Henry David Thoreau was amazingly progressive for his time - he lived in the 1800's (1817-1862) and was one of the first environmentalists and green-thinkers. He lived in a cabin in the woods in the 1840's for more than two years. He wanted to get the most from his life by determining what was really important, and he did that by removing himself somewhat from the normal life of Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840's. One side of this was economic: he reduced his material needs by living simply, so that he would not have to spend much time supporting a lifestyle that he did not need or care about. The other side was spiritual, not unlike the spiritual retreats of eastern and western religions.
He has a fantastic quote: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary."
This is a view from the eastern end of the pond near Thoreau's cabin.
I like the way he describes the life of the city as one of practised resignation. I think that is the way that most of us spend our lives - we are resigned to working in jobs that we may not particularly enjoy and find very stressful, because we have to earn money. We are resigned to spending less time with our families. We are resigned to lives spent indoors away from nature. We are resigned to the stress and speed of our modern lives and we are unsure how to change. We are resigned to global warming, and waste, and animal species being destroyed. We are all resigned to our modern lives. And I for one, do not like it at all! I am only in my thirties, and yet I feel that I have already, like Thoreau says, discovered that I have not lived.
A view across Sydney, where I currently call home
I believe that what we call living today is a false and artificial construct of life, focused on money and possessions and gaining more of both, no matter what the cost. Thoreau was already saying this in the 1800's: "Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow. As for work, we haven't any of any consequence."
We live in a time when people strive for happiness, and yet our rate of happiness has steadily declined since the 1950's. Research has been done which shows that people today generally don't describe themselves as happy, and that depression, anxiety, and stress are steadily increasing. People feel they have less and less control over their lives and their happiness. The interesting correlating fact is that the average person now consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago - this is from a fact sheet by Annie Leonard, who has done 10 years of research into consumerism and the human desire to own possessions. Her website, The Story of Stuff, describes how our want to own more things (and I say want deliberately, because most of the things we own, we definitely don't need) is leading to the destruction of the natural resources of our planet, and contributing to the declining happiness of people. She has a fantastic video (seriously, you should watch it!), which discusses the life cycle of Stuff - extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal. The 20 minute movie asks viewers to think about how their Stuff gets to them, and where it will go - 99% of all product purchases head to the landfill within 6 months of being bought.
Annie Leonard from her video
Annie quotes some very sobering statistics on the fact sheet:
• We each see more advertisements in one year than a people 50 years ago saw in a lifetime
• In the U.S., people spend 3–4 times as many hours shopping as people in Europe
• Each person in the United States makes 2 kilograms of garbage a day. That is twice what we each made thirty years ago.
• For every one garbage can of waste you put out on the sidewalk, 70 garbage cans of waste were made upstream to make the junk in that one garbage can you put out on the sidewalk.
• In the past three decades, one-third of the planet’s natural resources base have been consumed.
• In the U.S. the national happiness peaked sometime in the 1950s.
Clearly, something is wrong with this picture.
I have been thinking about the way I consume for quite a while now. I have spent the last 6 months at home, due to a chronic illness which prevents me from working. Before that, I spent 14 years working in office-based jobs, in corporate environments, 5 (and sometimes 7) days a week. I spent most of that time feeling miserable and depressed, with a deep sense of wrongness inside me - I always knew I was not meant to be working inside a building all day long, doing work which I felt was meaningless and artificial. I have always wanted to work with animals, in nature conservation, but due to many circumstances in my life, I have never been able to realise that dream. But I have had to work, to make money, to be able to afford a house and food and clothes and a car. I think many people find themselves in this situation - not really loving their jobs, but being forced to work in them to earn money. And I spent a lot of time shopping during those 14 years. When I say a lot, I mean every weekend, with at least 1 full day spent at the mall.
I bought a lot of things which I didn't really need to have. Humans have some basic needs which must be met to keep ourselves alive - food and water, shelter, clothing for warmth and weather protection. We do need other things, as demonstrated by Maslow's Hierarchy, but it is interesting that the actual material "things" we need are basic and only at the bottom of the pyramid - the rest are all feelings and thoughts.
