Frugality, Simplicity, and Sustainability

By Philip Brewer on 13 January 2010 (Updated 19 January 2011) 21 comments

The frugality blogosphere was buzzing last week with an article by Katherine Hibbert about how she was getting by in London spending just about nothing. People were arguing about whether her lifestyle was really frugal, simple, or sustainable.

You ought to read her article My free and easy life, which is excellent, but, very briefly, she gets by through a combination of living in vacant buildings (squatting) and dumpster diving (called "skipping" in the UK). The questions in the blogosphere, though, had to do with the extent to which her example can serve as a model for the rest of us.

(I should mention that the laws on squatting are different in the UK. The article goes into some detail on that topic.)

In all three spheres, the disconnect had to do with where you drew the line around the activity before deciding whether it was frugal, simple, or sustainable.

If you drew the line just around Katherine Hibbert, her lifestyle was obviously very frugal — she got by on less than £1 a day! It was simple, too — once she got past being stressed over knowing that she might be evicted at any time, her biggest problem was boredom, and she solved that by studying and doing volunteer work.

But if you drew the line a bit wider, the frugality and simplicity became a lot fuzzier. All over London people are maintaining vacant buildings; that's how she and her friends found places to squat. All over London people were pitching perfectly good stuff into dumpsters; that's how she and her friends found their food, their furnishings, and the stuff they sold to pay the bills that they needed cash for (such as her mobile phone contract). That's not simple and it's certainly not not frugal.

It's true that people were already doing that before she came along and made use of the buildings that were sitting idle and the stuff that was on its way to the landfill. In fact, part of her motivation is to draw attention to the fact that these resources are going to waste. (The results of her efforts are sometimes perverse, though — she points out that perfectly good food is being pitched into the dumpster and merchants respond by puncturing the containers so as to ruin the food, or by locking the dumpsters to keep people out.)

And here is where sustainability comes in. Some number of people can get by on the detritus of western consumer society. In fact, quite a few people. I have no doubt that the food, clothes, and consumer goods thrown away every month in the United States, if distributed among the very poor, could bring every American up to a decent standard of living. But that's only true because so many people are trying so very hard to live better than that.

If ordinary people decided to live the way I keep recommending — building a frugal lifestyle grounded in careful thought about what they really need — the cornucopia of surplus goods would dry up pretty quickly. Whether you call it dumpster diving or skipping, it doesn't scale.

Now, in one sense that's a theoretical point. I don't think we need to fear that millions of working-class and middle-class folks will suddenly abandon the rat race and decide to get by on what they can scavenge. But, I think it's more than a merely theoretical point, because there are a lot of pressures against the present model.

None of the people producing the excess stuff that ends up in the trash is doing so because they want to. In fact, they're all trying actively to waste less — and as they get better at reducing waste, the waste stream will tend to dry up. At the same time, social pressure to divert the waste stream to the truly needy will tend to dry it up as well, at least as far as people like Katherine Hibbert are concerned — the "surplus" food will end up at food banks instead of dumpsters. That's a good thing, but it'll be tough for people who used to get their food for free.

Of course, to the extent that people are choosing this lifestyle in order to make a point (rather than because they're lazy slackers), it's all to the good — it'll mean that their point has been heard. But to the extent that they've chosen this lifestyle because it appeals to them, I don't think it's got a long term future. It only works because cheap energy and cheap money have made us all temporarily rich; that's not going to last.

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Guest's picture
Brian

Every society, since the dawn of humanity, I suspect, has those individuals who scavenge the waste of others as part of, or the entirety of, their subsistence. It's a pitiful measure of the wastefulness and profligacy of our first-world economies that someone can live as comfortably as Hibbert apparently is on the stuff that the rest of us see as useless or excess.

And she could continue to live that way even as society devolved, but only to the level of her tolerance. Lots of large cities have shantytowns full of people doing what Hibbert is doing, just at a much lower level. The only thing shocking about Hibbert is how satisfactory an existence she's building out of junk.

And when Hibbert is ready for more stability, or a family, it surely isn't going to be in the situation she's built for herself currently.

Guest's picture
Guest

I could not read Hibbert's article since the access is over from the link.
However, Mr. Brewer says that people who put things in the trash do so because they are trying to waste less; I would question that.
Many people put things in the trash because they do not want to take the time or effort to take it elsewhere, hand it down, repair, repurpose, recycle or reuse.
While I understand that not everybody is creative, almost any regular individual is able to find a way to reduce the waste.
When I discovered the things that people put out during "Spring/Fall Cleaning Day" in our city, I was always amazed of the "treasures" that I could find. I picked items for my personal use, others to give away, some were repurposed and became part of a "new" item, some others made it to my garage sales after some elbow grease and generated some dollars -that was almost free money!
Even at the thrift stores there is waste. They can not keep everything that comes in, and not too many have an effective way to send those articles out to be reused, repurposed, recycled or repaired.
Waste is waste, no matter how we generate it.

Philip Brewer's picture

 @ Brian:

Actually, I doubt if you're right about the "dawn of humanity" thing.

