June 30, 2011

This Is Your Brain On Shopping

The insula plays a role in pain, and emotions including anger, fear, disgust, happiness and sadness. It may help us resist making unnecessary or expensive purchases.

After reading "On Deep History And The Brain" by Daniel Lord Smail, I have been thinking a lot about the explosion of brain research that has been quietly taking place over the past two decades. Neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain are telling us a lot about our feelings and behaviour.

Some of what we are discovering, discussed in Smail's book, concerns the consumer economy and shopping behaviour.

I have never been a big shopper. Unlike most people, for me it seems that shopping doesn't stimulate the production of feel good hormones in my brain. Not to say that I couldn't have used a shopping-induced dopamine boost from time to time as a way to relieve stress.

Constant levels of unpredictable stress causes the production of the glucocorticoids, the stress hormones. On-going high levels of these chemicals are not good for you. They are associated with sadness, anger, frustration and depression.

"The stress response is powerful... The human body triggers a complex cascade of hundreds of stress chemicals that invade and fortify every organ and muscle of the body. The problem comes when no release from stress follows this surge of preparation; held unabated, the stress response changes our physiology. This is what happens to us when we can't react to or escape from a fearful or threatening situation." 
- The Open-Focus Brain, Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing as it can motivate us to change and grow. It can motivate us to take action. However, problems occur when the stress is "unrelenting, prolonged and accumulating", as it has been over the past few years of economic turmoil.

Consumer culture provides a solution - shopping. Shopping diminishes the amount of stress hormones in the brain, and induces a flood of the feel good chemicals - dopamine, seretonin, oxytocin, and others. We associate these chemicals with happiness, relaxation, and a sense of security. We get a shopping high, and it temporarily alleviates the fear and anxiety.

Marketers (and now neuromarketers) and advertisers are, of course, well aware of the economic fear and status anxiety, and use the situation to manipulate our brain chemistry. The more glucocorticoids they can induce by making people lust for their often useless products and the unobtainable consumer fantasy they depict, the greater the stress that will be experienced.

After the shopping fix, the brain chemicals set back to a normal state, and the fear and anxiety takes over again. We need another fix to boost our dopamine levels and feel better again. But how long can the shopping therapy be sustained?

Canadians have reached a record debt-to-income ratio of 147% (in 2017 it is 167%, and 2018 it is 173%) trying to borrow and buy their way to happiness, but the brain chemicals still aren't balancing out.

All over the world beleaguered consumers are tapped out emotionally and financially. Done. Retail therapy is the ultimate snake oil, and Dr. B.A. Consumer is ducking out the back door with a big bag of loot.

However, understanding how our brains work can help put shopping into perspective. It can help us adopt healthier, more sustainable methods to achieve the required levels of brain chemicals needed to end the stress response, and achieve lasting happiness and contentment.

I don't like my brain on shopping, but I get enormous brain benefits from:
  • eating well (whole foods), 
  • getting adequate rest (8 - 10 hours/night), 
  • living a low stress lifestyle (time to take it easy), 
  • exercise (regular walking), 
  • and spending time in nature (my favourite method for eliciting the production of feel good brain chemicals).

June 27, 2011

No Luxury Monday

Diogenes taught that simplicity leads to happiness
Diogenes lived in Athens, Greece in the fourth century BC. He believed that happiness was achieved through meeting basic needs and eschewing luxury. He lived as he taught, and resided in a barrel in the Agora, an outdoor meeting place. 

Diogenes felt that the person with the most was the one who is content with the least.

While the barrel was enough for the Athenian, the world was not enough for Alexander the Great. He is to have said "Had I not been Alexander, I should have liked to be Diogenes."

Once, while Diogenes was sunning himself, Alexander came up to him and offered to grant him any request. "Stand out of my light," Diogenes replied.

Nothing can give us the deep pleasure and satisfaction as the basic, simple things in life. Luxury is counterproductive.

Better to sleep in a basic bed while free, than in a luxurious bed while bound.

June 26, 2011

When Fast Isn't Fast Enough

3 minutes is fast, but is it fast enough?
I was grocery shopping last week and had a good laugh. No, not at my bill. I was horrified at that - so many things are going up in price. Food is one of the only things I buy on a regular basis, and it is increasingly expensive. Not funny.

