This is the first part in a series of posts on “Low-Carbon Luxury” by Matt Lie-Paehlke, Climate Pledge Collective Co-Founder and Member of Toronto350.
About a year ago, I had something of a nervous breakdown. Worries about politics and global warming, the stress of balancing career and parenting, being constantly on alert because of my daughter’s anaphylactic allergies. One morning, I awoke to intense chest pains. My doctor did some tests. While I awaited results, I wrote exams for my PhD. A false positive on a treadmill test convinced me I had heart problems and while I waited to see a cardiologist my chest pains got worse and worse.
Believing that I could drop dead and leave my daughter without a father was the slap in the face I needed. I cancelled meetings, stopped projects, asked friends and family for help with parenting and chores. Eventually, more testing revealed that my heart was fine...
... but in the mean time...
while I slowed down and watched the world passing me by...
I learned a great deal about myself and about meaningful, satisfying experiences.
The most interesting discovery was that the actions I took to reduce my anxiety were good for my carbon footprint and the things I was doing to reduce my carbon footprint helped me cultivate daily habits that were less stressful and more fulfilling. In a world where anything and everything is right at our finger tips, a long, leisurely pause is an unheard of luxury.
Low Carbon Luxury – How to Live More by Reducing your Fossil Fuel Dependency
Fossil fuels, speed everything up. But the real luxury is slowing down. I don’t really have to tell you that, you already know it in your bones.
The very first thing you have to do to build a better life for yourself is to…
Look around you. A c t u a l l y l o o k around you. Take your eyes off the screen for a second and notice the room you are sitting in, the bus or train you are riding on, the street you are walking along. Notice the rich colours. Which colour stands out?
Now take a deep breath.
Think about the past week -- how much time did you spend doing things that you enjoyed and how much time did you spend unjamming the photocopier of modern society?
Burning fossil fuels lets us accomplish more things more quickly. But if we don’t know where we are going, speed is worse than useless – it’s dangerous. Raising a child without a car means that we can’t do everything. But limiting our options often results in better decisions. Sometimes we say no to a birthday party or after-school activity because it’s simply impossible to get there and back in time for bed – but I have never regretted the quiet hours spent with my daughter playing board games or at a park. This September, almost a year after I began to slow down, we were unable to get our daughter into after-school care. I decided to start working from home and picking her up at three -- slowing my life down even further. My work on my PhD has suffered -- but my relationship with my daughter is getting better and better. My CV can wait. My daughter will never be four years old again.
The first tenet of low-carbon luxury is to work less so you can spend more time living. The second tenet is to live more frugally so that you can afford to work less. We spend a huge amount of our income on environmentally unsustainable services just to keep our heads above water – we grab fast food at the drive-through, fill our freezers with frozen meals, hire people to mow our lawns. You might think a car saves you time -- but it probably costs you about $500 a month. How many extra hours are you working just to "save time"? All of that can go. Good riddance.
I recognize that working less isn’t possible for everyone – especially in the short term. If that’s the case for you, you will still benefit from living frugally, paying down debts and building up savings. You can also look over your schedule and decide which chores and social engagements aren’t really necessary. I never regret any day when I manage to clear my schedule and spend an afternoon with my wife and daughter puttering around the house, doing whatever we please.
Take another deep breath. Together, we will find our way home again.
THE PARABLE OF THE RAKE AND THE LEAF-BLOWER
A leaf-blower burns gas and makes an angry, urgent sound in order to accelerate ordinary manual labour into a hurried blur -- but working with your hands is rewarding. More than anything else, digging into the materiality of the world -- the smell of soil, the way a nail sinks into wood, the sound of onions sizzling in a pan – is what makes life satisfying. And yet, we are always trying to make these tasks go more quickly or passing them off to someone else. If you have a snowblower AND a gym membership you are doing something wrong. Shovel your own snow. Watch how the edge of the shovel slides into the fluffy white dough. Watch how your breath curls and coils in the icy air. Stop and talk to your neighbours who are also out, huffing and puffing, in the cold.
There’s a Zen Koan that I remember, but cannot retrieve, so I offer this apocryphal recreation:
A young monk asks the Master, “What is Zen?”
The Master tells him to finish raking the leaves before asking such an impertinent question.
The monk goes back to his chore, raking as fast as he can, eager for his chance to ask again.
When he finishes raking the grounds of the monastery, he asks again:
What is Zen?
The Master says “Zen is raking leaves.”
Instead of rushing through tasks or passing them off to others like hot potatoes, we must learn to soak them in, to engage our senses and notice the miracles all around us. The gentle rustling of the leaves, the soothing emptiness of a well-swept patch of ground, the pleasant fullness of a heap of raked leaves. Doing fewer things will give us the space to appreciate the things we are already doing.
The second tenet of low-carbon luxury – to live more frugally – can be difficult, but the path to this lofty goal is drop-dead simple. Just stop buying things. You can do it. You probably have books on your shelf you’ve never read, CDs you haven’t listened to for years. Just sit down in a chair and start reading. Listen to one of your favourite CDs from beginning to end. Invite a friend over and make two cups of that tea in the back of your cupboard. Cancel your cable. Downgrade your cellphone plan. By some dry beans and a bag of rice and learn to cook some cheap, traditional, vegetarian foods. They will be more satisfying and healthier than anything else you might make. There are good books on minimalism so I won’t go into much detail here – I will just repeat my brute force rule – whenever you think about buying something or spending money – don’t.
You will be surprised how good it feels to free yourself from things and return to looking, listening and living.
Experiences weigh nothing and you never have to dust them.
The third tenet of low-carbon luxury is to get in touch with our lungs and diaphragms and to keep in touch with them throughout the day. Our churning, burning, 24-7 society never lets us take a breath. We keep getting interrupted.
Extreme heat alerts.
Your boss just emailed in the middle of dinner.
Low-carbon luxury means tuning out the noise. It means listening to each breath passing in and out of your body.
Try it with me: put one palm on your chest and one palm on your belly. As you breathe, the hand on your belly should move more than the hand on your chest. Once you are breathing from your belly, slow each inhalation and exhalation. This is called diaphragmatic breathing. Feel your belly expanding and contracting. Feel the oxygen enriching your blood.