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July 18, 2005

Attaining Simple Living Through Peace and Chaos

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Written For My Simple Living Class:

The idea of "living simply" can be many things to many people. To Puritan settlers in early America, it meant wearing plain clothes, not being ostentatious, and even enacting laws to make sure these ideas were carried out (Shi, The Simple Life, Chapter 1). To the Transcendentalists, such as Henry David Thoreau, it could mean living in a small cabin in the woods (The Simple Life, p. 140). To the hippies of the 1960s, it was about living freely, without allowing oneself to be stifled by cultural stigmas (The Simple Life, p. 251). All of these are examples of what the simple life can mean to people, depending on when and where they lived and what influenced them.

Today, resources for learning about our way of life and its effects on others are widely available, more so than they have ever been. Many of these are valuable to the discussion, but the three to be focused on here are particularly influential: The idea of sustainable business based on ecologically sound principals as presented by Paul Hawken (The Ecology Of Commerce), Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of interbeing (Peace Is Every Step), and Chaos Theory’s ideas of the butterfly effect, self-organization, and the simplicity/complexity paradox, as presented by John Briggs and F. David Peat (Seven Life Lessons Of Chaos).

Not only are these ideas helpful in assessing our current situation and learning to live simply in today’s world, but also they contain interconnecting portions, which allows them to be combined into quite a cohesive theory for simple living: All things are connected, all things influence one another and depend on each other, and the universe tends to organize without any outside influence. Simple living, when based on this theory, could be quite easy to attain and sustain.

Sustainable business, as Hawken sees it, is the only way that our current economy can be transformed from one that is destroying our ecosystem to one that is not only ecologically neutral but also ecologically positive. Sustainability is "an economic state where the demands placed upon the environment by people and commerce can be met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations" (Ecology of Commerce, p. 139). A sustainable business, then, is a business that, rather than only worrying about short-term gains, will consider the long-term costs of its actions. A logging company that clear-cuts more quickly than new trees can grow (read: most current logging companies) is obviously unsustainable. If the process is not made sustainable, we will at some point run out of trees.

There are, however, logging programs that can be run sustainably. The Menominee Indians started in the 1850s with 1.2 billion standing board feet, have harvested 2 billion, but still have 1.5 billion board feet left in their forest (Ecology of Commerce, p. 89). Do the math; with most current logging practices, there’s no way that 1.2 billion minus 2 billion could equal 1.5 billion. That’s a net increase of .3 billion board feet, which not only means more available profit, but a still healthy forest. It’s not difficult to imagine, however, that many loggers probably aren’t worrying as much about long-term affects as short-term profit. What is difficult to understand is why, but that would be the subject for quite another discussion. Another amazing example of sustainable business is occurring in Kalundborg, Denmark, where greenhouses, a power plant, oil refinery, fish farm, and others use each other’s waste and heat as energy in a symbiotic relationship. What’s even more interesting is that this all happened "spontaneously," without external regulation (Ecology of Commerce, 63).

Living simply should mean treating resources with respect while allowing them to be replenished so that they aren’t lost permanently. When a resource is gone, everything that needs that resource will soon disappear. In the case of the trees in a forest, that could mean anything from insects to birds to primates (including humans). The possibilities for loss are endless and can occur in a chain reaction from the trees all the way to the food stocks of the human population. Sustainable business, Hawken says, is a way that we can accomplish a transition to what could be called more simple living and business while modifying our current system rather than starting from scratch. He appeals to us, not to subvert the free market and Adam Smith’s "invisible hand," but to use them to our advantage by allowing them to organize a sustainable economy. However, our ideas of what a free market is and what its benefits and negative need to be analyzed more closely (Ecology of Commerce, p. 75).

Thich Naht Hanh is a Buddhist Zen Master with a very ancient, yet still refreshing, worldview. In his book Peace is Every Step, he teaches us to be mindful and to see each day as what it really is – a wonderful gift. Hanh encourages us to be peaceful and to realize that peace is not something we have to work towards, not something that will be accomplished when all nuclear weapons are destroyed or all the nations of the world sign a treaty. Peace is something that can happen right now, within us as well as through us. With this mindset, living simply becomes a natural outcropping of our behavior rather than something we have to force ourselves into. If we know we are helping others by living simply, we will do it out of kindness. One of the most important ideas Hanh espouses is that of "interbeing" (Peace is Every Step, p. 95). My spell check didn’t recognize the word just now when I typed it, but I added it to the dictionary, and now it’s a part of my word processor’s knowledge.

In the same way, once people come to terms with the fact that they inter-are, with each other and with everything else, whole new realizations that stem from that can come flooding in. When you squash an insect that is crawling along your floor, you’re not killing something that is just an insect; you’re also killing part of yourself. The Western world will typically laugh at this idea, but even science does not dispute the fact that all living things are tied together through a complex web of food and influence. Just as unsustainably felling trees means destroying an important part of the ecosystem, destroying that insect will, in some way, affect you and your own life.

