Living with less creates more
Optimize your ecosystem, and we’ll all get more out of it.
Recently I cleaned out old furniture and electronics from previous tenants. There was stuff that was old, but still useful. There was stuff that was recyclable. There was stuff that was broken beyond repair and not recyclable. Figuring out what to do with these first three piles – donate, recycle, and trash – was fairly easy.
And then there was the stuff that worked, but that nobody wanted: technology like color televisions that would have been in high demand not long ago. With a simple analog-to-digital adaptor, these televisions would have worked as well as they had been designed. However, nobody wants them – and not because they don’t work. Nobody wants them because they don’t deliver the high-definition, surround-sound experience that even the cash-poorest of us now consider the norm. Old color televisions have been redefined from desired technology to garbage simply because we changed our minds about them.
“We subjectively distinguish ourselves from the natural world by ‘editing’ our networks through the process of making garbage,” writes Rachel Armstrong in a recent Next Nature essay.
I would redefine Armstrong’s “natural world” to include biology, technology, and all their manifestations in our everyday experience. Everything that we experience through touch, sight, and sound make up the massively networked ecosystem of which we are part. When we choose to get rid of any thing in that ecosystem, we are in effect saying that that thing is no longer part of how we define ourselves. Like old color TVs.
Take that cutting-edge black 80GB video iPod that impressed me so much when I bought it in 2006: “It holds 80 gigs! It can play videos! It was like the “if you could take only one thing on a desert island…” question had suddenly been eliminated. The iPod hasn’t quite made it into the garbage pile, yet. However, having virtually any song or movie I can think of available in “the cloud,” on demand, and via a smaller smartphone that does a bunch of other stuff, has redefined the 80GB iPod from desired to closer to garbage. Given the ever-faster cycle of objects going from impressive to obsolete — from cutting-edge to garbage, choosing to passively accept an exponential pile-up of garbage will leave us all quickly buried.
Is this pile-up of garbage sustainable? Clearly not. It is time to find a smarter way of thinking about our stuff.
LESS (<) is one such movement inviting us to become more conscious about how we think about our relationship with things. LESS asks us to explore “the beauty of less” by consciously streamlining our possessions — keeping only those we deem most meaningful. Making a conscious effort to decide how each thing you own is meaningful to you, rather than getting that HDTV simply because it is considered the norm, is one way to escape the ever-changing definitions of ”must haves.” LESS founder Ben Davis explains that LESS is, however, about more than just material possessions:
Less is not only about the ownership of things, it’s about embracing a conscious curation of everything we allow into our lives. That can include news, distractions, wasteful practices and anything that puts added strain on our time, environment and resources. Most importantly, LESS is not about judging others. It’s about creating change from within and being a positive ambassador for the (<) brand. Every step toward LESS should be celebrated.
Davis is talking about not just editing stuff out of our personal ecosystems, but being intentional about what you let in in the first place. The more intentional you are about what you are letting in from the get go, the less effort you will need to put into editing out the “garbage.”
The counter-intuitive reality is living with less creates more. When we’re not channeling our energy into an endless cycle of acquiring, maintaining, and purging so much stuff, we have the opportunity to innovate and create things and experiences that give us pleasure more directly, and more sustainably, than simply owning things because they’re the culturally defined “must haves.”
Moreover, the greater number of us who have increasing amounts of time, energy, and money to channel into cultivating our personal ecosystems in a meaningful way, the more we can make a unique contribution to the whole. Optimize your personal ecosystem by being intentional about what you let in, and we’ll all get more out of it as the cumulative effects on our massively networked culture are amplified.