On Downshifting: Reducing One’s “Standard of Living” Needn’t be Unpleasant

After many brushes with this encounter, I have come to realise that middle class people in affluent societies hate people asking them to consider taking a cut to their standard of living for their own benefit. By taking a cut to their standard of living, I don’t mean moving from an apartment to under a bridge. By taking a cut to their standard of living, I don’t mean because the government has sanctioned this with reductions in welfare benefits or the lowering of the minimum wage or workers rights. By taking a cut to their standard of living, I mean voluntarily doing so, and doing so in a way that brings more pleasure than suffering.

My blogging pal, Jessie, also known as Rabid Little Hippy, wrote a superb piece the other day on ‘insourcing’. Insourcing means the opposite of outsourcing. Whereas outsourcing is about palming domestic tasks off to somebody else, e.g. lawn mowing man or house cleaner, insourcing is about bringing those tasks back and doing them yourself as a way of saving money and seeing them as meaningful elements of life.

Insourcing is a vital component of the voluntary simplicity movement. Voluntary simplicity, according to one of its champions, Melbourne-based environmental philosopher, Samuel Alexander:

“Voluntary simplicity, or simple living, is a way of life that rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting.’[1] The rejection of consumerism arises from the recognition that ordinary Western-style consumption habits are degrading the planet; that lives of high consumption are unethical in a world of great human need; and that the meaning of life does not and cannot consist in the consumption or accumulation of material things. Extravagance and acquisitiveness are accordingly considered an unfortunate waste of life, certainly not deserving of the social status and admiration they seem to attract today. The affirmation of simplicity arises from the recognition that very little is needed to live well – that abundance is a state of mind, not a quantity of consumer products or attainable through them.”

By taking a cut to their standard of living, I mean voluntarily simplifying or downshifting their life. Usually, it’s the material trappings that get the flick first. Perhaps moving into a cheaper, smaller, less fancy house is the right approach. Perhaps cancelling the Foxtel subscription is a good idea. So why should your average lower- or middle-class Joe or Josephine consider downshifting or simplifying their life? The most compelling reason I see is cost of living. Whether cost of living is in decline or not–many economists say it’s in fact on the rise–it seems to be the thing hassling most. They are struggling to make ends meet. A lot of these people do live affluent lives whether they like it or not. They have big houses filled with material possessions that cost a lot of money to procure and maintain. One only has to see what constitutes “affordable housing” in the Australian landscape to know this is true. My point is, most of us live well beyond our means and could easily and happily live well below them.

It’s easy to require less than require more. People that are struggling tend to want more rather than less. They might get a promotion or a higher paying job, which based on their current standard of living should make their financial life easier. But what tends to happen is they increase their material life to match their income, however the material life usually goes that little bit further to ensure there isn’t much breathing room. Imagine you did depart your life and opted to live under a bridge and forage for food while maintaining your income. Finances would not longer be a problem but your standard of living certainly is. Well, thankfully I am not suggesting we go to such extremes. It might mean just downgrading the house a little. It might mean getting rid of the extra car and cycling some of the time instead. It might mean cancelling the Foxtel or magazine subscription. It might mean less visits to the salon. It might mean growing more of your food. All these things have a tangible impact on your budget.

I had conversation with somebody on Twitter earlier today, who inspired this post with his resistance toward such a suggestion. He is struggling to make ends meet and blames the economy, government, capitalism and the overall paradigm. Don’t get me wrong, I am with him. I believe that the current system quite deliberately affects the lives of the ‘99%’. However, I suggested to this chap to consider insourcing more of his life. Perhaps he could grow some of his own food. He lives in the inner suburbs of Sydney where growing space is tight, but there are all sorts of options available to him–taking up guerrilla gardening, joining or establishing a community garden, and so on. He wasn’t interested in my suggestions as they “don’t pay the rent”. If your saving $50 a week on your food bill that’s absolutely $50 you have to put towards your rent or something else. Such seemingly trivial gestures do have a tangible, monetary impact.

