A Minimalist Experiment

What would life be like if you set completely different priorities? Here’s one answer:

If someone told me seven years ago, in my final year of a business and economics degree, that I’d now be living without money, I’d have probably choked on my microwaved ready meal. The plan back then was to get a ‘good’ job, make as much money as possible, and buy the stuff that would show society I was successful.

For a while I did it – I had a fantastic job managing a big organic food company; had myself a yacht on the harbour. If it hadn’t been for the chance purchase of a video calledGandhi, I’d still be doing it today. Instead, for the last fifteen months, I haven’t spent or received a single penny. Zilch.

The change in life path came one evening on the yacht whilst philosophising with a friend over a glass of merlot. Whilst I had been significantly influenced by the Mahatma’s quote “be the change you want to see in the world”, I had no idea what that change was up until then. We began talking about all major issues in the world – environmental destruction, resource wars, factory farms, sweatshop labour – and wondering which of these we would be best devoting our time to. Not that we felt we could make any difference, being two small drops in a highly polluted ocean.

But that evening I had a realisation. These issues weren’t as unrelated as I had previously thought – they had a common root cause. I believe the fact that we no longer see the direct repercussions our purchases have on the people, environment and animals they affect is the factor that unites these problems. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased so much that it now means we’re completely unaware of the levels of destruction and suffering embodied in the ‘stuff’ we buy.

Very few people actually want to cause suffering to others; most just don’t have any idea that they directly are. The tool that has enabled this separation is money, especially in its globalised format.

Take this for an example: if we grew our own food, we wouldn’t waste a third of it as we do today.

If we made our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior décor.

If we had to clean our own drinking water, we probably wouldn’t shit in it.

So to be the change I wanted to see in the world, it unfortunately meant I was going to have to give up money, which I decided to do for a year initially. So I made a list of the basics I’d need to survive. I adore food, so it was at the top. There are four legs to the food-for-free table: foraging wild food, growing your own, bartering and using waste grub, of which there far too much.

This guy is no doubt busy, but in a good way. I don’t know what our culture and economy would look like if everyone tried to live like this. But I do know that there is probably a hybrid somewhere in between a system of consumerist capitalism and this sort of minimalism. And I think it mostly could be catalyzed if the costs of everything reflected their environmental and social costs as well as their production costs. We’d produce less, earn less, consume less. And production and marketing would be completely transformed.

Getting Trashed: The Electronics Pile-Up

We love flat screens. We buy flat screens. We throw away the old stuff.

But what happens with all that old stuff, which has lots of toxic components? It piles up, and pollutes, making mountains of our hyper-consumer addictions.

Here’s the New York Times:

As recently as a few years ago, broken monitors and televisions like those piled in the warehouse were being recycled profitably. The big, glassy funnels inside these machines — known as cathode ray tubes, or CRTs — were melted down and turned into new ones.

But flat-screen technology has made those monitors and televisions obsolete, decimating the demand for the recycled tube glass used in them and creating what industry experts call a “glass tsunami” as stockpiles of the useless material accumulate across the country…

…In 2004, recyclers were paid more than $200 a ton to provide glass from these monitors for use in new cathode ray tubes. The same companies now have to pay more than $200 a ton to get anyone to take the glass off their hands.

So instead of recycling the waste, many recyclers have been storing millions of the monitors in warehouses, according to industry officials and experts. The practice is sometimes illegal since there are federal limits on how long a company can house the tubes, which are environmentally dangerous. Each one can include up to eight pounds of lead.

The scrap metal industry estimates that the amount of electronic waste has more than doubled in the past five years.

A little over a decade ago, there were at least 12 plants in the United States and 13 more worldwide that were taking these old televisions and monitors and using the cathode ray tube glass to produce new tubes. But now, there are only two plants in India doing this work.

This is just another reminder of how a failure to price the environmental impact of goods into the sales price (instead of the production cost alone) leads to manufacturing and consumption habits that trash the planet. Add in the carbon lifecycle cost, the environmental impact cost, and the recycling cost to a television, and manufacturers will make different, more durable, and less harmful TVs. And consumers will not be so quick to throw the old one away when they suddenly want to upgrade.

The failure to use this sort of pricing is, to me, the single biggest failure of capitalism and the free market approach. Externalities matter. A lot.