What I did find humourous, though, was an example of how ideas of fast and instant are reflected in food products. Aisle after aisle of often nutrient-deficient, quickly prepared foods for the chronically rushed. Fast foods for when fast is not fast enough.

First I glanced at the Cream of Wheat, a hot breakfast cereal. It is prepared in 3 minutes. That is fast. Anything that happens in my life in 3 minutes IS instant.

Right next to the slow cereal was a very similar product. It is made for those for whom 3 minutes is too long to wait. The other box was Cream of Wheat "Instant". If you are so inclined, you can have your morning hot cereal without delay, immediately, at once, and in a very short space of time. This way you can get on with the rest of your busy day near instantly.

Instant - ready in an almost imperceptible amount of time

I laughed that 3 minutes was too slow and necessitated a speedier cereal. I guess this is not so bad in a breakfast cereal, but the idea of instant has tended to infect the rest of our lives. Now we want all our desires met instantly - we want everything now.

Can't wait to save enough money for a desired purchase? That is what credit cards are for. A four year university degree is too long? There are programs now where you can graduate with a degree in half the time, as if hanging out with other curious people and learning together was a bad thing.

More Canadians than ever are buying expensive, extravagant homes that are 100% financed because it would take too long to save for a down payment. Instant homes, instant degrees, instant breakfast cereal, instant success. But faster is not always better.

What about delay of gratification? I was taught that it was a good thing to wait, persevere, and eventually through hard work achieve one's goal. Maybe it is old fashioned in today's fast-paced instant world, but at one time it was thought to build character and develop an appreciation for things.

A slow, simple life allows me to practice patience and appreciation. I like to enjoy time rather than always see it as my enemy. I like to have time to savour my moments, to compress both the past and the future into the present. I want to make sacrifices, set forth slowly, build anticipation, and through my efforts move relentlessly toward my goals. Only then is success as sweet as it can possibly be.

By the way, my favourite hot breakfast cereal is groats - they take about 30 minutes to prepare. That is a glacial pace in today's instant world, and I love it. They give me time to leisurely begin my day, unhurried by cereal that is ready too quickly.

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." — Ferris Bueller

June 23, 2011

Time To Break Our Rusty Cages And Run

Charlie Veitch and Danny Shine (The Love Police), are more commonly known as the "Everything is OK Guys". Armed with a megaphone, sarcasm, and alarming truths, they use street theater to try and wake people up.

As hurried, worried workers march through their lives, and as the police (or rent-a-uniform security personnel) look on, The Love Police go to work on sleep-walking citizens.

"Everything is OK", they announce, "Go back to your jobs. Keep shopping."

Usually when we hear that we should not worry and that everything is alright, we become suspicious, and for a good reason. Deep down we know better.

We can feel how civilization and capitalism has caged us. Once gilded, these cages are now tarnished and beginning to rust. Our homes are fancy cages as we 'cocoon' with our families, then we commute in wheeled cages to our cubical cages at work.

We are caged birds that don't see that the bars are weak, and the door is open - why don't we try to escape? Why don't we fly away?

It's no wonder Chris Cornell was compelled to write the song, "Break This Rusty Cage". It is one of my favourites, and it is no wonder Johnny Cash, artist of the people, covered this powerful Soundgarden tune. Johnny was all about breaking cages during his career.

A cage is a cage, whether it is gilded, or rusty. It is time to break out, regain our freedom, and RUN. The choice is ours, and people like the Love Police are here to remind us that we can, and should, break free.

"Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves."
~ Henry David Thoreau

June 21, 2011

Summer Solstice

Sun by Joe Wilson, Coast Salish artist, Duncan, BC

There is a reason ancient peoples worshiped the Sun. Without it the Earth would not exist as we know it, nor would we. At around 10:30 this morning the northern hemisphere reached the maximum tilt toward our star, the Sun. Summer Solstice brings that distant nuclear reaction to bear more directly upon our thawing land.

I celebrate that ball of burning gases that not only keeps me warm, but also lights everything around me during these long days. That light is abundant, and is constantly showering the planet. It is something we all share, like a primordial parent.

As Fukushima spews, global climate change plays out, and more and more of us spread across the land, it is comforting to consider things in a broader sense. In the vastness of geologic time, and astronomical dimensions of space, greater cycles are going on.

