Decoding a 'simple life', Part Two: Times change

Blogland ably serves two ends of the consumption continuum: bulking up and simplicity (often aligned with frugality). For every earnest home-canner, there's a babe on shopping steroids swinging a Birkin. Like political parties, both sides cite identical, unimpeachable values (self-expression, creativity, autonomy) and have opposing tactics for their expression.   

There's room for the middle way, too, because ultimately you need a new coat or computer, and that's the Passage's beat: the intersection of value, aesthetics and ethics, or at least a purchase you can live with.

When I want inspiration, I head not to the loot blogs, but to the examples of simple-living, and one of the best is right within my extended family.

The gypsy caravan

Mike and Nika about to roll out on the maiden voyage

A recently-married couple, Nika and Mike, are members of my son's partner's family. They have built their own gypsy caravan, which is their home. You can read about the design and construction process at their inspiring blog, Mikeandnikamakeahome.

They have not sacrificed beauty for simple-living; every detail pleases the eye. They've been helped by many friends, a heartening version of the old barn-raising. 

They write, in their post "Why We Do What We Do" (June 4, 2013):

"We are eliminating as many “things” from our lives as we can (especially the ones that cost money) to lower our cost of living. If I decide that I would like something, I weigh how much I desire that thing with how it will change my life (how much money will it cost and will I have to earn more money?, where to store it?, will it need to be maintained through its life and what does that involve?, etc.). I find this in contrast to the way I observe most of American culture as wanting the biggest house/bank account/steak or the most vacation homes/cars/trophies."

When I was their age, I was interested in those trophies; a "he who dies with the most toys wins" ethos prevailed. I knew dedicated homesteaders and commune-dwellers, but somewhere along the way the Whole Earth Catalogue got replaced by Crate & Barrel's.

I didn't inherit my material desires from my Depression-era parents; in fact, I wondered why they didn't buy more. They invariably repied, "Why? We don't need it." The elevation of bulky-living was amplified by decades of middle-class wage gains and a distortion of American ambition and enthusiasm.

Years passed before I began to question, then curb, bulk. Many young adults are not like I was; like Mike and Nika, they are consciously creating lives of self-sufficiency and low consumption.

My generation are now reappraising, asking, as Marina did, what is enough. The reckoning must have started before the last recession, but 2009 ruptured reflexive buying habits, especially in the over-50 cohort, who have never regained their level of employment or income.

Simple-living is far more than tiring of stacks of crammed boxes or realizing you don't need an expensive bag. 

Nika and Mike on the larger implications of choice:

"There is a serious addiction to consumption and we have two choices:  
1. Continue on our path of consumption, CO2 and radioactive waste generation, and genetic biodiversity destruction (plant and animal) which will make life on this planet much more challenging, if possible at all, for our children and grandchildren, or
2. Learn to live in a way that is not destructive to the life-cycles of our planet. 
This second option requires a good deal of trail-blazing or remembering how our ancestors once lived. It is an interesting time to be alive to say the least.  

I do not believe that most people within consumptive culture are doing anything wrong, but don’t realize what is happening or are in too deep to know how to get out of the rat race. They are probably so busy and tired while trying to earn enough money to pay the bills. It is actually a luxury to be able to slow down, take it all in and figure out an alternative."

Le Duc and I are unlikely to build a caravan, but we can learn much from this resourceful couple and other young adults. And they from us, perhaps, as they watch us shed a glut of goods. Friends and acquaintances have grown more discerning, socially-conscious and debt-averse.

I'm eager to hear about your experiments in simple-living, and those of your children or friends.





Kristien62 said…
I have a bookcase of books on simple living (that's a contradiction in itself.) Since I know of no one embarking on a simple living venture, I rely on these for inspiration. I should think it would be so much easier to adopt this lifestyle from the onset. Down sizing and reinventing are hard work. We are contemplating a move to an apartment. As I continue to rethink my space, I keep a vision of the apartment in my mind. But simple living is so much more than just de-bulking your space, isn't it?
Madame Là-bas said…
I just shared my book on voluntary simplicity with a friend. I recently helped my mother downsize and I really would like to do it myself before I am older and less able. It is a choice to make for future generations and for ourselves.
Swissy said…
These are two beautifully thought through essays, Duchesse. We're lucky to have you. I've often laughed ruefully about the "simplicity" section of the bookstores, with rows and rows of fat books about how to...simplify!
LauraH said…
These posts have given me a lot to think about. Just hitting 60, I'm retired and living pretty much the same way I did when I was working...what I consider a modest life style. Never owned a car, rarely bought pricey clothes, never collected jewellery or perfume or other high ticket items, took very few vacations, etc. I preferred to save so I could have peace of mind when I got older, have always had a strong desire to be self supporting. My husband died a number of years ago so it's all down to me. I plan to stay in my house as long as possible and did some renovations to make that more feasible.

