April 29, 2011

Butting Into The Buffet Line

Author and simple living advocate Jim Merkel has been living on $10,000 a year since 2005. Before that he lived on $5000 dollars per year for 16 years. Through his writing and activism, he is inviting us to be radical - to think about all of humanity, and nature, and what our fair share is. He is inviting us to live simply as a logical and enjoyable response to living on a finite planet.

When people think of 'radical simplicity' they may think of living without cable, or one car instead of two. In our increasingly complicated world, any effort toward simplicity seems radical. And no personal action is too insignificant to make.

The form of simplicity Jim Merkel proposes, however, in Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth, is what most would consider truly drastic or extreme. But it is probably the only thing that will save us. He thinks we should all learn to live on our fair share.

Merkel is an ex-engineer, so the processes he outlines in his book are as exacting as he could get them. He shows through a variety of means, including his own life, how we can live better, more sustainable lives, and how we can measure our progress along the way. I found some of the methods exhausting, however.

For example, I am not going to weigh everything I own to calculate my ecological footprint. I am satisfied with estimating where I am at. But if you are looking for a more regimented, scientific approach to a simple living make-over, this would be the book to read.

Merkel uses three main tools to guide the reader. Along the way he gives many justified reasons as to why we may want to pursue these goals which will be difficult - but worthy - to achieve. The scaffolding of the book is basically:
  1. Your Money or Your Life - Concepts from this classic book, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, are used to show how to get out of debt, save money, and come to terms with your work and values.
  2. Ideas from Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees, regarding Ecological Footprint. Readers can measure how much nature is needed to supply all they consume, and absorb their waste.
  3. Spending time alone in nature. The book encourages readers to consider another reality with humans as only one species among many in a system where everything is connected, and diversity is the key. Having forgotten where we come from, reconnecting with nature allows us to heal. It allows us to value and respect the planet's gifts.
An early part of the book particularly resonated with me. In it, Merkel compared our planet to a giant buffet table. The way he described it, and the questions he asked, were eye openers.

Merkel writes, "Imagine you are first in line at a potluck buffet. The spread includes not just food and water, but all the materials needed for shelter, clothing, health care, and education. How do you know how much to take? How much is enough to leave for your neighbors behind you -- not just the six billion people, but the wildlife, and the as-yet-unborn?"

By our own accounts we are taking too much. We are not leaving enough behind for those who will follow us. Too often we are butting into the buffet line for seconds and thirds when those behind us go hungry. While reading, this alone was enough to convince me that a small footprint, sustainable lifestyle was a worthy, and necessary, goal.

Butting into line is not nice, and Radical Simplicity brought to my attention all that is waiting patiently behind me. Thankfully, it also generates creative and liberating responses to this inequity.

April 27, 2011

Tough Times Provide Opportunities For Living The Simple Life

Since 2008 The Great Recession has been changing the economic landscape, and introducing many to involuntary simplicity. As much as I love and extol the virtues of voluntary simplicity, when changes out of our control are thrust upon us, fear and uncertainty can result. The secret is to regain control, and use the changes to capitalize on new opportunities. Like the opportunity to slow your life down, and live more effectively and happily with less.

Learning to live with less can go a long way if you're on a tight budget, and in the end you may find that you actually prefer a more simple life. Generally speaking, simple living can be described as buying less and refraining from purchasing luxury items. Whether voluntary or not, adopting such practices will cut your spending dramatically, allowing you to realize new, more self-directed goals.

When household spending is cut, employment becomes less of an issue. Because you now live a smaller footprint life, there is less pressure to make money. Any extra money that comes in can be used to pay down debt.

High-interest, lower paying jobs that may have appealed to you before become feasible when you don't need as much money to live on. What kinds of jobs have you always wanted to do, but were prevented from doing because they didn't pay enough?

Since cutting my spending after quitting teaching, I have worked at several interesting, enjoyable jobs that did not pay as much as my former career. In recent years I have worked as a chauffeur, raft-guide, environmental educator, and gardener. All were very memorable, and temporary as well, giving me lots of opportunities to try other new things.

New things like blogging - never before have I worked so hard, for so long, for so little (zero, basically). But profit is not my motive - I find it personally satisfying, enjoyable, and liberating. What would you do differently if you did not need to spend as much time making and spending money?

Simplicity is also about reducing our natural resource use and environmental impact. Living with less leads us to act as responsible global citizens. It may start reluctantly in the beginning, but at the same time we may feel that it is the right thing to do for our planet and our fellow humans.