Unlike what some will have you believe, ‘downshifting’ shouldn’t be punishment. It doesn’t need to lead to suffering. Benefiting from free entertainment like visiting the art gallery or museum or going for a hike in a national park can be just, if not more, fun as paid options. Since when did tomatoes in June and having somebody clean your house hold the monopoly on pleasure and success? Sure, growing your own food isn’t for everyone–for some it might be considered punishment–but when put in perspective and seen for its many benefits, it might just be the thing to make one’s financial life and thus, overall life, that little bit better.

[1] See, e.g., Charles Wagner, The Simple Life (1901); Juliet Schor, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (1st ed, 1998). The term voluntary simplicity was coined by Richard Gregg, an American lawyer and committed follower of Gandhi. See Richard Gregg, ‘The Value of Voluntary Simplicity,’ in Samuel Alexander (ed), Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture(2009) 111-126.

 

On Business

I am a business owner. I started my business, almost 3 years ago, to give me more flexibility in my life and to apply some of my values to the world. I have described this The Simpsons scene elsewhere, where Moe is about to list his new company, Makers Moe bourbon, on the NASDAQ, and he is told by some libertarian friends to enjoy his last night as a democrat. As though his new fortune will inevitably change his political leaning and personal values. This too has been an expectation thrust upon me. I find myself discussing ideas on Twitter and as soon as the topic of business or economics is other tweeters assume that I am not a business owner. For my views where business is concerned are unconventional for a business owner. Here’s a few observations I have made as a business owner about business:

Many businesses fail because their managers are incompetent or a lack passion or a mix of both.

One could be forgiven for thinking that every business owner or manager knows every thing there is to know about business and has tried every technique to achieve business success. When a business fails, it’s always somebody else’s fault. How many stories have you heard about a business collapsing because of an incompetent CEO or proprietor or that they have lost their passion and know that it has impacted on their ability to manage? No, instead it’s the trade union or carbon tax or regulation or economy or lack of consumer confidence or some new development down the street that has caused a decline in foot traffic or the loony socialists. Somebody or something else is to blame. This bothers me. Take some responsibility.

 Growth isn’t the be-all-to-end-all for me.

I am happy where things are at with my business at the moment and see no need to grow for the sake of growing. “But what if your customer base takes a slide?” That’s always a possibility, of course. But I have a steady enough flow of new business and a nice little waiting list to consult if need be. And I am confident that with little adjustments to marketing here and there, the flow will increase. It’s exciting when your business is a part of a community rather than against one. I have no fixation on growing for the sake of it. In doing so, one increases their vulnerability–the more you grow, the more you have to lose. Slow and small, and understandable and human, is how I like it.

I don’t spend a cent of marketing.

Not one cent. I have done, in the past. And will do, in the future. But at the moment social media, Google and word-of-mouth are proving effective enough. This is another element that relates to permaculture. One form of permaculture, rests on the yields of perennials. It goes, that you put the hard work in early on–building infrastructure and soil, planting trees and plants, and then, later on, you can just sit back and enjoy the spoils. Well, I put the hard work in early on and it’s paying off. That said, I have no intention of becoming complacent.

It’s all good and well to say do what your passionate about but eventually your passion will become a job.

My business is in the cleaning industry. I am not passionate about cleaning. What I am passionate about is the environment and what I love about my business is the opportunity it gives me to talk about the environment and how we can ensure that our households don’t impact on it disproportionately. I am in the cleaning industry but my conversations range wider than that and I find myself talking to my clients about transportation, waste management, and all aspects of our carbon footprints. I have no problems broaching these topics as my clients range from hardened environmental warriors to the curious. It’s a conversation they enjoy having, if not instigate.

Back to the header: keep in mind that you might turn something you love into something you hate by following the cliche of doing something your passionate about. Or not, who knows?

Community Food Grant Program Axed: A New Oppportunity is Born

The scrapping of the $1.5M Community Food Grant Program isn’t the end of the world. As much as it will lead to communities most in need thinking twice about going ahead with their community garden or farmers market project, it brings to bear new opportunities. I think the conversation has gotten to the point where its seems too important to not go ahead over some government funding. Provided planning laws don’t change to inhibit these projects, the barrier of entry remains relatively low. And you can always just do it without permission. But the opportunity, I think, is going a step further to harnessing the power and energy of the crowd and using crowdfunding to fund these project.

