Needs vs. Comfort vs. Luxury

If we are serious about living in harmony with nature, and seeing real improvement to the environment, we must all reduce our expectations regarding personal comfort. We must learn to be content with our basic needs met, and some comfort, but our current life of luxury must come to an end.  Peace Pilgrim

February, 2011

Mankind’s concept of comfort has changed drastically over the eons. At the dawn of humans, nature generally met all our needs, but life was hard, and we had very little comfort. When we discovered fire, our comfort level greatly increased, we could stay warm, cook food, see in the dark, and keep predators away at night. We must have thought we were in heaven! Later we developed tools, pottery, and metal work, each of which made our lives easier. Nature met all our needs and each new discovery made us safer and more comfortable. Again, each improvement must have made them think they reached the pinnacle of human life. It couldn’t get any better than this! Anthropologists tell us that hunter-gatherers led reasonably comfortable, good lives for the last 40,000 years, right up until modern times. For example, when Europeans first encountered Native Americans, they found that the lives of the indigenous peoples were so good and happy that they rejected “modern civilization” as a giant step backward from the marvelous lives they were already living. We had to slaughter and enslave them to get them to take any part in our “better way of life.”

Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. – Henry David Thoreau

Then, about 4,000 years ago in some parts of the world, humans abandoned that idyllic existence and began domesticating animals and plants. From that came farms, cities, and civilizations. For the first time, something that made us more comfortable also took us away from our connection with nature. Strangely, for the majority of people, their lives didn’t get easier, it actually got harder. Farming was a much harder life than being a hunter-gatherer. Civilization brought class struggles and while a very small minority of people lived in comfort and luxury, the great majority remained stable at a low comfort level for a long time. Not until the industrial revolution did we make the next leap forward. With the advent of mass-produced machinery, our comfort level took a gigantic leap forward. We could buy machines that did much of the tedious work of life for us, giving us more time and a physically easier life. The 1900s saw one amazing invention after the other that made our lives continually more comfortable and a large middle-class who could afford to buy it. Somewhere in the last century, the Western world reached the point where the majority of us were extremely comfortable but that was no longer good enough. We started to demand luxuries, whatever it took to get them. The more luxuries we had, the less we tolerated any discomfort in our lives. We wanted what we wanted, and we wanted it right now! Today, many undeveloped countries (especially China and India with their huge populations) see the opulent lives of Westerners, and demand a piece of the pie for themselves.

The problem is, all these modern comforts and luxuries put a huge and unbearable demand on the earth’s resources. If six billion people are going to live in total luxury, the earth’s resources will all be consumed and its biosphere destroyed with toxic pollution. Quite simply, the human race will be wiped out. That isn’t hyperbole, it is simple common sense. If the small population of the developed West has done the huge amount of damage to the earth we see in 2011, how much worse will it be if we extend that damage to all the peoples of the world? So what are we going to do, tell the developing world that we have ours and we won’t reduce our demand for luxuries, but they can’t get theirs and must do without? They must remain in the stone-age so we can live in luxury! Of course that isn’t acceptable to anybody.

 What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on? – Henry David Thoreau

Your first reaction may be, “Wait a minute, you said living green will make my life better and I would be happier. How can giving up comfort possibly make my life better!?” Granted, it is counter-intuitive, but it is true; in the process of giving up some comforts and most luxuries, your life will be vastly improved. Here’s the key to making sense out of the paradox: the comforts you will give up are very surface level, in fact most of them pertain to your body’s comfort. What you will gain in their place are deeply felt inner pleasures like joy, peace, and contentment. For example, Native Americans saw that what the Europeans offered were surface-level-only comforts, but at a deeper level, they had nothing that appealed to any indigenous person.

Unfortunately, everything in our modern consumer society conspires to shout the need for comfort above everything else, and it’s packaged in such an appealing way, it becomes almost irresistible. So much so, that the possibility of having a sense of deep joy and peace simply gets drowned out, to our great detriment. This entire website is dedicated to developing a deeper inner life through breaking out of the surface-only, consumer rat race by living in a vehicle, and it is going to involve giving up some comfort. When we give up those comforts, one result will be that the damage we do individually to the earth will be greatly reduced.

Civilization is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities. Mark Twain

 Comfort and Mobile Living
Just how much comfort you will give up depends on what vehicle you choose to live in. If you live in a car or van, you won’t have running water so you can’t take a shower. The space is so tiny you can own very little stuff. Your entertainment options will be greatly reduced. On the other hand, if you live in an RV, even a small one, you can have many more comforts including a shower, air conditioning, microwave, and more space and things. However, I firmly believe that the smaller the vehicle you choose the happier you will be, even with less comforts. The advantages of a small vehicle like a car, van, or pickup are numerous:

