Monday, August 17, 2009

Simplicity, Resiliency, and Artifacts

I won't begin the promised "Diagonal Economy" series quite yet.  The main reason is that I don't want to start down that path without putting full effort into it.  So, in the interim, I've wanted to write a bit about lifestyle design and philosophy.  While this may seem like a major departure from my general themes, I think it's actually complementary:  by approaching our individual and community patterns as something to be consciously designed, rather than merely followed, we have the opportunity to make our lives more resilient, more energy efficient, more environmentally sustainable, and more pleasurable.  That can't be all bad?

First, two blog recommendations on this topic:

Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week.  This has been on my sidebar for some time.  Superficially, his book is about figuring out how to make quick money off the internet and then take long vacations.  At its core, however, he is working to design a set of tools and principles for living that can be used to adapt to rapid change, build a more resilient lifestyle, become healthier, solve problems--a host of useful things.

Leo Babauta, and his blog Zen Habits.  Leo has build a very successful career for himself by applying one simple principle:  examine and simplify everything you do.  Will be added to my sidebar soon (along with several other blogs I've been meaning to add for some time).

While it's relatively easy to dismiss these two as self-help gurus, I think they offer something more.  More than the actual tips they offer, they serve as examples of the kind of lifestyle and process design that I think will be increasingly important (at least if individuals or communities want to succeed) in a post-peak oil, post-Nation-State, post-caretaker-economy world.

The notion that we should look at everything we do, deconstruct it, and design it to better meet our needs, is one that will become increasingly important as old assumptions no longer remain valid.  A complement to this is the notion that we should simplify as much as possible.  While it's not exactly sexy advice, the continuous application of these two principles will serve us well in the coming years--no matter what they hold.

Personally, my life is far from simple.  I'm not sure my life is really any more complex than most people--kid(s), demanding job, interests and hobbies, etc.--but I know these principles have been useful to me.  I'm healthier, fitter, better informed, more successful, and happier as a result, and I still have a long, long ways to go.

So, take a moment and check out the two links above if you're so inclined.  But, if they don't immediately appeal to you, perhaps because you initially find them irrelevant to the reason you read this blog, as an exercise try to figure out how they offer tools that ARE helpful to the reasons you are reading this right now.  Perhaps in future posts I'll get into the details ("diagonal lifestyle design"?), but I think readers will find these ideas readily applicable to issues of energy, geopolitics, and societal transition.


Neven said...

First thought when looking at both blogs:

Superficial, hedonistic, look-at-me-look-at-me-look-at-me, get something for nothing, The Secret-like Buy-the-Book pyramid-scheme. Reading the comments didn't help either. "I'll flatter your ego if you flatter mine" ultraspoiled Twitter-generation types who have no idea how dependent they are on the system and how this makes them accomplices in all global suffering that is inflicted through their living above their ecological means, etc. I'd love to see how you tie this me-me-me attitude to your excellent trains of thought.

But hey, I'm in a real bad mood today. I'll look again tomorrow to see what positive aspects I can discern.

Jeff Vail said...

I think this is definitely a fair critique, and I should have been more clear explaining how I think these ideas (and these two blogs) can be useful.

While superficially about hedonism and self-advancement, these sites are fundamentally about systems design--in this case, life systems, societal systems, and business systems. I think in some cases the advice produced by these systems thinking processes is useful (e.g. Babauta's simplicity advice). However, the usefulness, I think, is primarily in the systems thinking processes they exhibit. These same processes can be used to create more resilient individual and community patterns, more sustainable and less consumptive lifestyles that simultaneously provide higher quality of life.

I wrote some time ago that sustainability, rhizome, etc. won't catch on unless and until people can see exactly how these structures and qualities can be lived in a way that is realistic, implementable, and that is preferable to present patterns. If someone created a "lifestyle design" blog that focused on implementable and replicable tools to increase sustainability, decrease consumption, increase local self-sufficiency, AND showed that these things allow for the creation of a preferable lifestyle, that could be a very powerful tool.

That's still a pretty unformed explanation, but right now I'm operating more on a sense that this is important, without as much ability to explain exactly why as I'd like!

Bottom line: it's difficult to sell selflessness. If we can link "me-me-me" with qualities like local self-sufficiency, simplicity, and resiliency, then I think these ideas will catch on better with a broader audience... at some point, style and success needs to be measured in how well we produce elegantly simple lifestyle systems that advance resiliency, localized scale-free self-sufficiency, and sustainability (rather than today's rampant "greenwashing").

On a related note, while much of these blogs is about self-advancement, I think they also advance the important concept of widespread entrepreneurship. One of the themes that I'll get to in the Diagonal Economy series (really!) is that we'll all need to start thinking of ourselves as entrepreneurs in building resilient, scale-free self-sufficient, and sustainable lives and communities. We can't count on others to make this happen for us--and this is certainly one admirable quality that both Tim Ferris and Leo Babauta succeed in selling. Of course, I might like to see more focus on gardening than website optimization, but it's a start.

Peter Hodge said...

