Tag Archives: simple living

What To Do With All That Stuff? Breaking Patterns, Eliminating Excess, and Downsizing

Americans, in particular, although a good big of the Western industrialized world, have entirely too much stuff. Annie Lenoard’s “Story of Stuff” tells the tale of the linear process in which stuff enters our lives–from natural resource exploitation to factory production to the store shelves to our homes, and rather quickly in many cases, to the landfill. She discusses “planned obsolescence” whereby products are specifically designed to break or wear out after a short amount of time (think about those expensive hiking boots that you bought new that only lasted one summer); or “perceived obsolescence” where stuff is perceived as no longer useful (for example, any technology over 2 years old is “out of date”). Despite these perceptions, the clutter and stuff seems to dominate our lives and new stuff is circulating in and out at all times. But a lot of it also gets “stuck” in our lives rather permanently, taking up unnecessary space, and causing us issues. We hear stories of hoarders who can’t let go of anything–but really, how many among us can say that we don’t have too much stuff? And when this stuff leaves our homes, it creates waste streams and pollution.

 

About two years ago, I began making a serious effort in my life to reduce the amount of clutter and stuff I had accumulated and–just as importantly–to prevent more stuff from entering. I wanted to share that process with you and talk through some of the issues surrounding stuff. At this point, I’ve cut out 70% of the stuff from my life–and feel much better for it.

 

Problems with Too Much Stuff.

Wasted resources. A lot of people not only have a house/apartment full of stuff but also a storage unit. A larger house to hold all that stuff, plus a storage unit or whatever else, is a serious waste of space and resources (and in this time of dwindling resources, is this even ethical?) We should live in our spaces, not fill them with useless stuff that just takes up room–and requires heat, maintenance, and so on.

 

Physical Clutter is a burden, in more than one sense. This brings me to physical clutter. Physical clutter is emotionally draining and can sap one’s motivation and energy. Just walking into a cluttered space gives one a feeling of helplessness and being overwhelmed–and if you are living in this constantly, its really unhealthy for you. I have a good friend who had so much clutter in his physical space that you could hardly walk through there, it wasn’t pleasant to visit. I watched him spend all of his time–for literally years–rearranging it, thinking it would just take him another few weeks to get arranged and once it was, he could do real work up there. But he ended up in this vicious loop where he’d shuffle the stuff from one area to the next, and it was still cluttered, and he spun his wheels in other areas of his life all the same. And he never really realized it was happening, or at least, seemed powerless to stop it. When an extreme event forced the stuff out of his life, it was amazing to see his creativity return, new jobs and opportunities open up, and his general mental state of mind and happiness improve.

 

Art studio clutter--apparently it doesn't bother kittens!  A cleaner, clutter-free studio = more creative energy!

Art studio clutter–apparently it doesn’t bother kittens! A cleaner, clutter-free studio = more creative energy!

The Energetic implications of clutter. As my friend’s story illustrates, there is, of course, an energetic side to having too much stuff. Stuff holds energy–and very frequently, not energy you want in your life. If you’ve ever tried to do a house cleansing, even a simple one with some salt, water, candles and smudge sticks, you probably know how hard it is to clear a space that is full of stuff–it just doesn’t work. Also, other people’s stuff holds their energy, and that can be a real problem depending on whose stuff it originally was. Stuff also holds the energy of the processes used to create it–which can also be an even bigger problem if it was created in a way that caused suffering (I spoke about this at length a few years ago on ritual tools, but it applies more broadly). So when you have all this stuff everywhere in your life, its influencing you on multiple levels.

 

The most stuff that enters your life, the more demand there is for it. All that stuff had to come from somewhere–and when it enters your life, it was acquired somehow. This acquisition is part of the basic laws for supply and demand: the ore “stuff” that is purchased in a system, the more perceived demand there is for that stuff and the more stuff is produced. This leads to even more drain on natural resources, more waste produced, and more energy expended.

