Recently I read two pieces of very sage advice on a subject that's very central to living a sustainable lifestyle. And that subject is, keeping stuff in appropriate quantities. It's a tricky thing, which many of us struggle with: Knowing what to keep around, and what to let go of. And having the self-discipline to act on that knowledge. The sheer number of storage units you can see everywhere you go, not just in cities but even in very small towns, is testimonial to our struggle with stuff. The storage industry surely accounts for a sizable share of the U.S. GDP by now.
The first bit of advice I read was, in a nutshell, Don't buy something unless you know you're going to use it. Common sense, right? The remarkable thing about this advice was where it came from: the holiday sales catalog of a highly successful clothing company! The company, a successful and highly esteemed manufacturer of high-end outdoor wear, was actually urging its customers to refrain from buying any garments they weren't going to use regularly.
(Can you think of a clothing company that would actually give this kind of advice to its customers? Can you guess which company it is? If you guessed Patagonia, a clothing manufacturer known for its environmental and social conscience, you're right.)
In permaculture design, the principle of "keeping stuff around in appropriate quantities" is known as "Stocking." (That's "stocking" as in storage, not "stocking" as in Christmas stocking ... although there are probably people who could fill an entire storage unit with the stocking-stuffers they've received over the years, that they never have found a use for but that they keep around out of guilt.)
Now, you might think that the problem of being burdened by too much stuff, and not having the self-discipline to pare it down to a manageable level, is the exclusive province of the wealthy or at least the middle class, but it isn't necessarily so. We all suffer from this ailment to some degree.
The second bit of advice I want to share with you comes from a homeless person. (Actually he may not be homeless anymore but he was for a long time, and he's written extensively about his life and travels during that phase of his life.) You've probably heard of him: His name is Lars Eighner and he's a well-known author. His best-known book is Travels with Lizbeth. And he's written many excellent essays. In his essay "On Dumpster Diving" , Eighner talks about the pleasures of finding free stuff in dumpsters, yet also warns us against the hidden pitfalls of that free stuff. It can weigh a person down in more ways than one.</p>
"Permies" love finding free good stuff. After all, one of the tenets of permaculture design is "make use of locally available resources." Permies love free stuff so much that sometimes we keep it around to a dysfunctional degree. We keep stuff around even though it's gathering dust, attracting pests, giving our backyards a junky appearance. I confess: One of my big addictions is wooden shipping pallets. (Another is Mason jars.) Over the past couple of years, I've forcibly weaned myself off these addictions, but it hasn't been easy. To this day I can't help but rubberneck whenever I ride by a pile of pallets.
"Ooooh, pallets. I really should come back with the bicycle-trailer and grab those. I might need them sometime -- I could build a compost bin or a bookcase or a ... or a ...."
But then I stop myself. These days, I plan out my projects first, and THEN scavenge the pallets. In appropriate quantities.
The principle of Stocking -- keeping stuff in appropriate quantities for your needs -- cuts both ways. Keeping too LITTLE stuff around can end up being just as wasteful (by causing unnecessary work and fossil-fuel expenditure) as keeping too MUCH stuff around. I'll be writing about various aspects of the permaculture design principle of "Stocking" in the near future.