But am I really living simply? It's hard to answer 'yes' when I'm so very tied into our wasteful culture. I may not personally be wasteful but isn't my life made possible/comfortable by wasteful practices in general? How to make that right? Your young couple living closer to that goal....a challenge for me to get closer too.
Anonymous said…
I am the Anon 12.24 from Tuesday, sorry I forgot to add my name.
My husband & I have our own version of 'simple living' but true advocates of that approach may not recognise it as such. We live in the UK where unspoken social snobbery is still rife and people ask us when we will be 'moving up the housing ladder'. We live in a very modest Victorian terraced house with a generous garden, which offers plenty of space for us and 2 boys: 4 bedrooms, a study apiece for hubs and I, sitting room, dining room, kitchen and utility room, a WC and 2 bathrooms. Writing that down, it's luxury!
But people see a disjoint between my husband's profession and presumed income ( I currently a SAHM) and where we live - we could 'afford' a mortgage many multiples of his income which would land us in a million pound detached house. But why. We don't need it or want it, nor the higher energy bills, the extra furniture to fill it, nor the extra maintenance, paying for a cleaner and gardener to keep such a mansion spic and span. We live well below our means, and feel abundantly blessed, with ample time to enjoy family and community activities, growing our own veggies, good neighbours, vibrant city centre 20 mins walk or 10 mins by bicycle. We are living our life and making our own choices, not driven by 'what will others think of us'. but it is so so easy (I've been there) to unconsciously be propelled into making lifestyle choices out of fear of what others will think - is one being too eccentric, too 'mean' (i.e. frugal), too idealistic ('we're all going to hell in a handbasket and the planet is doomed so what's the point of mindfully changing your consumption habits' pessimistic thinking).
My sons have been drilled in the ways of the 'evil marketing man', this faceless person who wants their pocket money for plastic tat that is forgotten within a week, when they have their own personal supercomputer of a brain that can create and invent toys from the back garden for free. I don't wish to sound pious, I am only sharing with them the benefit of my own wince-inducing profligate past habits.
LPC said…
Duchesse, as you are generally blunt in your comments, I hope you will not mind if I am the same here.

Consumption at a certain level does become harmful. That said, I don't find self-denial to be virtuous in and of itself.

In other words, if I had to choose between a generous profligate and a self-righteous abstainer from anything, I'd choose the former. And have.

By which I do not mean to say your extended family is self-righteous. Nor to say it wouldn't be possible to live simply and generously. I do mean to say that we all choose our virtues and our sins - and both lie in wait under Dionysian and the Apollonian.
Anonymous said…
I know plenty of ex hippies your age that lived exactly like this young couple. My high school teacher lived that way with a solar cooker on a marginal farm. His wife dumped him after a few years of visiting the outhouse in the dead of winter and washing diapers by hand in January. So no, this is not an unusual thing but it usually never lasts a lifetime.

For all their good intentions people like this are actually "takers", just the cost of educating their children, paying for the road system and health care comes from the people they despise - the consumers, you know the ones who create the jobs. Without them we would be living in a third world country. They can rationalize all they want but their lifestyle does not make them better.
Duchesse said…
Kristien62: Yes, it is more than de-bulking, but de-bulking creates a visual reinforcement,

Mme: Timing is important because at a certain time, the work becomes onerous.

Swissy: There's a lot online, which reduces the need to buy books.

LauraH: I think of the culture more as a plant with branching roots than a single driving force. Some consumption is nearly impossible for me to forgo, others much easier.

Agnes: Thank you for your vivid example; it is quite unusual in my circles for people who could have much more to not "go for it". We can do a lot of good for others, too, if we have more income then we need to live.

LPC: I sense you do not enjoy their tone, or maybe their choice, very much. They are young, not yet having to think about some things that come with age and a family. Now is the time for them to try this life; that's my take.

Anon@11:22: They are rejecting certain behaviours; they do not state that they despise anyone. They pay taxes, do not collect welfare, and work. They help their neighbours.