 

Excess stuff keeps us captive.  I think this last point sums all of the above–stuff keeps us captive.  Some people have houses or apartments so full of stuff they feel they can never leave (I know a lot of people who say this). Others have stuff from loved ones who have passed on, and by holding onto that stuff, they are holding onto their loved one–which prevents healing and release. When you go to an area that has too much stuff that you really don’t want, you get this sense of burden–and its a form of captivity. The stuff has its hold on you….so how do you break free?

Understanding the Problem: “Automatic” Acquisition and Disposal

To return to the “Story of Stuff” above, we might think about the two automatic behaviors that literally drive the consumptive system: acquisition and disposal. When I say “automatic” here, I’m using a term from learning theory that refers to behaviors that are ingrained, require no thought, and are often engaged in without any critical reflection.

 

Purchasing, accumulating, and disposing of stuff is all about automatic conditioning. We are literally conditioned by television, advertising, even our school systems, our culture, to buy, buy, buy and toss, toss, toss. Purchasing something is our culture’s solution to any problem or need: needing to demonstrate affection, needing to solve a problem, boredom, a way to smooth over a disagreement, and so much more. When we don’t want something, out to the curb or into the trash bin it goes. We don’t even give this whole process a second thought–we just engage  in it, over, and over, and over again. And in the process of engaging it it, we support a system that is literally destroying the land and desecrating this glorious earth that sustains us.

There is no such thing as away!

There is no such thing as away!

 

Recognizing this conditioning for what it is, injecting some critical thinking in the process, and eventually breaking the conditioning entirely puts us on the path to a clutter-free life.

 

Solutions to the Stuff Problem: The Mindset Shift

Before I talk about how I eliminated 70% of the stuff in my life (and continue to eliminate even more), I want to talk about to engage in the mindset shifts that help you prevent new stuff coming into your life and help you make better, conscious decisions surrounding stuff.

 

Wants vs. Needs. We have a serious problem in our culture in separating our wants from our needsMaslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good place to start: the actual needs for human survival are food, water, air, basic clothing, and shelter. Needs above the base needs are not more stuff but rather safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. It is these basic things that are needed for happy human living–and I think a lot of our culture tries to replace these things with stuff…and fails miserably. So when we really take a few steps back to think about what we need vs. what we want, we can start making priorities in our lives.

 

While my mindset shift concerning stuff came from a lot of places, it was highly motivated by my teaching of an ongoing community-service based course in Pontiac, Michigan, where many people live without their basic needs being met (like adequate food, warm clothing for winter, or shelter). Seeing children in our program without gloves or knowing they were getting their last food for the day with the “snack” at center 5:30pm, really shifted my own view about needs. The goal of my course was to help improve children and adolescent’s literacy skill–but more than once I saw that kids couldn’t work on their reading or writing when their basic needs weren’t met. This really led me to a long series of meditations on the nature of stuff, wants and needs, and more–and lead to this blog post and the resulting change in my life!  When you encounter people who really don’t have all their needs met (or you’ve experienced that in your own life), it makes you be more grateful for what you have–and helps put a want and a need  in perspective.

 

A No New Things Policy. Another mindset shift, and series of conversations that can really be helpful is to tell friends and family that you have a “no new stuff” policy. There are different ways you might go about it.  The most extreme is to tell them that you aren’t interested in any new stuff, period, and refuse to take stuff when its offered. Less extreme is gently reminding people about your “no stuff policy” when they do give you something, but taking it anyways the first few times as everyone is adjusting to your policy. You can also setup meaningful alternatives: for example, if they want to give you something, baked goods, handmade things, or natural things (beautiful shells, etc) are welcome, as is a helping hand around the home. I have found that this has really led to some interesting and productive conversations. It was also met with some serious resistance depending on who you are trying to talk with (and for some, especially older family members, it takes years of conversations to make it work). Having alternatives to gift giving at holidays and birthdays (see next post) is a really helpful way of helping others make this transition.

 

Reseeing Gift Giving. A while back, I talked about sustainable alternatives to gift giving for the holidays–this is something my family has been doing for years and its really successful: we by a few gifts for one person, we only buy what they request or need, and we are conscious of waste throughout the process. Since the holidays and birthdays produce an excess of stuff, eliminating that stream of unwanted stuff makes a huge difference.