Changes, such as taking public transit or biking to work, eating a simplified diet, or growing a garden, save you money, reduce your carbon footprint, and foster a sense of control and empowerment. These are things we will need in a post-consumer age.

The financial funny stuff of 2008 changed everything. Life is different from the previous high-consumption, endless resource ways. Going forward change will be the only constant, as economic and environmental limits require us to simplify further. 

It is preferable that the shift to simplicity occur proactively and voluntarily, but our route to more sustainable, satisfying lives may start involuntarily in some cases. This is not to say that we can't learn from these situations, or that we won't end up with better lives in the end. We just need to see our predicament as an opportunity, and seize simplicity.

April 22, 2011

Make Every Day Earth Day

If we forget, in the busyness of our manufactured lives, the endless gifts of the earth, today is a great time to pause and remember. We are born of the earth, survive by it, and return to it in the end. It deserves more respect.

Living small footprint, more sustainable lives puts the health of the earth as the number one priority. It honours the bounty of the environment, and vows to use it wisely. It is developing a new relationship with each other, and all of nature.

Living more gently is the best gift we can give the earth today, and every other day.

April 21, 2011

Simple Exercise: 10 000 Steps A Day

Walk your way to fitness (click for animation)

It often feels difficult to get the exercise we require to maintain fitness. But the route to health can be as simple as taking more steps per day. We need to get around anyway, and there are easy ways to incorporate more motion in your daily schedule. A bit more walking could make the difference between obesity and illness, and optimal weight and fitness.

The average person takes about 3000 - 5000 steps every day. Some are finding that a simple program of 10,000 steps a day is providing positive results. 10,000 steps is a distance of about 8 kilometers (5 miles).

In one challenge, four participants were recruited for a walking program. The goals were to lose weight and improve health. Could walking more make a difference?

The program participants were tested on various targets before and after the 6 week period. It is usually accepted that the human body needs about 10 to 12 weeks to show significant change after starting an exercise program. However, the participants showed encouraging changes in a period half as long. Maintaining our ideal weight and fitness may be that simple.

Pedometer/Step Counter
Canada's fitness guidelines were recently reduced for a reluctant and roly poly population. With only 12% of children, and less than half of adults meeting the old guidelines, officials felt that even minimal amounts of activity would have positive effects on the health of an increasingly sedentary population. And you don't want to discourage anyone before they even start.

Canada's New Fitness Guidelines

The recommended amount of active time for adults was cut from 60 minutes daily to 150 minutes weekly. Children's active time was cut from 90 minutes per day, to an hour. And people over 65, who are now being told to be active for 30 to 60 minutes per day have had that time cut to 150 minutes of moderate activity a week.

Ways To Increase Activity To 10,000 Steps A Day
  • take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • park farther away from your destination
  • walk to your destination
  • take a short walk at lunch
  • get off the bus/subway before your stop
  • use a pedometer for motivation and to record your progress (Check your music player and mobile phone as step counters are being integrated into portable electronic devices)
  • take the dog for a walk
  • take your kids for a walk
  • let your kids take you for a walk
  • team up with a walking buddy, or buddies
  • find a nice walking loop in the area around your home and/or office
  • plan walking meetings with colleagues 
  • time yourself (1000 steps in 10 minutes counts as moderate exercise)
If you are out of shape, start slowly. Increase the number of steps you take over time until you reach the target of 10,000 per day. You may want to consult with your physician before you begin this, or any other, exercise program.

Walking programs have been shown to lead to significant decreases in body mass index and blood pressure, as well promote weight loss and well-being. Nordic walking, or walking with two poles, is even better as it incorporates your upper body in a more active manner. You can burn up to 26% more calories with poles than without.

Walking is enjoyable, simple exercise. Minimal equipment, and no membership fees. Just you and your feet (and I highly recommend the poles). Enjoy your steps to fitness.

April 19, 2011

Give Your Stuff Away Day

"Pleasure is spread through the earth in stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find." - William Wordsworth

Let's face it - most of us have piles of stuff driving us crazy. One way to organize the mess is to give it away. In the name of purging, generosity, efficiency, and environmentalism, Mike Morone proposed an International Give Your Stuff Away Day on May 14th, 2011. Having attended several excellent 'Reuse Fairs', I have seen how effective such efforts can be.

Click to enlarge
You can give away some of that clutter in your home, garage, or yard by setting it at the curb on the 14th. You will be creating 'stray gifts' for others to use and enjoy. Free.

Go for a walk in your hood to see if you can find your own stray gifts. Better yet, organize a Neighbourhood Swap on this day. Or Free Sale. Reuse Fair. Or Stray Gift Event.