For one thing, I expect bands of hunter-gatherers simply shared everything in the first place, so nothing got thrown out until nobody could see any use for it. (And that's no more subsisting on the waste of others than it is when mom says, "Don't throw those leftovers out!  They're still perfectly good!"

Even after agriculture got invented, very few people were rich enough that their trash contained much of value. In fact, it's a pretty strong marker of wealth that you feel free to reject hand-me-downs or leftovers.  I wrote a post on that topic called Not the sort of person who. It was only after there were very large disparities in wealth that some people were rich enough to throw away stuff that had real value.  That takes us well past the invention of agriculture and into the early days of city building.

More to the point, though, given that people are throwing away that much perfectly good stuff, it's not shocking that Hibbert is able to live off it, and live well.

But the pressures against throwing away all that stuff are large and growing. There are economic pressures—manufacturers don't want to make more than people will buy and retailers don't want to stock it. And there are social pressures—food banks and charity shops accept donations of such stuff and then sell it cheaply. I think those forces will deplete the trash stream. I could be wrong, though. Only time will tell.

Guest's picture
Meg

Her lifestyle was obviously very *cheap*, but it's much less obvious how frugal she is. Frugality isn't just about how much you spend a day.

Guest's picture

I read the article a few days ago. When I was in grad school--late 70s/early 80s--there was a group of Bloomington people who lived without money. Same kind of thing. I found the concept kind of romantic and mentioned it to a friend. She replied, "Honestly, is that what you want to spend your day doing?" Good point.

But this woman isn't spending her whole day doing that. She wrote a book about it, which is available for purchase. So the article is part of a publicity machine. Writing a book about such experiences--which in her case are a CHOICE--is a time-honored activity. Recent examples would be "Not Buying It," the family that lived without a footprint in Manhattan, even the tome of the infamous Edmund Andrews falls under this category.

Do I seem too cynical?

Andrea Karim's picture

Thanks for this article, Philip. I didn't see the original article until you linked to it, and it's fascinating.

Guest's picture
MSH

There are days where I feel that way about a lot of things... am I free-riding if I buy stuff used or on clearance? Am I just charging the wasted energy/effort/packaging to the commons if I get free samples, rebates, and so on? And I think, well, I'll buy stuff used or on clearance as long as not that many people are playing the game, but I try to avoid doing the free sample offers and so forth since at that point people are going out of their way to waste stuff for me.

Andrea Karim's picture

Actually, it's a perfectly logical part of any ecosystem, if you think about it. The only that isn't natural about our social ecosystem is just how much we actually throw out.

Philip Brewer's picture

 @ Andrea:  Right!  But that's exactly what makes me think it isn't sustainable.  Businesses would surely like to quit throwing out that much, if only they could figure out how to avoid making (or, for retailers, stocking) more than they can sell. 

I have less confidence that individuals will figure out how to quit buying stuff that they're going to end up throwing out—but I'm sure they'd at least claim that they wanted to.

I have considerable confidence that continued progress in small-scale manufacturing, just-in-time stocking, and so on will gradually reduce waste—eventually enough to squeeze people who have been making such good use of trash.

Guest's picture
Olivia

In case you didn't know, Dolly Freed's "Possum Living" was just reprinted. Tin House Books, $12.95.

People seem to have a facination for making something out of discards. Tramp art, scrap quilts, outsider art, picassiette. Then there's the idea of living off the land, as in Euell Gibbons's "Stalking the Wild Asparagus". What is it that facinates us with this kind of thinking? Curious.

Guest's picture
Lucy

@Olivia, Personally, these kinds of stories fascinate me because they give me peace of mind. I could imagine not being able to find a job and running out of money. Job ads are positively frightening with what they seem to require and I am told various things I have to be and do (a leader, an expert, a creative go-getter with business and technological savvy...) in order to get a job.

I am currently working but makes me feel sick with worry about what will happen next time I need to look for a job. If someone tells me that I can get by without making myself into someone else in order to survive in modern society, I like to listen to what they say just to feel less stressed. :)

Guest's picture
Carolyn

"It only works because cheap energy and cheap money have made us all temporarily rich; that's not going to last."

So nice to see another person who realizes this! Philip, do you have any blogs or websites you like that are on the topics of peak oil, energy scarcity, decline of industrial civilization, etc.? My big three are Dmitry Orlov, Jim Kunstler, and John Michael Greer, but I'm always looking for more.

Andrea Karim's picture

Oh, Philip, I totally agree! It's not sustainable in the long run, especially not at this level. Like you said, there are shanty towns all over the world in which people live off of scraps. It's tragic, but all the more tragic when you think about people living fairly well off of the sheer volume of "garbage" here in the US.

I think about this all the time, actualy, because I love across the street from an apartment complex where people through out entire sets of furniture on a regular basis. This is not a wealthy complex; we're not talking about people who have tons of money to throw around.

And that's to say nothing of the businesses that throw out excess clothing.

The thing is, as Americans, we are so used to the idea of excess, and so terrified of the idea of limited options or baskets that are NOT overflowing with goods and produce. I know, because the idea terrifies me, too. But it's a reality we're eventually going to have to face: we can't keep producing at this level, consuming part of it, and throwing the rest of it away.

