by Chris Holcomb –
This past semester at Purdue, I took a class called “Global Green Politics.” It was a general overview of environmental politics at the global scale, focusing on a wide variety of issues and viewpoints. The professor did a great job of teaching it from a neutral perspective with the goal of presenting to us the facts, and then letting us make decisions from there. More than that, she wanted us to develop well-reasoned opinions that we could stand behind and act upon. The culminating assignment of the course was to do a “Creative Project,” to use our unique skills and abilities to create something – art, music, a product, a food, anything – to cast a new light on an issue relating to the themes of the course.
The rules were simple: if I used something in any way – sat on a couch, set something down on a table, turned on a light – it counted as a possession.
This wasn’t good for me. I don’t necessarily consider myself the most creative or artistic person; I can’t write music, draw a picture, or write poetry. And I enjoyed the course and respected the professor, I really did, so I wanted to put forth effort in my project and create something meaningful. So what did I do? Well, of course, I procrastinated! I kept hoping for a moment of awesome inspiration. Finally, on the Saturday before it was due, I headed to Greyhouse and picked up an Ale-8, knowing that Ale-8 always solves my problems. Convicted by my professor’s urge to act upon our beliefs, I got to thinking: maybe I shouldn’t be making something for this project; maybe I should be doing something.
Jumping off of my curiosity to learn more about human needs, I started making a list of every single possession I had used that day. Remember, this was a Saturday. I hadn’t gone to classes, I hadn’t done anything major. All I had really done was play frisbee, eat 3 meals, and hang out with some friends in my apartment. That’s it. Long story short, my list ended up totaling to 108 items, not including the food I ate. I used 108 possessions to run for two hours and lounge around the rest of the day! Suddenly, I knew I had my project: to determine how many possessions I really needed to survive for one day.
The rules were simple: if I used something in any way – sat on a couch, set something down on a table, turned on a light – it counted as a possession. Anything else in my house, it was as if I didn’t own it. So, I made some adjustments from the day before. I slept on my couch, used the sweatshirt I wore Sunday as a pillow, and used one bowl and spoon for all of my meals. I even ended up handwriting the paper I had to write for my project. At the end of the day, my total ran to 28 items, 74% less than the previous day.
I didn’t do everything right. My experiment wasn’t sustainable, as I changed clothes the night before and didn’t shower. I also took full advantage of my church’s free bagels and post-service brunch, not counting items that weren’t mine and used out of community with others. Then again, maybe it was a good thing I treated it the way I did. It gave me at least a small taste of what it’s like to live in poverty, to see people using nice things all around you but not be able to use them. And in the end, I can’t really say that my day would have been that much better with 80 more possessions. I got a little break from the hectic land of the internet and got a chance to catch up on some much needed reading.
For me, this experiment and the one I’ll talk about next are just a start in my journey to determine what people need. They’re very basic experiments, maybe more adventurous than educational, but a good chance to get my feet wet.
Chris Holcomb is an intern this summer with Mustard Seed Associates. Hailing from from Elkhart, IN, Chris will be a senior this year at Purdue University majoring in Economics with a concentration in Statistics and minors in Sociology and Environmental Politics and Policy. This post is the second in a series he’s been doing on his experiments with simplicity and human needs. You can also follow along at his blog, The Llama and the Cow.