Be creative, have fun, give generously, get some things you need (control yourself or it defeats the whole purpose of purging), and help get all that stuff languishing and unwanted into circulation.

And all without the added hassle and concern over maximizing how much money you can get for your unwanted things. If you don't want an item, it essentially has no value to you anyway. We can give and receive free of the tyranny of the marketplace.

Get organized - give your unwanted stuff away. It's fun. It's liberating. It's happening May 14th.

April 17, 2011


"True contentment depends not upon what we have; a tub was large enough for Diogenes, but the world was too little for Alexander."     Charles Caleb Colton

For about the past 10 years I have been quite content to not buy anything, or hardly anything. Living a small footprint lifestyle, and trying to approach sustainability has been rewarding and satisfying. Ultimately, it has made my life better, because I am just not into the whole buying and selling thing.

In the movie Say Anything the character Lloyd Dobbler (played by John Cusack) said, "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that." I can relate.

One of my favourite things about living simply is that it has largely taken me out of the marketplace, except for basic things we all need. When I get money I put it in the bank - I can't think of anything else to do with it, as far as 'shopping' is concerned. I don't like shopping, and besides, I have what I need.

I have warm, dry shelter in a location I love. I eat fresh, tasty, whole foods. I have supportive friends and family in my community. I have time for creative activities like playing guitar, reading, and writing. I spend lots of time in nature.

My education has given me the desire to ask questions, seek answers, and apply what I know to make the world a better place. I feel safe and secure (as much as you can living in an earthquake/tsunami zone, or worse, under the increasingly right-wing Harper regime). I have a great partner that is my best friend. I have a healthy mind and body, although the 'healthy mind' might be a bit of an exaggeration.

To me, that all seems like enough. Would making my life faster and more complex make me happier? Could earning and spending more money increase my freedom and joy? I don't think so.

I feel like Richard Feynman when he said, "I am completely free, and there are no levers that can be used to influence me." I am the system's worst nightmare - I am content.

April 15, 2011

The Simple Life Of World's Oldest Man: RIP Walter Breuning

“We're all going to die. Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you're born to die."  - Walter Breuning

Walter Breuning, shown above on his last birthday, attributed his extended years to "cigarettes, whiskey and wild, wild women - and a good sense of humor". Obviously a character, I am glad he had the opportunity to share some of the wisdom gained over the past 114 years before he passed on.

Mr. Breuning spoke to 100 attendees at his birthday party, and advocated a message of tolerance, saying "With all the hatred in this world, in this good world, let us be kind to one another." He also spoke about the importance of embracing change, especially the ultimate change, death.

Breuning wisely advised us to not be afraid of death. Easy to say when you are young and feeling immortal, but quite brave when you never know when today might be your last day on this good earth.

This long distance runner on the track of life was born on 21 September 1896, in Minnesota. His family had no electricity or running water for the first 10 years of his life. When he was 18 he moved to Montana and worked for the railway for the next 50 years. His wife died in 1957 and he never remarried. He retired in 1963, and lived in a tiny studio room in a retirement community since 1980.

The world's oldest man attributed his longevity to eating modestly, and keeping active (in addition to cigarettes, whiskey, wild women, and humour).  "If you keep your mind and your body active you will be around for a long time," he said.

RIP Walter Bruening. Thanks for the advice.

"Once you accept your own death, all of a sudden you're free to live. You no longer care about your reputation. You no longer care except so far as your life can be used tactically to promote a cause you believe in."
- Saul Alinsky 

"I think we should look forward to death more than we do. Of course everybody hates to go to bed or miss anything, but dying is really the only chance we'll get to rest."

- Florynce Kennedy

April 13, 2011

Sleeping Under The Stars vs. A Messy Garage

Sleeping under the stars is as basic as it gets

Frost & Hartl's ('96) definition of clinical hoarding:

(1) the acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions that appear to be of useless or of limited value; (2) living spaces sufficiently cluttered so as to preclude activities for which those spaces were designed; and (3) significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by the hoarding.

I watched my first episode of Hoarders recently when I had access to a TV with more than one fuzzy channel. After two episodes I didn't need to see any more. It made me think about these individuals that make up less than 1% of the population, but represent a situation most of us are familiar with in some way in our own lives.

Hoarders represent the far end of the spectrum - hyperstuffism. At the other end we have hypostuffism, or asceticism - living without stuff. The majority of us fall somewhere in between the two, but we may show signs of both.

For example, I enjoy simple surroundings, and have always enjoyed camping. Of all the places I have slept, the best were nights spent in a tent in the wilderness. I have always loved how primal it feels, with nothing separating you from the life surrounding you.

