Frugality, Simplicity, and Sustainability
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.