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From Vol. 1, Issue 9, September 2019

Beyond consumption: Becoming sustainable

Feature || KAI WHITING

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The Virtue of Becoming a Sustainable Stoic

Almost a year has gone by since I connected sustainability to the Stoic virtues of courage, justice, self-control and wisdom in my plenary talk at Stoicon8 2018. Since then, many of you have asked me for practical examples regarding the most effective ways to be a sustainable Stoic. Here are a few tips:

Be mindful of what you buy 

People often think they have to do something to change the world, but the easiest way to save the world is to stop buying junk. Ask yourself, how does buying this item contribute to my wellbeing or someone else’s? We already know that pleasure is not the ultimate good from a Stoic perspective, but an indifferent. We also know that acting with self-control is way more valuable because it leads to the “good life.” 

Ask yourself: Do I really need this? Why do I think I need this? Would I buy this for a close friend if they said they really needed it? 

The answer to the last question is really revealing because I imagine that none of us would refuse to buy a friend a few groceries or a warm winter coat if they fell into difficulties. We would probably not be so willing to buy them a Michelin star meal or the latest designer coat. So, if we answer “no” to the last question, we need to be honest with ourselves about why we “want” or think we “deserve” something. 

Ask yourself: Do I know how this item is made? Do I know about the conditions in which it was made? Were these conditions just? 

These are hard questions for many of us because it tells us how far we are willing to go in our Stoic principles. Paying a little bit extra through the “Fair Trade” label makes the difference between farmers sending their daughters to school or not. It might be pennies to us, but it is a lifeline to them. Fairness is justice. Justice is virtue. We might need to do a bit of research or ask someone we know and trust about clothes manufacture or food production and that’s great because it is the first step towards wisdom. 

Look for opportunities to make a difference 

The Stoics recognised the value and importance of significant relationships. Virtue is made manifest in our thoughts and actions towards others and the environment. It does not exist in a vacuum. Furthermore, whilst there are some instances where we can act justly, courageously, or with temperance towards ourselves, on most occasions we show courage and act justly when we support others. 

Ask yourself: What specific skills, know-how and social connections do I have? How can I use this unique combination to advance matters of justice and/or wisdom? 

Whilst it is true that the Stoic dichotomy of control emphasises that we cannot control the thoughts and actions of others it is not an excuse for inaction. When we play sports, the result is beyond our control. Our teammates and how they play are outside of our control. And, of course, so are the actions of the opposing team. Does that mean we should never play sports? Does that mean that the quarterback refuses to turn up because his wide receiver might not catch the ball? Of course not. 

Ask yourself: Who needs my help? In what way I am uniquely qualified to help them? 

Stoics work together in a group in the knowledge that we might be the difference between our team winning and losing. It takes courage to take a stand when we see people in power and corporations break communities or destroy our local environment. Stoicism is not the tranquil Epicurean garden … it is political. It’s just not left or right leaning but centred on virtue. 

Kai Whiting is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs over at