Great post, Jeff, and follow-up comment. The ideas you discuss - rethinking and redesigning systems, and simplifying things are things that I'm very interested in.

How many times do we strike a situation, at work typically, where something is seen to be not working, and so someone says, "Oh, we need to put in place a system to fix the problem with the system"? Soon enough you end up with layers of systems, and an increasingly complex and brittle ediface.

Neven said...

I see what you mean, and you are right that we should be on the lookout for a collective shift in consciousness. This could be a sign of that, but it could also be confirmation bias at work.

Minimalism (which isn't the same as asceticism) would of course play a big part in the mindset needed for a more sustainable, self-sufficient, transparent and decentralized society. I can see how the Babauta blog is about this, though in a very succinct and trendy way, but the Tim Ferriss thing is an atrocity. It reminds me of a Nietzschean will to power-like selfishness where ethics play no role whatsoever, as it is all about YOUR life and how YOU can get the most out of it. Minimalism is a means to an end that is entirely different from the end Ferriss is propagating. Makes my stomach turn really, and I think this has more to do with my inner moral compass than with my conditioning.

It all depends on how this Minimalism fad would hold up during and after a collapse or contraction, which in my view is the indispensable first step towards the things you write about. The changes will not come about voluntarily, and certainly not through these blogs. I can appreciate the advantages of the minimalist mindset and how that fits in with a sustainable society, but I don't really see the systems thinking processes you mention in those blogs. It's more about life being a game, but still a game that has to be won, right? That way you could interpret systems thinking from anything you like.

"If someone created a "lifestyle design" blog that focused on implementable and replicable tools to increase sustainability, decrease consumption, increase local self-sufficiency, AND showed that these things allow for the creation of a preferable lifestyle, that could be a very powerful tool."

Yes, this would be much more useful (and it's probably out there somewhere). I think there are already quite some people busy doing this. I hope to be one of them. I'm lucky to be able to work as a translator from wherever I like and thus make that shift towards a more self-sustaining lifestyle on a community level. I actually would like to prove to myself and others that it's possible, even with a relatively low budget and low income job, to create a more fulfilling, high quality though minimalist life. Oh man, here I fall into the look-at-me-look-at-me-look-at-me trap myself! ;-)

With things like permaculture and the Internet I think it doesn't have to be like people view self-sufficiency generally, a POV that is confirmed by the recent Homestead Frontier Mentality article on The Oil Drum by Todd Detzel.

Speaking of which: I replied to one of your comments there. If it's okay I'd like to reproduce it here:

"BTW, why is it that every time (or lots of times) I read a book or a blog that appeals to me and it turns out the author is from Oregon? I bought a book about Permaculture called Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway, he's from Oregon. I have a book here about building your own solar food dryer by a guy from Oregon. I enjoy reading John Michael Greer's blog, he's from Ashland. George Mobus from the excellent Question Everything blog lives in Washington (close enough) and now it turns out your parents are also living in Oregon, and you bet I liked some of the stuff I read over at your blog.

As a European I have to ask: Is the Northwest the only sane place in the US? ;-)

I actually had a look at the real estate pricing in parts of Oregon for my amateur homestead project, but unfortunately it's not really an option for our budget (though it is in Euros, so who knows).

Oregon, Oregon, Oregon... If things don't come crashing down I'll be sure to visit it one day. It has captured my imagination."

Jeff Vail said...

Paul Stammets (author Mycelium Running) lives in Washington--another state that has many similarities to Oregon (not the least of which is that it's right next to it!). Sometimes I think the same thing--Oregon probably has the most widespread awareness of these issues, and has the largest % of people who are actively engaged. But, outside a few areas, it's actually quite similar to the rest of America. Because it's timber industry has been doing very poorly for two decades now, with nothing much to replace it, Oregon never enjoyed the '90s real estate boom to the degree that other parts of the country did, which may have something to do with that?

In general I agree with the ego/me-first/celebrity mentality as a major problem. However, I wonder if it's also a permanent part of our reality as it's genetically ingrained? This is actually a larger trend that I worry about: do the majority of people have the willpower, the independence, even the basic neurological structure to do anything other than follow the masses, yearn for fortune and celebrity, and follow those who have it? I don't know--but I think the answer here will be a huge part in determining our future. Can we ever have a peer-to-peer society, or do our mass genetics require a significant degree of hierarchy? Yet one more thing to explore...

TH in SoC said...

Sustainability, self-sufficiency, resiliency, simplicity - I think we will arrive at all these via a forced transition to a lifestyle of much less consumption and much lower income. The trick will be to make a sustainable and resilient lifestyle based on lower income while trying to dodge a much larger system that is still being run by rich predators. The present high cost of health care is one example of a challenge to such a lifestyle.

Oscar - freestylemind said...

Even if your life is far for simple, I'm sure you can apply the 80/20 Pareto principle to it and simplify it. The best methods I know to simplify are delegation and focus, but focus it's the most important for me because so often we focus on the wrong tasks to do instead of going straight to the point.