Soon after the election of a new conservative government in 2013, the Climate Commission, an agency set up to advise on the science and economics of carbon pricing, was axed. There was uproar, people weren’t happy with this move. The leaders of the commission, mostly well-respected scientists, went out and spoke to the crowd. Within days they had gathered $1M in funding, from the community, via crowdfunding platform, Pozible.

I have supported a number of crowdfunding campaigns from local theatre productions, to a couple trying to rebuild their tiny house after losing it to a fire, to a permaculture magazine.

Running a crowdfunding campaign is relatively easy. All you really need is a compelling idea–which you would have needed to get the government funding anyway–and group of supporters. I reckon it is probably a more engaging way to gain community buy-in than dealing behind closed doors with council to apply for a grant. Here are a few tips for using crowdfunding to help fund your community food project:

1. Get out there in the community and talk to people.
2. Ask the people you speak to you follow you on social media (set up a Facebook Page for your project), this way you can easily stay in touch.
3. Set up a crowdfunding campaign using the likes of Pozible, and share it on social media and anywhere else you can.
4. Don’t neglect other fundraising avenues like community sausage sizzles, pot lucks, and good ol’ fashion asking.
5. Be as frugal as you can. To start up a small community garden doesn’t need to cost much money at all. Employ things like tool sharing, reuse what you can, and take to the likes of Gumtree to buy what you need.

Update: Here are some examples of successful crowdfunded Australian community food projects:
Clarinda Community Garden and Art Space
Flinders University Community Permaculture Garden straw bale gazebo
Bank Street Farmers Market

 

On Being Car-Free, Shipping Containers and Transportation

I don’t drive. Never have, and don’t really have the intention to learn. To most, the cars conjure up visions of independence, convenience, and accessibility. For me: money, money, money… oh, and boredom. Why would I drive when I could be reading a book? Yes, yes, I come a unique, perhaps insulated (perhaps naive) position, but I am okay with that. I have never felt like I was missing out.

Well, until, recently. For a second, I was a bit worried about how I was going to start the project. The first step is usually the hardest. I have this block of land with nothing on it in the middle of Murraylands. I wanted to start by building a shed. First, I thought, I’d buy a used shed off Gumtree. Most require the buyer to dismantle. That would require me, and a mate with a vehicle, to spend a day dismantling the thing, move it, and then reassemble it at the block. Or I could have paid somebody to do this. All this considered, I would have probably spent $2,000+ doing this plus a few weekends hard work, with nowhere to stay—other than a tent, I suppose. The next option was to buy a brand new shed and have it delivered and then slowly assemble it—with a mate or my father. Again, I would be looking at the same sort of money and time, and would require assistance.

Then the obvious solution dawned on me. A shipping container. I have done the phone around and for just over $2,000 I can get a 20’ shipping container in decent—watertight—condition. Add to that delivery of about $450. The best thing about choosing a shipping container is that it is complete. I would head to the block perhaps the weekend before delivery, do a little site preparation and that’s it. The structure itself is complete and can be used to store things. Straight away.

What’s more, many suppliers will allow you to keep the container on their premises and access it as a storage unit in the interim. This suits me perfectly. As down here in Adelaide I want to buy building materials and need a place to store them. By doing this, I can have them delivered directly to the container. And when the time comes I can relocate it and its content to the block, saving on an extra load of freight.

On the subject of transport, I have been phoning around local and Adelaide-based freight companies and suppliers asking for quotes. Naively I thought it would be cheaper to buy in Adelaide and freight it to the block. Wrong. To have a pack of 90x45mm timber delivered by one supplier in Adelaide would set me back $240 just in delivery fees. Fortunately, a chat to the local Mitre 10 (in Tailem Bend, 30km from the block) revealed that I’d pay an extra $0.75/metre for the timber but the delivery fee is a piddling $40. I’m happy to hear this as I would prefer to support local operators, and indeed this store is family-owned.

So the plan is this. I shall purchase a shipping container and start accumulating building supplies, which I will have delivered directly to it. I found some ripper corrugated iron on Gumtree the other day for $5 a sheet (1800mm lengths). Once I have a full load, I will have the container delivered to the block. Then, I intend to line half of the container and use it as a camping space—so that when I am working at the block I have some place comfortable to sleep. Actually, I am getting ahead of myself. Over the next week I intend to go up there for only the second time, to take measurements, do some sketching, and chat to some of my new neighbours.

