Take Only What You Need and Give Away: Fundamental Principles of Sustainability Ethics

carol mitzi sarahWhy is it so important to take only what we really need? Because everything we take harms another life. I included this Native American teaching as one of the Nine Touchstones I offered as a counterpoint to the Ten Commandments in Rebirth of the Goddess.

Recently, I have begun to realize that the concept of taking only what you need is the heart* of sustainability ethics, an ethical system that can orient us to living in harmony with others and the natural world. The practice of great generosity is its counterpoint. When you have worked for, received, or accumulated more than you need, you should give it away.

The reason these principles are important is because “taking what you need” is “taking” from the web of life. We “take” other lives (whether plants or animals) in order to eat, to clothe ourselves, to build houses, and in agricultural societies to clear land to plant, to remove unwanted plants (weeds) from cultivated land. In our industrial age, we “take” so much more to fuel our cars and to provide electricity. To take more than we need is to do unnecessary violence to the web of life. When we give away what we don’t need we help others to survive, and we also help to ensure that no more lives than necessary are taken.

On the first Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, we decided to incorporate the give-away as part of our closing ritual. It is nice to give and receive a gift at the end of an intense two weeks spent with other pilgrims. However, I am coming to realize that in comparison with the deeper meaning and intention of the ritual, our give-away, like the practice of giving presents in our wider culture, is superficial. When we give gifts to friends we try not to give too much or too little. When we give to children we often do so without regard to what they really need. When we receive gifts, we may feel burdened with one more thing we don’t want or need.

Being raised in acquisitive and throw-away cultures, it is not surprising that few of us have any real idea what the principles of taking only what you need and giving away mean. In traditional cultures, there are constraints on accumulation. If women in your family had to weave and sew and embroider all of your clothing, and if this process was time-consuming and involved time taken from other tasks, you would not be likely to have been given or to have learned to demand more clothes than you really need. Similarly, if all of the food for a clan is produced by its own labor, people would be unlikely to grow more than they needed to eat and store for the winter.

I suspect that all of this changed when wars of conquest became integrated into social structures. When other groups were conquered, their precious goods, including ritual items and ritual clothing and jewelry, were appropriated by the victors as “the spoils of war.” Land and people too were “the spoils of war,” and with the introduction of slave labor and the acquisition of lands that belonged to others, an excess of everything could be produced for the benefit of the ruling class, or to be more accurate, the war lords. This is another story, and I have discussed it elsewhere.

To return to the question at hand, I am suggesting that if we wish to live sustainably on planet earth, we must return to the values of our ancestors, distant and not so distant, who practiced taking what you need and sharing what you don’t need. These values are not the exclusive property of Native Americans, but are the values of the ancestors of all of us, if we go back far enough. As I have discussed, these values are still practiced in rural Crete. And they are the foundation of living matriarchal cultures. Many of us who have traveled have met people in rural cultures who have little, yet seem happier than anyone we know at home.

At some level we know that accumulating things does not make us happy. At the same time, prodded by advertising, we continue to shop compulsively and to buy things we don’t need. It will not be an easy task to change our patterns of consumption. If we could do so, our economic system would collapse, because it is based on creating needs for more and more things. This is why chosen or forced “austerity” threatens the capitalist system. You and I may not need all of the things we are used to buying, but if large numbers of us stop spending, the makers and sellers of goods suffer. On the other hand, the world will not survive if we carry on as we are, because we are depleting the world’s resources.

walk in closet

Dream Closet

What would happen if each of us, like the subjects on the popular reality programs on hoarding, went through each of the rooms of our homes and designated the things we really need and gave the rest away? What if we then took a good look at our homes and asked if we really need the space we have. I presume this would be a long term process in which we would continually discover that we don’t need things we have always thought we could not live without.


Hoarder’s Home

What if we stopped buying what we do not need and gave a large portion of our income and savings to others? Would we discover what it means to live in harmony with others and the whole web of life? Could we learn how to flourish with others, not at the expense of others?

*I am not saying these are the only ethical touchstones we need to build an ethics of sustainability, but I do believe they are at its center.

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter).  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Explore Carol’s writing.

Categories: Activism, Earth-based spirituality, Ethics, General, Matriarchy, sustainability

Tags: , , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. I love this post, Carol. Read it after returning from dinner at a very nice restaurant—redeeming a gift given to us at Christmas by our son and daughter-in-law. As we parked, we noticed a man, obviously homeless, sitting on the floor, back against the wall, outside a store a few doors away from the restaurant where we were dining. That image stayed with us as we entered the restaurant, a little cocoon of privilege in which we participated with other diners in ordering over-priced dishes and eating more than we would otherwise. We are not so pious as to be incapable of enjoying a nice dinner out–but that man–and your post–were reminders of how much we wallow in excess and how a little “redistribution”–a word so steeped in justice but brandished like a weapon in the politics of our time–would make life so much easier for so many with so little pain to those whose wealth is being redistributed. I often think we will know we have become a little more civilized when CEOs start feeling embarrassed about their obscene pay packages even while workers struggle to win small hikes in the minimum wage and women still do not enjoy pay parity.