We are advertised to every day - on the internet, driving to work, watching TV, reading magazines and newspapers. And all of these adverts have one goal - to create a desire in your mind for the product which is being advertised to you. And the way that the adverts do this, is to tap into your emotions, and focus on those needs higher up in Maslow's Hierarchy - needs like happiness, love, security, joy, self-esteem, respect from others. Every product is associated with an outcome, and promises you that you will feel something fantastic if you buy the product. Most product adverts do not focus on the actual attributes of the product, but on the way the product will make you feel. Soft drink adverts feature happy, laughing groups of friends, enjoying fun activities and loving life - you believe that you will feel the same way when you buy that drink. Car manufacturers advertise a lifestyle - luxury cars are associated with a luxury upmarket city lifestyle, 4x4s are shown with loads of people having a wild time in the outdoors. Beauty products are associated with gorgeous, rich, famous celebrities, because isn't that what all women aspire to? Wear the same brand of lipstick as a famous star, and feel like her for a day! And most adverts all show the one elusive thing which we strive so hard for and yet never seem to attain - happiness! Everyone smiles in an advert. Even washing powder adverts show delighted moms happy with their wonderful clean clothing. We are constantly told that buying things will make us happy. And we worship the rich - celebrities are not lauded because of what they can do, but because they earn obscene amounts of money and can afford all of these wonderful products which we are told will make us happy. Most research shows though, that rich people are not really any happier than middle-income people, and money is only a factor in happiness when you are not able to meet the basic needs of food and shelter.
So there I was, every weekend, trying to fill up this emptiness inside me with clothes and jewellery and books and cds. I wasn't really getting any happier. I ended up with a lot of things which don't really delight me. But I felt like I was doing ok with my life, because I had an income which allowed me to buy whatever I want. This is how I used to measure my success - by the idea that money is giving me freedom.
But for the last 6 months, things have been different. My chronic pain has forced me to give up my job. Craig and I now live off only his salary, but it took me a very long time to get my mind around the idea that this could be enough. I struggled desperately through months and months of severe and debilitating days of pain, feeling that I had to earn money, I had to have a job, I had to be able to buy things. Finally I broke down and admitted that I couldn't continue anymore. I gave up my job and we started a budget. I went through a long period, months in fact, of feeling horribly guilty for not earning an income and burdening Craig. I felt frightened by the fact that I could not buy anything I wanted to from the shops. I still struggle with my idea of myself as a person who does not earn an income - every day I feel like I have to justify my consumption of Craig's money. But I have definitely changed my spending patterns - no more frivolous shopping, no more buying whatever I feel like.
And my life has changed completely. I don't drive to work in traffic anymore. I don't sit in a horrible air-conditioned open-plan office staring at a computer screen all day. I am not stressed out by 350 emails in my inbox every morning. I spend my time at home, with my 2 beloved Devon Rex kitties. I go for long walks in the forest. I still spend time at the computer, but now I research any subject that I wish, and I am finding so much fascinating information. I do the housework, and cook the meals. And I have realised that I am so much happier now than when I was working. I struggle with my chronic condition every day, and my life for me is sometimes not very easy. But I am able to find happiness in what we call the "smaller things" in life - such a misnomer! Watching my kitties play with baubles, or cuddle up in front of the fire, brings me great delight. Walking in the sunshine every day lifts my mood, and helps me connect back with nature. Cooking meals from scratch, and baking cakes and cookies, is great fun. Now, when I go to the shopping mall, it's only for necessities like pain meds and groceries, or occasionally to go to the movies. I actually feel very little desire to buy anything, and shopping is definitely not a way to boost my happiness anymore. I do have a few things I like to indulge in - cheap gossipy magazines so I can laugh at the celebs, going to the movies with Craig and enjoying popcorn, buying a packet of M&M's because they taste yummy. I have no desire to have a designer wardrobe, or fancy shoes. Jewellery - I never even wear it anymore. I do buy books, but selectively, and always on sale. My one weakness is teddy bears (through years of therapy I have found a cuddly teddy bear is incredibly comforting, and should not be laughed at or thought of as just a child's toy) - but I have also found that taking one with me to the mall reduces my longing to add another one to my collection. The important thing is that now I have treasured possessions, things that I really get pleasure from, and that I plan to keep for a long time, not throw away after a few days or months.
