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!