  2. This is such an important post – thank you. In my human services work we frequently are called on to help people whose attachment to owning things is so compulsive that they become hoarders, as you illustrate. It is almost impossible to stop someone who has this compulsion from hoarding because their feeling is that their possessions are a part of who they are. Over the years I’ve come to see that this is true to some degree of most people in our culture – we no longer know how much we really need because we see our possessions as integral to who we are. Thanks so much for this insightful and clarifying post!


    • Hi Carolyn,
      Thank you for sharing about the work you do. I had a question about hoarding in particular– having done only a tiny bit of looking into this, knowing some people who hoard, I have found that for some hoarders an inability to meet another need is the problem behind the hoarding. For example: someone loses someone, or has some other great loss, they don’t know how to grieve for this person, or move on, so they start hoarding. Someone is troubled by some other emotional distress, and hoarding, like other addictions, becomes a (destructive) way to temporarily meet a need– a need that the buying/ hoarding of more possessions can not really meet.
      Did you find this to be true in your work?

      I agree with you and Carol that we don’t really know what or how much we really need. I also wonder, though, if we have also lost touch with how to really meet the needs we do have, which is part of the problem.


      • I agree with you Sara that we buy and take and hoard in part (let’s not forget advertising etc) because we have emotional or trauma needs that are not filled or healed. So we might say we could learn that we “really need” to be understood or loved, but we don’t “really need” 25 or 250 pairs of shoes.

        Another thing I have thought about in this regard is that because we do not live in a gift-giving culture, we save for a rainy day, because unlike (some of) our ancestors we cannot rely on others in our communities to take care of us if the “rainy day” comes.


      • Hi Sara, I think you are absolutely right that the compulsion to hoard comes from an unmet emotional need. I do tend to find that it is most often a profound need that is longstanding. The people I’ve worked with have tended to be hoarders for years and years, though it may become more pronounced in times of emotional need. I do think that it is pretty common to do “retail therapy” in times of stress or grief for many people and hopefully this doesn’t progress to hoarding. It’s a very complex issue that I think people are really just beginning to understand.


  3. You write so clearly about an issue very much in my thoughts, Carol. And non-violent non-cooperation is the only solution I can find – to just not participate. People can’t be forced to change – it needs to come from within. So I hope it’s ok to share this article.

    And…I like this picture of you! Lovely dogs!


  4. Brava! Excellent post and good points about taking too much and giving too little. I’ve known hoarders and been inside their homes. Your photo doesn’t come close to the pile of clothing I once saw that reached the ceiling fan.

    Your questions about living sustainably and giving to others what they need are questions we all need to ask ourselves.


  5. I tend to agree with Carolyn that to some degree we are all hoarders. I certainly have a lot of things I don’t need, and I maintain a large house to keep them all in. It is a difficult question and not any easy one to begin asking ourselves.


  6. “The blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the lame will leap for joy” if only we would adopt your view for world peace. It seems Greed is the cornerstone of our world with all the heinous crimes that it creates not only in our own nation but nation against one another. When will it stop?


  7. Great post, Carol. I think we can begin in small ways to counteract the acculturated compulsion to buy, own, and stockpile (a good word for that “rainy day” fear) more and more stuff. For me this began when my spouse was unemployed in the early 1990s, and the whole family needed to make some changes in order to get through those lean years. Until then I “treated myself” to earrings more than I needed to (and in fact, my husband and daughter called my collection the Imelda Marcos Memorial Earring Collection), so I stopped buying earrings. Another step came in the early 2000s when I started giving things from my closets and shelves to my family for Christmas or birthdays or whatever. Nowadays if someone compliments a pair of earrings I’m wearing, I think about whether or not I wear them often. If not, I take them out of my ears and offer them to the friend or acquaintance. I’m VERY SURE I could do much more. But I think it’s important to start, and what that does is alert us to where more change can take place.


  8. The “giving away” piece probably has been easier for most of us here on FAR. In my case, I’ve tried to redistribute my wealth from the time that I had any. I’m sure I can do more here as well.


  9. A very thoughtful article, Carol, thank you. Since I moved into a small apartment from a larger one, and before that sharing a house, I have been finding what I can let go of (it’s been a lot!). And it goes in stages, things I thought I couldn’t let go of one year are given away the next. I also buy much less since declaring bankruptcy and now only using debit cards. I didn’t know how much I didn’t need!

    I do spend time thinking about the excess in our culture and what to do about it, and what my part is.

    I’m glad you made the point about saving for a rainy day, money or possessions, since we don’t know if anyone will step up when we’re in need. That helps explain why I hang onto things. It also is a sad commentary on how little we take care of each other in general in our society.


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