Guest's picture
Izzy

While it's true we tend to be terrified of a life with limits on stuff, I believe if it ever comes down to that, we will be fine. I recently moved to another country, where it is difficult to get things. We are often at the mercy of what is in the store (this week, we are eating potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and apples because that is what was best looking in the tiny produce shelf), but this hasn't lead to a resultant decrease in living standards. We still eat as healthy as we do, albeit with what we can find, rather than what we wanted at that moment.

The most striking thing I have realized is I no longer am focused on what I want, but what I can do with what I have. We are all very happy here, and I know I will be sad when it is time to return to the States. I find it amusing whenever my friends and family still living in the U.S. tell us how horrified they are at our circumstances. They have no idea how easy it is to live with limits. I think, though, that if they had to do it, they would be just fine.

Guest's picture
pam munro

We are all hunters & gatherers - & gather what's in season/around. Obviously, this squatter & skipper is profiting from what's around her that others wouldn't deign to use. It may be a temporary solution - but what of that? Is it better than for it to go into the landfill? In order to make our lives better, we should seize any good opportunities out there to stretch our $ - I have gotten gratis meds when I was broke (but no longer need to do so) - So is that sustainable? In a sense - no - But does it MATTER? I dress well in L.A. because there is a LOT of excess clothing out there to be found in thrift shops & bargain stores. Shouldn't I take advantage of that fact as long as it is true? I thank what I call "stupid rich people" who toss garments with tiny flaws which I can easily fix! (and somewhat shrunken knits look great on my body type!) Philosophically, I agree with your point - not everyone can do this - & it may not be something that can/should be done longterm. But in the shortterm it may mean survival of a sorts - & there's nothing WRONG with that.

Philip Brewer's picture

 @ Pam:

For the person choosing today to scavenge some item, no—I don't think it matters. Where it matters is for someone like me who is advocating for a particular kind of lifestyle.

I have written extensively in support of frugal living as a path to freedom. If you can make do with less, you can do whatever work is most important to you (as opposed to having to do whatever work pays the most, which is what most people have to do).

I don't want to advocate a doomed lifestyle, at least not without warning people that it's doomed. So I think seriously about whether the strategies that I advocate will continue to work under stress. Will they work if fuel prices go up? Will they work if the dollar goes down? Will they work if thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) more people start to follow them? I might still advocate them even if the answer is no, but I'd advocate them with a caveat.

Being unsustainable doesn't make it wrong to take advantage of a strategy for as long as it's working—no more than an approaching frost makes it wrong to harvest your garden. But if you're depending on that garden—especially if I recommended it to you—I want you to know that the frost is coming.

Guest's picture
Brian

I read her article, and to me that's pretty much the definition of frugality, but not one that I want to be a part of. Living in a house that's not mine, expecting to be evicted at any moment doesn't sound like fun. Digging through trash for food, even if it's from upscale grocery stores or restaurants sounds pretty frugal, but not something I want to do!

Guest's picture

Ok, yes, she is frugal and lives on next to nothing, but it's only at the expense of others! I do not agree with this lifestyle, especially since she seems proud of it. One should always put forth their best efforts in order live well, not scheme and scavenge in order to barely survive.

Philip Brewer's picture

That's an interesting perspective.

First, I'd say it's largely not at the expensive of others—nobody has to pay a penny more to live just because she's pulling valuable stuff out of the trash or sleeping in otherwise vacant buildings.

But I'm more interested in the idea that living well is an obligation, because I feel very much the opposite.

To me, the important thing is to live in accordance with your own values. By my values, I should do the things that are important to me—and if at all possible, find a way to live on the money I can earn doing those things (instead of spending my time doing unimportant things merely to earn some more money).

So, I'm a big fan of barely surviving—if it's a pathway to spending your life doing important work.

Guest's picture
Guest

I thought the article was charming.

I think it's somewhat sustainable. The problem is that word, "sustainable." Greenies want everything to be sustainable forever - a closed system with no waste and sufficient production.

Reality is more open ended and uneven. There are unusual situations. People change - they grow, age, die, and at different times in their life, will have different ideas. If everyone's zigging, someone will zag. When more people are zagging, someone will zig.

So, her life isn't sustainable forever, but maybe it's sustainable for now. Not everyone can be a scavenger, but, maybe there's a very useful social role for scavengers.

Consider the can and bottle fees. We have pretty high ones in California, and the side effect is that you don't see very much can or bottle litter in the cities. You *do* see a lot of chip bags and paper and styrofoam cups. That fee has helped clean the cities, and uses scavengers to do it. It's not totally sustainable - but it has helped make the city more livable. If they added a fee to chip bags and drink cups, those would get picked up too.

Ultimately, it's not a highly sustainable plan, but it's better than what we have now.

Guest's picture
Charles

I got my favorite childhood video game system, Atari 2600 at a neighbor's dumpster. Never did find another video game system in a dumpster though... so yeah I don't think DD is scalable.