Most of what surrounds us is unnecessary. We could meet our needs with nothing but a small shelter, a single set of clothing, and some food. Not many people would choose to live with so little; certainly, some would (and do), but they are the exception rather than the rule. To some degree, our possessions can increase our happiness beyond the point at which they meet our basic needs. For instance, for the families living in Manyatta described by Simon Okelo in his article, “Growing Up in a Kenyan Slum Taught Me the Real Value of Stuff,” more possessions could improve their quality of life. Some luxuries would have a noticeable positive effect on these families because they appreciate what they have to a greater degree than do people living in societies of excess. As demonstrated both anecdotally by his experiences and in most happiness surveys of rich and poor countries, more wealth does not equate to more happiness, and money is not a permanent prescription for all worldly woes.
I think there is a point of equilibrium between the opposite extremes of all-out consumerism and the simplicity dictated by widespread poverty. However, I don’t believe that this balance is the same for all people. Instead, the goal of each person should be to find their own compromise. This goal is more attainable for those lucky enough to have viable choices. Whereas I have the freedom to simplify, the choice to be more materialistic isn't a realistic option for someone born into poverty. I would like to level the economic playing field so that more people can have more—and then choose less. I myself would like to find a balance between minimalism and abundance and between a lifestyle that is more organic and one that is consumerist.
Although I grew up in the materialist mecca of America, through international travel and spending time in the wilderness, I have also seen life lived without excess. Many of my best memories come from my experiences with simplicity. I have always spent large chunks of my summers deep in the Adirondacks, on a small island of Raquette Lake, in a tiny cabin without running water or other modern conveniences. Spending so much time in the solitude of wilderness showed me the world that exists beyond our industrial prison, and the peace of mind that can be found there. There is a tangible, visceral connection to the wilderness and its inhabitants, from the many deer to the rare bears, to the loons with their haunting, beautiful cries, to the fish that are their prey. Even in the middle of storms, when it was freezing or so windy that it seemed as though the cabin might be blown across the lake, I would never have traded a second spent there for the safety and security of my warm and comfortable home.
I also recall the joy of spending a week in a small and isolated Peruvian community, where my family and I were made to feel as welcome as locals. Once, we visited the house of a family that very rarely allowed foreign visitors. They had a young child who was very sick and required extensive medical care. The family made traditional clothing and souvenirs to be sold in the village to tourists. They had to do this instead of farming because they needed a reliable source of money to pay for their daughter’s medical expenses. They were not abandoned, though; the community all pitched in to help them. The villagers sold all the souvenirs, making sure that the family got fair prices and had time to spend with their child. They also frequently came by to help with chores or cooking or anything else the family needed. Despite having few possessions and little money, they were the most generous people I have ever had the privilege to meet.
In America, I find a different picture. Our basic needs are, for lack of a better word, necessary, while I would classify almost all of the remainder of what we have as either for entertainment or comfort. Many of us could easily halve our stuff without even noticing a change in our quality of life. Simply put, in American society we have more than we need. In choosing to be consumers above all else, we not only pollute and damage the environment but cause a great deal of harm to the people who make our possessions. The environment and factory workers who suffer from substandard working conditions are not the only ones who pay a heavy toll for our excessive lifestyles. We have so much stuff that our view of what is truly important in life is clouded. In short, our materialism has become detrimental to our own happiness.
Change starts slowly. Simon Okelo learned to appreciate the real value of things, and so can we. As individuals, we can live intentionally and with awareness. One person doing so won’t change the world, but as more and more individuals and communities move away from our current consumerist mentality, change will come. Sharing Simon’s revelation and the stories of others who have experienced similar shifts in perspective is one practical and effective action for change. You and I can also begin by recognizing our affluence and making more conscious choices. Instead of being guided by the question, “Do I want this?” we should be guided by the question, “Do Ineed this?” or, failing that, “Why do I want this?”—a question that reminds us that we can be just as happy or happier with less.
I doubt that we’ll ever be reductionist enough to choose to live with nothing but our most basic necessities. However, by being more conscious of our decisions we can lead more balanced lives—for ourselves and for our planet. We may choose to keep some of the things we don’t need, but we should remember that we can live without them. Buying for the sole purpose of having is a vice of our society. We would all be better off if we rejected the idea that more is always better. As Edward Abbey said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”