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June 3, 2010

Filed under: random»personal


Look, I'm not saying George Clooney's character from Up in the Air is right about wanting to unload all personal relationships. I don't have that many to spare, after all. But getting my worldly possessions down to a backpack (and then ditching the backpack)? Reducing my carbon footprint, my level of mindless consumerism, and my reliance on cheap, over-designed crap created by underpaid factory labor? Great. Let's do it. theory, at least. In practice, it is tough to get rid of stuff. Learning to live frugally is a multi-step process.

Belle started with a simple rule for our apartment: if you bring something in, something else of equivalent size has to go out. This is a great rule, if for no other reason than that the apartment is very, very small and we can't stuff anything else into it without learning to stack the pets like Tetris blocks. And it incentivizes sustainability by making it easier to use trading/swap services than to buy new books/games/movies.

The second step has been learning to embrace digital media. I still buy a few CDs and paper books, but not nearly as many as I used to, and usually only if they're something I'll want to loan out, or if they're not available online. And we almost never buy DVDs--Netflix has that covered. While it has taken some time to get used to not 'owning' my music or movies, maybe that's the point--'ownership' shouldn't be the defining characteristic of cultural engagement.

Next up is learning to be happy with last year's model. This is not easy to do, especially given the constant deluge of electronic follow-up that companies can leverage these days. Most recently, for example, TiVo sent out messages offering new versions of their DVR box to subscribers at a discount. That's tempting: we've still got the old Series 2 box, the one that came out in 2006, and it doesn't do HD, or Netflix streaming, or... well, lots of neat features. But do we need that? I mean, we don't have HD cable anyway, and it doesn't really bother us. We've got the XBox for streaming, and we'd have plenty of space on the current TiVo if we'd stop using it to store whole seasons of Damages. There's nothing wrong with it to justify a replacement, so we'll stick with what we've got.

At some point, I want to start simplifying--giving away, selling, or (as a last resort) trashing the objects that I only keep out of habit. You know what I mean: old purchases that you don't use anymore, but you keep just in case it comes in handy somewhere down the road. Ruthlessness is the key--you're never going to turn that old Super NES on again, and you know it--but I probably lack the outright willpower. So instead I think I'll get a roll of those little green dot stickers, the ones they use to mark prices at flea markets, and put them on anything I haven't touched in a while. If it actually gets used, I'll take the sticker off. Anything with a sticker still on it at the end of the year has got to go.

Which brings us to the toughest part: our book collection. Already, heavy boxes of books books are the moving experience we dread most. But paper texts have another type of inertia, a weight derived more from their intellectual and emotional impact than their actual mass. Especially if you love books--and we do--it's hard to discard them. It's like throwing away knowledge! And yet we'll never read many of them again, and some of them we bought and may never read in the first place. Everyone would be better off if they were donated to the library or recycled. Of all the steps for reducing our material footprint, cutting the number of books sitting around on our shelves will no doubt be the most painful, but it may have the biggest impact.

Belle and I will probably never get our lives down to the point that they can fit in a backpack, or even an overhead luggage compartment. In reality, we probably don't actually want to get there--we're not monks or masochists, after all. Yet just as the best essay can benefit from judicious editing, I think it's appropriate to take a critical scalpel to our lifestyles from time to time. There's a lot of pressure out there to accumulate, to the point that "consumer" has too often become synonymous with "citizen" or "person." That pressure has consequences, in the labor system, in the environment, and in our financial stability. It may be true, as Slate's Farhad Manjoo insists, that we can't actually opt out from American materialism, but maybe we owe it to ourselves to try.

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