For the full effect, when nights are nice enough, I like to sleep under the stars. I have been woken up by mice repeatedly jumping off of drift logs onto my sleeping bag while I camped out on the beach. I find that kind of simplicity exhilarating.

Then I turn attention to my inner hoarder, because despite my enjoyment of living the pared down life, I also exhibit some traits from the other end of the spectrum. When I look around my living space I can see my own brushes with acquisition, clutter, and impairment of function.

How about the paper plate that a gift of Christmas cookies came on? I can't seem to get rid of it - I found a (questionable) use for it as I absorbed it into my loot lair. Then there is my stash of paper bags of all sizes. Those are useful. Aren't they? Boxes of old bills. Things I haven't used for years taking up room both in my space and my head.

Funny thing is, the definition at the top describes most of us, although in a less clinical way. The owners of most of the garages I have peered into could be seen as exhibiting all of the criteria of hoarding. And there is little doubt that our collections of stuff are causing "significant distress or impairment" both personally and globally.

One solution is to not involve oneself in "the acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions that appear to be of useless or of limited value". But that is darn hard to achieve, and doesn't this describe most of our stuff?

Am I free of the burden of stuff?
If you have ever seen an episode of Hoarders you will know how hard it is for the patients to relieve themselves of their things. But in order to relieve the distress and impairment, possessions that are of limited value or are causing dysfunction, must be eliminated.  

It will be easier for those of us that have not been diagnosed as clinical hoarders, but we may still feel some discomfort as we transform our lives toward increased sustainability and freedom.

But it will be worth it, and it will be a wonderful thing. Like mice using you for a trampoline in the middle of the night as you fall sleep under the stars listening to waves breaking on the beach. A tad unnerving, but when all is said and done, more free and joyful than a messy garage.

April 11, 2011

Whatever Sells The Most

"To foster cooperation among you, only two of your chutes will open."

"Competition means that we don't get to come together and decide what would be best for ourselves and the world as a group; nor do we get to decide those things as individuals. 
Instead the projects our species undertakes and the changes we make in the world are decided by the laws of competition, by whatever SELLS the most."              
From: daysofwarnightsoflove.com

April 10, 2011

Mr. MacLean's Prescription For Life

Another favourite bench

I don't know who R.B. MacLean was, but he was my kind of guy. Here, on another of my favourite benches, is a plaque with his prescription for life.

This bench brought to you by Love and Humour.

When we laugh we let our defenses down. We are who we really are, experiencing joy and the moment. I read an excellent article on idleness recently. It said, "Idleness is what happens when we allow our pace to slacken, and merge with the rhythms of the natural day.

Humour is much the same - when we laugh we take a step out of normal life and merge with the moment and natural rhythms. Being in nature provides similar results. As does sitting on benches with no agenda or deadline.

The best is having a good, long, sit down on a bench - in nature, with a friend, laughing together.

View from Mr. MacLean's beautiful bench
This post brought to you courtesy of Mr. R. MacLean, Darlene, and friends.

April 8, 2011

Love Is All You Need

I love you.
It may be that love is all you need, but, taking a look around I would say we need more of it.

The photo above, taken during the Egyptian revolution, is a testament to the power of love. If hate and conflict is the problem, responding with more hate and conflict only inflames the situation. Such problems will only be overcome when we are brave enough to apply their opposites - love and peace.

All you need is love may be cliche, and it may be simple, but that doesn't mean it's silly or untrue. We trivialize this vital nugget at our peril, because love IS all you need. Well, not technically - you need to eat and go to the bathroom, too. But if we have love, all will assuredly receive everything needed in order to thrive.

Are we increasing our capacity for love in the world? Instead of reporting how much our economy has grown or shrunk each year, we should report on how much our collective global capacity to love has grown or shrunk. A Global Love Index.

We should be asking how the decisions we are making affect the amount of love in our homes, communities, and the world. Are we creating more love? Or are we creating more of its opposite?

I am with the brave and compassionate Egyptian woman melting the soldier with love. Kisses and hugs for everyone! Yes, everyone. Especially for those who we have the most trouble reaching out to.

Let's talk some truths, reconcile, and move on toward a more loving planet. Everything else will flow freely after we have made peace, and can love ourselves, and each other.

April 6, 2011

How To Simply Peel An Orange in 17 Seconds

Learn The Secret and you will never peel an orange like this again
I love oranges. Prior to learning The Secret to preparing these juicy fruits I sometimes felt frustration with the peeling process, and the resulting mess.

