Less is Better

It has become a matter of some faith in our society that more is better. A good majority of us tend to want more money, more stuff, more energy, more information, and so on down what can turn into a very long list. If some is good, after all, more is better. It’s a common belief but also a common misunderstanding, because more isn’t automatically better. It can be, obviously; due to the way we organize our economy, it is better to have more money up to a certain point. It’s better, as well, to have more food if you don’t have enough to sustain you. But once you do have enough to sustain you, it’s best not to have too much more. If you do, you either are going to let it go to waste or you’re going to eat too much, and both decisions are likely to harm both you and your community. In other words, it’s best to have enough and it’s bad to have too little or too much.

One of the key reasons more isn’t necessarily better is the law of diminishing returns. This law holds that, if all other variables are held constant, the increase in production accrued from a single unit of input will eventually decrease per unit of input. In other words, if I’m extremely hungry and I eat dinner, that dinner will have a significant impact on my level of hunger. If I eat two dinners, the second dinner is going to have much less of an impact on my hunger, simply because my hunger has already largely been sated. And if I eat a third dinner? Well, now we’ve moved a step beyond the law of diminishing returns and entered the realm of negative returns, which is when an additional unit of input actually creates a decrease in production. The third dinner, in other words, not only is not reducing my hunger, but it’s actually increasing my physical discomfort by making me overly full and uncomfortable.

These are simple lessons most of us learn early in life. One slice of your favorite dessert brings great satisfaction; two is overdoing it; fifty is putting your very health at risk. (I’ll hope nobody reading this has indulged to such a degree.) Alcohol is another fine example, as are glasses of water. To this day, I sometimes react to too much salt intake and too little hydration by pounding a few glasses of water, only to realize a few moments later that I’m now far too full. Take it to an even greater extreme, and you literally will die from water intake.

Unfortunately, we are far less adept at recognizing the importance of these factors when it comes to, say, our accumulation of wealth, the size of our homes, our overall intake of sugar (we may have the “less than fifty slices” rule down, but we aren’t as good at limiting our overall sugar intake as a general rule), the amount of energy we burn, the complexity of our digital gadgets, the amount of stuff we acquire, and so on. That’s unfortunate, because the optimum level of so many elements of our lives lie on a scale that, rather than being bad at one end and good at the other, is bad on both ends. Most of the things that bring us happiness and satisfaction are things we want enough of, but not too much and not too little. Unfortunately for us today, modern industrialized lifestyles are burdened and devalued with too much of most everything.

It’s a curious and unfortunate reality in our society that we tend to think in linear patterns. It’s one of the dominant ways that our particular culture views the world—not, mind you, a way of viewing the world that humans do as a matter of course, but simply a way of viewing the world that our particular culture does as a matter of course, and which other cultures throughout history have often not. I suspect there are multiple reasons for this. A good part of it boils down to our common adherence to the myth of progress that John Michael Greer has done such a brilliant job of illuminating over the years on his blog. This idea pervades our view of the world, flattening the vagaries of human history into a single, overarching narrative of betterment over time—a narrative that, frankly, doesn’t fit the facts. In addition to that myth is the sort of reductionist thinking so dominant these days. Reductionist thinking is critical to industrialization, current economic thought, and the scientific process. It allows us to focus in on individual variables and to suss out some of the consequences and impacts of specific actions, so long as we can control all other variables. Unfortunately, it’s the sort of thinking that tends to eliminate consideration of whole systems and unintended consequences. While it’s a thought process and approach that can work very well within the context of highly controlled studies, we very often apply it to human behavior at the individual and collective level, as well as to the ecosystems around us, which are all applications in which reductionist thinking fails miserably.

Put these two tendencies of thought together—the idea of a straight-arrow progression of betterment over time and reductionist modes of thinking that leave us focusing on single variables without accounting for the whole system consequences of any one action—and apply them to our own individual lives and what you will get is a tendency to obsess over particular variables, flatten the effects of those variables into a single consequence, discount the many other whole system effects of those variables, and act accordingly. This is how we come to think that it’s good to have more money and to pursue that goal with a single-minded focus on the positive aspects of having more money and no regard for the negative aspects that can come from it. To make matters worse, we often will assume positive impacts regardless of our actual experience, and will fail to notice the kicking in not only of the law of diminishing returns, but also the arrival of negative returns. We become so fixated on the idea of more being better, we don’t even recognize when more has become worse.

