As a child, stories of people who lost it all – whether refugees in the news or children left in the woods by a stepparent – impressed me strongly. I was always afraid of depending on things that might vanish, even though my life was securely middle-class.
This comfortable existence included summer camps, especially one in New Hampshire where mountain-hiking and camping awoke in me a love for wilderness. That led me to the National Outdoor Leadership School during two college summers. Each course there was five weeks of living in the Wind River Mountains, so far into the back country that we didn’t hear a motor for the entire month, carrying in our packs everything we needed. It wasn’t much: the clothes on our backs, one change plus a second warm shirt, poncho, and dry socks; sleeping bag and tarp; comb, toothbrush, hand towel and soap; cup, bowl, spoon, and pocket knife; a couple of pots and implements for cooking and the means to heat water; maps and first aid kit. We carried some food and stopped at food caches to replenish it. There was instruction in backcountry skills, and after supper we talked and sang around the campfire.
It sounds painfully spartan – yet the purpose of the school was to teach us to be comfortable in the wilderness. And we were. It was astonishing and very liberating to me to learn how few tangible objects one needs to be comfortably clothed, fed, and protected from the elements: now I knew that I’d be okay if I lost my things.
Later, as a scholar, I studied utopian literature, which tries to envision ideal societies – and noticed a consistent theme. Utopian societies, hypothetical and idiosyncratic as they are, tend to be generally thrifty, keeping use of material resources strictly in line with natural resources’ availability. Utopians’ private property is usually very limited and basic; clothing items mostly few and utilitarian; meals often taken communally to minimize waste. Yet the citizens are content because utopias are rich in other things. Their citizens always have families, friends, colleagues, and comrades; they have many chances to learn and study throughout life; they have opportunities to create and share art and beauty; they have work which is suited to their talents and useful to their society and therefore satisfying. Material frugality is balanced by rich and varied satisfying of intangible but vital human needs for love, learning, leisure, and meaningful work.
Utopia is by definition unattainable. But my experience of how little we need for physical comfort plus my academic studies have taught me that humans’ tangible needs are easily met, while our intangible needs are at least equally indispensable to happiness. This I believe: pursuing physical luxury, convenience, and security will not make us happy, and is only likely to impede working to meet our real and urgent needs for loving and learning and building and creating.
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