No, I am not against Marie Kondo’s minimalist philosophy of tidying one’s home, letting go of stuff, clearing the clutter. (I just couldn’t resist the rhyming of the first syllables.) I seriously believe in the wisdom she imparts. There is truth in “putting one’s house in order” before anything productive can commence, although this is truer psychologically for me, than physically. I am not very tidy in my own space, but I also cannot deal with too much clutter. Or more specifically, I cannot bear with disorganized clutter, unless I am in the frenzy of creating something. “Disorganized clutter” is an oxymoron, I admit. But it is my way of walking the middle path between obsessive orderliness and absolute mess.
I think Marie Kondo’s phrase, “spark joy” is beautiful, and it is a good rule of thumb in deciding which object one should keep and which one to let go of. The problem in my case is that everything I have either sparks joy in me or is a necessity. Otherwise, I would not have them. I have tons of art and craft materials, for instance, that I will probably not be able to use up even if I lived three lifetimes. But each and every one of them make me feel very happy when I see them around me, when I touch them, and most especially when I create with them. So we see here where that rule fails in my case. If I were to do a decluttering based on what sparks joy, I would be left with exactly the same things I have now.
This is not a defense of hoarding, although I often joke about this. I don’t really hoard, if by “hoarding” we mean storing valuable things and keeping it secret or well-guarded. What I store, most people would not put any premium on. I just have a lot of things that I find useful and enjoyable in my life. Moreover, I rarely throw things away, no matter how old and shabby they have become or when I stop using them for their intended purpose, especially when I know nobody would benefit from them or want them. Think 4- or 5-inch stiletto shoes, for instance. Instead, I strip the leather—faux or real—and make jewelry, cord ties, and other ornaments out of them. I love repairing things and that is why I have so many of them to reuse or give as presents to those in whom they can spark joy.
One might think that I have a problem letting go. Yes, I do. But perhaps not because of the usual reasons. Although this might sound far-fetched, it is the truth: my hoarding tendencies are rooted in an environmental ethic. I have a lot of things, because apart from all the things that immediately spark joy in me, I also keep a lot of things that, I would like to believe, will prevent or delay further destruction of the environment. So I keep them until they are needed and can be reused, or until someone who will certainly recycle or benefit from them comes to pick up my pile. I buy big containers of things we need so that I have less packaging to get rid of. When I foresee needing something over and over, I buy in bulk to save gasoline and time, which I would spend if I have to go back to the store for more of the same thing. I prefer things that are refillable so there is less trash for the landfill. My daughter once joked (I hope it was a joke!) that my penchant for saving things that can be reused, saving them from the landfill, has turned our home into a landfill. It physically hurts me to throw away things—mere trash to other people—when I know that they can very easily be recycled. And, gratefully, I, and others in my life, have been saved from anxiety and stress so many times because I kept things, and they were available when they were most needed.
I therefore prided myself with being eco-friendly, for walking the talk, so to speak, for being frugal with resources and being an avid recyclist. But our current battle with COVID-19 belied this. Unable to go out and replenish our groceries on a regular basis, I scoured the cupboards for things that could help stretch our food supplies. I found leftover snacks that were still good, but normally would have just been tossed to the garbage bin. I researched on the safety of canned goods that were a couple of weeks beyond their “best by” dates, and used them in my cooking. In ordinary circumstances, these would have been thrown away as well. I finally got to use condiments that were just standing in the pantry, which would have found their way out of the house unused. Little sugar and cream sachets from take outs would have remained unused and eventually grown old and unusable, if it weren’t for our dwindling supplies. I learned to make bread and tried making butter and yogurt from leftover ingredients that usually would have stayed in the cupboard until they were inedible, and then thrown away. I realized that the convenience of eating out and take out food in normal times made us so wasteful of items in our own cupboard.
In a way, it was comical for us to scrounge around the kitchen for these leftovers. But this is when I realized how wasteful we were still, in spite of the conscious effort to save and recycle resources. In times of scarcity, the littlest things could become lifesavers.
Environmentalists were quick to notice, and happily, too, that the community quarantine imposed in different parts of the world have made a positive impact on the environment. With significantly less cars on the road, closing down of factories, and people required to stay indoors, the skies are suddenly bluer with the absence of smog, and water bodies around cities have lost their mucky color. Streets—well, some streets—are quiet and clean, for once, a double win against noise and solid waste pollution.