  • Your fuel economy may drastically improve, so you can travel more and enjoy more beautiful scenery in various places. The total lower costs may allow you to work less giving you much more free time.
  • Or, instead of driving more, a smaller vehicle will let you get further back into the back-country where you can sit in seclusion in a beautiful place, which will greatly reduce your need for money.
  • Repairs will be cheaper. There are so many vans and pickups that the cost of repair is held to a reasonable price. But RVs are heavy equipment and there aren’t many of them, so their cost of parts and service is much higher.
  • Smaller vehicles will let you stealth-park in cities. By that we mean overnighting in cities without drawing attention to yourself. I try to avoid cities, but there are times I simply have to be in one. Some people have no choice but stay and work in cities so stealth is critical to them.
  • Smaller vehicles are much easier to drive. For example, I went to tour Washington, DC with my pickup and camper. Washington is justly famous for its terrible traffic, and while it wasn’t fun, I was able to get around with no problem in the pickup. Had I been in a large RV, it would have been very difficult, or impossible. (By the way, Washington, DC is a fabulous trip! I highly recommend it, especially in April during the Cherry Blossom Festival.)
  • By virtue of their limited space, you can’t have as much stuff. You will be better off mentally, emotionally, and spiritually with less stuff, and the earth will rejoice!
  • There is a “peace” in a tiny, primitive space that I can’t describe or explain. It just feels so “right.” My last two vehicle-homes have been very small. I lived in a 6 foot by 7 foot camper on a 4×4 pickup for 3 years. It was crude and the absolute minimum of space, but I loved it! It was the best home I have ever lived in. Currently I live in a 6 foot by 10 foot converted cargo trailer and it is much larger and nicer and that is a good thing, but I must admit sometimes I miss the old home. Occasionally I will visit friends in very small RVs, and they have so many more comforts than I do, but it just doesn’t feel right. It feels sterile, too much like a house. I can’t imagine living in one. But that is strictly a personal prejudice of my own.

A large RV can be quite comfortable, but there will still be sacrifices. It will have what you need but not much more. Unless you get into the very most expensive RVs, it won’t have many luxuries.

  • Even the largest RV is quite a bit smaller than most homes and apartments so there will still be a paring down of stuff process.
  • They will generally have all the normal comfort items we expect in a home, but they will be smaller and more crowded. For example, the bathroom in particular is almost always much smaller than what you had at home. It will be adequate, but no more. In the same way, the kitchen will be adequate, but no more.
  • Unless you are willing to boondock, you will have to stay in RV parks. In nearly all RV parks, the spaces assigned to each RV are very small. You will be very close to your neighbors and their vehicles coming and going. The walls on RVs are fairly thin, so you will hear most of your neighbors’ activities and they will hear yours. There isn’t much privacy in an RV park.
  • If you don’t want to be in an RV park, you will have to boondock. By that we mean camp overnight without hook-ups. So you won’t have electricity, sewer, or water. That creates some discomfort. You must be very careful in your use of each, or be willing to get into town fairly often to dump your tanks and fill up on fresh water.

There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed. –  Mohandas K. Gandhi

When I first moved into a box van in Anchorage, Alaska I knew immediately that my life was going to be less comfortable. Even though it was summer, the evenings were cool and I could feel the cold creeping in through the thin metal walls. The next day when the sun was up, the sun beating on the metal shell made the van quite hot. There was no bed, what would I sleep on? When the wind blew, the van shook, when it rained, the roof screamed. For some reason the ravens loved my van, on a weekly basis one would land on the roof of the van and walk around with his claws clacking on the roof. There was no toilet, how was I going to urinate or defecate? There was no shower, how was I going to stay clean? There was no kitchen, how would I cook or wash dishes? How would I get rid of my garbage? Then October came. Unfortunately, it was an unusually cold winter. In October it fell below zero Fahrenheit and stayed there. Later there were weeks of -30 F. temperatures. Dealing with that kind of cold was a real learning experience.

Initially, my life was very uncomfortable, but over a period of time I found solutions to all these problems (we look at the solutions in other parts of this website). As I found solutions, my life became more comfortable, although it was never as comfortable as my life living in a house. I even had a few luxuries. I bought a deep cycle battery and a generator so I had electricity. That let me buy a TV and an antenna so I could watch it. My young sons visited a lot, so I bought them a VCR to watch movies, and a Nintendo so they could play games. Eventually I even had a microwave, the ultimate luxury! So I had enough comfort, but my negative impact on the planet was drastically reduced.

I discovered that houses literally insulate us from nature. They separate us from it and create a false environment where we can’t be touched by the discomfort it inevitably brings. Let’s face it, nature is generally not very comfortable. For a few hours a day, for a few months a year it is wonderful beyond words, but the rest of the time we have to work at being comfortable. Unfortunately, humans can’t be happy if they are separated from nature, so being happy means giving up some comfort. Our increasingly huge homes steal our motivation to get outside into nature. On the other hand, living in a car, van, or RV greatly encourages you to get out of the house! Today, I walk in the desert or forest at least two hours a day, but it all started years ago when my sons visited me in by box van. We found that we needed to get out of the tiny space of the van, so we started spending a lot of time in city parks. I could park the van in shade under the trees where it stayed cool, and the boys and I could run and play in the park.

As an Alaskan, I had spent a lot of time hiking, backpacking, rafting, flying, and hunting all over my marvelous state. But when I moved into my van, it felt like I was much more connected to nature than I ever had been before. All of those experiences were for a brief period of time and then I was right back to the isolation of a house. But living in the van, nature became an intimate part of my daily, even hourly existence. I am sure that is a big part of why I love living in a small vehicle so much. We all need much more of nature in our lives. My mental and emotional states drastically improved the more time I spent in it. Many years later, after I had retired and left the city far behind, I found a way to live year-round in nature by becoming a campground host in the National Forests in the summer, and living on BLM desert land in the winter. On the surface, I live without many comforts that the typical American takes for granted. But like the Native Americans of the 1800s, the only way you could get me to give up my mobile life for the “American Dream,” is to enslave me or kill me. Words fail me to tell you how much my life has improved at a deep emotional and spiritual level. The best I can do is say that at the cellular level, in my deepest being, I am at peace. No amount of comfort or luxury is worth giving that up for.

 Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens. If you have them, you have to take care of them! There is great freedom in simplicity of living. It is those who have enough but not too much who are the happiest. – Peace Pilgrim