Thinking in these terms puts things into perspective, and provides a break from the hubris of humans.

It is good to notice nature's cycles so we can see how we can better live in line with them. Today is the first day of Summer, and I move forward with humility as I find my way within nature.

June 20, 2011

No Mall Monday

Public libraries are inspiring
I love public libraries. I can walk into a public library anywhere in the world and feel immediately at home. Some of my most memorable moments have been among the book shelves of libraries.

A bad day at the library is infinitely better than a great day at the shopping mall. I think Carl Sagan probably would have agreed:
"The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species.  I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries."  ~Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Last year my public library system had its budget cut by 20%.

June 19, 2011

Everything Is Fine

Ever since reading The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, I have been interested in people that subvert damaging mainstream messages. The characters in Abbey's book were blowing up and cutting down billboards, but today's activist is more likely to adbust billboards, and 'liberate' them for their own messages.

Adbusting anti-consumer groups have sprung up in recent years to fight the corrosive effects of ever-present corporate advertising. Adbusters is one such group based out of Vancouver, BC. Anti-advertisements hit back with the same weapons being used against us in the war on our minds, wallets and planet.

Madrid Street Advertising Takeover (MSAT) is a civil disobedience project intent on changing expectations of public behavior in our shared environments. Even more than challenging advertisers and the keep shopping gang, groups like this are putting the 'public' back into 'public spaces'.

MSAT says of its displays,
"The result is a variety of unique visions of public dialogue and a glimpse at the possibilities available when we open up our public environment in a truly public way." See more here.
Advertisers and the corporate world have taken control of our shared spaces with ubiquitous messages to "buy, buy, buy". Combined with for-profit media conglomerates, the official message is "Everything is fine. Keep shopping".

But is it, really? Should we continue mindlessly trying to buy our way to the promised better life?

I don't think so.

Liberated billboard by Shoreditch Department of Advertising Correction, UK

June 17, 2011

Simple Pleasures: Laughter

I enjoy laughing a lot, and I think most people do. Laughing, giggling, guffawing, and letting go is good for you. Usually.

In my high school days I was driving my family's car with a friend riding shotgun. My friend told me a joke that made me laugh so hard I sailed through a yield sign with my head thrown back.

In my state of hilarity I did not notice the truck bearing down on us from the left. It hit us in the rear of the car. After spinning completely around we landed in a shroud of dust on the manicured front lawn of a tidy house.

At the time that incident was not very funny. Especially when the family ride was written off and sent to the auto wreckers. But it makes me laugh now, especially to consider how my laughter ended up in us getting a new car.

Laughter is an expression of joy experienced in the moment. It is as essential an ingredient in life as food, but is not fattening in the least. Quite the opposite - humour and laughter are good for us.
"Your sense of humor provides a powerful antidote to immuno-suppressive effects of stress in two ways, through:
  1. Direct effects of humor and laughter upon the immune system,
  2. Indirect effects resulting from humor’s ability to help you cope on the tough days.
The simple truth is that happy people generally don’t get sick."
- Bernie Siegel
Indulge yourself, and have a good, hard laugh. Repeat. But please, only when it is safe to do so. 

Warning: Do not convulse with hilarity, have a fit of laughter, or ROFL while operating machinery.

June 16, 2011

Self-Control Leads To Happiness

Disgruntled drunks lose control in downtown Vancouver (again) after disappointing hockey loss, Image: Vancouver Sun

“If a man will understand how intimately, yea, how inseparably, self-control and happiness are associated, he has but to look into his own heart, and upon the world around,...Looking upon the lives of men and women, he will perceive how the hasty word, the bitter retort, the act of deception, the blind prejudice and foolish resentment bring wretchedness and even ruin in their train.”      
-  James Allen

If we can't control ourselves there will never be enough police. If we can control ourselves, we don't need police.

June 15, 2011

Of Disposable Income And Debt Bondage

Since the 80s we have fewer and fewer dollars to spend or save

When I think of the word 'disposable', I think of throwing away something that is of no use. When it comes to finances, though, the meaning is different - disposable in this context means "freely available for use". Therefore, disposable income is money you have, after taxes, that is freely available to spend or save.

I think that the former definition is more accurate, though. Disposable income for most of us, means money that we can throw away on things we don't need. Any money freely available for use, is used.