George Orwell On Money And Status

From Jack Shafer, by way of Andrew Sullivan, comes this penetrating and scathing prose from George Orwell:

The interesting thing about the New Albion was that it was so completely modern in spirit. There was hardly a soul in the firm who was not perfectly well aware that publicity – advertising – is the dirtiest ramp that capitalism has yet produced. In the red lead firm there had still lingered certain notions of commercial honor and usefulness. But such things would have been laughed at in the New Albion. Most the employees were the hard-boiled, Americanized, go-getting type to whom nothing in the world is sacred, except money. They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertizing is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket. And yet beneath their cynicism there was the final naivete, the blind worship of the money-god…

If ever there was a reminder of the incisiveness and scorn that Orwell could summon, that is it. The quote comes from Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying, which was published in 1936. The novel features Gordon Comstock, who tries to disdain and defy the Money God. Sadly, he loses (or at least his life is cast into misery). But  most of us know all about that, right?

Annals Of Excellent Ideas: Buy Nothing Day

#BuyNothingDay. Well, it didn’t really work since Black Friday and Monday turned into an orgy of consumerism (is there no marketing gimmick Americans can resist?).

But it is a great concept, and part of a growing #OccupyXmas movement (you can imagine what a feast that will be for Bill O’Reilly and his “War On Christmas” meme). Here’s the #OccupyXmas pitch:

This years’ Black Friday was a resounding success. Fifty-five billion dollars chimed through cash registers across the USA. Two hundred and fifty-thousand people went into the malls and spent on average 400 hundred dollars each, the biggest shopping day ever. Some notable purchases included ten limited edition Ferraris with matching luggage from Neiman Marcus’s exclusive holiday catalogue, $395,000 each, gobbled up in under an hour.

We in the 99%, alongside our sympathetic friends in the 1%, need to challenge this “normal” way of doing Xmas and come up with a new normal. The holidays need another paradigm.

So what are we occupiers going to do different this season? For starters, we’re going to take the personal plunge and move our money. We’re going to take it away from the big banks and put it into our local credit unions. And that will be the one great first step in breaking beyond the encampments and into the new Xmas imagination.

Ok, that’s not the most compelling pitch ever. Move our money? But it’s a start. And the underlying message against consumerism is absolutely critical. You don’t need to buy more crap just because it is Xmas. You can give the money you would otherwise spend to a worthy cause. You can try cutting the number of gifts you give to your kids and family in half or more (and explain that Christmas and the holidays really aren’t about buying things).

Part of reinventing our economy and culture is to change our idea of what we really need (or want), and abandon the idea that our economy and future depends on consumers buying more and more stuff. There is another way. Buy less. A lot less.


It’s All About Consumption

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

So today is the day that population experts believe the seventh billion human will join us on earth. Here’s how we got here:

The first billion people accumulated over a leisurely interval, from the origins of humans hundreds of thousands of years ago to the early 1800s. Adding the second took another 120 or so years. Then, in the last 50 years, humanity more than doubled, surging from three billion in 1959 to four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987 and six billion in 1998. This rate of population increase has no historical precedent.

That’s a lot of people, and we’ll likely hit 10 billion be the end of this century. The important point about population, though, is not the raw number of people sharing the planet. It is what they consume from the planet. And that is where the scale of the challenge the human race faces, as the human population continues to expand its consumerist, material lifestyle, to every nook on earth, is eye-opening.

According to Scientific American “[t]he human enterprise now consumes nearly 60 billion metric tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and plant materials, such as crop plants and trees for timber or paper.” And while the cost of extracting, refining, and mainlining a metric ton of material has gone down, it doesn’t change the fact that we will continue to nibble away at our planet’s dwindling resources and, as long as we continue to consume on the scale we do now, we better start looking for a new planet.

So what is the consumption challenge? SA says:

Ultimately, the quantity of resources consumed by the nearly 7 billion of us on the planet will need to average out to six metric tons per year per person—a steep cut in the resources currently enjoyed by people in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S. As it stands now, an average American uses 88 kilograms of stuff per day and, all told, our modern gadgets require at least 60 different elements, ranging from the toxic to the treasured, such as gold.

88 kilograms of stuff per day translates into 32.12 metric tons a year. That means the average American would have to cut consumption by more than a factor of 5. Now ask yourself whether our culture and our politics offers any prospect of reducing consumption on that scale. Okay, you can stop laughing.

The point here is that we need to 1) become aware of the degree that the scale of the challenge before us completely overwhelms our politics, our economic trajectory, and our definitions of wealth, and the steps we are currently taking, or plan to take; 2) that the only way to make that sort of paradigm shift is to revolutionize the culture and economy which drives that level of consumption; and 3) we will definitely need some technological silver bullets.

Its long past time to think big, and go big. We need to, um, reinvent humanity. So let’s get started.

Course, here’s the most classic take on stuff (note for the sensitive–George Carlin likes to swear):

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