As a child I was very fond of the refrain, “Mommy will buy more!” If someone broke a plate, no worry, Mommy will buy more. When we ran out of cookies, not a problem, Mommy will buy more. Though during my youngest years our family had relatively modest income, I was quite an overachiever in my quest to join the ranks of our consumption oriented society. My parents did value frugality, though as their incomes increased it became easier for them to obtain more things for all of us. As I grew up our comparative abundance continued to grow, and looking back I sometimes think I had way too much. With millions around the world having not enough resources even for survival, I doubt my sad tale will garner much sympathy. However, the consequences of developing one’s life habits with little to no constraint on available resources are more than just a problem of not having enough space for cool toys.
Angus MacGyver, “Mac”, was the fictional protagonist of an action-adventure television show bearing the character’s last name, which ran from 1985-1992. The central plot device was Mac’s ability to use duct tape, a Swiss Army knife (the Victornox Huntsman, to be precise, of which I have been a proud owner since I was a Cub Scout), and a few ordinary household items to save himself and others from imminent doom. The clever solutions portrayed in the show, while not always completely realistic, are credited with increasing interest in engineering and applied sciences. This contrasted starkly with archetype spy characters like James Bond, who had limitless resources, especially high-tech gadgets, to aid him at every turn. I have been thinking about MacGyver for the recent few days, after coming across an interesting reference in Adam Werbach’s Strategy for Sustainability. The book mentions that detergent manufacturer method has incorporated the idea of “What would MacGyver do?” into its core values. The intent was to stress the idea of finding creative solutions (like non-toxic ways to clean things) and the concept of lean (using as few inputs as possible and minimizing all sources of waste). I started to wonder what it would mean for me to adopt a similar approach in my own life.
As I hinted earlier, I have a few bad habits when it comes to my approach to choosing, buying and using things. I could probably write a book, possibly an encyclopedia about all of them, but for our purposes I will focus on my weakness for any and every type of kitchen equipment and gadgetry. I always enjoyed cooking as a child, a direct consequence of my parents actively including me in the procurement and preparation of our food. I used to freak out other shoppers in the grocery store when I identified by name all of the items going into our cart (I was 3). I was Chief Cornhusker of the house. It took me an hour, but I got it done. When I moved into my first apartment, before I had even thought about furniture I was busy preparing my list of kitchen implements to purchase, or ask Santa Claus to deliver. The zenith, or nadir depending on how you look at it, was when I worked down the street from the Williams Sonoma store in Center City Philadelphia, where I would go on my lunch break at least twice a week to scour the clearance table for armaments. If it was on discount and I could vaguely imagine a potential use, it went home with me. The trouble was, I was paying no heed to whether I really needed any of these things, and certainly not the lifecycle impacts (resources used to produce, transport, use and eventually dispose of the item).
After getting married, moving all of my worldly possessions together with my wife’s was something of a wake-up call for me. When we moved my things from Maryland to New Jersey, Min’s parents were visiting from China and helped us get everything packed and loaded for transport. My Mandarin comprehension was still very rudimentary, but I understood tai duo le (it’s too much). The head shaking and clicking sound her mother makes with her tongue provided added emphasis. When we combined all of our things, the sheer volume of stuff and the number of unneeded duplicates was alarming. The other day I did a volume measurement tool audit. I found no less than 15 things that could measure liquid or dry ingredients, and at least half that we would never miss. This is part of our ongoing efforts to reduce the number of things we have. Since most of these are perfectly usable, we are fortunate that we can donate them to Goodwill, which will allow them to find good homes where others can reuse them. Reuse is always preferable to recycling, even if an item is recyclable, as the environmental impact of recycling (while better than landfill) is not negligible.
How far can we take this? During my MBA I attended an exchange program at Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy, in the center of Tokyo, Japan. I brought only my laptop, camera and about a week’s worth of clothing. For several months I lived in a room just large enough for my bed, a workspace and small closet. As a testament to the wonderful friends I met, engaging professors and the equal parts of confusion and delight that is the experience of being a foreigner in Japan, I had such a good time I never once thought about all of the things I had left in the US. At the end of my time there, I took a brief trip around the western part of Honshu (the big island), culminating at a Buddhist temple on top of a mountain in the town of Koya-san. As the world headquarters of the Shingon Sect of Japanese Buddhism, Koya-san is a popular destination for religious pilgrims and tourists, though since it was February and unbelievably cold I more or less had the mountain to myself. For company I had Master Daigen, his students, the lady who operated the tea house in town and her cat. During a private lesson in Zen meditation with one of the monks at the temple where I stayed, I was told that the ultimate goal of their devotion was to observe the universe. Everything at once. He understood that this might be a little daunting for someone of the worldly persuasion, and suggested that I consider the letter ‘a’ as the universe, and just try to contemplate that. My feet started to fall asleep after about 30 minutes, and after an hour I am not sure I was much closer to enlightenment than when I started, but I definitely felt calmer. Something to shoot for, anyway.
Zen Buddhism might be a little extreme, particularly the part about not being permitted to marry. But I can draw from these experiences the acknowledgment that after meeting a few basic needs like food, shelter and companions, there really is not much else required to achieve fulfillment. For guidance of the kitchen kind, I look to no nonsense chef Alton Brown, who advocates avoidance of unitaskers (tools that can only be used for one very specific purpose). Min and I will continue to separate the wheat from the chaff among our possessions. Hopefully, by the time we end up moving back to China, we will not have that much left to take with us. Now, if you will please excuse me, I have to go pull a MacGyver. There is a near disaster about to occur on my stove.