But as can be seen on the graph above, disposable income has been steadily dropping since the 1980s. Most of us, outside the top earners who have actually enjoyed increased disposable income, are finding that we have less and less money to spend or save as we see fit.

In recent years compensating for diminishing disposable income has meant taking on more debt in order to maintain high-consumption lifestyles. Although the tide has begun to turn, and debt levels are slowly decreasing, debt is still dangerously high compared to historical levels.

Throwing away money on things we don't need has always been costly, but it is much more costly when it is done with borrowed money. Why? Because permanent debt bondage means the end of freedom. It restricts our choices and options, and reduces our independence.

John Perkins, in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, writes that the the modern equivalent of enslavement is not by force, but by debt. It is a choice that many feel they have to make, and just about everyone I know has chosen to be enslaved by the banks in exchange for things they don't need.

RVs, McMansions, new vehicles, international vacations, and a wide variety of toys are keeping people in a revolving door of debt. As Ogden Nash wisely observed, "Some debts are fun when you are acquiring them, but none are fun when you set about retiring them."

Endless debt is the opposite of simple, sustainable living. It is the opposite of freedom and independence. The average debtor enjoys pleasant distractions as well as social strokes, but along with this comes stress, depression, dependence, and inequality. It is not easy struggling with persistent debt.

The following quote shows how debt bondage has been working out for the average worker as opposed to the average owner:
"In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2007, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers).
Debt has its place in modern society, but permanent debt does not.

The first step toward the freedom of a sustainable, simple life is getting the debt monkey off your back. If disposable income decreases we can choose to reduce our spending rather than maintain it through borrowing. A reduction in personal spending and adoption of a lower consumption lifestyle lead to a whole host of benefits.

We can choose to break free and regain our independence, and can start by adopting Rule #1: Spend less than you make. Only then will debt be demolished, and emancipation be possible.

June 13, 2011

Notice Nature Monday

One major reason I live simply is so I can be unhurried enough to notice nature every day. On the weekend we watched our first Common merganser creche of the spring. We wait for it every year, and it never fails to bring joy to our lives after a long winter.

The flotilla consisted of one adult female tending to about 15 hungry, fish-eating puffballs of infinite cuteness. Several tired chicks were hitchhiking on the female's back. Watch out, little ones, for eagles are raising families here, too.

I like to be close to the Earth so I can hear, and learn, her quiet lessons.

Earth teach me stillness
as the grasses are stilled with light.
Earth teach me suffering
as old stones suffer with memory.
Earth teach me humility
as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth teach me caring
as the mother who secures her young.

Earth teach me courage
as the tree which stands all alone.
Earth teach me limitation
as the ant which crawls upon the ground.
Earth teach me freedom
as the eagle which soars in the sky.
Earth teach me resignation
as the leaves which die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration
as the seed which rises in the spring.

Earth teach me to forget myself
as melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness
as dry fields weep with rain.

- Ute Prayer

June 12, 2011

The Stockholm Memorandum - It Is Time To Simplify

It looks like the NBA blog is in good company, although you don't need to be a genius to know that the planet is in trouble and needs our help, pronto. But some of our greatest minds did put their heads together recently, and came up with a few recommendations for saving the world.

The 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability took place this May, and brought together more than twenty Nobel Laureates, leading policy makers, and some of the world's most renowned thinkers and experts on global sustainability. Participants agreed that the basic analysis is beyond question - environmental stresses are reaching a breaking point, and the time for action is now.

The Stockholm Memorandum: Tipping The Scales Towards Sustainability, states in part:
"Humans are now the most significant driver of global change, propelling the planet into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. We can no longer exclude the possibility that our collective actions will trigger tipping points, risking abrupt and irreversible consequences for human communities and ecological systems. We cannot continue on our current path. The time for procrastination is over. We cannot afford the luxury of denial."
The symposium recommends urgent and far-reaching actions for decision makers and societies to become active stewards of the planet for future generations.

