Our family has recently developed a new tradition. Every Sunday morning after a slow start to the day, we pull on jackets, lace up shoes, pack a bag with snacks and water and head out into the woods behind our house. We wander the paths we have made over the years, stopping to examine wildlife, gather fallen leaves, or identify different types of moss. We end up at the small fort we have assembled with sticks and we play there for the rest of the morning. We build sculptures inspired by Andy Goldsworthy. We pretend to cook a meal in the fort. We wander around. We sit. By the time we return to our house for lunch, we have undergone a process that I can only describe as unwinding and reconnecting. After the seductive rush of the week, we’ve tapped back into the things we value most: family and nature. We are all relaxed, nourished and present and I watch in the following hours and days as our children continue to marvel at what they found and learned in the woods and tell the story of our time together with the aura of a fairytale.
I hadn’t realized just how much our Sunday morning tradition means to me until a recent Sunday when we didn’t wander into the woods. That particular weekend filled with other events – all of which felt important and worthy but cumulatively created a packed schedule. By Sunday evening, we all displayed the resulting tension. We hadn’t unwound and simply been together in nature, and we were all the worse for it – unfocused, unrested, undernourished and disconnected.
Questioning the rush
Between work, school, extra-curriculars and social activities, the modern family calendar is a packed one. But is this lifestyle good for us? Just as importantly, is it even the lifestyle that we really want? If we pause long enough in the midst of all that busyness and reflect on the following questions, where do the answers point? And how might the resulting lifestyle intersect with living more lightly on – and with greater respect for – the planet?
For your consideration:
- When you think over the past month, what are the family moments that brought you the greatest happiness?
- When are your children the most calm, present and creative? What seems to cultivate these states?
- When do you feel most connected as a family?
- When you think back to your childhood, what are the moments that brought you the greatest joy?
- What matters to you most? Does your family life reflect these values?
I don’t know about you, but it is very easy for me to forget the answers to these questions and to let the expectations of society and the pace of the modern world define the shape of my family’s life. In these significant years, when my children are sponges and when what their father and I model, particularly in how we spend our time with them, so greatly shapes the people they become, I really want to pause and mindfully consider our life together as a family.
It doesn’t seem like I’m alone in this desire. From Lily Tomlin’s sage advice (“If you win the rat race, you are still a rat.”) to the trend in simplifying (whether home decor, diet or your closet), to the popularity of the “Slow Movement” (slow food, slow money), it seems many of us have long desired to disconnect ourselves from the pace of the relentless grind and reorient our lifestyles to a simpler (and truer?) set of priorities.
Of course, to be able to talk about simplifying one’s life is a privilege. Many must work long hours to survive. But what about those of us who work long hours to meet goals separate from survival – goals of a more material or achievement-oriented nature? What about all the activities we commit our children to? Do these decisions reflect our deepest set of priorities? And what impact does this way of spending our time have on the planet?
Impact of “too much” on children
We are only meant to take in so much stimulation at a time. When we are overloaded, we shut down. If our goal is to provide a space in which young people can connect to themselves, connect to nature, discover, create, imagine and innovate, then we want to provide a space in which their senses and minds can open and their bodies can relax. A lifestyle of perpetual rush does not build such a space.
In a life with more space and time, young people have the freedom to set their own pace and to discover their own priorities. They also have the opportunity to build an understanding of themselves that is distinct from material goods and accomplishments, in other words, from what they possess and what they do.
In a life with more space and time, there is also more opportunity to have those conversations that are so essential, not just to help prepare young people to face the climate crisis, but also to help them build understanding of many important things as they grow older.
And in a life with more space and time, young people learn the value of presence in the moment and in their bodies and mindful living. This type of living promotes mental health and also allows young people to better identify needs, better recognize when those needs are violated and make choices consciously in a way that aligns with their beliefs and values from a very young age. Mindfulness is also an essential component of building emotional intelligence and emotional intelligence, in turn, is a critical piece of health and our ability to face the climate crisis.
Impact of “too much” on parents
I cannot speak for all parents, but my goodness, I know that I am my best self, whether as a parent, a partner, a friend or in my relationship to myself, when my life has some space in it. When I am racing from one thing to the next, I am unable to connect to who I really am and what I really want and need. I am more likely to feel out of sorts, even unhappy, and grab for whatever quick fix I can find to soothe my frazzled nerves.
When my life is too full, I feel like I am failing on every front. And most of that sense of failure has to do with not having the time to really listen and connect, whether with others or with myself. Relationships require time. They must be nourished by the fuel of attention. Through attention, we build knowing. We better know ourselves, we better know others, and we help those around us better know themselves by listening them into discoveries. Through this listening, we build a network of strong, lasting connections that reflect deeper understanding. In this type of space, we are able to identify what we really need and what we really value.
In the act of simplifying, we concentrate on those values. We build presence around those things. And we teach and give our children the space to do the same.