Of course, money is not the only such fixation here. Energy use, material goods, and various forms of stimulation also fit the bill, as do a wide variety of other variables (most of which fit into one of those categories). This is where the idea of LESS, coined by John Michael Greer, comes in. The acronym stands for “Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation” and it’s a critical part of any response to the troubles we face today. If we are to have a better future than our current path suggests, it’s going to come through an intentional movement of LESS spreading throughout our culture and society, both at the individual and collective levels. However, as important as that is, LESS is not just a way of responding to our current predicaments, it’s also a way of living a better and happier life. Simply put, LESS is better.

That’s the reality we need to wrap our minds around if we’re going to improve our lives. As we have laden ourselves down with too much money and wealth, debts of various kinds, energy usage, stuff, and distracting stimulation, the good majority of us in America and other industrialized nations have long since passed the point of diminishing returns for these variables, and in many instances have moved into the realm of negative returns. While we continue to too often think of these whole system aspects of our lives in linear, non-system terms—more is better—we actually have moved to the point in which more is worse, and that adding in new forms of digital distractions, higher burn rates of energy, new gadgets and machinery, greater wealth, and so on down the list is actively degrading and worsening our lives: stripping it of meaning and satisfaction, eroding our relationships and community ties, impeding our ability to think clearly, and doing all this while simultaneously corrupting and destroying the livability of our and our children’s future.

Therefore, we need LESS. At the same time, though, it’s a bit more complicated than this. LESS is a helpful approach for our current time due to the fact that so many of us have too much, but making do with less is just as susceptible to the law of diminishing returns and negative returns as living it up with more is. Granted, most of the people reading this are likely far away from having too little, and far away from having what will ultimately be a sustainable share of the world’s resources, but replacing one across-the-board rule with both positive and negative potential impacts with an opposite across-the-board rule with the same is not a solution, it’s just the opposite way of perpetuating the same problem.

The solution to properly scaled lives lies in removing the concept of a linear scale from the way we view the role of energy, stuff, and stimulation in our lives and instead looking at it as part of a continuum, in which one end features too little, the opposite end features too much, and somewhere in the middle is an appropriately scaled life. This, of course, requires a greater degree of thinking and self-reflection—and the first step to accomplishing that for most of us lies in both the elimination of a certain amount of distraction and stimulation from our lives, and in the dedication of a portion of our time to thought and reflection. That’s one of the first steps. Once we are able to think clearly, we can begin the process of determining how much is enough, how much is too little, and how much is too much.

As it happens, that’s not the easiest process. First, we have to dedicate the time and attention to thinking about these issues. Next, we have to actually take note of our reactions to various forms of wealth, activity, and stimulation. This, however, can be a trap at first. There’s a reason that we overload ourselves with too many possessions, too much wealth, too much energy, and too much stimulation, and that lies in the fact that all these things tend to provide at least a short term positive impact. It’s easy and satisfying, in a very fleeting way, to poke at a phone instead of thinking about our lives. It’s easy and satisfying, in a very fleeting way, to down a bag of chips or a sugary treat rather than take the time to make a tasty and healthy meal made from real ingredients. It’s easy and satisfying, in a very fleeting way, to watch a movie or television show instead of going out into the garden and weeding, or planting a new bed of vegetables, or harvesting the crop. It’s harder to do all the latter activities, and yet it’s satisfying and fulfilling in a way that’s not fleeting but is instead lasting and—via a sustained commitment—even transformative.

Yes, living with less than what the modern American lifestyle calls for is transformative over time, but it does take a commitment to reach that transformation, and it takes an observation of long terms changes as well as short term ones. Granted, living with LESS will provide you short term positive impacts just as living with more will, but it’s in the long term impacts on your life that the true value of choosing LESS manifests itself. That’s why it can sometimes be a trap to take note of your reactions to living with LESS, because we’re much better at noticing short term and immediate reactions than we are in evaluation long term and lasting impacts. It’s the latter that truly reveal the benefits of living with LESS.

Therefore, the next step in determining the proper scale of our life is to observe the long term impacts of purposeful, sustained reductions in our self-apportionment of energy, stuff, and stimulation. A commitment to reduced usage, even in the face of loss of short-term positive impacts, will tend to reveal long term positive impacts that can dramatically change the way a person views and understands the world. Furthermore, such a commitment begins to create a positive feedback loop of affirmation in which learning to live with less leads to an increased desire to live with less, and a movement away from the more is better ethos that so dominate our culture.

