When I was a kid, my parents would sometimes take us to a campground called Paradise Park. It was a little camp in the California foothills: a woodsy reserve dotted with old oak trees sloping down to a well-shaded river.
Most of the time, it wasn't much more than a stream. But its bed was thick with well-worn river stones, testimony to uncountable seasons of floods and the persuasive nature of water. Over the centuries, the river had slowly carried away mountainsides, tumbling and cracking rock, reducing boulders into a rainbow of smooth, flat stones the size of a child's hand. We'd spend hours picking through the best of them, finding the perfect rock to skip across the river. Invariably, we'd build little stacks of stones along the bank.
There's something deeply satisfying about stacking stones. It's a common motif in Zen gardens, which seek to create order out of nature's seeming chaos. In doing so, they highlight the harmony and balance of our place in the world.
It's not difficult to find a lesson in the stones for those of us trying to simplify our sprawling lives. We've chosen seven from the riverbed for you today — ideas that can help you live a lighter, healthier, more sustainable life. Stack them as you will.
Reduce your consumption
Anyone who thinks they can shop their way to a living has been watching too much television. Sure, responsible consumerism matters. Every purchase is a choice. But the key to simpler, greener living is pretty straightforward: consume less. A simple way to cut back on unnecessary purchases is the one week rule. Unless you have a real show-stopper, write down the things you need and sit on them for seven days. Stores are designed to encourage impulse spending, so staying away as much as possible is good news for your bank account. After a week, round up the items you still need and group them together with an eye toward combining as many trips as possible. Then stick to your list. While this all sounds simple, you'll quickly realize how chaotic our spending habits can be — and how much money you can save through better planning.
Reduce your waste stream
We call it garbage; other nations might call it wealth. There's no end to things we send to the landfill. Recycling helps, but the sheer volume of waste generated by the average household is overwhelming. From obsolete electronics to that mason jar you casually tossed in the trash last night, we're flooding our landfills while robbing ourselves of things which might be put to another use. Start by thinking twice when you purchase something: is whatever you're buying too heavily packaged? Do you need it all? Think again before putting anything in a trash or recycling bin. Nobody expects you to become a packrat, but that jar could easily be repurposed as a water bottle or used to pack a snack. Food scraps belong in the compost heap. Maybe that cardboard, too. For some idea starters on keeping things out of the bin, check out this helpful list from No Impact Man, and consider this advice from MNN's Sidney Stevens about ways to top creating unnecessary trash. For many people, this is an easy task to start with because it pays dividends immediately.
Trim your energy use
Energy prices do relax when the worldwide economic slows down. But electricity, gasoline, natural gas and heating oil still represent a hefty portion of the average family budget. Unless you're fortunate enough to live in an area already invested in renewable energy, every unattended TV or flick of the light switch means you're burning fossil fuels. That means you're directly responsible for the air pollution and all the related consumables it took to bring that power to your wall socket. Learn to weatherize; replace or retire inefficient appliances; consider more energy-efficient lighting; and rearrange your living spaces so they take better advantage of natural heat, lighting and cooling. Switch things off and pocket the change. You'll probably enjoy the peace and quiet.
Prepare and grow your own food
Cooking at home saves money and puts you closer to the food you eat. (Photo: Nenad Stojkovic [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
If there's one lost art in the past decade or two, it's cooking real food. By "cooking," we don't mean warming up packaged food from the grocery store. We're talking about preparing meals from fresh ingredients. That's how our parents and grandparents did it. Admittedly, society has changed: with dual-income households and ever-expanding work schedules, it's easy to fall back on processed meals and fast foods. And that's a shame. Making a home-cooked meal — whether it's just for yourself or a whole family — is the one of the little rituals that forces us to slow down and be mindful of what we eat. It's also healthier, and an enormous money saver. Not too handy in the kitchen? Take a class, or spend time cooking with someone you love. Real food needn't be complicated. And consider growing some of what you consume. Even if you're not blessed with the space to plant a garden, you can grow a satisfying crop of herbs and vegetables in containers on a balcony or windowsill.
Reduce your reliance on automobiles
We love our cars. And why not? Virtually everything about modern living — particularly in the United States — assumes automobile transportation. Think how much blacktop and concrete there is within a hundred yards of you right now. Our cities sprawl across what used to be countryside. Stores and businesses that make provision for bicycles and mass transit are the exception, and we feel inconvenienced if there's not plenty of parking within a few paces of wherever we travel. Dust off that bicycle or grab a backpack and get walking. Perhaps you could start by taking our 10-mile pledge. The more you leave your car parked, the more money you'll save and the healthier you'll feel. Start small, establish new habits, and you'll be surprised how much you can get done without burning a drop of gasoline.
Reduce your personal stress
Even a short walk in the woods can help you let go of stress. (Photo: Quinn Comendant [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
It's not an accident that virtually every one of our "simplicity stones" has a meditative component. You have to make time to prepare food, choose walking over a car trip, or even make a proper shopping list. This is a good thing, because it forces you to unburden yourself of something else. We are hopelessly overstimulated. Living a greener life is less about learning new things than letting go of the old. Think about all the tasks you do in a week that take longer than 30 minutes. Look most carefully at social obligations, hobbies — even the time you spend online. Have any of these become a chore? What could be jettisoned? It could be something as simple as dropping a social network, or a repetitive task that could be delegated to others. You could probably find a few extra hours a week in this manner. Don't be in a hurry to fill them. Pick up a book, take a walk in the woods, or putter in the garden. Light physical activity is a great way to trade stress for a little extra serotonin. If you're doing a good job saving money, you might be able to afford that once-a-week massage. Now, at least, you'll have time to fit it in.
Learn to give back
You've reduced your consumption. There are a few extra dollars in the bank. Your environmental footstep gets a little smaller from month to month, and you've managed to reclaim some time from the chaos of your week. Now you're ready to give back. How you join in is a personal decision. Teach your newfound skills to others, help people find jobs, or assist a faith or social group. As you learn to slow down and simplify, chances are that opportunities to serve will find you.
Seven stones — but, of course, there are many more to add as you go along.
Editor update: This story was originally published in May 2010 and has been updated with new information.