All I Need

research gardenI‘ve written several articles about achieving Radical Simplicity, reducing our footprint to zero, to the point where we recycle everything we consume, live in harmony and balance with all-life-on-Earth, and leave no trace after we are gone.

As long as we are part of modern society, and modern political and economic systems, it is impossible to reach this goal, because a huge amount of non-renewable consumption, pollution and waste is involved in the production and distribution of everything we buy, and because we are an integral part of systems that are vastly wasteful and destructive. Buying ‘carbon credits’ may make us feel better, but they don’t undo the damage we do just by living as part of these systems.

I’ve been thinking about this from a different perspective recently. Instead of reducing our footprint by incremental changes to what we do, what if we started from zero, and figured out what we really need to live a comfortable, full and joyful life.

I’m a pretty simple guy, so perhaps my list would leave most people cold. I have a very rich imagination that entertains me, so I don’t need Hollywood or high tech to keep me amused. I enjoy my own company, so I don’t need to be stimulated 24/7. But I also like my creature comforts, so perhaps my list of All I Need isn’t that much leaner than anyone else’s. I’ve learned that as much as half what I spend each year is spent by virtue of my working away from home. If I worked at home, or didn’t ‘need’ to work at all, my needs and footprint would be much lower than they are now. This isn’t just travel savings, it’s time savings, time that would be freed up to do things for myself instead of paying others to do them for me.

Much of our consumption is a matter of choices, choices that for the most part are made for us early in life, so we don’t know that there are other, more responsible, less resource-consuming choices. Vegetarianism, eating raw foods instead of processed foods, buying local and durable. Our extravagant, unsustainable economy depends on wasteful, accelerating, mindless consumption, so realizing these alternative choices can take some thought, some time, and some research. But they’re there. We need a lot less than we think.

All I Need:

  • A place, a home: Shared with others, natural, sustainable, in balance with and as part of all-life-on-Earth. A community with a population density of no more than 25 people per human-sustainable km2 (1 person per 4 ha). That’s about 25 times as much as the average gatherer-hunter culture density throughout history, but it’s still only 1/10 of the current worldwide average, so as a ‘need’ it’s out of reach of most of the world. Ideally this home should not need heating or cooling, but if it does these things should be achieved through solar, wind or geothermal renewable sources. It should have a space for social activity, a space for quiet work and reflection, and a space for sleeping. Three communal spaces. For 50 people, indoor space totaling perhaps 10,000 sf (1,000 m2) on a little less than a square mile (2 km2) of land. Footprint 0.05% of the land.
  • People to love: A community of people with whom I share values and passions and a sense of purpose, to whom I can be of use. The ideal community seems to be around 50 people, and that feels right.
  • Attention and appreciation: It’s not so much love and affection we want in return from those we love — receiving those things doesn’t do much for us. It’s attention and appreciation we crave: having others listen to us, and nod in agreement or in thanks. That comes down to how we apportion our scarcest resource — our time. And when we live in a society that gives us so much more than all we need, and demands so much of us in return, that time is especially scarce.
  • Simple, healthy food and water: Locally produced and preserved as necessary over seasons when there may be a shortage of fresh produce. A healthy variety. Fruits, handmade juices, raw vegetables, nuts, whole grains.
  • Communication and information media: The Internet, more for virtual presence and connectivity than for content. The gives us the ability to do things without traveling to do them.
  • Music and art and literature: I can make do with the music on my mp3 player and the books I exchange with others, but what I really want is to produce these things with those I live in community with, not just consume them. Why should we buy these things when we can make them, together, for free?
  • Health: I believe that good health stems naturally from having the things above.
  • Security: Freedom from worry that these few things above that I need will be unreasonably taken from me. This means that the people around me also have to have all they need as well. As long as there is inequality there can be no security. If only the world’s ‘leaders’ understood this simple truth.

How much do these things cost? Except for the habitable land, which has become horrifically scarce because of overpopulation and inequality, only the food (which we can grow ourselves and trade surpluses with other communities, without charge, as part of a Gift or Generosity Economy) and the Internet (which we need to learn to fully manage ourselves as well, as a true World of Ends) ‘costs’ anything.

