators that derive their electrical energy from coal powered stations)
- Do not buy anything except food
- Do not buy food that is not local (produced further than 250 miles away)
- Do not use paper
- Do not produce trash

The implications of this framework implies that the couple (who have a 2-year-old daughter) have to expend plenty of their own energy to get around, to grow food, and to avoid the packaging associated with almost all commercially available food. If you're trying to limit your garbage pile, it means buying food at markets, growing vegetables, and finding creative ways to dispose of certain bodily fluids.

Nevertheless, outsiders continue to ask uncomfortable questions (on Beavan's blog):

Can your wife use tampons? Are you allowed to use over-the-counter drugs if you get sick? Are you allowed to use toilet paper if you're struck with diarrhea in the middle of Manhattan, or at the office?

I have also attempted the vegetarian/fresh produce only route, and it's fair to say that it is an incredibly difficult (especially initially), but rewarding transition. The benefits are obvious: increased energy levels, better health, and immediate loss of weight.

Climbing plenty of flights of stairs in a city is not only an energy saver, it's a fitness machine. The disadvantage of such a lifestyle is that it is inconvenient and difficult to maintain. It is particularly difficult to find wholesome food at short notice.

While it may seem, initially, to be a patently inconvenient lifestyle, there are elements in it that are very practical. The health aspect is perhaps the most self-evident. It may surprise people to realize that being healthy can actually save you a fortune. I know that for me personally, smoking and drinking and even using drugs recreationally were never really on the cards because I always felt I could put that extra disposable income into good use somewhere else, usually associated with sport and travel.

Personal preferences aside, when living costs rise, when interest rates or petrol prices rise, simpler living gains converts. Let's face it, not everything about life in the West is convenient or even desirable. Think about:

- traffic jams
- junk food
- television
- current work ethics: working for months, or even years simply to spend that money in a few hours, on additions to a house, car, or a one-off
- paying ludicrous amounts for ordinary products such as water, clothing, coffee and baked bread
- non-integrated, disconnected and often a lonely everyday sense of life, based on "connecting technologies" that eliminate the need for face to face contact
- an overweight, moody, irritable, basically lazy populace wallowing in their own pollution

Living simply is really just about investing less in stuff, and more in people, in relationships, in the capacities of ourselves and others (imagination, creativity, innovation). It's an arduous existence at times, but often just how difficult it is, and to what extent it runs counter to the Mass Marketing Machine that drives consumption, and consumers, often this comes as a shock to people who buck the system. At times it seems that it is impossible to live outside of the system. Of course it isn't, it's just that the system needs money to run its engine, and living simply is a psychology that doesn't compute. Living simply is incompatible with the mantra of our society:


But 88 percent of Americans think they are too materialistic, and 81 percent agree that they (Americans) are too focused on shopping and spending. **

Every time you spend your money, you're subscribing to a certain set of beliefs. You're voting. You're choosing a future along with all the other consumers around you. The next time you are out shopping, take a five or 10 minute time out and look at them. They don't look happy do they? We're the victims of our own greed, and easily overwhelmed by all the choices out there. But we also have the choice to step away from it all, into a conscious way of living that makes sense, not just to ourselves, but to the wider world around us.

- Make a Compact With the Environment by Nick van der Leek (read by Claire George) 

*My Year Without Toilet Paper
**According to a study conducted by the Center for a New American Dream
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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