Living simply isn’t just about respecting other life forms for your own gain. How you treat your own interbeing will have an effect on you, but it will also have an effect on everyone and everything else that inter-is. "All actions have an equal and opposite reaction." When Isaac Newton said this, he may have only been speaking of physics, but if we are to trust Hanh and others, Newton was right on more levels than even he in his genius could have realized. You can stare into a sheet of paper, as Hanh suggests, and see yourself (Peace is Every Step, p. 95). This is true. However, you can also stare into a sheet of paper and see the entire world, indeed, the entire universe. Simple living can be based around this idea. As the bumper sticker (well, and Gandhi) say, "live simply so that others may simply live."

One of the most important (and most abstract) scientific theories of modern times is Chaos Theory. Its influence has changed the way science sees the world, and it could someday fundamentally change every aspect of our lives. John Briggs and F. David Peat make a compelling argument in The Seven Life Lessons of Chaos that life doesn’t just feel like chaos, but life is chaos, and that couldn’t be a more positive fact. Chaos in this sense is not, as portrayed in everyday thought, a messiness and complete lack of organization and understanding. The scientific term refers to "an underlying interconnectedness that exists in apparently random events (The Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, p. 1). "Going with the flow," according to Chaos Theory, is the best possible way to go. Even our language suggests that we know this inherently; when someone is being controversial, we often say that he is "going against the grain." We are advised, when learning to drive a car, that the best thing to do when skidding on ice or water is to go with the slide, not to try and turn against it. This will only cause us to wreck more easily. If we simply follow the universe’s lead rather than try to force the universe to bend to our will, we allow natural processes to continue unhindered while still using them to our advantage (The Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, p. 53).

The "butterfly effect" is named after an ancient Chinese proverb that says that the power of a butterfly’s wings can be felt on the other side of the world. Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist and a founder of Chaos Theory, found that weather pattern predictions were significantly skewed when calculations were carried out to three decimal places rather than six (The Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, p. 31). The missing three decimal places are the proverbial flap of the butterfly’s wings. That such a small difference in input can cause such a large difference in output meshes perfectly with Thich Naht Hanh’s ideas of interbeing and the reasoning behind sustainable business espoused by Paul Hawken. When we look at the big picture that comes from the results of our actions, we can see that they have much more impact than we realize and perhaps more impact than we want to realize.

Also important in Chaos Theory is the simplicity/complexity paradox. According to Chaos Theory, complex patterns contain simpler patterns within them that are reflections of the more complex patterns. Most notable human works, from ancient myths to modern quantum physics, see this paradox as one of their most important principals (The Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, p. 80). These patterns of interlaced complexity can be seen readily in fractals, both man made and natural. The graphical interpretation of the Mandlebrot set is a well-known example of a fractal. It can be seen as a complex geometric pattern, and as one zooms in on the details of the pattern, one will see that the smaller patterns are strikingly similar to the original, larger one (The Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, p. 81).

The same can be seen in natural phenomena from river systems to food webs and even galaxies. An animation on the Internet called "Powers of Ten" lets the viewer start 10 million light years from the Milky Way Galaxy and zoom in, one power of ten each time. The viewer zooms into the solar system, cloud systems in the atmosphere, and cellular structures, until he is staring at the nucleus of an atom at 10-14 meters and quarks at 10-16 meters, and all of these systems bear a striking resemblance to one another.

Here again with Chaos Theory, we see that all things are not only connected, but part of each other and fundamentally the same. The global food web contains many interconnected local ecosystems, each of these contain even more microscopic and interconnected ecosystems, and each of these is part of the greater whole and shares a similar pattern with it and with the others. The rotation of electrons around the nucleus of an atom is so fundamentally similar in form and scale to the rotation of planets around the sun or stars around the center of a galaxy that, if sized the same and placed side by side, it becomes difficult to tell the difference on a purely visual level.

These ideas within Chaos Theory make a very large impact on the idea of simple living, because they might, with some fine-tuning, allow us to learn to live simply without having to toil all day or live boringly and plainly. If, as Chaos Theory suggests, the universe is self-organizing and self-sustaining (Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, p. 13), living simply would just be a matter of having the right resources on hand and using them wisely. Man’s endeavors can self-organize as well; the Internet is a prime example (Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, p. 55). As long as our resources are sustainably accessed, we would never run out of them, and they would allow us to live happily and sustainably forever – or at least until the Earth is self-organized into our sun, as it progresses through the normal life cycle of a star. That being several hundred million years from now, however, we need only be in the planning stages of a sustainable intergalactic voyage on a ship with its own ecosystem to take us to our new homes.

If we listen to Hawken, Briggs, Peat, and Thich Nhat Hanh, and if they are all correct, we may yet be able to devise a way to live simply, happily, calmly, and in abundance simultaneously. We can live in peace with each other and with our world, and because we’ll be living "in the hands of the gods" rather than trying to be gods ourselves, nature will be allowed to take its course with us, whatever that may be. No matter what the universe has in store for us, living simply will allow us to live without interfering and will let the universe progress, and we may live long enough to see the spectacular changes that it goes through.

Posted by George at July 18, 2005 2:01 PM Category: Alternatives

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