What I don’t need:

  • Meat
  • Processed foods
  • Restaurants
  • Furniture
  • Motor-powered vehicles
  • Clothing or jewelry (other than what we make ourselves and for each other, as art not as necessity)
  • Entertainment (other than that we make ourselves) or entertainment media
  • Information (other than that we produce and share among ourselves) or information media
  • Laws and governments and privacy (if we have security, as noted above, we can self-manage without laws or governments, and need no privacy)

My level of consumption today is half what it used to be, but it’s still unacceptably high. I have to think about extracting myself from the systems that give me what I don’t need, walking away from them, refusing to buy from them or participate in them, no matter how easy or inexpensive it is to just go along with these systems, and no matter how much brainwashing we’re subjected to that causes us to believe we need this crap, that there is no other way to live.

The waste, pollution and resource exhaustion that I indirectly am responsible for, by virtue of participating in these systems, may be invisible, and that is what those who perpetuate these unsustainable and reprehensible systems count on. But when we buy products from giant corporations we are as responsible for the destructive extraction, the effluent, the resource exhaustion, the waste and misery that these corporations, and the corporations they buy from, produce, as if we produced them ourselves.

We can’t go from All We Consume to All We Need quickly or easily. But it’s worthwhile realizing what is possible, if, instead of trying to be better consumers, we simply stopped consuming the way we do entirely, and started from zero. Radical Simplicity is, ironically, not easy. But if it’s important enough to us, we’ll find it’s all we need.

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9 Responses to All I Need

  1. Great article Dave… Your “All I Need” list is rather similar to mine, and I think that most people would agree if they were to honestly think about all the things in which they actually “need”. Of course the internet is more of a want than a need… but you cannot rid of ever civilized technology, at least not right away. I don’t think there is any easy solutions to anything, because things are always so much more complex than you would have originally thought. The problem with this is that you always need to work harder, and I think that is when most people jump off and just decide that going along with the destructive system we live in as civilized beings is easier. I think starting from zero is an intelligent way to go… that way we can skip all the complications of reducing and just focus on building a sustainable life.It’s always easier to create than it is to tear down.

  2. Glad you brought this up. I was having a similar idea that the human organism needs certain things within a high and low limit. Outside these limits the organism gets stressed. Understanding these is the key to building sustainable, livable communities. In my book I call them the five stresses.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    Information (other than that we produce and share among ourselves) or information mediaI don’t really understand this one.I also wonder about how much space we really need, INSIDE our shelter(s). I live in less than 900 square feet, which is less space than many people’s kitchen, living room and family room. If I had to I could live in less than 600 square feet.

  4. One force that runs counter to sufficiency is embedded in evolutionary biology. This podcast explains the hormonal aspects of evolution, addiction and demand. MIgfht be of interest to see what we are up against. other comment I have is that there are two dimensions to consider: passing on natural resources to future generations and achieving an acceptabel standard. I would say we are doing worst case in both dimesions.I comment more on my blog

  5. Dave I have always liked Sterling Hayden’s view of needs – To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… “cruising” it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about.”I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of “security.” And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone.What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade.The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?

  6. How do you get people to drop all the other complexities in life. How do you get people to start living life as if they had nothing at all to begin with? Perhaps listing down, like what you have done, can be the beginning. But if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that people will never change unless they want to.

  7. lugon says:

    A few years ago I tried to redesign my life’s “value chain”. (“Chain” in more than one sense.)It’s usually like this: I go to school so I may learn to do things so I may do things so I may get money so I may pay for things so I may use things so I may “be happy” (many things included in the “be happy” stuff, let’s leave it as a fuzzy concept for “things we need inside”).So, simply, why not design it backwards? Start at what I need and work my way backwards until I reach the first action in the “chain”. Maybe I need to be schooled like, I don’t know, 3 months in my whole life? I offered this to a mother of 3, and she was outraged (as in, ah, but it’s not that simple!). I offered it to a 11 year old girl, and she was delighted (and now hates school even more).

  8. Bob Watson says:

    In your list there’s a notable paucity of the small-scale social kind of places, the little theatre, the dance hall, the cafe, the athletic field, the auditorium, the sorts of places that colleges routinely have. These give the chance to engage with a larger community than one’s intimates, which is the real replacement for mass media entertainment and other distractions from distractions by distractions.Another omission is just free time, although you mention that earlier. I wonder if you know Chris Davis’s website Idle Theory, which argues that the goal of evolution is idle time: “Any animal that is busy all the time is close to death.”

  9. Jon Husband says:

    Another omission is just free time, although you mention that earlier. I wonder if you know Chris Davis’s website Idle Theory, which argues that the goal of evolution is idle time: “Any animal that is busy all the time is close to death.”Kurt Vonnegut, one of my all-time favourite observers of life on this ball of rock, once famously said (not verbatim) “Never let anyone tell you that the purpose of life is anything other than just farting around”

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