Thoreau’s Simplicity Meets the 21st Century

I have always felt a connection to Henry David Thoreau.  Growing up just 8 miles from Walden Pond, I loved riding my bike to the location of Thoreau’s experiment in simplicity. We would walk our bikes down the steep grade to the pond, and go for a swim in the ice cold glacial water, or fish from the shore.  After visiting the pond, we would continue on to Concord Center, where Thoreau met with Ralph Waldo Emerson, to grab a snack at a favorite cafe, or fill our pockets with sweets from the old fashioned candy shop.

Walden

 

When I wonder what Thoreau would think of our trips to see his old stomping grounds, I can’t help but think he would be disappointed.  I rode a 24 speed bike, with all sorts of gears, racks, lights, and even an electronic speedometer.  We fished with complicated spinning rods, and had backpacks full of lures, hooks, and sinkers.  We took pictures of the beautiful scenery with the .33 megapixel camera’s on our fancy flip phones(early 2000’s tech for spoiled kids). Thinking back on these trips now, they were anything but simple, when compared to the two years, two months, and two days Thoreau spent on the shores of Walden.


“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.”

Thoreau, Walden


Comparing the life that Thoreau lived to the life of an American teenager in the 21st century isn’t really a fair comparison. In the 160-plus years since Thoreau published walden, a lot has changed.  Nowadays, spending $28.12 (about $863 in today’s money) will not allow you to move into pristine woods, build a cabin, and survive for over two years. We spent many thousands of dollars to move into a tiny house trailer, which is of the approximate same footprint as Thoreau’s cabin. And that’s not including land. Today, not paying your taxes in protest of war will get the IRS at your door in short order. Today, there are over six times as many people on the earth compared to when Walden was published.

How do we reconcile the simplicity Thoreau lived with todays seemingly ever more complicated world? Are Thoreau’s words now just relics of former possibility, steamrolled over by industrialization, complication, and globalization?

When you dive deeper into Walden(the book, not the pond), you find Thoreau has to do some reconciliation of his own between his simplistic ideals and the reality of making life possible on the shores of the Pond.  He realizes his simple stone and wood structure isn’t sufficient to keep him warm in the winter, so he has to construct a fireplace, and plaster the walls. He also ventures into town frequently to pick up essentials, and to meet with friends.Thoreau understood that humans have basic needs. We need food and water. We need a place to stay warm and dry. We need social interaction and emotional stimulation.

While Thoreau might be dismayed by the complexity of modern society today, we must also realize that he was dismayed by the modern society of his day as well. So instead of directly comparing our technologically advanced, ever connected lifestyle to Thoreau’s simple cabin, subsistence farming, and handwritten correspondence, maybe we need to compare the simplicity of our lives relative to that of modern society.

If we focus on meeting our basic needs, without accumulating too much extra, we have succeeded in living simply.  For us, that means a small place to call home, with gardens to grow a bit of food, and a slow internet connection to check email. We know a simpler life is possible, and are always striving to simplify, but we also take pride and enjoy the simplicity that we already have.  And that is what our experiment is all about.

Environmental Despair? 10 Things YOU can do.

While many in the United States are fussing over which Presidential Candidate has the best economic policy, how to keep guns out of the hands of lunatics, and how Donald Trump keeps his hair looking so great, I have been fussing over an issue which I deem equally, if not more important: the Environment. While I certainly believe that everyone should have the right to love who they want, have control over their own bodies, and have an equal chance at monetary success, I also believe that all humans should have the right to enjoy clean air, clean water, dense forest, and sprawling desert. I believe that pristine, clean, untouched outdoor space is an American tradition that is in ever increasing peril. The most overarching issue of our generation is the issue of climate change, and we are not yet fixing this issue. If we don’t change our carbon heavy ways, society as we know it today may cease to exist. And the journey down that path will make our current social issues seem like child’s play. Said another way, if humans continue to turn our beautiful planet into a hot, dry, dirty wasteland, there may be no Congress to debate in. There may be no President to blame for all our issues. There may be no people.

The current picture may seem dark, but we must continue to fight.

