Basic Stances — A Meaningful Life of Simplicity

We articulated three central tenets of the Low Technology Institute. These are simple concepts but they have profound implications for our everyday lives. Naessi articulated a list of character traits (adapted below) that we hope to cultivate in our society. These are not meant to be rules, but examples of how one might live.

Keep it simple. Reach goals in the most straightforward way possible. Millions of years ago, plants died, decomposed, and became peat. That peat was buried and became oil. Today that oil is pumped out of the ground, heated until it becomes a gas, condensed into plastic and turned into a bag that is used only for about 20 minutes before being thrown away, only to sit in a landfill for 1000 years, where it can release toxins and choke animals. Is this really the simplest way to carry groceries? This is just one of thousands of ways we build unnecessary complications into our lives. We have grown so accustomed to this complication that we see it as mundane and benign, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. When faced with a decision, ask yourself, what is the simplest, least wasteful way to reach your goal?

Choose activities that have intrinsic values and avoid those that are merely diversions. We should recognize an inherent difference between activities done with a responsible purpose and those done as a mere distraction. Traveling to accomplish a task is different from joyriding. Catching a fish for dinner differs from “sport” fishing. Growing a vegetable garden is not the same as maintaining a pristine grass lawn. We live in such abundance that we create new problems and goals to keep ourselves busy. Although too many people work hard to provide for their basic needs, more still earn enough money to spend on leisure pursuits and status symbols. We have become so used to the regular availability of food and the relative safety we enjoy, that we take these things for granted. The myriad things we have invented to occupy our time and absorb any extra income have become perceived as necessities, when in fact they are a drain on our common resources. When deciding how to spend your time, think of activities related to eating, socializing, or taking care of yourself or your loved ones.

Let us attempt to live in a meaningful way, and not just fill the hours by being busy. Or, as Thoreauii put it, we “should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports [us] at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.” We are constantly inundated with distractions. We invite intrusions into our life. Our smart phones beep every time a friend from high school posts a picture of her lunch. We lose sight of the big picture because we are bogged down in the minutia. We can derive pleasure from many things, but so often we choose to spend our time completing fruitless tasks. Americans average thirty-four hours of television weekly. Globally, three billion hours of computer and video games are played each week. Deriving enjoyment from these things is not bad in and of itself, but as the world grinds towards social and ecological crisis, we should learn creativity, cooperation, and hand-eye coordination from real-world activities that create tangible byproducts. Minecraft, for example, is an immensely popular game in which players are able to use their imagination to build novel objects and buildings. A generation ago, children built forts and knickknacks from resources they found around them. Only in the latter “game” would children learn real-world physical skills, even though both “games” are essentially the same idea.

Look for depth and richness of experience rather than intensity. To appreciate and choose, whenever possible, meaningful work rather than just making a living. Enjoy the soreness in your muscles after turning over your garden instead of using a motorized tiller. Handmade goods and food are twice as valuable as store-bought: you enjoy them once as you make them and a second time as you consume them. Travel by foot or bicycle may be slower, but it gives more time for enjoying the world. It is no coincidence that high-paying occupations are either odious or require great skill and training. If fossil fuel jobs did not pay well, people would find other ways of making a living that didn’t condemn their children to a bleak future. Corporate officers are well compensated because they must put the interest of their stockholders above the safety of their workers and customers. Many people are lucky enough to have a choice in what jobs they perform, and we should have a society that examines the total contribution of a person’s effort, not just the amount of money he or she earns. Too many must work less-than-desirable jobs for low pay just to survive in our current system, but they can find other ways to contribute meaningfully to their family, friends, and community.

Lead a complex (not a complicated) life cultivating as many positive experiences as possible. For example, it is currently cheaper and easier to buy ready-made products than to make them at home, but for the superficial ease of this lifestyle, we add layers of complication to our lives and remove ourselves from the chain of responsibility from production. We can gain a sense of personal fulfillment and accomplishment from making things. It takes more time, effort, and skill, and often the final outcome is less than ideal in the beginning, but it can be a more positive experience than simply purchasing some anonymous product. In many other ways we can reform our lives to replace complication with complexity, while increasing our positive experiences and minimizing the negative ones.

i Naess, Arne. “Deep Ecology and Lifestyle.” In Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, edited by George Sessions, 259–61. Boston: Shambala Publications.

ii Thoreau, Henry David. 1971. The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, Walden. Edited by J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 51.

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