(and avoid the rush)
“A more sustainable and
desirable future surely
means simpler living
Skimming over an endless series of wide open-ocean swells, slicing effortlessly through their surface wavelets from the steady push of the tireless trade winds of the South Pacific, Kalea confidently made her way to Rarotonga, the most populous island of the Cook Islands, as her final port of call of the cruise.
Bob and I stayed busy attending to the needs of our passengers and the operation of the vessel, while Lua produced a steady stream of delicious and nutritious delights from the galley during our days at sea.
The cast of Kiss Me on Kalea was a bit more relaxed now that Tucker was no longer in the group. Julie and Paul were spending many hours with Lua in the galley, laughing and engaging in lively conversations over some tea-like concoctions.
The jealousy and competitive tension between Jan and Clara subsided with Tucker’s departure, and they began spending more time together talking about their careers and cataloging an endless array of defects of former husbands and boyfriends.
Jack would spend many of his waking hours fiddling with the sails and rigging and scanning the waters around the boat for any signs of marine life.
At night, he would lie face down in a prone position on the rear trampoline netting and spend hours gazing down into the deep-sea blackness, mesmerized by the scattered bluish glow of thousands of tiny bioluminescent phytoplankton scintillating like stars in a night sky around Kalea’s dual wakes.
One clear night during the final hours of our week-long island hopping adventure aboard Kalea, I took a short break from my watch duties to lie face down on the rear trampoline netting alongside Jack and observe the brilliant luminous display of tiny organisms disturbed by the passing of Kalea’s twin hulls.
Turning over to look up on that cloudless night revealed a sky bursting with stars. We were both silent, lost in the beauty and wonder of the glorious lights above and the plethora of glowing life below.
I thought about how, in economically advanced societies today, we have tragically lost connection with many natural sources of wonder and awe. We don’t have the same sensory experiences as our ancestors only two generations back.
City lights wash out the view of the star-saturated night sky. Traffic noise drowns out the songs of birds and the soothing sounds of wind-blown trees.
Few people ever get the opportunity to peer down into the dark ocean depths at night from a small boat to witness the dazzling array of life that is ever present there.
‘The sea, once it casts its spell, can hold one in its net of wonder forever,’ Jacques Cousteau famously said about the mystery and wonder offered to those souls fortunate enough to have had a close relationship with the ocean world.
I felt a sudden urge to break the mesmerizing trance we were both under,
“Hey Jack, I have a question.”
“If sponges grow in the ocean, and they absorb water so well, wouldn’t the oceans overflow if all the sponges died?”
I couldn’t resist floating the silly question to my scientist friend to see his response.
Jack shot back,
“Sure, Rico. And when sea-level rise from global-warming-induced melting of land ice and from thermal seawater expansion becomes a really big problem, we could just 3D-print a few trillion sponges and chuck them into the oceans to absorb all that excess seawater — problem solved.”
I deserved that one.
Why do sponges exhibit such a lust for liquids?
A sponge is uniquely effective at soaking up stuff because of its peculiar design. It is composed of loose fibers that form an object that is more empty space than anything else. It is because of all this empty space that the sponge can work so well.
The holes between the fibers soak up the water and cause the fibrous material itself to swell. This is what prevents the water from sloshing around inside the sponge, like baffles in a fuel tank, or from flowing right back out again.
Instead, the water is trapped inside until the sponge is squeezed. If you were to remove all of the empty space in a sponge, you would see that the actual matter that makes up the sponge would take up less than one-third of the sponge’s actual size.
The next morning, I mentioned my conversation with Jack to Lua, figuring she’d be amused by my ingenious spongy geo-engineering solution to the problem of sea-level rise.
She couldn’t resist the temptation to absorb my silly idea and wring out a spongy simile to express her concerns about a very troubling trend:
“You know, our brains are like sponges that are naturally good at absorbing vast amounts of information. But we are now living in a time of exponential information growth, making it necessary to differentiate between what is important and useful and what is trivial. A sponge, after all, can only soak up so much before it is saturated and is no longer of use.”
