Natural Principles in Minimalism: From Stacking Functions To Zero Waste

admin // November 22 // 0 Comments

“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.”Leo Tolstoy

Holistic minimalism mimics many principles we can find in the greater natural world. When you look at the way natural ecosystems organize themselves you can easily see how minimalism is in line with what evolution has found to be the most “naturally efficient” way of life. In other words, minimalism “just makes sense” both rationally and intuitively, when designing a globally healthy lifestyle for yourself. If you’ve ever delved into the world of Permaculture, or any similar design systems, you’ll be familiar with a lot of the concepts we’re going to look at. If not, a lot of this may be new to you, but it’s pretty simple once you learn how to connect the dots!

35.1 Modelling Minimalism on Natural Principles

“Nature doesn’t acknowledge frontiers. Neither can ecology… Where to begin to understand what we’ve only got a computerspeak label for, ecosystem? Where to decide it begins.” Nadine Gordimer

In case you’re wondering what the point is of looking at the connection between minimalism and the way natural ecosystems function, here’s are some thoughts on the matter. First off, it’s always useful to have somewhere to look when you need inspiration and motivation for the ongoing project of living a minimalist lifestyle. Having something stable and omnipresent, like natural ecosystems, to model your lifestyle is a huge bonus! Seriously. Once you’ve understood the natural principles that carry over to minimalism all you have to do is get good at observing nature and you have answers to (most of) your questions! So much easier than relying on another person who may or may not have time to spend guiding your through things.

Secondly, connecting with nature is one of the best ways to get in the groove of a holistic minimalist lifestyle. Learning to see your life as an ecosystem, an intimately interconnected web of elements, is one of the most helpful shifts in perception you can make if you want your lifestyle to be sustainable. Practicing the art of observation is a guaranteed way to make you slow down and relearn how to truly appreciate the moment (which is absolutely key to valuing experiences over objects, one of the main pillars of this whole minimalist lifestyle thing…). So without further ado, here are some of the natural principles you can look to for inspiration in designing, and more importantly really living, your life day by day.

32.2 Start With the Basics: Observe and Interact

“Learn to see what you are looking at.” Christopher Paolini

In the natural world things aren’t categorized as “good” and “bad”. There is no frame of reference for what’s considered “smart” or “stupid.” Those types of value judgements develop over time in specific cultural contexts. Learning to observe and interact with your life in a non-judgemental way is a key piece to making healthy choices. If you watch animals you’ll notice that they are in constant observation of their environments and that their actions are based upon these observations. In other words, they learn from what they see and adapt accordingly.

The same principle can be applied to your own life – be it in your personal development, financial, educational, work or home life. When you’re able to separate yourself from learned value judgements it’s much easier to make clear-headed decisions. It also allows you to stop taking things that other people do personally! When we learn to take a step back from all the hubbub in our heads, simply observing and interacting with life, we no longer get caught up in assumptions and projections. You learn to simply “see what you are looking at,” nothing more, nothing less!

35.3 Stacking Functions: The Natural Way to Declutter!

“There is a deep interconnectedness of all life on earth, from the tiniest organisms, to the largest ecosystems, and absolutely between each person.” Bryant McGill

The idea of stacking functions is a key principle in permaculture design and can be seen in any living system. It’s one THE most important things to put into practice is you want to downsize and cut the clutter! And the idea is pretty simple. As you might have guessed, it just means using things for more than one purpose or “a single input or element that serves multiple functions”[1] The goal is to have as many elements as possible in your system (in this case, your living or work environment…whatever space you’re trying to downsize!) “stack functions.”

The most commonly used example of stacking functions in the natural world and in permaculture studies is that of the tree. If you’re not used to thinking in these terms you might just see a tree and recognize it for being beautiful, providing shade and leave it at that. But a tree is part of an incredibly complex network of relationships and serves many, many purposes. In addition to the above purposes, it prevents soil erosion, provides habitat for various wildlife, helps with the circulation of different minerals etc. in the soil (which in turn can assist other plants growth), filters the air, and the list goes on!

Think about this example when you’re looking at how to design your space or what objects to keep versus which to get rid of. What items serve multiple purposes? What items to only use once in a blue moon because they’re only good for one thing (that you could probably use something else you own to get done!)? Are there ways you could use your space more efficiently by having certain things serve multiple purposes? This criteria should already help you prioritize a few very specific things over others. If you get creative enough there could be a tonne of interesting design ideas hiding right in front of your face!

For example you can literally get rid of all, or at least most, of your household cleaning products (dish soap, all-purpose cleaners, etc…) by simply having vinegar and baking soda in your cupboard (and some essential oils if you like!). You’ll save yourself space ,produce less waste and expose your body to way less toxicity (lots of the ingredients in mainstream hygiene and household cleaning products are toxic for both you and the environment! Among other research, studies show that household cleaning products are responsible for significant percentage of annual toxic exposure cases in the U.S.[2] ).