 

While this may seem like a worst case scenario, the environmental degradation that is currently taking place is also the worst case scenario. There is still time to change our ways, but the accelerating emissions of CO2 doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the future of this place we call home. Greenhouse gas emissions are only increasing, with no signs of slowing down. You know what comes next in this story: melting ice sheets, rising seas, extreme weather, food and water shortage, mass extinction, etc.

 

While I applaud President Obama for preserving more than 265 million acres(more than any other president), I also am scared by the many threats that the environment faces, and wish he and other politicians would do more, particularly around climate change. There are many other Environmental issues, such as air pollution, habitat loss, water pollution, overpopulation, overfishing, plastic islands, genetically engineered organisms, hydraulic fracking, deforestation, and acid rain. These issues are important. But if we cannot solve the most important issue(climate change), attempting to tackle these issues will be a lost cause.  While it’s important to celebrate the victories won in all of these fights, I’m afraid that they are too little too late. How is it possible that we know so much about these issues, and their catastrophic consequences, yet somehow we don’t take the necessary action to prevent them?

This wonderful spot in Santa Cruz will be one of millions of spots lost when sea level rises just a little bit more.

 

Our current economic system overvalues short term gains, and undervalues long term risks.  The current economy would gladly take a dollar today in return for a kick in the face someday next month. There are countless studies that suggest immediate action on environmental issues today is far cheaper than the costs these same issues will incur in the future. Why can’t we just plug this information into the algorithms that run our economy, and get it fixed?

 

How I see it, the folks making the big decisions about these big issues will never even see the effects of their decisions, either way. The folks making these decisions today will be super-heated, over-fertilized, GMO-planted, mercury-infested dirt by the time the consequences of their actions are fully realized.  But it isn’t just the old-guard politicians that are to blame.  Each and every human being on this earth makes decisions every day that will affect future generations.

 

While the economy as a whole doesn’t do a great job anticipating future risks, it’s the individuals that make up the economy that have the final say, and for some reason they are saying the wrong thing. When asked directly, every man, woman, and child, whether Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, male or female, claims they want to leave the world a better place than they found it. But right after they answer this question, they climb into their SUV, eat their steak dinner, and go to sleep in their 4,000 square foot air conditioned home. So why do we do this to ourselves?  

 

I think it’s because our brains are programmed to care more about what happens today than what happens next week.  The thick fatty steak we eat today somehow tricks the gray stuff inside our skulls into believing that 30 minutes in culinary heaven are worth the 2,500 gallons of water, 27 lbs of CO2, and increased risk of heart disease that come from such consumption. The dopamine dump that results from this combination of salt, fat, and protein temporarily affects our decision making skills. Too bad the environmental and health effects aren’t so temporary. When looked at from this perspective, I don’t understand why eating steak is such a common occurrence, yet somehow, I still crave the juicy, salty, and tender experience that is steak consumption.

 

Personally, my emotions towards environmental issues seem to swing on a pendulum. I mostly understand the science, and fully understand that change needs to come in order to ensure that the natural world will be there to provide food, air, and water for my body, and, equally as important, nourishment for my soul.  Where I waver, however, is how I react to these facts. It feels like I swing between hope and despair, depending on the news dominating the headlines.  Obama saves another million acres and I swing towards hope.  BP spills another billion barrels of oil, and I swing into a mild depression.  It’s hard to make conscious decisions each day to reduce your footprint, when you feel like your actions are minuscule in the grand scheme. And honestly, your actions are minuscule in the grand scheme.  But collectively, over time, each of our actions are not insignificant.

 

What has helped me become more even keeled in this rough sea of environmental instability, is doing my part to minimize my impact, and enjoy each adventure out into this beautiful earth as if it could be the last.  I believe action is, in fact, the best antidote to despair, whether that action is having a salad instead of a steak, chaining yourself to a tree, or writing a letter to your congressman about local issues. Writing this article makes me feel better.

 

So here’s my call to action for you: Focus on your impact on the environment. Don’t let others’ poor decisions influence yours. Rise above, and make more decisions with the environmental implications in mind, for you and for your children. Find the internal motivation and reward for making these decisions, and take pride in the decisions you make. There is so much that is outside of your control, and it isn’t worth fussing over. Educate yourself to the issues, but don’t let setbacks derail you. Educate others, especially those close to you, and use whatever power you have to better the environment. And remember, if everyone acted in this way, our issues would be met with solutions in short order.