 

Gifts come in many forms. I would also add to my suggestions about gift-giving is that there are other gifts that are more valuable than stuff bought with money. What about an hour or two of your time to help someone clean their house or accomplish some other task? What about a song, piece of writing, or artwork you created? What about a nice backrub? What about some fresh veg from your garden or a jam made from berries foraged in the forest? What about teaching a friend something new? What about conversation over a really unique tea? There are all kinds of gifts that we can give that are of our time and our creative expressions that do not require purchasing stuff. When you look at this list, it makess going to the store and buying something look kinda lame.

 

Eliminating other sources of stuff. Stuff seems to sneak up on you, and in many different ways and forms.  Spotting the stuff creep is another step in preventing future problems. Consumerism is designed to send a lot of stuff our way–from free “gifts” of no value sent to you in the mail to swag at work to gifts nobody wants to a culture where shopping is a primary hobby. So working to look at how else stuff enters your life and eliminating those sources helps.

 

Reseeing existing stuff and avoiding perceived obsolescence. The other thing here that’s important with a mindset shift is getting ourselves out of the consumer mindset and avoiding the “perceived obsolescence” that plagues our culture. Electronics are the worst offenders in this regard, and they have been one of the focus points for my own re-seeing of existing stuff.  Given the serious ethical issues under which electronics are produced and the environmental hazards of disposal, I’m trying to get the most out of them, stretching them way beyond their typical two year cycle. There is this perception that anything that is older than 2 years is useless in terms of electronics. I’ve found that this is simply not the case: with careful maintenance and maxing out the RAM, my 6 year old iMac is running just fine and is still able to handle anything I throw at it. My  computer before that is still being used by my parents for web browsing and word processing. I don’t have a smartphone and have been using the same standard phone for 4 years now. These are conscious choices that put me at odds with most of conventional thinking and behavior, but that’s ok (I’m not one for convention anyways).

 

Recognizing what stuff IS important. Some stuff is important to us, and there is nothing wrong with that. I think that recognizing what we value and want to keep and cherish is also an important part of this process. For me, I realized that my herbalism supplies, my art studio, my books, and my gardening and homesteading supplies were important: these were the things that enriched me creatively and spiritually and allowed me to live sustainably. So while I did make cuts in these areas, I allowed myself to keep these things guilt-free.

 

Eliminating Stuff and Reducing Clutter

Good stuff for Craig's list!

Good stuff for Craig’s list!

By now, hopefully I’ve convinced you that excess stuff in your life comes with its share of serious problems. And while the mindset shifts above can help new stuff from entering your life, its not going to really solve the problem of the existing stuff in your life. And the existing stuff is a real problem, because it often has energetic and emotional holds upon us. Let me say this: if you take on the mindset shifts and be vigilant about the stuff you don’t need, you will only need to do the following (painful) process once. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Let’s talk about how we can engage in sustainable, sacred action even in the process of removing excess stuff.

 

In my case, I had a largish house where a lot of stuff was mine (like a well-stocked art studio and too many books); I also had stuff I had been holding onto for sentimental value that I hadn’t used or touched in years (like old video games, instruments, old clothes, various kick-knacks). But I also had a lot of stuff that people had unloaded on me: friends’ s who had stayed with me for periods of time and left “a few things” to come get later; excess stuff from my divorce (where my ex took only what he wanted and left the rest), things people brought over thinking it would be useful for me (and wasn’t), and so on. When I started wanting to reduce this stuff, I was overwhelmed with the amount of it.  These are the principles that helped me through this process:

 

Producing No Waste. When people get overwhelmed with stuff, the most likely thing that they do is turn to the automatic behavior of disposal–that is, they throw it away. While this is certainly a response to deal with the immediate problem (too much stuff), it creates ethical dilemmas of its own because you are putting more waste into the system, especially when that stuff could have another use.  Not to mention, you are perpetuating the cycle of consumption and disposal. One of the permaculture design principles that I’ve been working with really seriously for the last few years is “produce no waste” and if we think about eliminating stuff from this perspective, it becomes more challenging, yes, but certainly more rewarding.  Our stuff may not be wanted by us, but it can still be used in a great many ways by others, and tossing it in a dumpster shouldn’t be on the table.