“And along with this information overload, there are now so many demands on our time as well. They say that time is money. It is not. TIME IS LIFE! I think many people do not understand that the actual cost of a thing is the amount of life — in time and energy — which is required to be exchanged for it. Whether it involves physical or mental effort, time is being exchanged to satisfy some desire.”
It seemed to Lua that perhaps we should slow down a bit and spend less time pursuing extremes of material comfort, convenience, and security and ever more complicated technologies and organizations, and ever more information about matters of ever less importance.
We would be better off — psychologically and spiritually — spending more time with each other, in Nature, and in quiet solitude to give our saturated sponge brains a break.
While our heads have become filled to capacity, our hearts have been hollowed out, and our spirit is weak.
“But what would we do with all the free time if we were not always working hard to keep up as we do now? An idle mind is the devil’s playground, no?”
Lua responded without hesitation:
“Oh, there are plenty of wonderful ways to take advantage of more leisure time that would keep head, hands, and heart fully engaged — with little time or energy left over for gratuitous mischief. For example, people should be more fully engaged in local community and political life. They should get more physical exercise from slower but healthier and more environmentally friendly transportation like walking and riding a bike. They should learn new skills to develop greater self-reliance and self-confidence to cope with potentially hard times ahead and nurture the shared culture of the community through participation in art, music, and dance programs, café conversations, and project collaborations. They should spend more time in Nature for psychological health and spiritual growth. These are all great uses of free time. And, of course, preparing healthy meals and enjoying them with friends and family is always a good idea.”
“Wow, that sure would require a major cultural U-turn in the U.S. It would be very difficult to rejigger our cherished American way of life to that degree — but not impossible, I suppose. The American psyche does contains residual traces of what may be required for that degree of cultural rebirth.”
The schizophrenic American mind is, after all, a contrasting, awkward blend of old European values — with their long history of aristocratic social hierarchies, stratification, and dominance over Nature — with a respectable dosage of rugged Native American independence with its defiance of authority, reverence for Nature, and egalitarian social structures.
Curiously, the notion of Indian ‘chief’ is actually of European descent, where it was natural that a leader in society should tell other people what to do.
Furthermore, this person should be easily recognizable by their dress, by the behavior of subordinates, and by the size of their dwellings.
Since most Indian societies were egalitarian, the early Europeans were often confused and frustrated when they could not readily identify the Indian ‘chiefs.’ They were confounded by the fact that the leaders wore the same clothing as other people, were treated the same, and lived in similar dwellings.
Tellingly, a surprising number of early European settlers wound up joining Indian society rather than remaining loyal to their own culture and group — but flow in the opposite direction very rarely happened!
Apparently, the intensely communal nature of an Indian tribe held an appeal that the material benefits of Western civilization couldn’t offer. And, of no small consequence, Indian clothing was far more sensible and comfortable in the New World!
The Native American religion was less harsh and its social structures were essentially classless and egalitarian and emphasized sharing.
There was much less surplus accumulation of things and therefore less material inequality.
As a consequence, no one was rich or powerful enough to capture the government and steer it toward their own individual, selfish ends.
Of these two value sets, the classic European values with their Nature-dominating, technology-focused notions of societal progress and stratified social hierarchy clearly won out.
People feel the need to work hard to fit into this model and climb the ladder of wealth and social status. It is a core element of the ‘American Dream.’
Traditional Native American cultures — with their ethics of simplicity, sharing, egalitarianism, reverence for Nature and that most fragile of assets, mutual trust — have generally been despised and ridiculed for their voluntary simplicity and social equality by the white European conquerors.
Yet the American mind still contains elements of both value sets!
For a remote South Pacific islander, Lua was impressively well informed on what was going on in the wider world beyond the shores of her island home.
She felt that it was unfortunate that the world seemed to be heading into a new age of environmental tipping points, social turbulence, and planetary turmoil.
She noted that environmental threats are growing with each passing year. The world economy is in a prolonged slump, and all the developed nations are doing everything in their power to restart high-growth economies.