It is often suggested that this is a way of romanticizing the virus, showing that the virus has brought good things, ignoring the suffering of many and the loss of lives. I believe, however, that romanticizing it is not the point. I don’t think anybody would rather have the virus. But what we often do not see is that environmental destruction and the resulting Climate Change has been killing us all this time. Air pollution, for instance, has been known to decrease our life expectancy by an average of three years, and many do die of respiratory ailments caused by inhaling polluted air. We are not aware of it because we do not see any sudden change. Unlike the COVID-19 situation where blame could be attributed to something or to people, Climate Change is so amorphous. There is no one person or one object to blame. We are all to blame. Human interference has been killing the environment. But we do not see it.
In an interview with United Nations Environment Programme, Chief Environmental Economist, Pushpam Kumar (March 31, 2020), he says,
Regardless of its cause or origin, the emergence of COVID-19 has underscored the mutually-affective relationship between people and nature. Now, we must try to understand and appreciate the limits to which humans can push nature, before the impact is negative. Those limits must be embraced by our consumption and production aspiration.
Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh has a word for this “mutually-affective relationship between people and nature.” He calls it interbeing, and derives the insight from the Diamond Sutra. In a discussion with the Buddha, the venerable Subhuti asks how one should conduct herself or control her thoughts if she were to follow the Bodhisattva path. The Buddha responded:
…Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought: ‘However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, whether they have form or no form, whether they have perception or no perception or neither perception nor no perception, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.’
The Buddha advises that the path to enlightenment does not discriminate against any being. Everything is equal. Everything will have to be liberated. To one who understands this, no division exists. All is one. The idea of a singular entity, existing all on its own, is an illusion. And this is the reason that although all is saved, no single being is saved. As Thich Nhat Hanh himself says, “Life is one. We do not need to slice it into pieces and call this or that piece a self. What we call a self is actually made only of non-self elements”. As he would also say, we all inter-are. We are connected to everything in the world. We don’t have to go to the beach or climb mountains or hug trees to know how we interconnect with everything. Everything we have in our immediate surroundings—the paper we hold in our hand, the food that we prepare for our meals, have one way or another been sourced from nature, whether by way of cutting down trees or by having another person create it. We are all part of this world, and part of one another. When we do realize this, we understand why we have to care for everything that we have. And that means not throwing things away unnecessarily.
Marie Kondo herself advises that before giving away our things, it would be good to hug them, thank them and say goodbye. This is not a mere anthropomorphic bias. It is a recognition that everything is valuable because everything has all the elements in the world, both animate and inanimate. Everything has been nourished by the natural elements and by many individuals who have worked on their production before they found their way to our homes. It is a way of honoring all who are involved in the production of things.
So, Con Konmari (with Konmari), maybe “hoarding” is not so bad as long as it is not borne out of attachment. Perhaps, minimalism can take different forms. It does not always have to mean a bare room, but whether things in the room, cluttered or organized, are cared for or not. Could we call this a minimalism done the roundabout way? A Konmari method done sideways, perhaps? Maybe keeping things for as long as they are useful in any way can also save time for other productive activities, and save resources. Care for things so that they last us a long, long time, is also aligned to the bodhisattva path. Everything is always valuable because of all the people and materials that come together in the process of their production. They don’t suddenly become valuable because of some temporary shortage, only to be taken for granted once more in times of abundance. It is a way of making sure that all that we have taken from the environment has been put to good use, and that nothing—no sacrifice—is wasted. If we develop a lifestyle of using things down to their “last drop,” of reusing those that can be reused, then we consume less and we take less from nature. In turn, nature is given a chance to take a breather without causing any harm to us.
Bowler, Jacinta, “New Evidence Shows How COVID-19 Has Affected Global Air Pollution, ” https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-covid-19-is-doing-to-our-pollution-levels
 We will recall that evolutionary psychology tells us that we cannot deal with any threat unless it has a face, it has moral implications, it happens within a given short period of time, and it happens very suddenly. Climate change has not of these. See George Marhall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore Climate Change (Bloomsbury, 2014)
 Chapter three inThe Diamond Sutra, translated by Red Pine (Counterpoint, 2001)
Thich Nhat Hanh, “Dharma Talk: Protecting the environment,” https://www.mindfulnessbell.org/archive/2016/03/dharma-talk-protecting-the-environment-3
Leni Garcia, MA, PhD works as a professor of Philosophy but lives as an artist-advocate for creativity, gender- and religious-inclusivity, pluralism, and environment care. When not trying to form deep connections with gentle, sentient beings, she pushes paint on paper, dances, and recycles odds and ends that can be recycled. Her favorite term-break activity is marathon-watching movie- and cartoon-series with her daughter.