 

Eliminating Ethically and Consciously.  Thinking about eliminating stuff ethically, then, leads us towards “alternative” movement streams that don’t end up in the landfill. For household goods and clothing, you might look for alternatives, alternatives even beyond the Salvation Army and Goodwill (a lot of your stuff ends up in their dumpster). We have a local center (the one I mentioned earlier) that accepts household items and clothing; they give all of this freely away to anyone who is in need. If you have no such center, you can also use Freecycle and Craig’s List: giving stuff away for free is an easy way to meet new friends, give someone something they need, and remove stuff from your life that you no longer need. You may also think about friends or family who need the stuff you have: when I cut down my art studio by 30%, I gave nearly all of it to two places: a local community center for kid’s art and a good friend who was looking for some supplies. Musical instruments I had had since I was a teenager also went to the community center–I had difficulty initially letting go of them, but when I heard they would be used to start a band to keep the kids off the streets, it was joyful to give them away. A few years ago, I gave my big screen TV away to a friend who is a caretaker for a disabled person: the disabled person’s TV was going out and he needed another one. What options you have really depends on your circumstances and local area, but do ask around to family and friends–you’ll be surprised how many people are in need of something you may have to give. And when you can make a difference with that stuff–it makes the process all the more enjoyable.

 

What to keep. Rather than think about what you want to eliminate, think about what you want to keep–and the rest can go. I mentioned above the things that I valued: I put those on a list, and I worked to eliminate anything that I didn’t hold in that kind of value. This made the decision process much easier. For me, a lot of this ended up being stuff from my life-before-sustainability: gaming supplies, electronics, DVDs, and more. Once I realized what was important to me now, I was able to find better homes for what wasn’t.

 

Create a “staging area” for Letting Go Because stuff is overwhelming, I found that it helped to create a “staging area” where the stuff could sit for a time while I mourned its loss.  Stuff would go into the room I wasn’t using, and I would have time to let it go  before moving it off to its new home. There were things in my life that I would never use again (like gaming books, etc) but I couldn’t bring myself to let them go for many years.  But when I had the staging area, I could let them sit there for a while until I did my mourning and then pass them on to someone else who could–and did–make use of them.  This is especially a useful strategy for things that you have either had a long time or had a deep emotional connection with. This worked really well: I was able to spend a lot of time going though every space in my home and then, once that process was done, was able to rehome all of it fairly quickly.

 

Enlisting help.  Other people don’t feel about your stuff the way you do–finding the *right* friend or family member to help you eliminate is a good idea. You don’t want someone who will talk you into keeping anything–you want someone who is ruthless and firm, who will convince you that you don’t need what you think you do. It may take a few tries to find the right friend, but when you do, he or she will be invaluable in helping you eliminate clutter.

 

Going, going, gone. After you have started this process and gave away the first lot of stuff, you’ll find that subsequent reductions of the clutter are actually much easier.  Now, I have very little emotional attachment to any stuff, and I can easily give it away (and can be that ruthless and firm friend who can help others do the same).

 

Other Ways of Managing Stuff

In addition to eliminating stuff and making sure new stuff doesn’t enter our lives, there are at least three ways of reseeing our relationships to our existing stuff that can also help:

Making conscious purchases of higher quality. Purchase carefully and consciously can help slow down waste streams. I still do buy stuff, but I try to think about my purchases, plan them in advance, and when possible, allowing several days or weeks between a decision and the actual purchase. I generally try to never buy anything on a whim. There are exceptions to these rules, of course, but they are good general principles to follow for daily living. The other issue here is to purchase things that do not have planned obsolescence–rather, purchase things of higher quality (and usually higher price) that will last longer. Iron skillets are a great investment, as are a good pair of leather boots taken regularly to a cobbler and regularly oiled.

 

Making it last and taking care of it.  When stuff is cheap and plentiful, it has less value.  By making less purchases and making them carefully, your stuff takes on more value to you.  You can also make a conscious effort to take care of what you have better so that it doesn’t wear out or break easliy.

