In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in particular, Americans witnessed a level of domestic poverty and vulnerability about which too many of us had previously been insulated and unaware. We also witnessed extraordinary expressions of resiliency and human kindness. In the midst of almost unfathomable chaos and loss, we saw many who reached out to help others in danger and pain, many who sacrificed convenience, comfort and even personal safety to help those in more desperate circumstances.
For those of us at a distance from the immediate destruction, it was virtually impossible not to be moved – both by the suffering of those in need, and by the generosity of those who extended themselves in service. But even at the same moment many of us were feeling sorrow for those whose lives had been ripped apart by the storm, and a mixture of gratitude and guilt about the relative safety our distance accorded us, I think many were also waking up to the reality that nothing is nearly as distant or separate as it seems.
Whether or not one was willing to point to global warming as a catalyst for worsening natural disasters, whether or not one was interested in evaluating how certain economic and urban-development policies might be putting poor and vulnerable populations at even greater risk, there was one place almost no one could avoid noticing that something was just plain wrong – and that was at the gas pump.
In the weeks following Katrina, even for those with enough disposable income not to feel the personal pinch of skyrocketing fuel prices, it was quite plain the impact those soaring prices were having on others, particularly when it came to the stock market and other economic indicators. In many ways, the oil situation just made more broadly evident a simple human and global reality that’s been staring us in the face since time immemorial – namely, that we are all connected.
While our material and social comforts might insulate us, at least temporarily, from the immediate impacts of our collective excesses and imbalances, it seems obvious that what befalls one of us – and whatever befalls our planet – must eventually affect us all. So it makes sense to closely observe the systems that bind and support us, and to find ways of living that help sustain them for the long haul.
That means looking at how we can reduce waste and reckless consumption, and seeking out ways of living safely and comfortably that also allow others to do the same. By reducing our demand for fossil fuels, for example, we help keep prices lower – and the atmosphere cleaner – for everyone.
When the economy and environment benefit, we all benefit.
Does that mean we all have to give up our SUVs? Not necessarily. But it might mean considering whether our family really needs two giant SUVs, or whether that’s really the best vehicle for our daily commute. Perhaps a smaller, more efficient car would do just as well (or better) for trips around town?
The point is, regardless of how we answer such questions in our own lives, it’s up to each of us to get into the habit of asking them. How can we live more simply, elegantly, responsibly – and actually get more satisfaction in the process? By questioning when and where we really need more of anything, we help relieve pressure on the limited natural resources on which all economies – and all life – depend. By being good stewards of our personal energy and being willing to challenge the habits and attitudes that deplete us, we require less, enjoy more, and have more to offer others.
In his trend-launching and now classic book, Voluntary Simplicity (first published in 1981), author Duane Elgin noted that “because simplicity has as much to do with each person’s purpose in living as it does with his or her standard of living, it follows that there is no single, ‘right and true’ way to live more ecologically and compassionately.”
Simplicity, like beauty, is ultimately in the eye and heart of the beholder. But the more open our eyes and hearts become, the more simplicity seems like a good idea – one naturally inclined to make our lives better and more beautiful the more deeply we allow it to sink in.