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Shifting gears: Some thoughts on downscaling

Many of us are seeking a simpler life. The housing collapse of 2007 and the recession that followed are causing people to re-think the American Dream. Home ownership can be a wonderful thing, but not if it breaks your back.

For a growing number of Americans, the answer is downscaling: making do with one car instead of two, or forgoing a car altogether if you live in an urban area; choosing to live in smaller spaces that cost less in terms of mortgage payments or rent and buying secondhand or repurposed goods are all part of the brave new world of Less is More. Like most new ideas, however, simplicity starts with a mind-set and that’s where things get challenging.

A new mind-set has to be cultivated and nurtured. In America, we've all cut our teeth on the idea that bigger is better. A large house and two cars are still status markers, signs that a family has "made it". Change the setting to a hip downtown condo and a sports car for one person, but the result is the same: money is status and the best way to prove you have money is to spend it.

Choosing to let go of that idea isn’t easy; spending is so much a part of our culture it’s hard to imagine life without it. The things we buy provide us with conversation: “Where did you get that?” “How much was it?” “You know, you could get it cheaper at—“, “Guess what we’re getting!” Buying is bonding, whether you’re shopping for shoes or for the latest computer or for power tools. If we scale back on buying, we’re going to have to find other things to talk about, and that’s a whole new frontier all by itself!

Then there’s the fact that spending less money often means spending more time and effort. That’s not an easy concept for us to swallow, either. If the First Commandment of consumerism is “Bigger is Better”, the second is “Easy is Best.” Riding the bus to work may take 40 minutes while driving takes 20. Finding good secondhand clothes and furniture requires research and a willingness to travel. Time is often in much shorter supply than money. In an article entitled “Rethinking Normal”, that appeared in Lloyd Khan’s book Tiny Homes, Simple Shelter, Tammy Strobel describes how she and her husband made the switch from a two-bedroom apartment with two cars to a 400 square-foot one-bedroom and no car:

[It] required setting goals and de-cluttering…Downscaling to a
tiny one-bedroom was a slow process that required many trips
to the thrift store.*

To truly simplify our lives, it is vital that we have a good sense of our needs and the constraints placed upon those needs by reality. These days, we're so constantly bombarded by information—almost all of which is geared towards selling us things—that it's hard to tell what our true needs are. It's very easy to get hypnotized by the hype: “Ya gotta have options! Ya gotta have features! Ya gotta have upgrades and accessories! For an additional charge of only _______, you can have Additional Functions X, Y and Z! What do you mean you don't need Functions X, Y, and Z? Friend, either you are closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are unaware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the lack of Functions X, Y, and Z in your life! Tell you what I'm gonna do...for the small yearly fee of only _______, you can become a member of the XYZ Club, entitling you to half off your upgrades of X, Y, and Z over the next six months, and 20% off your purchase of Function π which we'll roll out just in time for Christmas! How does that sound?

“You're sure you don't want Functions X, Y, and Z? All right, but I feel compelled to tell you, ma'am, that we don't service machines in the L-O-S-E-R class. You'll have to call a separate company for that. Their home office is in Bangladesh, but it's up to you.”

In other words, when it comes to knowing what we actually need, we're non compos mentis a good bit of the time. A sense of need usually arises from a sense of lack, and we’re so glutted with stuff that what we lack tends to be intangible, and thus harder to recognize.

If you’re planning on downscaling in any area of your life, it’s a good idea to keep a journal with an inventory listing what you have, what you want, and what you need. Writing is an excellent way to clarify your goals so that when you’re ready to move ahead, you have some idea of where to start and where to focus your efforts.

It’s heartwarming to surf the Internet and see that so many people are interested in making changes that will allow them to live more simply. It suggests that we may be burning out on rabid acquisition at long last. If so, it’s probably a good thing. In a 2013 article for Natural Life, Cecile Andrews writes:

When we first began talking about simplicity, it seemed
obvious that people were confused about happiness--we
have believed that if we get rich, we'll be happy.

Common sense and the wisdom of the ages have always
argued otherwise, but now the research has come pouring
in-it's very clear that, after a certain point, more money doesn't
bring happiness.

So what does? Social ties. Relationships to people. The feelings
of love and belonging.**

Scaling back on consumption may help to do just that, but if it does, it won’t the lack of a TV or the choice to bike to work that makes us closer to each other; it will be the fact that our focus has had to shift. We have to lose some of our tunnel vision, a condition endemic in American culture, where the single most important virtue is being an individual. We are individuals, but we are individuals who must live and work together harmoniously in order for our society to remain functional.

Another thing that would help the domestic tranquility is slowing down. The pace of American life is rapidly approaching Mach 2, if it hasn’t passed it already. The technology boom has made it so we are deluged every day with floods of information that we have little time to sift through and absorb before the next batch is dumped on our heads. Another writer for Natural Life, Wendy Prieznitz, points out in a 2011 article that, “Our world operates on high speed and is getting faster. Some people thrive on the pace, but it leaves most of us feeling frustrated, perpetually tired, and unable to do our best. And sometimes, when something or someone gets in our way and slows us down, the age of speed becomes the age of rage.”*** When we scale back consumption, we free up the time we would otherwise spend on acquiring and maintaining our possessions.

It would be naïve, of course, to suggest that the process of slowing down, simplifying, and shifting our focus back to each other will be an easy one. One of the reasons consumerism got such a foothold here is that when you’re a nation of individuals rather than just a nation, extremism is unavoidable. Everyone’s trying to be the most individual. There will definitely be instances in the future where we criticize each other for having too much stuff just as we look down on people today for having too little. We’ll get people who live “off the grid” developing paranoid suspicions about those who live with regular plumbing; politics will rear its ugly head, dividing us even further and we will re-discover a basic truth: people choose to invest in gadgets, cars, and houses do so because those things don’t talk back.

Still, muddling through the adjustment will be worth it if we end up less burned out from debt, commuting, and overwork. It might even save us a bit in health-care costs since stressed-out people tend to get sick more, abuse their wives and kids more, and use more addictive substances. And certainly it will be a balm to our spiritual health! How can we listen to the voice of God (or Buddha, or Krishna, or Allah, or the Goddess, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster) if the voices of ten million commercials are shrieking in our ears? Even the atheists would probably appreciate a little peace and quiet.

You don’t have to move to a micro-cabin in rural Idaho to downscale. It starts with three simple words: No, thank you. No thank you, I don’t need over a hundred cable channels; no thank you, I don’t want to be part of the benefits club; no thank you, I don’t want a two-year contract. Let’s downshift and tap the breaks. Maybe the view out of the window will change, and even if it doesn’t, it will at least be less blurry.

*Stroebel, Tammy. “Rethinking Normal”. Khan, Lloyd. 2012 Tiny homes, Simple shelter. Bolinas, CA: Shelter Publications, Inc, 50

**Andrews, Cecile. (September-October 2013). “Happiness and the new simplicity: the living room revolution of community”. Natural Life, 12 From General OneFile

***Priesnitz, Wendy. (May-June 2011). “Slow”. Natural Life, 30. From General OneFile

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