Minimalism: Beyond trendy asceticism

Delaware River | Philadelphia, PA

Delaware River | Philadelphia, PA

I went on a run along the Delaware River in Philadelphia a couple days ago. I was surprised at how industrialized the area was and how hard it was to get to the waterfront trail. The short trail that hugged the river was tucked behind a Walmart, at the end of a huge (and empty) strip-mall parking lot. As I ran through the area, I saw one other person on the trail. I stopped to read a sign that detailed restoration efforts. There's a Delaware River Waterfront Initiative to 'protect and restore water quality and overall ecological health'. The sign, to no surprise, spoke of litter and pollution affecting water quality and wild life. 

This morning, I read an article in the Independent about the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. Digging deeper into the data, I was inspired to finish this blog post.

My take home message: We need to curb our consumeristic culture and we need to invest in deep and meaningful human relationships. 

For years now, I've spoken about how emotional poverty can lead to our seeking of emotional profit and gratification. We seek this gratification through numbing the pain caused by emotional poverty, or exerting external control of our environment and others. Daniel Siegel speaks eloquently about how our attachment relationships create our orientation towards the world. If we have an orientation of the 'me' that includes 'we', then tending to and taking care of 'me' also means taking care of 'we,' and taking care of the needs of our collective humanity. 

Recently, my PhD supervisor and colleague Kevin Bales, released Blood and Eartha book that demonstrates the link between slavery and climate change. He describes how people who are enslaved are forced to 'participate' in environmental degradation. People who are enslaved are also forced to sew, mine, dig, clean up after, and piece together the products that feed our consumeristic culture. 

Make no mistake - I do not exclude myself from this culture. In fact, as I am equally a part of it, I desire to participate in a shift. A shift that many have already begun. However, I haven't been able to find myself in existing conversations. I now realize that I need to place myself in them. I need to start speaking and sharing about it, as I do most other things in my life. 

When I returned from my 3-week hike in Yosemite, I was determined to think about how I can reduce my possessions. For 3 weeks, I lived on so little. I was also the happiest, most relaxed, and content that I have ever been. I was also preparing to move to the U.K. and deciding what I really needed to keep, to bring with me, to donate, and to trash. For the past 2 months, I've started to furnish my new life in the U.K. and have tried my best to balance comfort, convenience, cost, environmental sustainability, and make purchases that meet my value system and my pocket book. 

It has been a challenge. I want to talk about this challenge with others in serious ways. I want to live a minimalist life without being ascetic. I want to live minimally and ethically, without needing to earn an insanely high income to purchase fair-trade and organic products.

I want to live minimally and ethically without needing to spend hours and hours researching every product or company. I want to own a suit and 'clean up' nicely, and I want to wear the same hiking shirt for 3 weeks. I want to do all this and not be a martyr or act holier-than-thou. I want to empathize and understand our human struggles to live with each other and on this earth. And....

I want to challenge us to step deeper into caring and loving ways to live with each other and on this earth. 

Climate scientists are saying that population growth is getting out of hand. How do we address this ethically? 

How do we address the fact that there are starving people all over the world and yet tons and tons of food go to waste every day? 

How do we address human suffering staring at us in the face, while also preventing unnecessary future human suffering? How do we do this while excepting that suffering is a part of life? How do we except suffering without becoming cynical, resigned, or apathetic?

There are so many practical and philosophical questions that we face. We can only face them together. For today, my part is to share that I will continue to challenge and reflect on my own consumerism. I am returning to a primary school lesson: reduce, reuse, and recycle. 

Tomorrow, a dear friend of mine from home (in California) will be visiting NYC. I'll be taking public transit from Philly to NYC. I asked my friend to bring me a few things from home: a Judith Butler book, a beanie, hair ties, and an extra iPhone charger. I could have easily purchased new versions of these items, but I decided not to. The silliest items for me to request, so silly that I almost didn't, were the hair ties. Why not buy a pack of 20 at Poundland for literally £1? Am I contributing to any conservation? My friend had to use some form of transportation to pick up those items from my home, and that released fossil fuels...But instead of asking 'why not'? What about 'why'? Why would I buy a new pack of 20, when I still have some left from an old pack of 20 that I bought in the U.S.? This seems silly, but I can apply this to so much in my life. 

For next time, I want to reflect on shoes and bags. Those are a major weakness for me and lately, I've been considering buying a new daypack for backpacking and a new pair of brown, flat, ankle boots. Do I really need them? Probably not. Want them? Yes. I definitely want them....

Minh Dang