It’s increasingly hard to deny that we’re facing indisputably massive problems with ever growing threats to planetary health. Scientists, conservationists, ecologists, and environmentalists have been ringing the alarm on global warming, mass extinction, deforestation, and pollution for decades. At this point, the argument is no longer about whether there is anything to be alarmed about, but rather how alarmed we should be. We’re a long way from what the Stoics would have wanted—from their vision of sympatheia or from Seneca’s line, Mundus ipse est ingens deorum omnium templum (The world itself is a huge temple of all the gods).
There is good news though. Those same scientists also agree that we can still fight it. The Stoicism and sustainability lecturer and researcher Kai Whiting’s work centers around applying ancient wisdom to these challenges, how the “life well-lived” translates into something bigger than our personal endeavors. After all, how easy is it to enjoy a life worth living if our water is contaminated, our air is polluted, and our last remaining green spaces lie over landfill? But with the enormity and complexity of these issues, it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing we can individually do to make a difference.
In our interview with Kai, we asked if he had any recommendations for things people can do in their daily lives that have more impact than one might think. He said that in his lectures on critical thinking, he asks students “How can you change the world?” After they debate the answer, he tells them, “how about don’t buy crap you don’t need?” As Kai explained:
So many of us get fooled by marketing and tricked into desiring things we don’t need and… won’t make us happy. Once we understand that progressing in the good life is progressing in the four virtues and not “keeping up with the Joneses,” we massively reduce our waste. We stop fuelling needless production. This change of attitude alone cuts your ecological, carbon, water, and material footprint. It also saves your efforts and resources (including time) because you don’t have to work so hard for things that you won’t use and don’t really want.
“Most of what we say and do is not essential,” Marcus Aurelius reminds us. “If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” This, Marcus said, was the simple recipe for personal improvement and for happiness. It is also the recipe for changing the world!