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The Simple Life

Bea Johnson ditched the SUV, sold her stuff and famously lives with almost zero waste. So why do critics try to rip her efforts apart?



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"I really do work professionally full time," she says. "I would have thought the same thing seven years ago—these people are crazy, forget about it. But how come you don't have time to live the simple life, but you have time to live the complicated one? Living simply, by definition, saves a lot of time."

There was a point when she did go overboard, Johnson admits. "I had foraged moss to use in lieu of toilet paper, for God's sake!" she writes in the book's introduction. She stopped making butter, cheese and kefir after seeing that these practices had become "socially restrictive and time-consuming, and thus unsustainable." Now, she's got her shopping routine down to a science, shopping strictly secondhand for clothes twice a year, in October and April, events that she anticipates with joy, and for groceries on Fridays, all according to an organizational system rivaling the Library of Congress. Yet the way she tells it, the whole endeavor is manageable once the systems are in place. When you own so little, there's not much left to maintain, clean up or repair.

One thing is certain, and that's the Johnsons' chosen lifestyle opens up all sorts of political and philosophical questions. They've been called obsessive in their lack of material belongings, but perhaps it's crazier that the average American uses only about 20 percent of their belongings on a regular basis.

MAKE IT WORK Johnson's entire wardrobe fits into a small suitcase. - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • MAKE IT WORK Johnson's entire wardrobe fits into a small suitcase.

Should we all follow the Johnsons' lead? Or are their actions so extreme that normal people could never accomplish the same? Or, is it possible that we live in an upside-down world that has normalized a blasé attitude towards the disposal of incredible amounts of packaging and the easy replacement of the broken with the new. It's convenient to assume that once a plastic container is thrown into the recycling bin, it'll be turned into something equally useful. It's even more convenient not to think about it at all.

What's more difficult is facing the thought of the vast floating plastic debris comprising the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—twice the size of Texas, at last count. It's even harder to think of how American consumption habits connect to climate change, droughts, food shortages and severe weather events befalling humans the world over, and mainly the poor, sick and young in poverty-stricken developing countries.

But Johnson does think about these things. Hand her a pen—one of those plastic ballpoints that banks hand out on customer appreciation days—and she doesn't see a harmless writing instrument; she sees the global repercussions brought on by a slavish worship of objects. She sees rising oil prices and the catastrophic results of the thirst for fossil fuel. Hand Johnson a pen, or a business card, a pizza box, or just about anything made from plastic, and she'll hand it right back to you with a firm "No thanks."

It's an aesthetic concern too. Johnson hopes to live by example, proving that being green isn't just for hippies or bohemians. On her blog, she employs high-fashion poses for photos of stylized thrifted outfits, details how to throw a zero-waste dinner party and explains how to inject chic modernism into waste-conscious living.

"I find zero waste beautiful," she says, standing in the well-stocked pantry filled with jar upon jar of canned tomatoes, jam and bottles of wine. "I find that using my cocoa powder instead of blush pulled out of a plastic tube is beautiful. I find it beautiful to get my homemade lip balm out of a little tin container. The pantry to me, it's relaxing. It's not some big company's choice about what your pantry should look like. It's only the food that's shining itself."

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