I too know people who led, than left, communal or self-sustaining lives. I also know people with six TVs and four cars. We could both cherry-pick examples. This young couple are doing something to reduce their use of dwindling resources. I don't see that as "taking".
LPC said…
Oh, no, my reaction is not to these two most likely very nice young people. In fact, because I have this reaction to the simplification discourse over all, I didn't even read what they wrote:).

Your friends are by no means alone. Lots of people are talking about this construct, and it's more the talk I mind than anything else, because it tends to the self-righteous.

Manufactured stuff is morally neutral. Yes it uses up resources, but it also employees people.
Roberta said…
Three years ago, I sold my house and moved into a much smaller, rented, condo a block from my job. Then I sold my car, as I was now near a bus/train station. It was a tremendous relief to have no home or car repair responsibilities. Obviously being so close to work gave me back at least an hour a day from commuting. Also, my new place came with huge closets, so I could now store and see all of my clothes and accessories, and I realized I had a huge over-abundance of those things. Living more simply revealed hidden wealth. It was a paradox.
Duchesse said…
LP: I question whether "manufactured stuff is morally neutral". The use of resources (in both raw material and production processes) and the labour practices applied to people who have those jobs cannot, to me, be separated from the product, whether it creates value (a motherboard) or not (a toy that falls apart at first use.)

Re self-righteousness, it's a common human condition to be in love with your position. Is there not also self-righteousness in "Oh look at my fabulous new x.... I deserve it?" Sometimes my perception of self-righteousness is actually my defensivness and guilt over not being very careful myself.

The far end of the self-denial discomfits me too. I am the child of such a mother. Once my brother asked if he could have an apple as an after-school snack. My mother handed him a matchbox in which she had saved apple seeds and told him, "Plant them." No kidding.

Roberta: Can't tell you how happy I am to no longer own a car! $45/month for unlimited transit pass, that's it. And agree re smaller space revealing abundance.

Gretchen said…
I've been reading how many younger people in the DC area are choosing to stay in the city instead of moving to the suburban colonials. Been fascinated to see how knitting, artisanal food, and such are so popular again. Cyclical, perhaps, with new generations acting against the choices of the prior. We all feel some need to justify our choices, and while I know I've a long way before i am satisfied that I've really simplified my life, I have misplaced hope that buying my Tods on eBay or jewelry from estate jewelers, and trying only to replace what's worn out, will help reduce the need for more energy, more landfills, more, more, more. I disagree that manufactured stuff is morally neutral. Just as I disagree that industrial agriculture is equal to locavore production. It's hard not to get judgmental. Sanctimonious frugality is just as offensive as mindless consumerism. I think most of your readers fall somewhere in between these extremes, and we all are hoping to find our comfort level there. Easier said than done. I appreciate the thoughtfulness you show us.
LPC said…
Gretchen, I agree that manufactured goods take on moral implications depending on many variables. There are good practices and bad ones. But I would argue that in many cases buying from suppliers with good practices, for example those who manufacture with environmental sound technologies, in China, with Western business practices, is a very moral act.

If one defines morality as effecting good for many, as I do. Certain religions of course find more absolute morals in abstention itself.
Gretchen said…
Ergo, L, you just validated my point. How something is manufactured and distributed does have moral implications, and is not neutral. Improving working conditions in developing or authoritarian countries by setting stipulations is something I am willing to support by paying higher prices, for the same reason I am willing to pay more for my produce to know its being grown using sustainable practices. And since one doesnt find bananas growing locally anywhere, knowing other nations are improving their practices makes me support them, too.
LPC said…
Yes, I meant to validate your point, while also clarifying. What I mean is that "having stuff" isn't morally problematic until we determine the hows and the whys of the stuff. The "simplicity" movement is often just that, too simple.

And, am I defending myself? Of course!
Anonymous said…
Gripping discussion going on here . It seems to me that it is a normal need to accumulate in our youth , we want to establish ourselves & gather security , Later , many of us find our values changing & feel that consumption doesn't bring us happiness . Bigger houses , faster cars & lavish jewels just don't seem important . Like most wisdom , this cannot be taught , it must be learnt . I hope that doesn't sound pompous , I have plenty of weaknesses , but I do admire your young relatives . Keep giving us pause for thought .
Duchesse said…
LPC: Having long read your blog, I sorta knew that ;)

Wendy: You had me right up to the part about jewels (kidding). Thanks for the appreciation.

