“Whenever we try to change how things are to how we want them to be, we often overlook subtraction. And until we do something about it, we’re missing ways to make our lives more fulfilling, our institutions more effective, and our planet more livable.” — Leidy Klotz, Why Getting to Less Can Mean Thinking More
The shorthand in our house for when you’ve botched something and should move on (sunk cost alert!) but instead keep trying to salvage it is stuffing soup. So named because I once made a terrible soup and proceeded to empty the contents of our pantry (including stuffing mix! why?) into it, in the hopes of saving it. An atrocious artwork that you work, in vain, to salvage? Stuffing soup. A weak newsletter that you gild with superfluous supporting links? Stuffing soup.
Happily, most things in life aren’t soup. No, you can’t remove that overzealous tablespoonful of pepper from your bisque. But you can delete lots of discrete things from daily life. As humans, we’re additive by nature. But what if we could see the beauty and benefit of subtraction? That’s the premise of one of my favourite academic’s new book Subtract, in which he posits that we overwhelmingly focus on adding things when it’s taking them away that often provides the solutions we’re after.
This resonates. I’m an adder ad extremis. New goals, new projects, new challenges ALL THE LIVELONG DAY. It’s very chickenheadcutoffy and stress inducing. Yes, I want to solve the climate crisis, but maybe the way to do that isn’t by starting a new project but rather by nurturing what I’ve already got going on.
It gels with the lowest layer of my Buyerarchy of Needs, too. Use What You Have. Work with what you’ve got:
To be clear, though the idea of subtraction is about getting to less, this doesn’t necessarily mean doing less so much as it means being smarter about how to economize your actions. Taking a bit longer to think about the simplest, most efficient action. And making the “how little can I use to get the job done” perspective your default one.
“The breakthrough came when I figured out what I am interested in is not simplicity, or elegance, or any other form of “less is more.” Subtraction is an action. Less is an end state. Sometimes, less results from subtraction; other times, less results from not doing anything. There is a world of difference from the two types of less, and it is only by subtraction that we can get to the much rare and rewarding type.”
I agree with the rewarding nature of subtraction, but I’m also a fan of not doing anything. Often, not doing anything solves the problem. I wrote a whole book about not buying stuff and living with less, and I really believe that if you do nothing, the problem often resolves itself, or you get over your consumeristic desires, or realize your elaborate, energy-depleting, or carbon-intensive plans just don’t need to happen at all.
In climate, the subtractive answers are obvious. We need to subtract carbon from the atmosphere. We need to expel less, or none, of it in the first place. While additive, new-fangled CCUS solutions will be necessary to mitigate our overshoots, focusing on the simple, essential subtractions we can do right now is just an absolute duh! (And explains why many consider any solution that does not involve immediate cessation or subtraction nothing more than a delaying tactic).
In the spirit of subtraction, I’ll keep this week short.
What’s your takeaway on subtraction? How can you do less to realize more? Tell me, please!
On the Venn overlap of running and enviro action from the lovely U:
I'm an elderly broken down marathon runner and a long time Environmental Queen! I got involved in the environmental movement in the 70s and have been @ it ever since. Lots of people say how much they admire what I do (still), but not too many follow suit. Right now I have 3 neighbors using my compost pile though.
My friend Jen is launching an amazing new sustainability program at Humber College here in Toronto. Know a high school student who might want to apply?
I tend not to go deep on eco-anxiety anymore because there are so many others writing so thoughtfully about this, like Eric Holthaus.
Best Maclean’s headline in a while: Climate action is going to create too many jobs.
Have a lovely weekend!
Thanks much for reading. If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating the importance of good climate policy and carbon pricing by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night.
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