As such, there’s a critical final step here that serves as a part of a lifelong, never-ending calibration of how much is enough: the range in which a properly scaled life exists can shift. What I’ve found in my own explorations of LESS is that, as I reduce the amount of energy and resources I use, the amount of energy and resources I feel I need to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled reduces as well. In other words, living with less not only makes you happier by eliminating the excesses of your life that actually degrade your quality of life, but it also can shift how much you need to be happy over time. Of course, this process too is subject to the law of diminishing returns, with the initial shifts for someone used to an outsized, modern industrial lifestyle capable of being very large until you’ve reduced to the point that further reductions will be marginal, and may not prove reductions at all. But it’s satisfying and rewarding to experience those initial positive feedback loops, in which a simplified lifestyle feeds on itself, opening entirely new avenues of living that may have previously been unthinkable.

That, as well, is an immense relief. When I wrote that America feels exhausted to me, I was trying to get at the stress and pressure that comes with attempting to maintain a standard American lifestyle. Frankly, it’s not a natural human lifestyle and it’s not one that our planet will support. As such, it’s a terrible strain. We are constantly fighting against an array of pressures that push us away from such an unnatural, unfulfilling, and unsustainable lifestyle. It’s tiring to constantly fight that, and it’s particularly tiring to fight that when you’re being told at every turn that you shouldn’t have to fight it; that this is the natural way of life even though every bit of the natural world’s feedback—including your own internal sense of evolutionary calibration—is telling you the opposite. Dropping that fight, letting go of that outsized life, and embracing something smaller, simpler, more elegant, and more fulfilling, is one of the great liberations available to us in our current time and place. It’s a gift, and it’s one that far too many of us are rejecting due to our inability to see it as such. Living with less is better, and it’s far past time that we recognize that, act accordingly, and accept with gratitude the relief, joy, and newfound lives that come with it.


Addendum: I’m pleased to note that an interview I conducted with Greg Moffitt of Legalise Freedom is up and available for your listening pleasure. In this, I speak about Into the Ruins, this blog, connection to the natural world, and the fate of industrial society. Frankly, I think it gets better the longer you listen. You can check it out right here and consider sharing it with anyone you think would be interested. Thanks!

16 Comments

  1. Good evening Joel,

    A very astute observation and, as Mr. Greer points out, we will need to actually do with LESS as the stair step down continues. However, I would posit that there is a subtlely better alternative that keeps us from the two ends of bad. That is the concept of Lagom. Enough. Enough to be satisfied, but with the awareness that more than enough leaves us in a similar fashion to less than enough. This ‘middle way’ encourages a positive thing to aspire to, while constantly reducing in some ways may become just another ‘more’ that we seek to achieve. (i.e. yes, you may be a vegetarian, but why are you not a vegan?-type of argument.)

    So not a disagreement, just a subtle adjustment from a losing mentality to one where you focus on finding the sweet spot.

    Cheers!

    • Hi Jac,

      indeed. I agree—there’s a balance to be had on bot sides, and that was part of what I was aiming to get across in this post. If you are destitute, you can gain a massive amount of benefit by acquiring more wealth and resources, but that gain steadily decreases the more wealth and resources you acquire. Similarly, if you have too much, you can gain a lot of happiness by shedding it, but that process is also subject to the law of diminishing returns. So yes—enough is the right amount, and just how much is enough is also a calculation that can shift and change as you alter your life.

      I don’t know that we’re very good at figuring out what is enough, but time and consideration and an openness to different experiences seems to be the key.

  2. Greetings Joel,

    Have you ever read the book, “Your Money or Your Life” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin? If not I’d highly recommend it. Some aspects of the book are a bit dated and not fully applicable today, but the bulk of it is fully relevant. This blog post of yours made me think of it especially because they have a system described in the book to help one determine just what is “enough” for each individual. The book focuses on changing our relationships with money, but is really about learning what is a personally fulfilling life and then focusing our energies, be it money or time, there rather than wasting them carelessly. If I can summarize their technique in an extremely brief way it is to first determine what your REAL hourly wage is. Then you track all your spending, which sounds like a huge task but really isn’t, and at the end of each month you tally things up and work the real magic of the system. This is the evaluation stage where you critically look at each item or category of spending in dollar terms and divide it by your real hourly wage to discover how many hours of your life you had to spend to get that item. Finally without any blame, guilt, or remorse you just ask yourself if you got fulfillment equal to or greater than the hours of your life you gave up for it. Say for example you find that dinner out with friends cost you 4 hours of life working to pay for. If you feel that’s worth it great, perhaps you should do it more often. If it doesn’t seem worth the cost you just naturally cut down, alter, or stop doing such things.

    I’ve been following the system they laid out in the book for about 15 years now. It has definitely helped me get my life and finances into a much better place. Of course, the law of diminishing returns applies here too. It was a huge help to me when I first started. These days the time I put into tracking and evaluating my finances is something done more by rote habit with little in the way of grand insights. I keep doing it though because it does keep me from straying too far off course and I find the hard data of my finances helpful and reassuring when evaluating potential changes in my life or business.