35.4 Self-regulation and Responding to Feedback

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex,

the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” Bill Mollison

Another great example of an easily observable natural principle is that of self-regulation and responding to feedback, which essentially means knowing how to adapt to changing conditions and the impact of our actions and choices in the world around us, and using only what you truly “need.” These are both totally essential to successful minimalism! Plus, any living system that has survived on earth this long has learned how to self-regulate and respond to environmental feedback.

Without self-regulation different species simply couldn’t co-exist…predators would kill all their prey instead of only what they need to survive; a tree would absorb all the water from the soil instead of only what it needed,killing smaller more vulnerable plants around. You get the gist. Self-regulation is natural in all living things, including healthy, balanced human beings! Tapping into your self-regulation instinct is totally essential to becoming a committed minimalist, for obvious reasons. If you don’t then you get sucked into the culture of overconsumption, where nothing is ever “enough” and “needs” get confused with “wants.”

As for the second piece, the most obvious example of “responding to feedback” in nature is migration of plant and animal species. Different species change geographic location both annually and over time as a response to climatic feedback. In other words, when conditions are no longer favorable for their survival where they are, they move!

Irish Permaculturist Hannah Mole explains the idea of self-regulation and responding to feedback using the metaphor of a bicycle. “When cycling a bicycle we constantly adjust ourselves to keep our balance. We swerve to avoid potholes, move into the side to get away from passing traffic, and shift our own weight with each push of the pedal. We are responding to observations of ourselves & our surroundings in relation to our aim of staying upright & moving towards our destination!…we manage to to maintain a dynamic stability”[3] Two words that sum up all of life: dynamic stability!

35.5 Zero Waste: This is How You Take Minimalism to The Next Level!

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.”Jane Goodall

Quite simply, natural ecosystems don’t produce waste. To truly model your minimalist lifestyle on natural principles this should be one of your ultimate goals. When you put all the elements of a holistic minimalist lifestyle in place you should basically be zero waste without much extra effort anyways! Getting to the zero waste zone could in fact be one of the measurements of a truly successful minimalist lifestyle because it means you’re really not consuming anything unnecessary, that you’re effectively prioritizing experiences over objects and “stacking functions” (and therefore using things for multiple purposes to the absolute end of their lifecycle, which should technically mean once they end up as compost or are recycled to make something else!) with everything you bring into your “system” (i.e. your life!).

The group Zero Waste Europe summarizes well on the landing page of their website, “In nature nothing and nobody goes to waste because the definition of an ecosystem is a system of cooperative and symbiotic relationships; the discards of a process are the input for another one. Everything is upcycled into the system so that the system is sustainable and resilient. In an ecosystem all energy used is renewable and non-polluting and all resources are obtained in the vicinity using non-extractive, low-energy-intensive techniques.”[4] Says it all, doesn’t it?

Working towards a zero waste lifestyle is really taking minimalism to “the next level” because it means you’ve gotten to a place where you can think beyond the bubble of your personal life and consider the full impact of your choices and actions on the rest of the world. It means you’ve attained a level of freedom – from socialized overconsumption and the complications of stress and/or inability to get your basic needs met – that allows you to apply your minimalist lifestyle goals in a truly holistic sense. You’re ready to be part of the solution, not only to your individual challenges, but to something bigger than yourself.

35.6 Action Point Summary – Here’s What You Need to Do Now!

“You have succeeded in life when all you really want is only what you really need.”Vernon Howard

Now that the connection between natural ecosystems and minimalist lifestyle design is more obvious, let loose the design geek within! You can apply any principles you observe in nature (or check out the 12 principles of permaculture for more insight!), but these ones are real building blocks for a sustainably minimalist path.

  1. Observe and interact. Practice taking a step back and making life choices from a place of non judgement. When you’re having a hard time with decisions or interpersonal situations, write out the reasoning behind each possible path of action and see which one comes from a place of non-judgement.
  2. Stack functions! Only keep things in your space and life that serve multiple purposes. See how many uses you can get out of any given thing you own and how you can transform those uses over time!
  3. Reconnect with your natural self-regulate and feedback systems! Relearn how to “stop” when you have “enough.” Accept feedback and adjust to maintain the dynamic stability or your life!
  4. Aim for zero waste. Take your lifestyle to the net level!
  1. Stacking Functions, The Happy Philosopher,
  2. How Toxic Are Your Household Cleaning Supplies?, The Green Guide, Organic Consumers Association,
  3. Permaculture Tips – Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback, Hannah Mole,
  4. Zero Waste – one of the solutions to Ecocide,

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