 

Repurposing.  Creative repurposing can take many forms–one of the ways you might think about solving problems or using existing stuff is to see it in new ways.  This helps us purchase less and also gives our stuff a new lease on life.  There’s the whole movement of “upcycling” or taking old clothing, books, and other items and creating something from nothing.  For example: I took a bunch of old jeans that couldn’t be donated and made a rug; I gave that as a gift to a friend who had cold floors and liked handmade things. This repurposing is especially useful for stuff that isn’t high quality or is worn out….trying to find a use for it can be a creative, fun challenge.

 

The Move to Simple Living

The more space we have, the more space we have to fill. Choosing to live in smaller spaces, with less gizmos, gadgets, and clutter, can lead to more fulfilling lives. I’m doing that as we speak–leaving my homestead of 5 years  and moving into a space less than half the size of my previous house.   While this move was for other reasons (described in my earlier post), I’m also using it as a chance to make some “stuff changes” in my life that will help. Moving to a smaller space will help me continue to be conscious of my space and storage, will allow me to have a smaller environmental footprint, and live a more meaningful and simple life.

Apparently, I had a lot more to say about eliminating stuff than I first realized!  Its been a very important part of my own transformative process, and one that I’m glad I endured.  Even though eliminating stuff was hard at first, the challenges were worth the rewards!  Thanks for reading 🙂

 

Other Sites: Costa Rica as a Model Sustainable Living and Permaculture Design in Action

In February 2015, I took a 12-day trip to Costa Rica (my first real vacation!) Part of the reason I decided on Costa Rica was that this culture is well-known for emphasizing sustainability in a way that is well beyond lip service, and I wanted to experience it for myself and see what I could learn while I was there. I want to touch on the many things I observed and learned on this journey with regards to sustainable living and permaculture design. I traveled to four areas and drove across large portions of the countryside: the Monteverde region (high in the cloud forests), the urban and suburban San Jose region; the volcanic La Fortuna region, and the costal Manuel Antonio region.  One thing to remember about the Costa Ricans–they are one of the happiest countries in the world. I don’t think this is a fluke–I think its directly tied to the ways in which they live sustainably, have protected and preserved their own landscapes and local economies. So I’m going to look at some of those ways, envisioning Costa Rica as an alternative model for living. Along the way, I’m going to discuss  permaculture design from its three ethical principles: Care for people, Care for the Earth, and Set Limits/Redistribute Surplus.

 

Localized Economies

I want to start with the economy, because A) its the sacred cow of US politics and really the only thing anyone talks about these days, but also B) Costa Rica shows that there are viable alternatives for localized systems of wealth that empower people and protect the land. One of the most amazing things about Costa Rica was the localized economy–and how this manifested in the landscape. Literally everywhere we went, towns, stores, and businesses were different. They had different stores, small businesses, different kinds of food, artist-owned co-ops, wonky weird places and much more. In the USA, we are literally drowning in Walmarts, McDonalds, Rite Aids, TGI Fridays, Holiday Inn, Chase Bank, Subway, TJ Max, etc. Each town is a replica of the previous town, with the same 40 or so corporations promoting their wares.  Its like a rubber stamp; town after town looks the same. Each has this long line of strip malls with bad traffic and noise pollution, and you are supposed to WANT to go there and shop and purchase the same industrialized food.  Occasionally, a town or city will try to break out of it and have a “weird” core which is locally owned and unique (I think about Austin, TX, or Ann Arbor, MI) but even with their weirdness, the mega corporations are still there, just around the corner. I never realized how bad this was until I went to Costa Rica and drove all around the countryside.

 

In Costa Rica, the businesses are generally all locally owned, unique, and charming. I stayed in small B&B’s, farms, and small hostels everywhere and they were operated by the people who owned them and employed local workers (chain hotels weren’t even an option most places I stayed). A lot of these places were farms or sustainable living centers that also offered a bed to weary travelers. The accommodations were simple and wonderful. I ate food made and grown by locals (you didn’t even have to ask where it came from–you could just taste that it was fresh), I bought local art, and enjoyed locally-based attractions (like an orchid garden with 2000+ orchids or a sustainable chocolate plantation). It was amazing because everything was different, unique. Many places also embraced the landscape–they had gardens, walking paths, big trees, and the business “flowed” with the landscape so much more. And it was economically successful.