    On the matter of LESS being more I have to say in retrospect one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life was 20 years ago buying the small home I still live in. It’s roughly 600 square feet of temperature controlled living space. (I do have several unheated outbuildings which are quite handy.) In all honestly I wish it was a bit less since I really don’t use the back room for much more than storage, and if it had a better physical layout I could probably live very comfortably with even less yet. It’s actually an old mobile home on 1.5 acres. At the time it was the most I could afford, but also about the lowest cost real estate there was on the market. Moving here had a short-term positive impact on me, but it is the long-term positive impacts that make me say it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Being cheap to begin with meant I was able to pay of the mortgage in 9 years even with a very modest income. Being small meant it cost less to heat in the winter, and less to maintain in general. When I needed a new roof there was less surface to cover. When I decided to super insulate it there were less lineal feet of walls to cover, fewer windows to replace, etc. It’s generally low cost living. A serious long-term benefit of that for me was that I could pursue my dream job of being a full-time studio artist sooner because I could live well on far less as I got my career going.

    This isn’t to say that I don’t still struggle with a drive to pursue MORE even when I can see it isn’t making me happier. I still do. However, I can say as one who has been living with LESS for a long time, as compared to the average American, that it is a good thing which has provided me with much more freedom over the direction of my life while greatly increasing my resiliency. I’d certainly encourage others to consider pursuing LESS.

    • Hi David,

      Thank you! Yours is a wonderful comment that very succinctly gets at a real world example of the benefits of living with less. Noting not just the lower initial cost of your smaller home, but also the lower maintenance and upgrade costs when you’ve chosen to do work on it also gets at the whole systems considerations that I talked a bit about in this post. I really appreciate it, and it’s a good reminder for me of the benefits of bringing in real world examples. I tended to do that more often on my old blog, Of The Hands.

      I haven’t read “Your Money or Your Life,” but I have heard of the book. I didn’t know the details of their system, but it does sound very clever and insightful; I think it would be worth taking a closer look at it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  3. Might not be a bad idea to discuss the work of EF Schumacher, a non-traditional economist who popularized the idea of “intermediate technologies”, i.e., technologies that use lower levels of energy and material than we are used to but can be robust, reliable, easy to support/create, and still allow humans to live a good life, a life without great deprivations and suffering. In the future, the only real choice we may have is between intermediate technology (if we get started soon), or far more primitive technology.

    • Hi Ric,

      Schumacher is great, and Small is Beautiful is worth anyone’s time. I don’t know that I have any discussion specifically about him for the time being. To be honest, I probably should give him a reread to refresh my memory, and I still want to read A Guide for the Perplexed. Perhaps that could lead to some good discussion, as well.

      But yes, there’s a lot of good technology out there that can make a world of difference in our quality of life without being overly energy intensive. Certainly, I’ll be talking a bit about passive solar technologies going forward. There are also the technological paths we chose never to follow, and there may yet be a number of good discoveries along those paths should we decide to explore them, after all. That likely will also get a future post, though I’ll have to think exactly where it fits in with my plans.

  4. In addition to the concept of LESS, the terms “adequate” and “sufficient” spring immediately to mind.

    When my wife and I walk down the streets of our neighborhood and see 2500 sq. ft. homes with three cars in the driveway and the garage chucky-jammed full of STUFF, we shake our heads in wonder. What has happened in the culture of the United States that this is the norm and not some aberrant social behavior requiring therapy and long stays in rehab facilities?

    The lineal mindset is indeed a function of western cultural heritage, founded in the Enlightenment, carried to dysfunctional extreme by over-emphasis on scientism and technology as approaches to the problems caused by scientism and technology in a hyper-capitalist economy.

    Fortunately, some scientists and other clear thinkers maintain a holistic, systems based approach to their studies, emphasizing the inherent chaotic complexity of the Universe(s), which cannot be understood or explained through linear Cartesian thinking.

    Living with less frees the mind, the body and the spirit.

    • Hi Michael,

      Exactly! It’s a question of how much is enough, and then a regular attention and consideration of that personal concept over time to determine when it’s shifted and act accordingly. But there’s little question in my mind that the majority of Americans have long since blown by “enough” and are well into the realm of “too much.”

      Much of our social behavior really is aberrant. We could use some therapy, indeed–or at least a good bout of time in the forest to rethink what’s truly important.

  5. Yo, Joel – Yup. I’m still around. I’ve been catching up on your blog posts.

    So. You’re back in Portland. My hometown. If I had to live in a big city again, it would be Portland. Since my “uncle” Larry died, I haven’t been down. No free housing :-).

