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Can minimalism minimise ecological distress? 

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Monday, 20 June 2022 | Neeraj Kumar Pande

Neeraj Kumar Pande Neeraj Kumar Pande

The old adage ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ is somehow germane to the fitful Covid-19 pandemic as well. Notwithstanding the immense harm it has been unleashing it has undeniably triggered a global consensus on an issue which is extremely critical for human kind in contemporary times. This pivotal issue obviously refers to global climate change and its silhouette, ecological degradation. Murmurs regarding combating global warming and checking emissions have been around since the beginning of 21st century itself.  However, these attempts were rather exclusionist given that only few nation heads or international organisations were leading this pro ecology marathon. Now due to the manner in which the pandemic has influenced the lives of ordinary people, this fight against global climate change has become genuinely democratised. A vivid testimony to this is the vehemence being created around the phenomenon of ‘carbon footprint’. A concept invented back in 1990s, it is finally grabbing more eyeballs today than ever before in the history of environmental crusade. The reason is something to cheer over- climate action has become inclusivist now. 

To better understand the dynamics of human- ecological friction, it is essential to comprehend how the phenomenon of carbon footprint provides cues to combat environmental crisis. Here specifically in one fundamental way – the ideology of minimalism. 

Who would have imagined a handful of decades ago that an ideology which primarily characterises art expressions and music would subsume the way of life for people across the globe some day? It is today that we realise that a reductionist perspective is far more beneficial in understanding social and environmental problems. Even global ecological crisis can be understood better if we analyse it in terms of the contribution each individual or community has been making in exacerbating it. The logic of carbon footprint sinks with this perfectly. After all it refers to the total greenhouse emission generated by an individual. It could be high or relatively low depending upon an individual’s life choices in terms of food, clothing and other lifestyle practices. However it is axiomatic that today an average individual, more specifically in the developed nations, spews nearly 10 or more tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. This is large enough to cause massive ecological toxicity given that people in a defined social group or community generally follow similar lifestyles. When several communities or human settlements end up causing gigantic proportions of environmental degradation the result becomes evident in the form of global warming, plastic pollution, marine pollution, recurrent epidemics and other related complexities. It is here that individual action has far more potential than community action. In the end it is micro interventions that can truly unleash concrete and sustainable macro level interventions. Then how does minimalism help? Or does it? 

Most people believe that minimalism stands for living a restricted life, that it envisages less of everything- less buying, less food and fewer possessions. This is an inverted vision of the concept when in reality minimalism means more of the most important things in life. More of freedom, more of simplicity, more of space and more of physical plus emotional wellbeing. It is a mechanism of attaining freedom from the clutches of the chimera of materialism. The best thing is that it helps in building lifestyles which invariably lead to a reduction in carbon footprint at an individual level. 

Minimalistic attitude includes purchasing only as many commodities as are strictly necessary for life, avoiding unnecessary decor and fancy technological trumpery. This automatically creates much less waste than a conventional lifestyle would do. Besides in the long run this also makes an eco friendly and sustainable existence possible. 

Gone are the days when minimalism corresponded to just the three R’s of reduce, reuse and recycle. Now it is an umbrella term encompassing two additional dimensions namely, refuse and repurpose. Evidently all the R’s come with the notion of cutting back anthropogenic damage being inflicted on the planet. Refuse here connotes a denial to polythene and plastic products completely. However metaphorically it can also be interpreted as managing one’s refuse or waste mindfully. Repurpose means using items that were initially meant for one purpose for other purposes as well. It ensures optimal utilisation of resources before they must necessarily be discarded. Indian homes sometimes depict a beautiful picture of repurposing, by using glass and wooden containers for storing edibles over long periods of time. Such frugal habits which seem to be practised purely for economic reasons also have some extremely beneficial ecological impacts. Hence at its core minimalism can be called a two-way process of ecological preservation. On the one hand it’s about taking from our planet as little as possible and on the other hand it’s about giving back to the planet as less waste as is humanly possible. No wonder then that even the much touted mitigation solutions like carbon offsetting are being called farcical. No one can assume the responsibility of someone else’s reckless consumerism. In other words a holistic mitigation of environmental problems is impossible unless constraint is exercised at individual level. Some researchers have gone to the extent of saying that replacing plastics or fossil fuels in industries is not enough. A real reduction in industrial carbon footprint can be made possible only when voracious demand from the consumer’s side is curtailed. Lesser demand would naturally translate into tamed production as well as transportation and packaging. All these activities are notorious pollution emitters. 

So what does an immediate and short term solution look like? It is manifested in how a small farmer nourishes his/ her field with home made manure of vegetable waste. It’s evident in how urban dwellers use bicycles to work rather than ritzy cars. It’s seen whenever someone chooses to declutter work or home space and each time anyone refuses to use paper, polythene and plastic commodities. One extra mile of walking, one day of low electricity usage and one vegan meal. Who says minimal steps cannot lead to a full blown minimalism? Love for the environment does not mandate taking massive initiatives in life, it just requires taking small conscious steps albeit persistently.

(The writer is a retired civil servant. Views expressed are personal)

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