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde

This really gets at the permaculture design principle “Care for People.” People are empowered–they can own businesses, hire each other, and determine their own economic realities. I think they are rooted in their communities, they also care more about what happens in them (than say, Walmart, who really couldn’t give a damn about the local town or their local workers they are in because their economic reality isn’t firmly rooted there). And when the people are cared for, they can focus on caring for other things, like the land and each other.

CASEM Co-op (Owned and operated by artists)

CASEM Co-op (Owned and operated by artists)

 

Housing.

By American standards, most Costa Ricans live in, as one snarky American I met on my travels called them “shacks.” The houses have metal roofs, outdoor living areas, and rather small interiors. I would say that the Costa Ricans live simply, and there is much to like about how they live. Because really– how much space does one person need? We have large houses here in the states to accommodate the “stuff” that we purchase and store as part of consumerist culture. But simple living, with fewer and more meaningful things, has a lot going for it, as the Costa Ricans demonstrate. The only American-sized houses that I saw were owned in areas where Americans lived–the signs were in English, the lawns were present, and the houses were enormous in those resort areas. But everyday life in Costa Rica doesn’t look like that–typical dwellings are probably about 800 or so square feet, on dirt roads, colorfully painted, gated, with clothes hanging outside and goats in the front yard. I think this really gets at both the “Care for people” and “Care for earth” permaculture ethical principles: the houses are small, they are integrated into the landscape, but people don’t take or have more than they need, so the earth is cared for at the same time.

Rancho Makena - The Sustainable Ranch We Stayed At

Rancho Makena – The Sustainable Ranch We Stayed At

It also “sets limits” to the size of the habitation, the amount of space one takes up in the world–and I think these are very, very good things.

Typical Costa Rican Housing

Typical Costa Rican Housing

 

Lawns & Everyday Interactions with the Land

Typical Costa Rican homes, at least in the areas that I stayed in and drove through, did not usually have lawns.  If there were grassy areas (such as outside of the front of my bungalow at the sustainable ranch where we stayed), the grass that was planted sometimes was a variety that did not grow more than a few inches high and did not require mowing. That grass was mixed with other low-growing plants including plantain (so nice to see my plant ally there!) and some sort of violet. But other homes’ lawns were pastures–and the cows would occasionally be let out to “mow” the front of the pasture near the road.  What I like so much about the “lawn as pasture” idea is that it redistributes the surplus–green growth–into cattle and horses, which can then be utilized in various ways (for food, transportation, milk, companionship).

Lawn Mower - no chemicals or fossil fuels here!

Lawn Mower – no chemicals or fossil fuels here!

Many homes had food forests in their yards–banana trees, mangoes, coconut palms, and various veggies like corn, lettuce, kale, and tomatoes. Nearly everyone was growing something, and most had quite a lot.  In the areas closest to the road, sometimes long grasses grew. I saw them employ three techniques to handle this–on some steep hillsides, I saw a few instances of men with weed whackers, I also saw most that people would bring in cattle or horses to graze grassy areas as I already mentioned; finally, some employed controlled burning. The only kinds of houses that had lawns were the homes that appeared to be much larger and much more wealthy–larger homes emulated American lawns and American sizes (and, where I saw the most, around the Arenal Lake’s northeastern side, the land was clearly being purchased by and catered to Americans).

Alternative lawn cover around a hotel

Alternative lawn cover around a hotel

 

Livestock.

Costa Ricans keep a lot of livestock–a type of cow that does well on the very hilly pastures.  Many also kept horses, and used them for transportation. This is true whether you live in the middle of San Jose or out in the middle of nowhere–everywhere livestock is legal and everywhere people have chickens, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and horses.

