5 Things We Can Learn from People Who Turned Their Backs on Capitalism and Opted for Self-Sufficiency

Questioning a life of constant work, consumerism, inequality, and environmental destruction may be more common these days. But, you may ask: how do I resist these forces, especially when it seems they have colonized my psyche?

Besides the activism many of us feel called to do, the issue of our complicity in the system stings our conscience every time we make a purchase or fill up the gas tank. Sure, there are tricks and tips and hacks, but has anyone, anywhere, figured out how to step off the hamster wheel? 

More than 25 years ago in rural Japan, I came upon some remarkable women and men who have pretty much managed to do it. They use cash, but very little, and they have crafted lives largely outside of the market economy. They have boatloads of time for what they really care about—their communities, their kids, contemplation, activism, their art, music, and deep connection with nature. In a world plagued by time-poverty (even among the very rich), these people do not have crazy to-do lists.

How did they pull it off, especially in one of the most hyper-capitalist economies in the world?

It took a whole book and many long discussions over two decades to fully understand their journeys. But one thing I can say is that it’s an internal approach. Here are a few frames of mind to get you started.  

1. Cut the convenience addiction.

On the southern island of Shikoku, I was talking one day with Asha Amemiya, a farmer, batik artist and mother. She told me she’s not a fan of much modern machinery. “It’s too convenient,” she said. “Convenience just speeds you up.”

Hearing that, I was startled into realizing how much I had been colonized by industrialized thinking. How did I get conned into thinking that all the nifty (pricey) gadgets would free up my time, and I could use that time to slow down? Or something.

When I visited her again last year, after Fukushima, she said about the nuclear disaster: “I knew it would happen. It is in the nature of machines to break.”   

Labor-saving devices will not deliver the richness we seek. And sometimes, they melt down.

2. Slow. The. Hell. Down. 

Imagine a clumsy Westerner asked to help with planting rice high in the mountains of Japan.

I wanted be a useful helper to my friend, the rice farmer and bamboo flute player, Kogan Murata. I wanted to do it right, and get as much done as quickly as possible. So I was utterly surprised when he shouted across the paddy, “Be more lazy! Don’t hurry!” and then, “Rest some more! Take a break!”  

Somehow, without knowing it, I had internalized a maximize-the-productivity mindset.

“If you have time, a lot of things are enjoyable,” woodblock carver Osamu Nakamura said to me once, over tea. “Even collecting wood or cleaning things—it’s all a pleasure and satisfying if you give yourself time.” Even though he provides for most of his needs without using money, Nakamura set up his life intentionally so that he never had to rush.

In a world where even nonprofit organizations seem to be run like sweatshops, I admire these people’s resistance to the mainstream capitalist value of constantly speeding up the conveyer belts.

3. Don't be greedy with the earth.

In an article by Koichi Yamashita, an ex-professor of Hindu philosophy (who switched to doing manual labor on a organic tea plantation), I came upon the following startling sentences: “Don’t be greedy with the soil. Determine its actual fertility and don’t try to get a bigger harvest than you ought to by using too much fertilizer. If you understand what your soil can really produce, you have a stable harvest from year to year.”  

I laughed out loud.

Whether we are farmers or not, this principle can apply. How often have I tried to be greedy with the “soil” of my self, my own body? I try to achieve too much, and squeeze one more thing into my day. I end up exhausted and depleted. And what do I do then? Too often I buy some product, or use money to entertain myself. I am perpetuating the problem.

Then I remember Yamashita and I try, once again, to scale it back.

4. Break the 'busy' habit (and buy less stuff).

I was visiting Nakamura, the woodblock carver, on a day when the rain was pouring down in sheets. I asked him what he usually does on days like this. “Sometimes I carve, or read, but mostly I just stare into the fire.”

When I expressed my surprise, he smiled, and said, “Doing nothing all day is difficult at first. Being busy is a hard habit to break.” 

Then I got it! Perhaps a life of very little production and very little consumption could be an important part of the solution to the world ecological crisis. Nakamura is a prolific artist and craftsman, who collects all the firewood he needs and cooks every one of his own meals. Yet he’s not a consumer in the capitalist sense, hardly at all. And he produces almost zero waste.

I’m not like him, but every step I take in the direction of using fewer manufactured products brings me closer to satisfaction. As my partner Cynthia puts it, “Keep all your old sh*t ‘til it breaks. We have to assume that almost every newly manufactured object is a minus for the planet.”

5. Make the time to stop and think.

How to change your internal setpoint so all of this is actually doable? We need to take a significant time-out to create a strategy and plan for the change to a slower, richer life. When we are maxed out, we slide into the way the system is already structured, the easiest way to do things.

I remember the anti-nuclear activist Atsuko Watanabe telling me, “Traveling in India on those long train rides, I started to give a lot of thought to purpose of being alive. Many Japanese people don’t make the opportunity to think deeply about things for an extended period of time. Maybe that’s why many of them aren’t satisfied with their lives.”

I encourage you to set aside that time. Living “outside of capitalism” may not, technically speaking, be possible. But each act we take either feeds the beast or it doesn’t. Nobody knows all the shifts we will have to make to change the system. But one thing is for certain: we all have to radically reduce our levels of consumption and rushing around and busyness. That kind of life is the very definition of unsustainable.

The good news is that it’s easier than you think—and it feels good.

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