George Monbiot today on the inherent problem of consumerism and economic growth.
Governments urge us both to consume more and to conserve more. We must extract more fossil fuel from the ground, but burn less of it. We should reduce, reuse and recycle the stuff that enters our homes, and at the same time increase, discard and replace it. How else can the consumer economy grow? We should eat less meat to protect the living planet, and eat more meat to boost the farming industry. These policies are irreconcilable. The new analyses suggest that economic growth is the problem, regardless of whether the word sustainable is bolted to the front of it.
It’s not just that we don’t address this contradiction; scarcely anyone dares even name it. It’s as if the issue is too big, too frightening to contemplate. We seem unable to face the fact that our utopia is also our dystopia; that production appears to be indistinguishable from destruction.
It’s a tricky article if you’re not into economics and you might have to hold tight through the explanation of “decoupling” but it really is worth it if you want to think further about the social value of Escapological traits like minimalism and quitting your job.
By Lentus Ambulandus, who is getting ready to draw another line on a map.
My bedtime reading these days is While Wandering – A Walking Companion, edited by Duncan Minshull. A collection of stories, poems, and essay excerpts dealing with all aspects of walking, trekking, and vagabonding, it’s organized by theme: “Why Walk”; “Setting Off”; “With Nature”; “On The Road”; “You Walked?” and so on.
The chapter called “How To Walk” contains practical matters of critical importance: boots vs shoes, one spare sock or two, and a discussion of the best pre-walking stimulant (tea, they say, but I disagree…experience has taught me that coffee is best in the morning, followed by beer mid-day). Among those entries is one called “Maps”, taken from Stephen Graham’s The Gentle Art of Tramping (1926).
Have you seen enough of the world? Are you sure you will rest content at Kensal Rise of Père Lachaise when the time comes? Take a map to the world and a blue pencil, go back in memory over the whole of your life, start the pencil at your birthplace and begin to draw the line of your goings to and fro in this world. How you will rejoice in yourself if you can conduct that blue pencil chart across a great ocean, across Atlantic or Pacific! The longer and more bulging and more loopy the line the more you will feel you have lived. In the later years of your life you will be able to say: ‘I was born into the world and I have seen something of it.’
Happy rambling this weekend.
The decluttering movement has a phoney moral force to it but is no less potent for that, and at any given point most of us are somewhere in the endlessly recurring cycle of buying stuff that makes us happy, watching it pile up, which makes us sad and buying books about how to get rid of it, which makes us happy again, until the effect wears off and we start the whole thing again.
A few people have shown me this op-ed piece.
I think they assume I’ll be annoyed by the columnist’s assertion that decluttering is a trap, but the fact is: I agree!
I’m an advocate of Minimalism. Decluttering to Minimalism is what a crash diet is to a healthy lifestyle. We’ve said it several times in New Escapologist and it’s true.
I also agree with the columnist that “the industry set up to help us deal with the deluge has inevitably just generated more stuff.” This is why, while I write about minimalism sometimes at this blog, I’ve resisted the urge to write a book about it. (I am, however, mulling over the prospect of a stand-up comedy show about this very issue called Can’t Get Enough Minimalism).
“Decluttering” has a nice, Buddhist ring to it, but it is not a transitional stage on the road to enlightenment. It’s a trap. You have to keep buying stuff to regenerate the buzz of throwing it out and you will never, ever be free.
I suppose this is true if you think in terms of decluttering rather than minimalism. In minimalism, you wouldn’t “keep buying stuff to regenerate the buzz of throwing it out” because (a) throwing things out is not done in pursuit of a modish thrill but a sustainable, portable lifestyle; (b) you understand that disposal is only one half of the equation, the other being more cautious acquisition, and (c) you simply don’t think in terms of ownership any more: once you’ve seen a thing in the world, how does buying it and putting it in your house make it (or you) any better?
Perhaps we can train ourselves to live a denuded life in which everything is digitised and nothing around us has any resonance at all. Or we can allow that some measure of disorder is a function of not being an android. Old receipts, swollen notebooks, outgrown baby clothes; ugly cushions from homes that we no longer own: the ascent of meaning and memory over clean lines and good taste.
Oh. Well. Of course, there’s no accounting for taste.
Stoic wisdom is eminently quotable and often found dotted around in modern self-help. Tim Ferris, remember, loves Seneca and quotes from him a lot in The 4-Hour Workweek.
To round off our series of posts for Stoic Week, we’ve gone straight to the main sources of Stoic wisdom (Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius) and collected some passages for your quiet contemplation, focusing on subjects most relevant to Escapology.
Seneca on the employed:
They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.
Seneca on money:
Wealth is the slave of a wise man. The master of a fool.
Epictetus on consumerism:
Who’s my master? Whoever controls what you desire or dislike.
Marcus Aurelius on simple pleasures:
Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.