 

We stayed on a small family farm in the Monteverde region that was a working ranch; they had various kinds of cattle and horses. They also kept pigs as “biodigestors” for compost and kept chickens for eggs. We were able to observe and take part in ranching and farming activities while we were there, such as see the greenhouses, feed the chickens, walk the fields and pastures. The buildings were simple and functional; the land rich, green, and well-tended. As was the case with earlier times in the history of the US everyone seemed to keep some kind of animals, even in the middle of the city you could hear the roosters crowing up the morning sun.  The ranch was great because they had intentionally designed it to care for people (human and domestic animal habitations), care for earth (half the ranch was forest and wild areas, with walking paths or just fully wild) and to redistribute surplus through composting and other techniques.

Livestock

Livestock

 

Farms and Gardens.

We visited many gardens and farms while in Costa Rica–they were quite easy to find and very abundant.  I will be writing about two of them in upcoming blog posts. Many of them advertised their sustainable activities right on their signs, being “carbon neutral” or “100% organic” or “sustainable farm.” But this wasn’t mere talk–Costa Ricans live sustainably, care deeply about the environment, and really mean what they say. In a nutshell, we saw all of the techniques for sustainable organic farming being enacted everywhere we turned: no chemicals or big sprayers, rainwater harvesting, composting, bioferments, perennial crops, effective soil management, integrating livestock, vermicompost, trapcrops, terracing, reusing materials, using principles of permaculture design, closed loop systems, and more  ( The one exception to this was the palm oil farms–and I’ll talk about those in another post.)  These sustainable, organic, bio-intensive farms are doing it right–in small spaces, they are caring for the land, the earth, and redistributing surplus back into the landscape.  I’ll also note that Costa Rica banned all GMOs in their country as of January 2015.  This is a major victory!

Hotel Belemar Garden

Hotel Belemar Garden- one of my favorites that we visited.  More on this soon!

Handling Waste.

You know you are in a place that values sustainability when its harder to find a trash can over a recycling bin, and when recycling bins look like this.  Note that there IS no trash can here–and these were the options you had available to you.  Talk about redistributing surplus and setting limits!

Recycling Bins - All over Costa Rica, this is what you see!

Recycling Bins – All over Costa Rica, this is what you see!

Local Food.

Costa Rican fare was simple, local, and delicious. The “typical” Costa Rican plate had a generous portion of rice and beans, sweet fried plantains, a meat/fish/avocado and cheese main portion, steamed vegetables, and a salad. All of this food was locally grown (except the rice, as far as I could tell). Everywhere we went, food was being fed to us right out of the farms, everyone kept livestock, the eggs were fresh off the farm, etc. Here, its nearly impossible to eat like this every single day if you aren’t growing it yourself–you can’t figure out where the food comes from and it takes considerable effort to source all local ingredients. In Costa Rica, I ate organic, wholesome, delicious food every single day. We saw very little in the way of fast food, especially any kind of fast food chain, although they still were present, especially in the city, where McDonalds and KFC are trying to weasel their way in. One day, I went white water rafting, and was told that “lunch was included.” In the States, this would be some sandwiches, industrialized food for sure.  In Costa Rica, they took us to an organic farm and we had the most amazing meal, a farm-to-plate meal complete with locally grown coffee, fresh sugarcane juice, and amazing vegetables. Here it was:

Farm-to-Plate Meal

Farm-to-Plate Meal

Transportation.

As I mentioned before, horses are in wide use in Costa Rica as a means of travel. The public transportation system, even in the most remote areas, is quite good–there are bus stops on nearly every major road and many are using the bus system. One can travel most of the way across the country on a bus for less than $50. Many also use small, fuel-efficient motorcycles. Gas is about $5/gallon, so that alone makes people purchase and employ fuel efficiency. I witnessed more than one electric scooter, in addition to the bicycles and plain old walking, which Costa Ricans do a lot.  This demonstrates a lot with regards to “care for earth” and “setting limits.”

Walking home from work

Walking home from work

Respecting the arts.

Beautiful, colorful Costa Rican art, was abundant everywhere we went–from the streets of San Jose to the smallest town and village. The art was nature-themed, vibrant, and full of positive energy–not full of the ennui of modern life, but that which reflects the surroundings. Much working of wood, stone, inspired by nature. And its valued—and everywhere!  I will be writing more on the value of local art and local artists and how that enriches a culture at some point in the coming months!

