Curiosity or Audacity?

Because it is empty, Mars acts for no one. Mars is beautiful for no one. Thus, it acts only for itself, by itself, as itself. It is the perfection of authenticity.

But now we put a rover. Curiosity, we call it. We give Martian places Earthly names. We analyze these places and put them into our categories of knowing. When we do that we force it to be for us. Our relationality with Mars forces Mars into a state of inauthenticity. If Sartre is right that “hell is other people” then we have moved Mars from heaven to hell. 

It is not ours. We should not force ourselves on it. It is for itself, not for us. 

The sheer audacity!

We have destroyed perfection with audacious arrogance. 

The Antlion and the Anthropocene

What would it be like to be an antlion?

First, ask what it would be like to be a creature that lives mainly by instinct and without reasoning or language. Imagine not being able to make sense of your world beyond desires and impulses. Now imagine a creature like that whose sensory apparatus and cognitive capacities had evolved under conditions which were no longer present. In other words, a creature who is neither physiologically equipped for nor mentally capable of grasping, rationalizing, or contextualizing their situation.

When a human hears construction noises they’re able to rationalise the situation despite the fact that the human sensory apparatus as cognitive capacities did not evolve specifically to handle construction noises. Not so for the ant lion. The antlion digs downward on an impulse that they don’t understand—or if they do understand then only in terms of eating or hunger—  all the while being barraged with construction noises that they have no context for nor that their senses are meant to decipher. To be bombarded with strangeness with no means of understanding or conceptualizing or rationalizing it whilst following a compulsive drive to dig and to eat.

That is what it is like to be an antlion in the anthropocene.  

Ingenuity?

I’m getting started baking sourdough, and not buying things firsthand sure makes it more tricky. Need a bread pan? Your local thrift shop might have one. Need a razor sharp enough to score your loaf? How about a pizza peel? Good luck buddy.

Maybe I ought to say what I mean by not buying things first-hand.

Basically, I’m concerned that practically anytime I buy something at retail, I’ve contributed in some way or another to someone’s suffering. I don’t think this is some eternal truth about the world, rather, I think there’s enough exploitation happening in the current global marketplace that I can hardly imagine doing the research on each and every product I buy in order to figure out if my purchase involves cruelty.

Instead, it seems simpler to take a blanket approach. I don’t contribute to oppressive factory conditions if I don’t buy from the manufacturer or retailer. As a bonus, I get to feel that sense of meaning that comes from making a conscious effort to live out my values.

But I’m a long way from freeganism or complete avoidance of retail markets, so here’s a working explanation for what I’m doing(I may make adjustments as I go):

  1. Let’s start by getting this out of the way: I’m buying consumable products first-hand. At this point that means food, paper products,cleaning supplies… anything that is meant to be replaced regularly. I’m hoping to up the ante on this one by slowly phasing out the consumables that I buy. But for now I wouldn’t know how to live without them, to be honest.
  2. What am I not buying retail? Anything else. Clothes, kitchen items, tools, furniture, appliances, etc.
  3. What’s not retail? In addition to second-hand items, I’m counting damaged or otherwise unsalable goods as ethically purchasable. Basically, if it would otherwise be headed for the trash, it’s ok to buy. I give preference to secondhand items, though, and might tighten this down at a later date as well.
  4. We can call today the first official day of the journey.

Which way is forward?

Often, when I talk about something like living in a village-based economy, the merits of gathering my own food, or scaling back energy consumption, folks will reply to me that “We can’t go backwards.” Some of my more philosophically minded friends think there might be a metaphysical reason for this, while a more practically minded person will point to modernity’s fallen child mortality rates.

I agree. We can’t go back.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t live in the village-sized communities our brains evolved to flourish in.

When someone equates simplification with backwardsness, they mistakenly imagine simplification as a renunciation of progress, goodness, or even life. But this idea places the accent on the wrong syllable; while it might seem like simplification focuses on negation and renunciation, I see it as affirmative and developmental. Simplification, in my view, is a means of internal transformation designed to facilitate my own flourishing and the flourishing of others around me.

Beyond that, simplification is revolutionary inasmuch as it rejects excesses: In rejecting excess wealth it rejects economic colonialism; in rejecting excess power it rejects marginalization; in rejecting excess harm it rejects oppression; in rejecting excess self-centeredness it rejects all manner of evils. Contrapositively, simplification embraces thoughtful consumption, empowerment for all people, equity, and care.