Seneca on taking our leisure now, not later:
You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? […] Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!
Epictetus on escape plans:
First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.
Marcus Aurelius on internal cultivation:
You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.
Seneca on choosing freedom:
Man is possessed by greed that is insatiable […] by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless.
In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal.
Epictetus on minimalism or simple living:
Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.
Marcus Aurelius on going it alone:
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.
Seneca on want:
It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.
Epictetus on distinction or competitiveness:
If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.
Seneca on reconnecting with childhood interests (something we cover in New Escapologist Issue 9):
Hang on to your youthful enthusiasms — you’ll be able to use them better when you’re older.
Epictetus on freedom:
No man is free who is not master of himself.
Epictetus (and this one’s beautiful) on life:
You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.
All for now. Remember there’s a handbook about Stoic Week if you’d like to indulge in the experiment (the week itself is over but nobody will know if you do it anyway) and New Escapologist recommends William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life as a guide to practical Stoicism.
By Lentus Ambulandus, who tries to be indifferent to the many insults directed at him, including those that may be figments of his imagination.
Stoic Week, Day 4.
A few years ago, when I’d already left my job but my wife was still working, someone asked me “And what do you do these days, just sit around and spend all your wife’s money?”
There’s approximately 0.0% probability that the person was joking. They may have thought that I was being smug about not working, and decided to take it upon themselves to knock me down a peg or two. The more likely scenario is that they were reacting defensively to the presence of a philosophy that ran counter to how they lived their life. More on this below.
Whatever the case, the comment bothered me immensely. After all, I did feel guilty at the time for not working, so this came across as a particularly low blow. I fumed for days, becoming a slave to my emotions.
In another example, my wife and I have drifted apart from some people who we thought were quite good friends. Perhaps they don’t feel we have anything in common anymore, because our lifestyles are so distinct. We’ll never know.
We’re probably not the only ones to face a bit of negative backlash for adopting Escapology as our philosophy of life. Perhaps your mother is like mine, forever asking, with the best of intentions, when you’ll get a decent job again. What should we do in such circumstances?
We should turn to the Stoic sages.
The good people over at Stoic Week have provided a handbook that includes, among other things, a list of maxims that the Stoic can lean on in times of duress. If I’d known about Stoicism when the aforementioned insult took place, I may have been able to pull one of these handy Epictetus quotes from my mental drop-down menu:
Some things are under my control and other things are not. [i.e. what people say]
It seemed right to them. [to say what they did]
You are nothing to me.
And once again, I direct your attention to the outstanding “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” by William Irvine. In a chapter dealing with the practicalities of becoming a Stoic (from which I shamelessly borrowed the title for the post), he offers some advice for those adopting a philosophy of life:
Anyone wishing to become a Stoic should do so unobtrusively. This is because those who hear of your “conversion” to Stoicism will likely mock you.
Why do people behave this way? Why do they mock someone for adopting a philosophy of life? In part because by adopting one, whether it be Stoicism or some rival philosophy, a person is demonstrating that he has different values than they do.
Furthermore, by adopting a philosophy of life, he is, in effect, challenging them to do something they are probably reluctant to do: reflect on their life and how they are living it.
Fellow Escapologists, we cannot control what others think of us or say to us. We can only control what we do, and how we react.
So let them mock us, if it seems right to them.
It is nothing to us.
This week is Stoic Week.
Since Stoicism is relevant to Escapology we’re posting something with a Stoical theme each day this week. Today is the third entry.
The Stoics believed that the good life was to live in step with nature and, like Epicurus, taught that simple living was the path to the greatest happiness. Where the Epicureans focussed on the pursuit of pleasure, the Stoics tended to advocate the development of self control and fortitude as a way to overcome misery.
Among other things, the Stoics practiced negative visualisation: a deliberate attempt to value a thing through contemplating (briefly, not obsessively) its loss.
Imagine how it would feel to lose something you currently enjoy. How would you cope if you lost your computer, your looks, your teeth, your winter coat, your favourite coffee cup, a loved one, your mobility, your ability to read? All nightmares of varying degrees of severity.
Contemplating these potential losses makes you deeply grateful for what you have while you have it (and history tells us that gratitude is healthy).
Negative Visualisation is also a way to psychologically prepare yourself for occasions of real loss. In other words, if you do lose something, you’ll on a very important level be prepared for it. It can equip you through rehearsal for when stress is unavoidable.
I read Chris Hadfield’s memoir a couple of years ago. He dedicates a whole chapter to “the power of negative thinking” and attributes it in part to his success in becoming an astronaut:
It’s puzzling to me that so many self-help gurus urge people to visualize victory, and stop there … Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive … You don’t have to walk around perpetually braced for disaster, convinced the sky is about to fall. But it sure is a good idea to have some kind of plan for dealing with unpleasant possibilities. For me, that’s become a reflexive form of mental discipline not just at work but throughout my life.”