  • Environment and development must go hand in hand.
  • Develop new welfare indicators that address the shortcomings of GDP. 
  • Keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius
  • Environmental sustainability is a precondition for poverty eradication, and social justice.
  • With almost a third of the world living on less than $2 per day, we must, as a priority, achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
  • Foster a new agricultural revolution where more food is produced in a sustainable way on current agricultural land.
  • Inspire and encourage scientific literacy especially among the young.
After putting their heads together, the concerned participants concluded that human pressures are challenging the resilience of the planet, while inequalities remain high. They maintain that the only way to move towards fair and lasting prosperity for present and future generations is along a pathway of environmental sustainability.

One thing I notice in the Stockholm Memorandum is that they are describing, without naming, voluntary simplicity as a solution to our most pressing problems. If high-consumption nations took up this call for action, and adopted voluntary simplicity as a solution, many problems concerning environmental degradation and inequality would be addressed.

You don't need to be a genius to see that we are destroying the only planet that we have, and that in order to turn things around we will require different models for living. Voluntary simplicity is such a model, and one that this forum is not the first to allude to. Gandhi knew decades ago that we can provide for every one's need, but NOT everyone's greed.

Let's not wait. This is not the time for continued denial and procrastination. This is the time for action. We would be wise to adopt the motto of H.D. Thoreau, "Simplify, simplify, simplify", as soon as possible.

June 11, 2011

A Punk State Of Mind

"Beethoven broke all the rules, and turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness."
- Leonard Bernstein From: deviantART

I am not a card carrying punk, although I do appreciate listening to a good, thrashing, high energy tune or two before going out and battling greed and denial for the day.

I respect any group that rejects mainstream bullshit, and makes a point of destroying corrosive concepts such as high society, luxury, and privilege.

That is how I found myself reading "Portrait of a Thousand Punks: Hard Core Logo" by Canadian artist Nick Craine. It is a brilliant graphic novel that, through the telling of Hard Core Logo's story, tells the brief, flaming story of the punk movement.

Some would say that punk is dead. Thousands of punks, and the punk deep inside each one of us would disagree, for the energy of punk is the energy that we will need to radically change the world. But what is punk?

In the Introduction to Portrait of a Thousand Punks, Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies) provides his answer. I share an excerpt from his introduction here.

What is punk?

"Punk is: Buddy Bolden high-stepping through the French quarter, blowing maniacally; Robert Johnson returning from the crossroads; Hank Williams with his voice and pen spilling tears and blood; Charlie Parker cutting all comers on 58th Street; Elvis Presley launching into "That's All Right"; John Lennon shredding his vocal cords on "Twist and Shout"; Ornette Coleman weaving his plastic alto through smaller and smaller concentric circles; and Patti Smith firing her opening salvo with the line "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine."

Punk is standing up and declaring "Fuck this and Fuck that... I'll do it my way."

It is taking on convention and
and most importantly
tearing convention down.

It is action and commitment.
It is not hair colour, clothing, accents, age, record sales,
recording contracts, press clippings, poses, T-shirts, badges,
body fluids, videos, or tattoos.

It is energy.
An energy complex and mysterious enough to destroy and create at the same time.
Not possible to harness.
Not possible to bottle.
Not possible to recreate once dissipated.
Of the eight punks listed earlier six died

An energy that burns too hot to be contained by mere skin.
It is a form of expression that hits you
so hard    and
so deep   and
so meaningfully            it
grabs you by the stomach
picks you up out of your chair
drags you across the floor
and knocks you so silly that by the time it's through with you
you are seeing the world
your life
in a completely new light."

Yes, that is exactly what we need - to see the world, and our lives, in a completely new light. In the light of simplicity, a slow pace, equality, and fairness. In the light of freedom to be who you are, and to follow your passions while being supported by your community. In the light of living lightly on the land.

Let's question the damaging ways of civilization and capitalism. When we find things we don't like, let's have enough attitude and bravery to say, "Fuck this and Fuck that - I'll do it my way."

Let's break all the rules and create a world of 'breathtaking rightness'.

June 10, 2011

Learning Through Lightening The Load

In an ongoing effort to reduce the amount of stuff in our home, we recently unearthed several heavy boxes of old bills, receipts, and bank statements. I felt like a cashologist as we opened the time capsules representing a large chunk of our financial past.

Our goal was to pull a Conrad Black and shred the majority of the evidence, but we knew it would also be an opportunity for learning.

We review our bank statements monthly, but going through the boxes was a multi-year review. Reflected in the numbers on reams of paper was how our spending has changed over the past few years.