Then I met a fellow citrus lover who inducted me into the Citrus Peelers Guild with a 17 second secret citrus ceremony. Since that day I have employed what I learned to cleanly and effortlessly peel every orange I have eaten.

Now, I pass this minor, yet valuable knowledge on to you.

17 Second (Formerly) Secret Citrus Ceremony

Step 1

Cut both ends off the orange, taking care not to cut too far into the juicy bits.


 Ends off, elapsed time 4 sec.

Step 2

Vertical cuts, elapsed time 11 sec.

Cut into the peel from end to end. Repeat going around the orange, about 5 or 6 cuts. Don't cut too deep.

 Step 3

Use your thumb to easily remove the individual pieces of peel one at a time.

Remove sections of peel, elapsed time 17 sec

Step 4

Yum - Enjoy
Enjoy your cleanly peeled orange. It has a variety of health benefits. Oranges are full of anti-oxidants and Vitamin C. They have anti-inflammatory properties, and are a very good source of fiber.

Now that you know the secret to peeling an orange, may your life be simplified just that teeny bit more. Sometimes little things can make a big difference. We can talk about the guild handshake later, after I have enjoyed my orange.

April 4, 2011

No Rat Race Monday

Click to enlarge
"Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men's reality. Weird heros and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those that need it that the tyranny of "the rat race" is not yet final."
- Hunter S. Thompson

April 2, 2011

Take a Break: Do Nothing

Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something
George Carlin often paced the stage and wondered out loud about motivation. He didn't see any lack of motivation in the world, but observed that a lot of it seemed to be misdirected. We always feel that we need to "do something" because doing something is always the default setting. We don't want to be seen as unmotivated.

Most of us are motivated to do a lot. The 80/20 Rule states that about 20% of our efforts account for 80% of the results. Knowing this can help us live, by focusing on goals and the effective actions that help us meet them.

There is enough to do in life without adding things that do not get us closer to our goals. If 80% of outcomes are due to the most effective 20% of our actions, what about the 80% of what we do that accounts for only 20% of our results? Our ineffective efforts can be dropped to be focused on more fruitful activities. Like doing nothing.

We need time to do nothing. Not having a balance between action and rest affects our health and happiness. To get you started click on this link: Do Nothing For Two Minutes. It is harder than it seems.

I am curious about this frenetic phenomena, and am considering starting a companion blog to NBA called Not Doing Anything. Do you have difficulty doing nothing?

"All human evil comes from a single cause, man's inability to sit still in a room."
- Blaise Pascal

April 1, 2011

Simple Pleasures: Quiet

We all need a quiet zone

When I was in elementary school one of my uncles gave me a nickname. He called me "The Quiet Man", and it was a name that stuck for a while. I would have preferred something like 'Champ', but I suppose I was focused on unobtrusively observing life around me.

Not much has changed, and my uncle's tag is still applicable. To this day one of my simple pleasures is quiet. Peace and quiet.

A favourite pastime of mine, in case you have not yet visited Vancouver Island Big Trees (my other blog), is hanging out among giant, ancient trees. One reason I like these spots as much as I do is because they are quiet. Far from the sounds of civilization, and muffled in moss, the quiet descends.

The Forest: Lair of The Quiet Man
The forest is quiet enough to notice the smallest of sounds, once your ears have adjusted. Gentle, natural sounds, like dripping water, the wind in the tree tops, or the blood rushing through your veins.

Noise pollution is a grating distraction that we unfortunately get used to as the price of living a modern existence. We are constantly bombarded by sound, whether it is traffic crawling through your neighbourhood, or a refrigerator running in your kitchen. Television, radio, cell phones, computers, doorbells, car alarms - all are vicious vibrations threatening our sanity.

Constant, low-level stress results from this discordant din. We need periods of quiet. Peace and quiet. I know. I am the Quiet Man.

I prefer natural settings for peace and quiet, and am fortunate to live in a semi-rural, semi-silent location. There are regular sounds of life, building noises, but most of the time it is quiet. At those times the loudest sounds are Mallard ducks quacking, and eagles calling to each other. Or waves lapping against the sea wall.

A park bench is a nice place to take in some quiet

Thankfully, peace and quiet can also be found in urban settings. In the city, public libraries are great places to find a quiet spot. Parks, courtyards, places of worship, and gardens can be peaceful settings to take a moment or two to give your ears, and your brain, a break.

A room in your home can provide a few moments of sanctuary after shutting off all electronic devices. Give yourself some peace and quiet. Take a retreat from sound. Start with just a few minutes per day. Take more as needed.

Quiet. A necessary and simple pleasure. Shhh...