My Devon Rex kitties
There is a LOT to be said for living more simply, reducing your salary if possible, focusing on happiness from experiences rather than from owning things. I know that we can't all do this - Craig is a saint and an angel for working so hard to look after us now that I can't contribute, and I know many people simply cannot give up their jobs or reduce their salaries. But the one thing we can do is stop trying to BUY our happiness. Happiness comes from inside you, from your happy memories, from spending time with your family and pets, from being in the sunshine and connecting with nature. Spend your money more carefully, really focus on what you are buying, and ask yourself - why are you buying it? Is it because you think it will fill some need inside you, or impress your friends? Or will this possession be one that you will want to keep and treasure, and truly add value to your life for a long while?
These photos show what survivors of the bushfires in Victoria saved when they were running for their lives:
Mercedes Davies holds her most treasured possession, her beloved doll, Mary.
Aron Driscoll saved his limited-edition guitar from his favourite band, Kiss.
Bruno Torfs saved works from his art gallery and sculpture garden.
Irene Passi saved her 6-month old lamb, Tags.
Maggie Johnson rescued her sister Misty's ashes.
Michael Janis saved his 4-year old beagle cross, Toby.
I would save my kitties, my beloved pink panther that I have had since I was born, my laptop because it has all of my photos on it, as many teddy bears as I could carry because they will be comforting, and if I had the time, some of my favourite books. What would be on your list to save? (On reading this list, Craig was mortally wounded that he was not mentioned - not an oversight, but an assumption that we would be escaping together! But yes, definitely top of my list - my wonderful husband!)
mnmlist, writes: "Eliminating unnecessary possessions also means you’ll need a smaller home, which will save on rent and heating/cooling. Buying fewer things means less debt. Spending time with loved ones or doing things you love means you spend less. All of these things are good whether you’re wealthy or not."
Bruce Sterling's Viridian Design Project was an attempt to create a green design movement. He writes: "Do not "economize." Please. That is not the point. The economy is clearly insane. Even its champions are terrified by it now. It's melting the North Pole. So "economization" is not your friend. Cheapness can be value-less."
Annie Leonard talks about how we determine whether a person has value or not, in our current "modern" world. She says: "In this system, if you don’t own or buy a lot of stuff, you don’t have value." She came to this conclusion after spending over 10 years traveling in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as places within the United States, to meet with communities negatively impacted by destructive resource extractive, production, disposal and “development” projects. Over and over, she saw "community members struggling to be heard in a democratic process, struggling to keep their families, community, health and local economies intact. The consistent characteristic of these impacted, disrespected, ignored communities is that they are poor." So obviously, having the money to buy stuff and own stuff gives you value and a bigger voice. The rich people are given the best of everything, and are worshipped, and it has been this way throughout the centuries - emperors, kings, sheiks, tsars, and now actors, singers, entertainers, heiresses. Somehow we believe these people are more "valuable", more worthy of being given a focus, just because they have more money and can buy more possessions. Communities with a wealth of knowledge about the land, and traditions, especially indigenous peoples and tribes, are pushed aside in favour of "progress" and development of the capitalist world.
Why do we believe that this picture above is a lesser way of life than this one below?
Which woman would you say is more important in these pictures below?
Why does having money make you more important than anyone else?
Another thing that we hardly stop to consider when we are buying something, is what goes into making it. Annie talks about the production process of products and describes the toxins being put into most of our everyday things. According to her video, there are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals in commerce today, and we don’t know the full impact of these toxics on our health and environment. Annie says: "The people who bear the biggest brunt of these toxic chemicals are the factory workers, many of whom are women of reproductive age. Now, I ask you, what kind of woman of reproductive age would work in a job exposed to reproductive toxics, except one who had no other option? And that is one of the “beauties” of this system. The erosion of local environments and economies here ensures a constant supply of people with no other option. Globally 200,000 people a day are moving from environments that have sustained them for generations, into cities, many to live in slums, looking for work, no matter how toxic that work may be. So, you see, it is not just resources that are wasted along this system, but people too. Whole communities get wasted."