This is a foolish endeavor and will ultimately fail, she believed.
People living in wealthy nations are inevitably going to have to simplify their lifestyles and reconnect with the material realities of a finite planet and the slower rhythms of Nature — a culture that islanders understand very well.
Lua knew that this would be a very difficult concept to grasp for those folks who’ve only ever lived economically advanced, hyper-competitive, high-growth oriented Western consumer lifestyles.
To them, progress has always meant more: more energy, more resources, more technology, more complexity, and more patience waiting for ‘trickle-down’ wealth distribution to do its work.
Though there have no doubt been obvious gains in quality of life for millions that have achieved middle-class lifestyles — primarily from capitalizing on a one-time endowment of cheap, abundant, easily accessed, high-density, portable fossil-fuel energy.
But going forward, these notions of societal progress will have to change on an ecologically stressed planet with ever increasing energy, material, and pollution-control constraints and a swelling human population.
“There will likely be a Great Resetting of social norms and notions of human progress following an unavoidable climacteric. A more sustainable and desirable future means simpler living and community-based, materials-light, low-carbon, service-based economies — less stuff and less social isolation and more experiences and stronger connections to community and to the natural world. Simplify your life as much as you can now, Mister Rico, and avoid the rush!”
Lua believed we could make great gains in the quality of our lives and in the inventiveness, cooperation, and self-reliance of our communities by engaging the creative intelligence and purpose of community members to co-invent the future and redirect our energies toward improving healthcare and education, enhancing social care, renovating and refurbishing buildings, increasing leisure and recreation hours, protecting and maintaining green spaces, and engaging in more cultural activities.
All of these endeavors contribute positively to the quality of our lives and well-being and are far less ecologically damaging and spiritually draining than activities associated with unsustainable high-consumption lifestyles.
Lua was preaching to the choir. I had been steadily drifting into this way of thinking myself over the last several years following the devastating impact of the financial crisis and what was revealed when that tide of false wealth finally went out — a rigged casino economy where financial gambling and predatory lending schemes benefited clever ‘insider’ one-percenters who thrive on privatizing gains and socializing losses.
Bailouts from these unproductive and demoralizing money games diverted massive amounts of financial capital that could have been used more effectively to transition from a dirty, dead-end, fossil-fueled, endless growth, linear economy teetering atop a crumbling physical infrastructure to a steady-state, clean-energy, regenerative, circular economy with meaningful jobs retrofitting, restoring, and rebuilding for a better future for all.
Currency manipulations and financial shenanigans only resulted in greater levels of income and wealth inequality and even more dependence on a debt-bubble based, dirty-energy fueled, climate-destabilizing economy with diminishing prospects from too much debt in the world and too little economic growth to service it.
I sensed there was a growing yearning in society for simpler living.
Most people equate simplicity with childhood — and believe it must end with adulthood. Through a child’s eye, the world is always simple, fresh, in-the-now, beauty-full, and wonder-full.
Nature-boy Jack had retained this childlike quality into adulthood and was able to earn a living indulging that childlike curiosity and wonder as a scientist.
Fellow ‘wonderer’ Isaac Newton had said, ‘truth is found in simplicity,’ not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.
Einstein, upon whose theories much of our complex tools and technologies today are built, believed that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best — both for the body and the mind.
The mindful Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi encourages us to appreciate all of the 'perfectly imperfect' simple blessings in our daily lives.
And economist E.F. Schumacher observed that, ‘any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent — it takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.’
Lua would surely agree and add that simplicity breeds clarity — the same clarity by which children, and childlike adults such as Jack and Lua, see the world.
Put an end to excessive consumption and accumulation, simplify your life, and observe how joy blossoms, she would counsel.
Those with the consciousness of simplicity never lose their childlike appreciation for the simple pleasures of existence in a beauty-full, wonder-full living, mysterious evolving universe.
They maintain a deep reverence and respect for the wonders of the natural world, of which they instinctively know they are a part.
They are mindful and connected to the world they live in, yet maintain an inner strength and guiding compass that is not ‘of’ the world.