Sometimes it feels like we have cut as much as we can from our budget, but then we always seem to be able to cut more. In our statements we could see how we have made continued progress toward fulfilling our goal of not buying anything that we don't need.

We have drastically cut vehicle use, so our spending on transportation was down. It was interesting to see how much we used to spend on America's favourite recreational drug. Booze disappeared from the paper trail in 2009 when we quit drinking. We have saved many hundreds of dollars since then, and I sure don't miss the hangovers.

Over the years our clothing budget decreased to the point of being virtually non-existent. It is amazing how long clothes last when you care for them, and not for fashion. However, I still occasionally get new socks and underwear. Well, new to me, anyway. I am joking - Practical Santa brings new underwear every Christmas.

Alcohol and clothes are one thing, food is another. Our statements showed that we were successfully cutting spending on food, until recent food price hikes.

In response we quit coffee, and replaced it with green tea and chai tea. Both are considerably less expensive than coffee. This has helped, but one does need to eat a certain amount of whole, fresh food every day. Next to implementing a calorie-restricted diet, what is one to do?

Partially due to our ballooning food budget, this spring we increased the size of our square inch garden. We will be enjoying near-free micro-harvests of beans, lettuce, spinach, snow peas, potatoes, strawberries, chives, and oregano. Even if the financial benefit is fairly small, the garden therapy is priceless.

Our shredding party resulted in a major reduction in piles of unnecessary, cluttery paper. The cashologists in us were encouraged by the progress we saw written in the statements sent for recycling. The time capsule revealed that we have been buying less and less over the years. That is what we expected, but it was nice to have it confirmed.

The best thing is that we have not felt any decrease in quality of life associated with the decrease in spending. The amount of money we have been spending, or not spending, has not decreased our level of happiness. If anything, it has increased it.

What do your financial time capsules say about spending habits and happiness? Be a cashologist and unearth the story with a 'Lighten and Learn'.

June 8, 2011

Hungry? Living In An RV? Move On Buddy...

(click to enlarge) From: LA Times

More and more cities are becoming officially anti-poor, but not as in helping eliminate poverty. Burbank, as shown by the above cartoon, isn't the best place to park your RV or other such wheeled abode for the night. So much for the freedom of the open road. Municipalities can think up all kinds of crazy bylaws to discourage the poor from, well, living, basically.

A friend recently told me of one such bylaw which states something like, "It is unlawful to feed the homeless". Orlando and Houston are two cities that a quick search reveals do not allow sympathetic citizens to help the less fortunate eat. You would think we were talking about feeding wild animals in a national park.

So much for simplicity and compassion. "Move along non-rich slackers. Nothing to eat here. Oh, and that will be $5 bucks for parking here last night. Please pay before you leave our town and never come back... unless you get money to spend."

Soon only the rich will have non-wheeled, stationary homes, and enough to eat. What will the rest of us do?

June 7, 2011

A Leap Backward

Maybe not that far back...

If we are going to save ourselves we are going to have to take a leap backward. We are going to have to turn the tide and adopt the simpler, more compassionate ways from whence we all came.

As the Chinese proverb teaches, it is better to take small steps in the right direction, than to take a huge leap forward, only to stumble backwards to regain your balance. Sometimes it is right to move forward, at other times a few steps back is the right move.

Right now we are stumbling, and once we regain our balance, we are going to have to take a few steps back. Steps back to a time when we did not take our good fortune for granted, knew our neighbours, and were satisfied with the small things in life.

A time when life was slower, more personal, and more local. When food came from the backyard garden, or your friend's farm down the road. When a vacation meant camping at a lake on the outskirts of town for a couple of days. When entertainment was something people created, not purchased.

When houses were small, and yards were big. When you had to harangue the kids to come in from outside, instead of trying to coax them into the great outdoors and away from a screen-lit dark room. A time when we could take a moment to share our lives with each other.

The answer to our limitless demands for more is not in finding new resources, and increasing complexity and competitiveness. It is in limiting desires, simplifying the way we live, and establishing communities where we can support each other.

If we are looking for a leap forward to save us, perhaps we are looking in the wrong direction.

