Back to index of articles
In the last issue of Reality I explored reasons why we find it so hard to shift gear, change down, walk slower, smell the roses. Consumerism - and its PR-man, advertising - are like drug dealers. They're always there proffering a hit, cajoling us to take a whiff. And the extent to which we do stops us from thinking of paths to genuine fulfilment.
How do we live a more simple life in our crazy consumer-oriented age? Here are some practical ideas.
Advertising uses the images of a deeply desired social life that consumption can't provide and links those images to the things it can provide. Yet people want and need basic things: autonomy; control; purpose; intimacy; love; connection; relaxation. That's what really drives people and satisfies them. In this piece I want to lay some pavement towards living more simply.
First, the Small Stuff . . .
Buying less and buying cheaper
Buy in bulk with your friends and cut down on packaging, or join - or start - a food co-op. Meanwhile use half as much product as you usually do for as many things as you can. Start with shampoo, detergent and toothpaste, then get creative and see how many others you can come up with. Half as much is sometimes twice as good and always twice as thrifty. If you jot down a list by the fridge of the things you throw away because they were never used, you'll get a better idea of what works and doesn't in your household.
Don't buy for status, and always ask: How many hours will I have to work to pay for this? New cars, for example, lose 20% of their value as they're driven off the saleyard, and over 30% by the end of two years.
The biggest shopping trap must be 'It was on sale.' How many times have each of us fallen for this? If it wasn't something you identified as a need, you didn't save money, you spent money. Learn this mantra: 'It's not a bargain if I don't need it.'
De-clutter and avoid waste
You really don't need all that stuff. Get out from under the burden of so much stuff and remove the stuff-barrier keeping you apart from other people, from God and even from yourself. Get rid of it. Pick a room and attack it. Have three piles: one for keeps, one for trash and one for charity (or a garage sale).
'I could use this someday' doesn't count, and if you really can't part with anything, imagine your house is on fire and you have ten minutes to save your important things. It will soon become clear which items mean the most. One trick for purging the urge to splurge is to go on a treasure hunt in your own house! Whether it's a vase or a shirt you never wear, see if you can find something you forgot you even had!
When you shop, take baskets or bags (eg a hemp basket!) to the supermarket so you won't end up with an armful of plastic. Avoid items that are excessively packaged. Monitor yourself. By discovering patterns in how you live, what you buy, what you consume and what you do with the by-products, you can locate and minimise your own waste.
Make your rarely used possessions available to others who can use them. A neighbourhood or church lending library of large tools is easy to set up and eliminates the duplication and expense of everyone having their own rarely used tools. Do the same for other items that you rarely use. Why should a street of 20 houses have 20 lawnmowers and 20 electric drills (or 50 Disney videos, for that matter)?
Join (or start) a community garden. Some friends and I (actually we mostly didn't know each other then but we are friends now because of it) set up a community garden in the grounds of a local church. We practise organic growing techniques, run workshops to teach others, and get to know each other's ideas on other community initiatives. We've learnt skills - oh, and we've eaten really well.
Don't buy that
Don't tell K-Mart I said this, but simplicity is not only about buying the cheapest. The cheapest is often not good quality and will wear out. This increases waste and you'll have to buy again. In the case of food, the cheapest items are often overpackaged and bad for your health.
Convenience is the enemy of simplicity. What's more, the cheapest options are often produced in unsustainable ways. Unethical labour practices, high resource consumption and passing on the cost to the environment in the form of pollution are all ways to produce an item cheaply!
Instead, simplicity involves finding the shortest, simplest route between the earth, the hands and the mouth. Sometimes you'll have to spend more to live simply! Exploring fair-trade products, eco-shopping and gardening are good ways to start. Go organic. The herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers used by large agri-business creates an ecosystem that becomes more and more dependent on these things and less able to sort itself out naturally. Don't encourage them.
The cheap product freighted in from overseas contributes to oil slicks and air pollution in ways that local products do not. Local small businesses could do with your support. In buying from the small player you contribute to the local economy and help resist the whole country looking like a series of malls with the same 50 shops repeatedly stamped across them.
Now for the big stuff
Small changes can make a big difference. They can also awaken you to the areas of your life where big changes can happen.
Just by writing a budget we start to identify and control our money outflows, and come up with ways of saving. Work out a weekly budget including hidden expenses - especially ones you pay only once a year. By using the services of a budget adviser, work out your strategy to scale down your expenditure, reduce debt, and aim at a savings target.
The biggest possible dream home is the greatest source of financial slavery. Don't become a prisoner in and to your own home. A good hard look at our homes and their appliances is the most fertile ground for growing into simplicity.
Decisions about houses are probably the biggest determinant in where we spend our money. Some could consider moving to an area with a lower cost of living. When home hunting, you could aim to pick the smallest (yes, smallest) amount of space in which you are comfortable. This will limit the amount of stuff you can accumulate, and take far less of your time and resources to furnish, clean, maintain, insure and pay for.
For others, living and working in the same neighbourhood can help you save and integrate your life. Do you find yourself living in one suburb or town, driving to visit friends in another, shopping in another, working in another, driving the kids to school in another?
I think most of us feel more part of our country than part of our street (especially during rugby season). Integrating life and locality - and being able to walk or bike to the places you need to - yields a sense of place, a grounding. You'll also get to know locals and start to dream together of how your neighbourhood could be.
I'm in favour of alternative housing. Co-housing projects where each family has their own space and the group has communal space have begun popping up. Splitting large houses down the middle and meeting for meals is another way to save on costs as well as sharing the cooking. Converting a warehouse to residential living for a whole group is another possibility.
Any saving you can make in this area can free up funds for your favourite mission, or allow you to work less, freeing up your time. John Wesley's simple pattern for this was:
Gain all you can,
Save all you can,
Give all you can.
Take control of time
In all this, think about the simplicity of your time. If we don't have time for something it's only because we've chosen to do something else in that time. How we spend our time reveals what we value. Begin by clearing the decks of unnecessary activity. Spend that time meditating on how God is calling you to live.
Imagination and creativity
A little imagination goes a long way toward simple living. It's easy to dump a wad of cash in order to acquire something, but much more imaginative to make it yourself or find other ways of getting it. With a bit of creativity you can cut your spending, reduce waste and make things for yourself that reduce your need to shop.
Living simply is counter-cultural. Just because the Joneses have a BMW doesn't mean you need one too. Instead of following the herd to the mall and grabbing the first things that pop out at you, sit back and think about your values.
Bring your friends in on the action and encourage each other. If you have kids, tell them what you're thinking, why you'd like to change, and ask for their opinions. Expect them to understand and be enthusiastic. But be open to their ideas and honour any of their objections. Substitute new family traditions for old buying habits, but make the transition gradually.
his is nowhere near a complete guide but more of a list of possibilities to ignite your own creativity. Like many positive changes in our ethical life, it's about practising a few new things until you become conscious of the patterns in your behaviour.
I used to think nothing of throwing a can in the rubbish rather than the recycle bin. Now I can't bring myself to do it and it seems no effort at all to choose the recycle option. The same process is true of many decisions about consumption and waste. When we switch allegiance from the Western dream to the heart of Christ, one of the first things to change will be our priorities in the use of time and resources.