Negative visualisation is useful in Escapology. Do you best to escape, but always keep in mind that you might get re-ensnared. What would that be like? Could you face it? Of course you could! At the worst, you’ll be like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape being comically marched back to “the cooler” again and again. That’s not so bad as worst case scenarios go. Better a perpetual escapee than a battery hen.
This all reminds me of Tim Ferriss and his “fear setting” wherein you imagine a worst case scenario and muse around what you’d do should it occur. The contingency plan is probably not as bad as you might have initially imagined, and probably doesn’t even look like total failure.
You come away from that exercise realizing, ‘Wow, I was getting extremely anxious and all worked up over something that is completely preventable, reversible, or just not a very big deal.’
Negative visualisation can fortify against insatiability, making you less likely to want more than you currently have and less likely to fall into the trap of endless consumerism. I think this technique might be the true engine behind my tendency toward minimalism and could be a good (and wholly accessible) way of finding contentment beyond materialism.
Stoicism. It’s what’s for dinner.
By Lentus Ambulandus, from his self-imposed exile.
Stoic Week, Day 2.
[Note: you can click here to download the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook]
There is a school of thought among Stoics that a little discomfort can be beneficial. The temporary loss of the good things in life, or the suppression of pleasure, makes us appreciate the good and the pleasurable all that much more.
Taking things a step further, a brief foray into downright miserable conditions teaches us that we can, in fact, survive them. And the next time we find ourselves in similar circumstances, we’ll be stronger, more prepared, psychologically inoculated. My Platoon Sergeant reminded me of this many years ago, as he observed my futile efforts to prevent the gushing rainwater from flooding my sleeping shelter:
Son, if it ain’t rainin’, it ain’t trainin’. Dig.
But according to the Stoics, there’s something even better than being forced into discomfort: purposely creating our own discomfort. And from an Escapological perspective, I have to agree.
In his excellent “A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”, William Irvine devotes an entire chapter to voluntary discomfort. Seneca contemplated bad things happening, in order to appreciate what he had. The Stoic rival Epicurus practiced poverty to determine whether he really needed what he had. But it was Musonius, says Irvine, who took things to a higher level:
In particular, we should periodically cause ourselves to experience discomfort that we could easily have avoided. We might accomplish this by underdressing for cold weather or going shoeless. Or we might periodically allow ourselves to become thirsty or hungry, even though food and water are at hand, and we might sleep on a hard bed, even though a soft one is available.
Practiced regularly, exercises in voluntary discomfort teach us what we truly need, and this becomes part of our Escapological DNA. For example, I really enjoy camping. After a few nights shivering in a sleeping bag on uneven, rocky terrain, I appreciate the next warm bed I sleep in, king-sized or not. And my first shower after five days without is always the best damned shower I ever had, even if the water isn’t particularly hot, or flowing from some fancy 16-inch rain shower head.
Travel–on the cheap, especially to developing countries–might also be considered an act of voluntary discomfort. It will teach you that anything in excess of 500 square feet of living space is gravy, and that most of what people consider “essential” is ridiculous.
Toward the end of the chapter on voluntary discomfort, Irvine discusses the Stoic concept of pleasure suppression. In what might have been an early warning that the pursuit of “more” can lead to a life of cubicle servitude, we have this from Diogenes the Cynic:
With a stroke of her wand pleasure coolly drives her victim into a sort of sty and pens him up, and now from that time forth the man goes on living as a pig or a wolf.
Stoicism: it’s a gymnasium where Escapologists can go to lift weights. Go there, get strong, and don’t let yourself become a pig or a wolf.
This week is Stoic Week.
Since Stoicism is relevant to Escapology (equal in relevance perhaps to Epicureanism), we’ll make a little post with a Stoical theme each day.
So let’s kick off with this quote from great Stoic Marcus Aurelius:
Do not act as if you were going to live for a thousand years… while you are alive, while it is still possible, become a good person. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.17
As it happens, I’ve just finished reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by mortician Caitlin Doughty. It’s ostensibly a memoir of her first years working with the dead but contains all manner of wisdom about death-acceptance and its significance to what you might call life-acceptance. Every birth contains a death, she says, and it’s an awareness of our mortality that drives us to create and to live well.
Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.
Doesn’t this remind you of Escapology’s other totem animal, the Bohemian? The Bohemians of history would often keep a human skull around the home as a memento mori: to remind them of death so that they don’t forget to live vigorously.
Of course, this is all just one way of looking at it. Here’s another post about overcoming the fear of death using Stoicism in which he says:
Everything is borrowed, [Stoic Philosopher] Epictetus tells us. And indeed it is. When we lose someone – they are returned to the giver, the universe. And so we, too – are handed back over into the hands of the logos.
Happy Stoic Week!