Gretchen: This is an area in which I have a ways to go. My student son showed up in a sweatshirt the other day, about 3-4 times what I thought it should cost. "But", he said, "made locally!" I had to really stop and take a deep breath- yikes, a moment of reckoning.
Tiffany said…
Great series of posts - I love reading the comments too!

It's interesting watching my kids. Kid 1 is 16 and he seems to be a pared-down person by nature. He has no desire for 'stuff' whatsoever. He buys a few of items of clothing - the best quality he can afford, never super-cheap - and wears them until they are worn out. He does have a smartphone and a laptop, but actually had the phone forced on him and needs the computer for school. He goes to school with very wealthy kids, but simply doesn't appear to care that our house is tiny, we have only one car, etc. He is frugal (packs his own lunches when he goes skating for the day!) and healthy.

Kid 2 has just turned 13 and seems to be more of a packrat and freer with her money, but I wonder if this will change as she begins earning her own money ... Her friends seem to be much more extravagant and there have been a few comments about how everyone else (at school) has 2 cars and huge houses and swimming pools. I just shrug and say 'not us'.
cgk said…
Once I turned 40 I felt an strong urge to downsize our possessions and set about doing it. I still struggle to sentimental items, but overall we own what we need with a few extras. No clutter, nothing stashed away out of sight and forgotten and very few items make there way into our household without some mulling. We live in a 4 bedroom house, but could downsize to a one bedroom quite easily. The only thing I item I have leftover from my profligate days are a full length mink coat (80s) and I think I might pass that on to the dog.
frugalscholar said…
I have read both these posts with great interest (and responses, also). It seems that everything we do/don't do and buy/don't buy has an ethical and moral dimension. I suppose we are fortunate to have the education and leisure to consider these dimensions.

On a lighter note, my son refuses to get a car and is planning on acquiring some backyard chickens.
Jean s said…
The ultimate dog bed! Hilarious
Jean S said…
I've given up reading most style blogs because of the shop shop shop drumbeat. Even many of my favorite sewing blogs get to me at times.

That said, the other extreme can be wearying, too. (How does your brother feel about apples, all these years later?)
Duchesse said…
cgk: All of these real-life examples intrigue and hearten me. Will your dog have a mink coat for winter?

frugal: I just horrified a new friend when I asked if her rabbits were pets or for meat. (But in my former neighbourhood several people raised them for food.)

Jean S: Well he likes apples fine, and was sweetly generous to his own children when they were growing up, determined to be different.

Oh, as a •bed•- I saw her dog in one of those little coats, but a minkie!
Anonymous said…
It is interesting to read the other comments and what I have gathered is that most of us who have simplified and decluttered our lives feel we still aren't living simply. I can wager we all have come a long way. Where I live many people work in the film industry (my husband included) and you can imagine the distorted focus on "image". One must have a large house, luxury car, and use only high end products if one wants to project an image of success. I believe my family is an anomaly since we have a small home, economy car, no debt, and don't have many expenses. It can be very tempting though to want the latest and greatest when I see my neighbors "toys". You have a great community here and very motivational. Great series!
Duchesse said…
Anon@2:51: My inconsistency prompted the posts. Never thought readers (who are not a young crowd) might report that they are deliberately living below their means- it's rare.

Super-frugal people used to drive me nuts. For example, one couple I knew would share a cup of coffee in a restaurant. Now I am more accepting but still there is a type of frugality that feels either too crabbed or kind of show-offy.

Still, even the those who irritated me have been helpful in me cleaning up my mindless habits.

Susan said…
I think I understood the idea of the young couple as "takers" to mean that since they will be living on very very little money and paying few if any taxes, others will be footing the bill for their child to go to a public (tax supported) and for the roads they will sometimes move their gypsy caravan home along.

I do admire their youthful dream of living this way and I hope it brings them much happiness and fulfillment. I love their creativity and willingness to share their experience.

I, too, predict that they will try another lifestyle after a few years of living this way, but will have many takeaway lessons which will inform their future life.
Duchesse said…
Susan: They are paying taxes proportionate to their income, and on virtually every single thing they buy, same as you.

Just because they do not generate a high income does not mean they do not contribute. By consciously seeking to steward scarce resources, recycle and make do with used things, they are making a qualitative contribution to the good of all- not just themselves.