Impact of “too much” on the planet
There is no way around it: our drive for more is a huge part of what got us into the climate crisis to begin with. The growth economy is eating up the planet’s resources. We cannot grow indefinitely and sustainably, at least not under the current understanding of “growth”, focused as it is on material goods rather than quality of life. The use of G.D.P. – or Gross Domestic Product – and its focus on the size and growth of the economy as a measure of wellbeing will sink the ship of this planet.
This focus on G.D.P. and growth is particularly alarming when we consider the climate impact that will occur if all emerging economies catch up to the impact of countries like the United States. The planet absolutely cannot support that type of growth, particularly without significant shifts in how energy is produced and used and how waste is managed.
Here, the work of Narasimha Rao is particularly relevant and inspiring. Rao is a professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies specializing in energy systems analysis. His work focuses on demonstrating the link between reducing inequality and mitigating the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
Rooted in the understanding that the climate crisis is, fundamentally, an issue of justice, Rao’s research shows that reducing inequality – both within and between countries – holds significant potential for mitigating the worst impacts of climate change. Rao recognizes that emerging economies have what appear to be conflicting demands. They are rightly focused on raising living standards and this involves growth and increased energy use. However, if all countries consumed and wasted at the level of the United States – the goal for many emerging economies – the health of the planet, and therefore all countries, would be doomed.
Rao calls for an increase in equality: raising living standards for many while significantly lowering consumption in those countries, like the United States, that are consuming far more than their fair share. He explains: “We need to look more rigorously at the basic requirements of human well-being and human progress. We know what they are in economics and social policy, but we don’t know how to align those requirements with climate change and energy use.”
If your immediate reaction to a call to reduce consumption and simplify your lifestyle is negative, Rao would ask you to think again. “In some ways, the costs of reducing climate change are overstated. We haven’t really explored enough the benefits to our well-being of a low-carbon lifestyle….If you think about more public transit, more sustainable diets, more high-tech communities with perhaps more modest homes, these are things that can benefit people in the future.” Rao recognizes that a lifestyle aligned with the needs of the planet is not only a sustainable one, it is also very possibly one of greater health and more lasting fulfillment.
If you are confused as to what might be used instead of G.D.P. to measure wellbeing, identify priorities and make decisions around budget and policy, look no further than New Zealand, which recently ditched G.D.P. in favor of the Gross National Happiness Index. The Index focuses on the health of citizens instead of the health of the country’s economy. In other words, while New Zealand will, of course, still work to maintain a healthy economy, the purpose of that economic health will be to support the health and wellbeing of all of its citizens (importantly, this includes a focus on environmental wellbeing). Health and wellbeing, whether of humans or other living things or the habitats on which we depend, will not be sacrificed in the name of economic growth, as they are time and again when the focus is on G.D.P.
It is important to emphasize that increased spending power currently predominantly equals an increased negative impact on the planet, regardless of the best intentions of those holding the wealth. A series of recent studies have all demonstrated that net income is the most significant predictor of household greenhouse gas emissions. And this is not just confined to the super-rich, with multiple homes, private jets and super yachts. When we have more spending power, we tend to use it and our lifestyle correspondingly increases in climate impact.
Alarmingly, studies have also shown that greater wealth is also associated with less connection to others, leading to a decrease in empathy. One paper even demonstrated that drivers of expensive vehicles were less likely to stop for pedestrians than drivers of cheap vehicles. Building empathy, respect, and even love for all living things is critical to effectively addressing climate change.
For those of us with spending power, it is time to really consider the impact of our lifestyles. How can we better align our lives with the health of the planet? How can we participate in addressing the inequality that is so prevalent right now and so intertwined with the climate crisis? And how can this act of simplifying actually turn into a joyous celebration of our priorities – good for ourselves, good for our families, good for society and good for the planet?
A new way
So many of us lament that life is moving too quickly and that we do not have enough time. We feel disconnected, from ourselves, from our children, from a sense of purpose and from place. This makes sense. Meaningful connection and community take time.
Respect, too, takes time. Respect involves listening fully, whether to another human or to the natural world – which is screaming for our attention at this particular moment. Active, full listening takes time. And respect involves having the time to pause and consider the needs of another.
In place of connection and respect, many turn to material goods, rich food, and accomplishments aligned with career climbing to fill our sense of disconnect. The irony is that we often make ourselves more busy and more disconnected in a drive to fulfill a rightly perceived sense of lack.
Can we do the work involved in pivoting and reprioritizing? Can we shift from lifestyles that value money, possessions and performance to lifestyles that value time, health, and meaningful connection? As we simplify, can we celebrate the gift of full attention that we suddenly get to place on our priorities? Can we discover a deeper understanding of ourselves and of each other?
I hope so. Like Rao, I do not think we spend enough time looking at the positive potential contained in the simplification that is needed to address the climate crisis. We are panicked about what we will lose when we could be focused on all that we will gain. In reduction, we just might find true abundance. We might remember who we really are and find a deeper meaning to our lives. We just might discover that self-care, family-care and planet-care may actually look remarkably similar.