June 6, 2011

No SOV Monday

This Week is Environment Week in Canada

Commuter Challenge

The Commuter Challenge runs for the whole week (June 5 - 11). It is a nation-wide event that promotes friendly competition among organizations and cities to see who can get the highest percentage of employees out of single occupancy vehicles (SOV), and into healthier and cleaner modes of commuting such as walking, cycling, transit, carpooling, vanpooling and teleworking.

June 5, 2011

We Are More Than What We Consume

Duane Elgin, one of my favourite writers and thinkers on voluntary simplicity, has said that "since World War II, we’ve seen the most massive experiment that’s ever been undertaken in programming the psyche of a civilization. And it has worked."

He describes how the advertising culture has succeeded in creating identity consumption — a feeling that our meaning in life depends upon what we consume.

Careers and work are another way we build our identity in the present economic model. How you make money, and how you spend money are critical in establishing who we are.

We know we need to learn to live with less, but we are constantly being encouraged to consume more, become more. But if this corporate-sponsored identity is wrapped up in how and what we consume, what happens when we stop consuming for these purposes? What happens to our identity? Who will we be? How will others view us?

These are very real fears that keep the pressure on to stay in jobs we dislike, and continue consuming more when we know we need to stop. If I am identified by what I do, the size of my house, what kind of car I drive, and by holidays in exotic locations, what happens when I give it all up for the simple life?

No full time paid job, no house, no car, and staycations for all holidays. No identity?

In a simplified lifestyle you cease to identify with how you make and spend money. Freed from the burdens of careers, and buying/maintaining a busy life of identity consumption, you have time to discover who you really are. Your meaning begins to come from non-corporate, non-trademarked sources.

As you rebuild your identity from the inside out, rather than the other way around, you are emancipated, freed from the mental and physical drudgery of constantly striving to make more money, to get more stuff, so you can become more of a person in the eyes of everyone else who is doing the same thing.

We do not need to be afraid. Our fears are understandable, but easily overcome. We can stop striving for this artificial identity. We can deprogram ourselves, live more simply, be happier, and live as our true selves, supported by friends, family, and the community. It will be better for us, the planet, and future generations.

June 3, 2011

Be Open To The Miraculous

Lettuce flowers

"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle.

The other is as though everything is a miracle."

- Albert Einstein

They smell divine

June 2, 2011

Inspired By A Way Of Life

Do it yourself pot scrubber

How do we change the world? I choose to tap into personal inspiration through simple living to affect small changes within my limited sphere of influence. Some say, though, that our small individual efforts toward environmental healing will make little to no difference overall. These naysayers propose that only top down government directives will create the meaningful changes that are sorely needed.

I don't think I am going to solve the world's problems by fashioning my own pot scrubbers out of plastic mesh produce bags. And if I never used toilet paper again I'm not going to save more than a tree or two. But this does not deter me from following the ways of thinking and living that have lead to these personal actions.

In my mind, there is no question as to whether such minute, individual actions make a difference when up against our biggest global challenges. They do.

Conducting the minutia of my life as if my decisions made a difference causes me to think about and look at the world in a different way. It leads me to question the way things are done, and whether I can improve them. It causes me to ask, "What can I do right here, right now, with what I have at hand?", even if that means making a pot scrubber from reused resources readily at hand rather than purchase a pot scrubber from the dollar store.

Thousands of years of history will reveal the dismal environmental track record of governments of all types since the beginning of civilization up to the present day. If we wait for governments to take action it will be too late. They work on an election cycle, and what we need is more like a 10,000 year plan.

Even when governments eventually come on board and legislate environmental behaviours that recognize the finite nature of our planet, it will still come down to each of us choosing to comply. It will take a blend of top down, and bottom up environmental action to address our challenges. Both individuals and governments have a responsibility to create needed changes. However, I am not waiting for government.

I am doing what I can now, and it is making a difference. How else does anything get done, except by each of us individually trying to do the right thing at the right time? That is what we are naturally inspired to do, and that is how we will collectively achieve our goal of saving the planet and ourselves. If government decides to join us, so much the better, but we are moving ahead, regardless, and it feels great.

"If you do anything with a narrow mindset, it makes you think according to a calculus of success and failure. Obviously when you are up against powerful interests, there are greater chances of failure than success. But when your work is inspired by a way of life and thinking, that process becomes a reward unto itself." - Vandana Shiva, Indian environmental activist, recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, defender of farmers