Do we ever stop to consider what goes into the products that we buy? Annie describes the true cost of a radio from Radio Shack. "I was walking to work and I wanted to listen to the news so I popped into this Radio Shack to buy a radio. I found this cute little green radio for 4 dollars and 99 cents. I was standing there in line to buy this radio and I wondering how $4.99 could possibly capture the costs of making this radio and getting it to my hands. The metal was probably mined in South Africa, the petroleum was probably drilled in Iraq, the plastics were probably produced in China, and maybe the whole thing was assembled by some 15 year old in a maquiladora in Mexico. $4.99 wouldn’t even pay the rent for the shelf space it occupied until I came along, let alone part of the staff guy’s salary that helped me pick it out, or the multiple ocean cruises and truck rides pieces of this radio went on." We happily hand over our hard-earned money for that radio, thinking joyfully how cheap it is, and not considering at all the true cost to our world and to the people who have been involved in producing it. And then a month later we throw it away because we have a new mobile phone which streams the radio stations, and that little radio just seems so redundant and useless. All those resources, all those worker's time and labour, all the journeys the parts had to make, and the radio ends up on a landfill after a month's use. What kind of crazy world are we living in?!?
Did you know that there is a floating expanse of waste and debris in the Pacific Ocean now covering an area twice the size of the continental U.S. Believed to hold almost 100 million tons of flotsam, this vast "plastic soup" stretches 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan. It is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
According to the UN Environment Programme, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals.
Syringes, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes have been found inside the stomachs of dead seabirds, which mistake them for food.
This is a stomach sample taken from a dead albatross
Plastic is believed to constitute 90 per cent of all rubbish floating in the oceans. The UN Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.
This article explains why all this plastic is such a big problem: "The main problem with plastic - besides there being so much of it - is that it doesn't biodegrade. No natural process can break it down. (Experts point out that the durability that makes plastic so useful to humans also makes it quite harmful to nature.) Instead, plastic photodegrades. A plastic cigarette lighter cast out to sea will fragment into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic without breaking into simpler compounds, which scientists estimate could take hundreds of years. The small bits of plastic produced by photodegradation are called mermaid tears or nurdles. These tiny plastic particles can get sucked up by filter feeders and damage their bodies. Other marine animals eat the plastic, which can poison them or lead to deadly blockages. Nurdles also have the insidious property of soaking up toxic chemicals. Over time, even chemicals or poisons that are widely diffused in water can become highly concentrated as they're mopped up by nurdles. These poison-filled masses threaten the entire food chain, especially when eaten by filter feeders that are then consumed by large creatures."
These toxins are getting into our own bodies, as we consume fish from the ocean that have eaten these toxic nurdles. In total, more than a million birds and marine animals die each year from consuming or becoming caught in plastic and other debris.
This is what the water is like in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch - would you like to swim in that? Now think of all the marine creatures who have to live in that water!
The scariest part of all this is that all of this plastic in the oceans is not coming from seafaring vessels dumping junk - 80 percent of ocean trash originates on land. Every time you use a piece of plastic - food packaging, plastic bags, toiletry containers - and throw it away, you are eventually tossing it into the ocean.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only 1 of 5 of these patches in the world's oceans. These 5 Gyres are destroying our oceans, our sea life, and even our own bodies through consumed toxins. The 5 Gyres website sums it up perfectly - "Plastics: Made to last forever, designed to throw away."
So we can see how our throwaway mentality around products is not only affecting our consumption of our world's natural resources, but is creating a plastic pollution plague, clogging our waterways, damaging marine ecosystems, and entering the marine food we consume.
Annie has another scary statistic: "Guess what percentage of total material flow through this system is still in product or use 6 months after their sale in North America. Fifty percent? Twenty? NO. One percent. One! In other words, 99 percent of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport—99 percent of the stuff we run through this system is trashed within 6 months. Now how can we run a planet with that rate of materials throughput?" For example, the No Dirty Gold campaign explains that there is nearly 2 million tons of mining waste for every one ton of gold produced; that translates into about 20 tons of mine waste created to make one gold wedding ring.
One of the scariest things Annie says is this: "It wasn’t always like this. The average U.S. person now consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago. Ask your grandma. In her day, stewardship and resourcefulness and thrift were valued. So, how did this happen?"
Annie continues: "Well, it didn’t just happen. It was designed. Shortly after the World War 2, these guys were figuring out how to ramp up the [U.S.] economy. Retailing analyst Victor Lebow articulated the solution that has become the norm for the whole system. He said: “Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption . . . we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”
Have we started worshipping fashion?