The ancient Hellenes had this idea that was super important to them called epimelēsthai sautou. (To take care of one’s self)

Socrates used this idea to scold his fellow Athenians for caring only about wealth, honor, and reputation—a critique I think he might make in the US today, if he happened to be around, except he might leave out the honor part. In his view, such narrow-mindedness leaves out self-care. Again, this seems like a valid criticism for my culture today; when the most powerful demographic in my country (white males) have the highest suicide rates, and when a person becomes more prone to suicide when they move to a richer neighborhood, (Basically. Read the study here.) it starts to seem like there might be some serious self-care issues involved in the pursuit of wealth and power. Yet this is the idea of progress a person has in mind when they think village economies are backwards.

For Socrates, self-care and betterment involved simplification. That’s because he didn’t really think that the pursuit of excess fit with a purposeful life brought on by self-reflection. Similarly, when I think about what makes life worth living, I think about relationships with loved ones, challenges I’ve overcome, beauty, and hope. Realizing this encouraged me to think differently about how I want to live. Do I want excess power and wealth like those lonely, isolated men whose lives are so miserable they flee them at the highest rates?

Nope.

The thing is, I’m a white man from the US. The standard pursuit of more is all I know. That’s why it’s so important for me to simplify. I have to check each piece of my life: Is this excessive? Hurtful? Does it bring me or anyone else joy? Why am I doing this? What could I be doing instead?

The answers to these questions should drive progress. If we aren’t asking them, we aren’t going forward.

Why simplify?

My thinking about reducing excess and living purposefully in each moment stems from a line of thinkers I trace back through figures like Aldo Leopold, Diogenes the Cynic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Michel Foucault, and John Cassian. a bunch of dead white dudes who used the simplicity game to help them think more clearly and live better lives.

But renunciation has gotten a bad rap, and I believe this is because we live in an era of extreme contrast: excess and poverty, ability and oppression, all unlike anything in our species’ evolutionary history. I get the feeling that my culture’s terror at the thought of downsizing results from looking over the edge of the tower and seeing how far we could fall. Hardly anyone used to piping clean water directly into their home will love the idea of drinking contaminated water they walked miles to procure, and most of them will cling desperately to whatever currently prevents their fall. It makes no difference that this is not what simplifying means; fear at the idea of loss in my culture stems from our inability to differentiate appropriate technology from ruin.

It’s my thinking that, far from being on the road to ruin, simplification affirms the best things about life. That’s why paying attention to how I live and trying to live better brings me so much joy.

Obviously, removing excess from my life means giving things up. But thinking about it this way gets things confused. That’s why I talk about living simply, living well, or living intentionally; these are affirmative acts, not negating ones. And every time we do something, we don’t do all sorts of other things, since we can only do one or two things at a time.

Think about it this way: When you take out the trash, are you “giving up” your trash? Or are you getting rid of it? Simplicity is like taking out the trash: consciously deciding what parts of life are worth your time and energy is freeing, not restrictive.   

Secondhand Markets

My phone is starting to slow down, which means I have to decide what to do about it. I’m trying to remove the consumerist feeding tube from my throat, so I want to avoid buying things first-hand: The less I contribute to the exploitation of everything the better.

But with my phone, I’m less sure what to do. Am I really avoiding contributing to the problematic factory labor and mining involved in making phones if the used phone market thrives on overproduction anyway?

It’s the same problem I’m thinking about with Amazon’s “used” toggle, which seems more like a way to sell products with damaged packaging for basically full price.

Am I overreacting here? Even dumpster-diving requires the whole excessive system in the background. In fact, that’s sort of the point: It’s like saying, “Look, you’re throwing away enough stuff for someone to live on. Why don’t we scale this back a notch?”

Should I be asking better questions? What are my goals and values with respect to this question? What am I trying to accomplish?

Well, my goal is to think about what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis in order to have good moral reasons for doing whatever I do. In the case of buying a product, I want to be able to give a moral account of why I bought that particular product from that particular store.

I suppose that’s what I’m doing with this blog. I’m writing about what its like to try to understand the moral significance of each of my actions and do something useful with that information. And by do something useful, I mean live better.

Why don’t I start with a different question. Instead of thinking about how to buy a replacement for my current phone, maybe I should ask if I should buy a replacement at all?

That’ll be a conversation for another day.

I’m learning

that the more I think about what I’m doing on a day to day basis, the more I do things that also make me think about what I’m doing more. Here’s what I mean. When you don’t buy things firsthand, you can’t just run down to the store when you need some crap. You have to plan. When secondhand stores make up the bulk of your shopping, there’s no telling how a trip to the store might turn out. In this way, the practice that emerged from my attempt to living deliberately causes me to live more deliberately in turn.

It’s kind of a beautiful symmetry hidden in the mundanities of daily living.