Freedom from Stuff

About the MA Program


After 25 miles of grinding my way through the Black Hills region, I stopped off at 120-year old store in Aladdin, Wyoming (Pop. 15). I wandered around the jam-packed mercantile that felt more like an attic than a store where everything from snacks, to antique milk glass dinnerware and, as a hand-written sign boasted, a mixed beverage for sale to enjoy on the front porch. Seeing that I was limited to what I could carry with me I tore myself away from an antique crockery bowl and headed for the refrigerated drinks section.

As I enjoyed my icy-cold soda on the porch I reflected on my decision to buy it. I certainly didn’t need it (my bike, in fact, was weighed down by water); I simply wanted it. I know I was probably one of billions of people consuming a can of pop that day so it was not a criminal or abnormal act, but I was struck by how easily I could attain 140 calories packaged in an aluminum container. The can itself embodied an incredible amount of energy from mine to processing plants, not to mention the energy that went into creating the drink, bottling, distribution, and refrigeration. It is mind-boggling how the soda could be so cheap and readily available, even in the middle of nowhere. I drank my mostly-water soda in a few minutes and took about a second to discard it. I was briefly relieved of my guilt when I reassured myself that, if it is able to escape the landfill, about 95% of the embodied energy can be captured when recycled and, amazingly, that aluminum can be recycled indefinitely.

[I learned when I cycled through Broadus, Montana (“wavingest town of the West”), that the folks there take aluminum can recycling seriously as the use all funds from selling cans to support their “Cans for Kids” program which helps them purchase sporting equipment and team jerseys for their local elementary and high school.]

Well, perhaps one soft drink isn’t going to hurt much but what about when every one of us makes the same seemingly insignificant want-driven purchases of stuff? It feels pretty substantial once it’s magnified by the nearly 7 Billion people on the planet. And what about everything else we buy, consume, and discard, based on immediate desires rather than long-term needs?

Before leaving my home about a week ago to begin my sustainability road trip, I agonized over what to bring with me, knowing full well that I would have to physically move each and every item up, over and down every mountain pass and across every open landscape in the hot sun, pouring rain, and through headwinds. Despite this fact by the time I left Miles City I was carrying a whopping 45 pounds dispersed across 4 saddlebags.

Combined with my bicycle weight, I had been schlepping over half of my body weight across two states. Time to reassess!

What did I really need versus want to have with me? Did I really need three pairs of socks? Turns out that actually I don’t. After two trips to the post office to send things home, as well as dropping the weight of an extra gallon of water now that I no longer have 80-mile stretches between watering holes, I have pared down to 20 pounds of gear. Getting rid of this excess stuff is an obvious physical relief but I have been surprised to learn that it is also an emotional relief, a feeling of freedom from stuff. I no longer have to keep track of, protect, wash, dry, pack and repack these things.

As I sat drinking my single-serve soda, I thought about how much stuff I have waiting for me at home. How much energy and resources did my stuff embody? Where would it all end up? What of it did I really need versus simply want? I thought about the potential freedom I would feel to not have, want, buy, care for, protect, and use as many things. I think I am starting to understand why the retired folks in my life are offloading their stuff on me. Physical and emotional freedom from stuff costs nothing and it weighs nothing. Now that’s something I am prepared to carry with me.

Cindy Gilbert

Cindy Gilbert is the founding director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program which is home to the fully online, multidisciplinary MA in Sustainable Design (MASD) that is the first of its kind in the world. In this role, she fosters a culture of awareness and creativity through sustainable, innovative and collaborative design. The MASD program blends theory, practice and leadership into a holistic, hands-on learning experience that culminates in student-driven thesis work that brings novel, sustainability-focused products and services to fruition.

Cindy has taught numerous courses and workshops, around the world and online, in the fields of biology, sustainability and biomimicry. She is founder of a consultancy that specializes in innovative online and sustainability education projects with recent clients that include VentureWell, the Biomimicry Institute, the University of Montana,, GeekPuff, and the Green Building Research Institute. Most recently, she served for nearly four years as the founding director of university education at the Biomimicry Institute where she developed and managed all higher education programs, including the biomimicry professional certification program, annual biomimicry education summits, biomimicry affiliate and fellows programs, and biomimicry design challenges. Cindy is based in Montana.