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Taina Uitto decided to live without plastic in 2010. Her experiment began as a year-long challenge but quickly morphed into what she hopes will become a permanent lifestyle.

Often, the impulse goes like this: I'm feeling unfulfilled. I'll buy new clothes, the new iPhone 59Q. Eat more food. See more of the world.

The notion of unfulfilment – even the word that describes the feeling – suggests a remedy: Fill higher, fill up. And that's easy to do in a world that encourages free refills and that disregards landfills.

But is there greater fulfilment in less? What if, instead of filling up, you give something up?

These days, stories abound of people renouncing the luxuries most take for granted: the German woman who gave up money; the tech blogger who embarked on a year-long Internet fast; the Los Angeles woman who, for a year, refused to look in a mirror. In recent times, voluntary deprivation has courted the zeitgeist in such documentaries as No Impact Man (2009) and books like The 100-Mile Diet (2007).

To be sure, those who voluntarily abstain from creature comforts are perched on the fringe. But why do they do it? In an age of unlimited bandwidth, television on demand, all-you-can-eat buffets, Black Friday, and 25-pound turkey dinners, what fuels the yearning for restriction and self-denial?

Typically, it springs from dissatisfaction with the way things are, a rejection of what society defines as the good life. It's a hunch that one's identity can be better nurtured elsewhere.

"Renunciation is the only way you can clear a space for a new identity to emerge," says Richard Valantasis, author of The Making of the Self: Ancient and Modern Asceticism. "It's a way of beginning to articulate a different kind of identity from what the dominant culture provides you. Renunciation isn't a negative thing – it's pursuing a positive goal."

Environmental awareness commonly fuels the movement toward decluttered living. But so does the challenge of living in an unexpected way. That's what prompted Collin Gibson and his wife, who are in their 20s, to move into a 130-square-foot "tiny house" near Stratford, Ont.

The tiny-house movement, credited to architect Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big House series of books, is a small but ardent community. Its premise: Drastically downsized living space provides escape from the oppressive materialism and debt of conventional home ownership.

"Being in a tiny house emphasizes good use of space," says Mr. Gibson. "It forces you to go through your stuff and ask: What do you actually want? As opposed to 'I have 55 shirts,' but most you haven't worn for five years."

Yet when someone opts to live without something, we usually focus on what's lost instead of gained.

At 21, Liz Huntly of Toronto gave up flying for three years, looking to minimize her environmental impact. At one point she travelled from Toronto to Germany by freighter boat – a journey of nearly two weeks.

"When I gave something up and forced myself to take another route, there was more depth to travel," she explains. "You notice more. You see more. All these things happened that would've never happened in an airport. The journey itself becomes part of the adventure – it's not that the holiday starts once you get there."

Many renunciants contend with eye-rolling from exasperated friends, family and strangers. Opting out of the status quo forces others to justify why they still accept it, and people grow defensive when faced with this uncomfortable exercise. Renunciants can resist evangelizing, but they still serve as curators of society's garage sale, holding up our stuff and asking, "Do we still need this?"

To Mr. Valantasis, it's the sound of a crucial voice in the crowd. "Renunication is an implicit cultural critique. It should make people defensive. That's the only way the question will be raised," he says. "The first person to recycle on a block forces everyone to think about their own garbage consumption."

Taina Uitto, 33, desperate to wake from her "consumer coma," has lived without plastic since 2010. Not everyone in her social circle was supportive.

"The reaction I found most peculiar was anger, as if I'm trying to take something away from you," says Ms. Uitto, who lives on Denman Island, B.C. "Some people immediately started making excuses for why they still use plastic."

Her renunciation also crystallized what she wanted in a partner. The absence of plastic allowed her fierce environmental values and creative problem-solving to flourish. As her values solidified, she discovered her boyfriend didn't share them. They parted ways.

Broadly speaking, renunciation today seems driven by the fear that current levels of consumption are unsustainable. Faced with an uncertain future, some see renunciation as an act of regaining control. B.C. musician Mae Moore, 56, gave up flying for five years of her touring career. "In the not-too-distant future, people will have to give things up involuntarily," she says. "So either you give it up voluntarily and feel good, or give it up involuntarily and feel resentful."

But living in a socially conscious way requires time, money, and resources that many can't afford; requesting additional vacation days to travel by ship isn't usually an option. Paradoxically, renunciation becomes accessible only to people wealthy enough to go without. But having the luxury of choosing how you live presents a precious opportunity – if not a responsibility – to make that choice count. Perhaps aspiring to less is the new aspiring to more.