Thoreau’s anti-consumer lifestyle

Over Christmas break, I had a chance to read some of Thoreau’s writings. Specifically his book Walden. The Walden Ebook is available as a free download thanks to Project Gutenburg. After reading this book I am absolutely amazed at how the story applies to the consumerist lifestyle today.

Walden Synopsis

The summary of the book describes Thoreau’s minimalist lifestyle in nature. He decides to forgo the city life and live in a small cabin at Walden Pond in Connecticut. He builds a cabin, spends two and a half years there, and details what he has learned. One thing to note is that he has not completely isolated himself from everyday society. He still walks into the city of Concord and even eats at restaurants occasionally.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was looking for a minimalists lifestyle. By reducing life as simple as possible, he felt that he could live a better life than others spending all their time chasing material goods.

Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.

Henry David Thoreau

The book describes how he managed to build his cabin for a mere $28. As a comparison, it describes the typical “middle class” house that costs around $800. He even mentions that it takes a person around 15 years of their life to be able to afford a house of this nature.

Thoreau would probably be disgusted by the excess of modern society. The 3,500 square foot McMansions that litter our cities today create more stress than happiness.

The individuals living in large houses spend a significant amount of their time paying the principal, interest, taxes, and insurance for these houses. Then they spend a significant amount of their time maintaining the houses and yards. The house requires constant upkeep.

Thoreau was very familiar with the concept that today we call “Keeping up with the Joneses”. As the house ages, the house must be “renovated” in order to have a house “such a one as their neighbors have “. If your neighbors have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, well then you need them as well. This necessitates a $40,000 kitchen rehab that will take years to pay for.

For a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau saw strength in being able to not buy stuff. Materialism in his mind created the obligation. An obligation to work and an obligation to manage those material items. The things you own begin to own you as they say.

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

Henry David Thoreau

This is quite good advice. I would add that the cost of a thing is the amount of life required to exchange for it after taxes. If I have to work and pay taxes, then it takes even more of my time to obtain it.

Thoreau was also focused on the long-run implications of owning something. How much upkeep will it take? If I buy a vacation home, how much time and money will I be spending trying to maintain and clean it? If I buy a motorcycle, how much time and money will I spend maintaining it? If I buy a larger house, how much additional work will it be to keep clean?

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.

This is probably the best quote in the book. Many people have effectively enslaved themselves. They have loaded themselves up with debt. That debt was spent buying things based on what other people are doing.

Everyday people buy houses to compete with their neighbors. They buy new cars to try to portray an image of success. They have far more clothes than would ever be needed to impress others.

All this debt means their lives are spending in quiet desperation. People toil away in cubicles for 10 hours a day. They have effectively traded their freedom for material belongings that will not increase their happiness. This process repeats until the grave as Thoreau put it.

Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather the new wearer of clothes.

Thoreau believes that you should dress how you want to dress. If a job requires an individual to dress a certain way, then they are forcing him to portray themselves in a way that is unnatural to their life. Having to buy certain types of clothing is a way to discriminate against those living in poverty. This also goes against his minimalist sense of having as little as necessary. Thoreau would clearly be sickened by the fashion industry that constantly tries to make clothes appear to be “out of style”.

Conclusion

Overall, Thoreau was ahead of his time. He understood the value of living in nature and the phony consumerist culture that surrounds us. By reading his stories there are great lessons to be learned.

We over-estimate the happiness that materialism creates for us. We underestimate the value of living a simple life. People toil away leading lives of “quiet desperation” every day. If you look around you, then you can spot these individuals.

The takeaway from this book is that we should all spend more time enjoying nature, less time working, and not focus on materialism.

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