For me, it started out with being angry about paying rent. At one point I was shelling out $750 a month for four rooms, not including gas, electric, internet, and phone bills. This may not seem like much, but it’s quite a stretch on a cook’s pay. I didn’t want to choose between working 70 hour weeks driving myself crazy with no free time and driving myself crazy having to pinch pennies but working more reasonable hours. With a tiny house, my only bills would be phone and vehicle-related expenses (which I would have to pay anyways). If I built a trailer for under $5,000 and figured I was saving at least $500/month on rent, the trailer would pay for itself in under a year. Plus, I was getting sick of moving in and out of my parents’ places when I couldn’t manage to make ends meet on my own.
Then I realized how massively I would be shrinking my carbon footprint. Americans, per capita, have one of the highest carbon footprints in the world, second only to tiny, landlocked Luxembourg. (see this great website for a detailed breakdown and data visualization: Carbon Footprint Of Nations)
And I’m no exception to the profligately carbon-spewing American standard: I own and drive my own car, eat meat, drink coffee from paper cups, take lengthy showers, and park in front of a computer screen when I’m bored. As you can see, most developing countries, such as in South Asia, Central America, and Sub-Saharan Africa, have relatively small per capita carbon footprints. But what’s even more surprising is that many developed, fairly wealthy countries, like Sweden, Germany, and Japan, have far smaller per capita carbon footprints than the US. And these smaller-carbon-footprint countries have equal or even better quality of life. So this brings me to my first point: it’s possible to live on less and still be happy-or if you do it right, even happier. And it doesn’t have to be viewed as giving up things, it can be viewed as unburdening oneself from the weight of wasteful excess. After all, keeping up appearances takes lots of effort. Why would you work to pay for an enormous house that you can never enjoy because you have to work overtime and weekends? For that matter, why waste gas and energy mowing a uniform green lawn, when you could be using that time to weed a garden that produces delicious vegetables? Follow down this path and you come to a place where you can naturally live more efficiently and at the same time be more relaxed, just by being more conscious of how you use the world’s resources and less self-conscious about keeping up appearances. In my tiny house, I’ll be limited to what possessions I can fit in a 70 square foot space. I won’t have internet, or even electricity until I install solar panels. Heat can be provided by a tiny wood stove burning scrap wood, and water use will be limited to less than 10 gallons a day (by contrast, the average american uses 10 times as much.) To cure my bad habits, I’ve put myself in a situation where I have no choice but to make the right decisions.
Anyway, back to the resource-frugal folks in the developing world: there’s a lot of concern, with climate change and the depletion of resources such as arable land and fresh water, how we can feed everyone as the population continues to grow. Which leads to concern about population growth. Surprisingly (or maybe not so), the areas with the highest population growth rates pretty much overlap with the areas with the lowest carbon footprint per capita. So while population growth stresses the planet, we shouldn’t be panicking about it as much as about the wonky distribution of resource use: a little population growth in the developed world stresses the environment disproportionately. For humanity to be able to move ahead into an uncertain future, 2 things need to happen: a massive shift in the developed world in how we use the world’s resources, and for the developing world to learn from the developed world’s early mistakes and be able to develop infrastructure and industry without causing massive environmental devastation.
So, you say, how is living in a human-sized Habitrail going to help the world? Can’t I just take a 2-week service trip to Thailand to assuage my guilt, then go back to sipping lattes from paper cups and upgrading my laptop every 6 months to a thinner version? Not so, dear reader-you’ve come too far to turn back now. I used to feel this way too, but deep down some snarktacular little part of my subconscious was saying, Hey, this just smacks of privilege and resume polishing bullshit. My snarky streak was satisfied when a few months ago, a good friend posted this article on her Facebook. It turns out I was at least somewhat right, which brings me to my second point: to really help out folks in the developing world, the vast majority of us are better off fighting for what’s right on the home front. In other words: instead of wasting fuel flying halfway across the world to provide unskilled labor and get Facebook likes, downsize your lifestyle at home and reject the consumer paradigm. The choices you make every day affect the whole world (and you thought you weren’t important!). But how does me not impulse-buying a flatscreen TV, or eating something besides cheesesteak, affect the world, you ask? I can’t see giant piles of industrial waste outside my window, so everything must be ok! Nope. Here in the developed world, we’ve gotten pretty good at outsourcing the nastier parts of our consumer lifestyle somewhere else. A few examples: Amazon deforested for cattle farming, people fight & die over minerals in your computer, electronic equipment dump in Ghana, Pacific garbage soup. Anyway, enough moralizing from me. Here’s a quote from the original minimalist to wrap things up:
That’s it, folks! Go play outside!