Annie talks about two of their most effective strategies - planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. She says: "Planned obsolescence is another word for “designed for the dump.” It means they actually make stuff that is designed to be useless as quickly as possible so we will chuck it and go buy a new one. It’s obvious with stuff like plastic bags and coffee cups, but now it’s even big stuff: mops, DVDs, cameras, barbeques, everything!"
Chris Jordan has an art project called Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait, where he visually shows the statistics of consumption in America. The numbers are terrifying: 410,000 hot beverage paper cups used in the US every fifteen minutes; 15 million sheets of office paper used in the US every five minutes; 60,000 plastic bags used in the US every five seconds; one hundred million trees cut in the U.S. yearly to make the paper for junk mail; 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags, the number used in the US every hour; two million plastic beverage bottles used in the US every five minutes. These numbers absolutely freak me out!
But some things cannot break fast enough to be easily discarded, so there’s also “perceived obsolescence.” This convinces us to throw away stuff that is still perfectly useful. One way of doing this is bring out newer, so-called better models - computers, cellphones, cameras, cars, TVs. Another way is to focus on the human desire to be part of something bigger than themselves - fashion is a prime example of this. What you wear tells people about who you are, and of course, wearing coveted designer labels makes people envy you and long to be like you.
Do we really need all these different versions of one thing?
Another Chris Jordan stat - 426,000 cell phones retired in the US every day.
Which brings me back to advertising. Annie says that the point of advertising is to make you feel unhappy with what you have. "So, 3,000 times a day, we’re told that our hair is wrong, our skin is wrong, clothes are wrong, our furniture is wrong, our cars are wrong, we are wrong but that it can all be made right if we just go shopping." So not only are we generally feeling unhappy with our lives and our jobs, we are now made to feel that there is something more wrong with us, and we have to buy something to correct it.
Here are some adverts that have appeared in the media. What do you think of when you look at them?
Do you think - "I am too fat and need to diet"?
Do you think - "I don't look like a hot alien goddess"?
Do you think - "Gee, wish I could indulge like this"?
Do you think - "I will never look like that!"?
Do you think - "I am so not sexy like this!"?
Do you think - "Maybe if my boobs were bigger it wouldn't matter about my skills"?
Do you think - "Wouldn't it be awesome if I had an amazing life like the Americans?"
Every advert has a message in it that is associated with the product. The messages are subtle, and tap into your subconscious, where other messages from our world live, like our ideas of ideal beauty and perfect bodies and how we "should" look if we want to be successful, important people. Everytime you see these images, you compare yourself to what you see, and find yourself falling short. So you think: "Maybe if I bought those jeans, I might feel like those people." Or you associate those people with the jeans, and by association you can then be one of them if you wear their jeans. So you buy them. And you feel great for a little while maybe. Until you see the ad for those hot shoes, and again you feel inadequate. Off to the shops again...
We can see the effects in all areas of our lives. Our lives are passing by in a blur of speed. We spend most of our adult lives working, away from our families. We engage less with each other and with our natural world in our leisure time, instead relying on TV and video games to engage our sped-up brains. We eat less natural food, and more processed fast-food. Conrad Schmidt, an internationally known social activist, says: "We now seem more determined than ever to work harder and produce more stuff, which creates a bizarre paradox: We are proudly breaking our backs to decrease the carrying capacity of the planet."
So I suppose what I am saying is - focus on what is really meaningful and important in your life. Recognise that work and your career are an artificial world created to drive an economy, which has been designed to deliberately manipulate the way you spend your hard-earned money. Happiness comes from slowing your life down. Being more present. Engaging with friends and family. Spending time outdoors and in nature. Playing with your pets.
Stop trying to buy your happiness. Slow down on shopping, and spend money on things you really value, and would take with you if your house was on fire. Remember how the littlest things could delight you when you were a child.
You only have one life. It is not a disposable commodity, and you only get one. Use your time wisely, slow down where you can, and try not to despair. There are many people out there who are focusing on changing our crazy system - people working on saving forests and clean production, labor rights and fair trade and conscious consuming and blocking landfills and incinerators. But by recognising how you are contributing to this system, how your consumption is contributing to the destruction of resources, and adding to your general unhappiness, you can slowly break out of the cycle, and start to place real value on the more meaningful things in your life. Look at the higher levels of Maslow's Pyramid, and see how you can achieve those things that contribute to your happiness, without buying something.
Pause. Breathe. And decide to live differently.