I reiterate, these people are not on welfare.
Susan said…
I did not say that they are takers, but that I understood the analysis--even though they have to pay taxes on what they make and certainly sales taxes. Let's just say that while they are paying taxes like everyone else, they will have the use of community school and roads, etc for LESS than others may pay. I'm not saying this is wrong, but that is where the idea of them being takers comes from. It's an interesting way to criticize someone who chooses to live on less.
Duchesse said…
Susan: Correct, you said you understood how they could be called that.

If we follow that reasoning, persons who have no children would pay no school taxes (and I guess be unconcerned about something like literacy for the entire population), those with no cars would not pay for road repairs, or perhaps a reduced amount. Persons with no interest in the arts would not pay for publicly-subsidized cultural events or institutions, nor would those who don't use a public park pay for the green space. The physically able would not pay for handicapped facilities- it goes on and on.

It depends on to what extent one is willing to build a collective society over one that values individualism.

Jean S said…
Duchesse, one of the reasons I love your blogs IS your honesty, including mistakes made in the past. I've been there, too, in my own way. It's sobering.

I used to work for a woman who said her goal was to die with no regrets. I'm not sure if that's possible--regrets are such a part of being human--but I'd sure like to limit the ones related to consumerism....
I was very shocked at describing people (who work) and are on lower incomes as "takers", when it is the richest who are taking a great deal from our planet, with overconsumption. (Yes, I know that was an anonymous comment).

People who work as aides in homes for the elderly, for example, don't typically make large salaries. Neither do the many service workers our society depends on.

I'd been reading this discussion attentively. But while anything but a "frugality" prude - like good company, food and wine far too much for that - I've always organised my life to have a very small environmental footprint, and know quite a few other people here who have done the same. Including young parents who deliberately don't have a car (yes, easier to do here in Montréal with good public transport, bicycle paths and a carshare system for "big shoppings" and travel to the countryside, but those too are choices).

The most recent IPCC results indicate that the situation is changing even more quickly than predicted...
Susan said…
I am a big believer in community and that we all have a collective responsibility to contribute. This is one of the reasons I don't like the trend in my state toward toll roads etc. There is a school of thought that only those who drive on roads in a state should have to pay for them. I don't agree with this anymore than I would believe that only those with children should pay school taxes. We all have a vested interest in all children being well educated. (This is one reason I am very wary of educational vouchers instead of all tax money going solely for public schools.)

This is an interesting discussion and I don't want to leave the impression that I am disapproving in any way of this daring and creative young couple. I don't think we have many willing takers in our society by the way. Going further would take me into political territory.
cgk said…
Jean S., I agree about the "shop, shop, shop' drumbeat - it's difficult to avoid isn't it?

Yes, a dog bed, not a dog coat. Ridiculous, maybe, but not as ridiculous as me wearing a full length mink while walking the dog. Really, what was I thinking?

Shopping and acquisition can be so boring. Makes for poor conversation, but if you give it some thought it is amazing how many hours of thought and conversation goes towards acquiring. I find too many conversations are about what was recently purchased and what the next purchase might be. It's boring! I'd much rather here about what someone has done rather than what they are buying.

Btw, I've made the same error regarding rabbits. I thought they were a source of food!
Duchesse said…
cgk; I was talking with a couple a short wile ago, and the man said, "You really like to shop, don;t you". I said that I hardly ever buy, but I love to look, to see what is made (and how), much like touring a museum, so when I do choose, I'm informed and thoughtful.

This notion seemed utterly alien to him.

Dog bed- would want one I could wash but I'd be thinking of mink pillows for my own bed or sofa, or yum, a mink vest to pop on with jeans.
Duchesse said…
Susan: It is not you who initially called them "takers", but I wanted to follow that label to its implications (and my inference); since you responded saying you understood that judgment, you received my reply.

The value of "common weal"- the notion of public good- is hard to discern in that anonymous comment- but present in yours.
Susan said…
Thanks Duchesse. It is important to me that you understand I was understanding an analysis, but not claiming it as my own. I think the sense of community is important if a nation is to be strong. That should give you some indication of my political opinions in our current crisis in the United States.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: While having a high income does not guarantee high consumption, it certainly enables it, and, as Agnes and Anon@2:51 have noted, there is social pressure to "move up" or conform in many circles.

One person's overconsumption is another's requisite, which is why such topics unleash defensiveness.
Well yes, and obviously there are wealthy people who do a great deal of good for the planet. I'm sorry if that came across as a bit too mechanical.
Unknown said…
I enjoyed this post and all of the comments, but I'm not sure I have a definite opinion on this so I will refrain from commenting :).

I do think economic activity is important for every aspect of human life.

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