There is Hope. Focus on YOUR actions

 

 

Please, join me in this fight.

 

Here are a few more things you can do that will help you calm your despair, in no particular order:

Hug a tree.

Hug a friend.

Eat a plant.

Plant a tree.

Climb a hill.

Ride your bike.

Share a meal.

Read a book.

Vote.

Share this article.

 

On Growing Up

 

On Growing Up

 

Dana and I are constantly scheming about our “Next Big Adventure.” We discuss selling our tiny home, and spending a year driving through South America. We flirt with the idea of quitting our “real” jobs and becoming ski bums or bartenders, or hiking thousands of miles on the PCT. Dana daydreams about traversing the country on his bike, while I look at Westfalias the way many 24-year-old girls look at newborn babies and diamond rings. We obsess about the endless things we could be making, doing, and seeing.

 

Recently, I listened to a podcast about how our generation of Millennials is afraid to “grow up”. The theory was that we are attempting to put off adulthood with our clichéd European backpacking trips and our vagabond lifestyles. That behind every picture of someone posing victoriously on top of a mountain, or taking a selfie on the Eiffel Tower, is someone hiding from their fears. They suggested that while on these quarter-life crisis trips to “find ourselves,” we eventually come back to the “real world” to find that we are behind on major life milestones.

 

This sentiment may be true if we believe “growing up” is defined by those traditional milestones; if we consider the only way to grow up is to settle down, buy a house, get married, and have kids.  If we prioritize stability, reliability, and comfort over adventure and uncertainty. And I don’t want to downplay the fact that for many people, this version of growing up is right for them.

 

But if the only way to be an adult is to stop daring and dreaming and discovering, then maybe some of us should be running away. And if growing up includes the actual act of growing, then aren’t those who travel and push boundaries and explore new ideas actually doing a pretty great job of it? A generation with a passion for lifelong learning, and a spirit for adventure, will become a generation that changes the world. It is a generation that will have more knowledge, more experience, and more compassion than ever before. Maybe one day, we’ll stop telling young dreamers to “grow up” and accept “reality.” Because this is a reality; one of pursuing passions and challenging social norms. We aren’t running from the real world, we are running to a different one.

 

So, let’s rewrite the definition of adulthood. Let’s decide that being a “grown up” is any and all of these things:

 

  • Finding and pursuing a passion. Maybe you’re passionate about your career or your family or volunteering. Maybe you’re passionate about writing, painting or underwater basket weaving. Follow those passions, people.
  • Committing. Commit to your marriage, or commit to your lifelong dream of sailing the world. Whatever it is, stick to it.
  • Prioritizing. Prioritize your job. Prioritize your kids. Prioritize saving money to buy your dream house or visit Greece. Choose what is important to you and give it your everything. Let go of the rest.
  • Creating meaningful relationships. With your friends, family, coworkers. But mostly with yourself.
  • Making thoughtful decisions. Whether spontaneously or after months of sleepless nights, consider the consequences that will affect you and others.
  • Bettering yourself. Be a better friend or parent. Go back to school. Visit a new place. Do something for others. Be a lifelong learner.
  • Other things. Things I haven’t thought of yet because I’m only 24, dammit.

 

And being a grown up is NOT:

 

  • Doing things because you think you “should,” or because society has pressured you to.
  • Judging others for making different life choices.

 

So right now, staying in our professional, safe, and reliable careers sometimes feels like losing. It sometimes feels like giving up before we’ve even started. Like giving into the pressures of the “real world.” The truth is, Dana and I may never quit our “real jobs.” We may never sell our belongings for the promise of adventure. One day we might even wake up and feel that a house, corporate jobs, and 2.5 children are exactly what we want. And if that does happen, we will pursue those goals. But we will do those things because they bring us happiness and spark passion within us, not because our family, friends, or society as a whole are pressuring us to do them. But for right now, we’re going to keep daydreaming and scheming about our “Next Big Adventure.” Because if being a “grown up” means I have to stop growing, I’ll never truly be one.