    So, are you spending way to much time and money in Powell’s? :-). Which reminds me. Have you perhaps run across S. M. Stirling’s “Emberverse” series? The first one is “Dies the Fire.” Most of the books are set in the Willamette Valley and Portland. The early ones, at least. There’s a terrible catastrophe (all power mysteriously disappears). Civilization collapses and the world descends into a new Dark Age. War bands, war lords … all the things Mr. Greer predicts.

    I read the first three or four books but then got a little bored with them. They got a little … too twee for my tastes. But at least the first couple are worth a look. Funny. One of the warlords establishes digs in the main branch of the Portland Public Library. Where I spent a lot of time as a kid. And, I used to fantasize that “come the end of everything” of which I would be the sole survivor (natch) that is where I intended to live. :-). Lew

    • Hey Lew,

      Very happy to have you here! I always enjoyed your comments over at Of The Hands (just posted probably my last entry there, btw) and hope you’ll have some things to say here, too.

      Yep, back in the city. I do still love much about Portland, though I can’t say I’m a big fan of the growth and out of control rent and housing bubble that is taking place here at the moment. Of course, I suppose I contributed a tiny bit to it myself moving back here. I don’t know that we’ll stay long term—we may eventually end up in a more mid-size city in Oregon somewhere. We’ll see. For the time being, it’s nice to be in the city and have access to the amenities and general life and energy—though I miss my rural life, too.

      I actually am within walking distance of the Hawthorne Powell’s. It is a bit dangerous. Just picked up JMG’s Dark Age America there the other day, as well as a few other books. If anything, I need to sell a bunch there. I’ve got more than I’ll ever read, though I suppose I kind of like it that way.

      I’ve seen the Emberverse series, but haven’t read them. Maybe I’ll try checking out the first couple. I admit they have looked interesting to me, though I could see getting tired of them after awhile, the same as you. I have been on more of a fiction kick lately, though, so perhaps I’ll pick up the first one or put it on hold at the library. I’ve been getting a lot of use out of that place, lately. I don’t think I’d mind living in the central branch come the end, either. 🙂

  6. Joel,
    Saw your comment over at AD about Closed System Economy.
    If you have not yet read it I’d suggest reading ‘Just Enough’ by Azby Brown. Describes life in Japan in the Edo period (1603-1858). Sort of a working model of how LESS and a closed economy might work in the real world. Far from perfect but nothing ever will be….

    John

    • I second Coop’s recommendation. I thought enough of it to buy a copy for myself. The Japanese may ride out the decline with a bit of style and grace. They have a historic precedent to do that. James Kunstler is always on about how the Japanese may be the first to “go medieval.” There’s also another book …. gosh, title and author escapes me now … Author’s name starts with a “B.” I’ll look into it. The author (an old Japan hand) feels the same way. Lays out a fairly scholarly argument … compares and contrasts why the Japanese may be successful … and why we in the West may not be as successful. Ah! Got it. “Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks at Japan” by Morris Berman. Lew

      • Hi Lew,

        Thanks for that recommendation, as well. I’ll take a look. Yeah, it seems to me the Japanese have quite a functional history and culture to draw off of if they want to start living a bit more sane than the rest of us. I’ve certainly seen Kunstler’s predictions about Japan; obviously, they didn’t take his suggestion after Fukushima. I’ll root for them to eventually, though, just as I’m rooting for us here in America to do the same.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for the recommendation! Sounds very interesting, and I just placed it on hold at the library. Should have a copy to look through early next week.

  7. My husband and I both enjoyed your essay, Joel. It sure rings true for us. Husband retired at 61 a few years ago, to save his sanity and health after Wells Fargo ate the bank he worked for. So much for working until 65, which had been the plan. Dumped the cable, eventually donated the second car, and did not bother to replace the dishwasher when it gurgled its last several months ago. We use it to store dried herbs instead. Put ourselves on a cheaper pay-for-what-you-use phone plan this week. No regrets. Oddly looking forward to the challenge of what to do when the next appliance or what have you says farewell.

    • Thanks, OtterGirl!

      I’ve definitely used the breaking down of a device or appliance as a way of learning to go without, and I think it’s a fantastic approach that I highly recommend. Good work on the dumped cable, dropped car, left-broken dishwasher, and smaller phone plan. I’ve done many of the same myself, and the small dishwasher that came with the apartment I’m currently living in gets used as a drying rack for our dishes. (It works well! And we don’t have much counter space, so that really helps.) I love the dried herbs idea, though—that’s a definite keeper.

      I wish you continued luck downsizing! And I hope you’ll stick around and keep commenting. I love hearing other people’s stories.

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