Art for Sale in a Hotel

Art for Sale in a Hotel – You also saw artists setup on the streets and even in the airport!

Inside "Luna Azul" in Monteverde - Another fantastic art shop promoting local art

Inside “Luna Azul” in Monteverde – Another fantastic art shop promoting local art

 

General Happiness.

Costa Rica is, by multiple measures, one of the happiest nations in the world. Some would say that this is because they are a tropical paradise–but I point to other countries in Central America, like Mexico or Honduras, which do not measure anywhere near the happiness levels.

 

I think this is not only the result of much of what I’m describing in this post, but also because of a few other cultural things.  First, because the Costa Ricans seem to be moving at a different speed. There is siesta, a two-hour nap/rest/break in the middle of the workday. There is a general and deliberate taking of one’s time, especially in the areas outside of the big city. WE all stop and watch as a man herds his cattle down the road–nothing to do but enjoy the experience. Its not assumed that we eat and run, rather, that we should savor the meal–the bill is only brought AFTER we ask. These are values in many Latin American countries and families–and to my mind, certainly better than the insane/mad dash/race to nowhere that comprises so much of the modern American lifestyle.

Rainbow in Monteverde

Rainbow in Monteverde

Another reason that I think Costa Ricans are so happy has to do with some cultural values, specifically, a collective rather individualistic mindset.  A while ago on this blog, I talked about individualism vs. collectivism as mindsets (based on the work of sociologist Geert Hosfede* ; whose work  you can look at here). Costa Ricans care about each other and about the group much more than Americans–they have a collectivist mindset (this is that they think in terms of “we” rather than “I”). On Hosfede’s scale, the US manifests at a 91 for individualism (which is extremely high) and the Costa Ricans have a 15, which is very low.  I suspect, although I haven’t yet researched this theory, that issues of collectivism also relate to environmental protections, because a collectivist culture who sees their land as inherently one with themselves will extend it the same protections they extend their families and cultures. This thinking was apparent in many of the conversations I had with Costa Ricans about their interaction with the land.

 

Another reason is just the general laid-back nature of life in Costa Rica. The society lacks the extremely restrictive laws and codes on buildings, lawns, other outdoor spaces, and vehicles and so on.  Costa Rican life is extremely laid back and friendly, and their much less restrictive laws demonstrate that.  When I think about laws in the US, we have all these laws in place not to benefit the people, but to keep us engaging in certain consumptive behaviors or living in certain kinds of structures or having our property look certain kinds of ways because someone profits from it.  In other words, the laws are mostly written these days to benefit some corporate stakeholder, not the people.  We live with the laws and think they are necessities of life–but they are not, and the Costa Ricans clearly get on fine without them.

 

A final reason has to do with how monetary wealth (which I specify from other kinds of wealth, such as rich living or healthy food) is wrapped up into the economics of place.  The US is considered to be a very wealthy nation–we are a nation of consumers and stuff–but that stuff isn’t rooted, isn’t connected to place. The problem is, the more stuff we have, the less happy we are and the more restrictions we have.  Simple living, fewer laws, less stuff, better food, localized economies, love of the land…these are all features that make Costa Rica great.

Organic Garden Sign at Sustainable Institute

Organic Garden Sign at Sustainable Institute

General Thoughts.

While Costa Rica is far from perfect, I do think we have a lot to learn from them in terms of sustainable living and seeking happiness.  I had a very hard time “readjusting” to life in the USA after being in Costa Rica.  After seeing firsthand how different and more aligned with my own value system life could be, it was hard to come back. It was hard to come back to watching people consume poisons, chemicals, and modified foods, to watch them drug their children on ADHD medication, to do battle on the roads on my way to work each day, to just look at how despondent, run down, and miserable everyone is (pay attention next time you enter a grocery store), and to watch people spend much of their lives attached to various screens.

 

But this trip has given me a sense of renewed hope.  Costa Rica, with its sustainable principles undercurrenting so much of life, is thriving.  This kind of living can work, and perhaps, they can serve as a model to many of us who are transitioning ourselves and our communities into something simpler, locally-focused, and more fulfilling.  The question is…how can we build it?

Laundry drying outside

Laundry drying outside