Refugees, Eco Villages and Permaculture

In September last year refugee advocate and prominent barrister, Julian Burnside, proposed the Tasmania Solution for rehousing refugees. “If the historic resonance of the ‘Tasmanian idea’ is too much” he wrote at The Guardian Australia, “the same logic can be varied so as to benefit other parts of the economy that are struggling” and thus the Rural Solution. What Burnside proposes is that refugees should be seen as an economic stimulus in an atmosphere that deems them a burden. Burnside calculates that the Tasmania Solution would benefit the island state “to the tune of at least $1.5bn per year”.

To be sure, Burnside isn’t a policy maker. His solution is nothing but a well-devised fantasy, especially now with a conservative government in power who are set on being as mean as possible to the vulnerable throughout society. But the discussion he elicits is a healthy one. He proposes an innovative solution for a very important issue—an humanitarian issue.

The logic of the Tasmania and Rural Solutions is that refugees would create and fill a plethora of jobs in Tasmania and rural areas in other states. According to Burnside, there are some 96,000 unfilled jobs in rural Australia. Importantly, they would also create new jobs and give a boost to under-demanded services that are on the cusp of closing. In the case of the Rural Solution, the towns and regions in which these people would be settled have suffered from rural flight. Their inhabitants have long been moving away to better opportunities—jobs, medical care, entertainment, etc. Therefore, they are not likely to survive in their current position. These towns need to be stimulated or they will be lost forever.

I support Burnside’s proposal. I commend him for having the guts and creativity to propose it. Predictably the naysayers dismissed it as unrealistic and disrespectful to both Tasmania and rural communities. They say their communities are being treated as a dumping ground. This isn’t true. The proposal is strategic and has far reaching benefits, not only for the refugees but the existing residents and businesses.

I propose the idea goes a step further. Rather than just housing refugees in conventional houses and apartments, why not in eco villages? These villages would be designed, built and maintained by the refugees themselves, with the assistance of government departments and the private sector. They would be built on marginal land which would be replenished following the permaculture philosophy. This approach would teach the new Australians important skills and increase their employability, as well as giving work to local workers and injecting new money into the local economy. Importantly, the work carried out would be meaningful—give people a sense of worth and accomplishment. The refugees would be entitled to a share in the development by way of a taking equity in a cooperative ownership. After a time—and in accordance to their visa requirements—they could sell their share on the private market and move as they please or remain at their property.

Some income could be generated on site. The land would be rejuvenated using permaculture methods increasing its fertility and allowing crops to be sown, harvested and consumed on site and sold to the local community. Appropriate enterprises will be run from the properties to the benefit of the local and broader economies.

Local businesses would benefit. Local architects, builders, electricians, plumbers, glaziers, surveyors, hardware stores, timber mills, transport companies, cafes, restaurants, supermarkets, liquid stores, butchers, green grocers, accountants, lawyers, and doctors would support the project at all stages. These businesses would eventually come to hire some of the refugees as demand for their products and services increases due to the growing population.

Other job searchers or career changers shouldn’t be excluded. This is project should be open of anybody willing. Places should be limited to the space that is available and the carrying capacity of the particular community, but the projects should be active all across the country. This proposal is superior to providing poor quality government housing and indefinite government payments. It should come with conditions, but conditions that are rewarding and that treat its participants with respect and dignity.

Unfortunately many of the eco villages and intentional communities that have been built in Australia have been targeted at wealthy people. Most are unaffordable to low-income earners. This is a pity considering how cheap it can be to establish such a place using permaculture and green building techniques. Most current eco villages are over-engineered and built to a high-specification. Small houses can be built for less than $10,000 each. Marginal land for a community of 10-20 people, within 10-30km of a large regional centre, can be purchased for less than $200,000.

The point of my proposal is to take Burnside’s Tasmania and Rural Solution and add a sustainable twist to it. In discussions of population growth and urban and regional planning, the consensus tends to be that density needs to increase. This proposal is an appropriate way of addressing this challenge, by creating density and fertility on marginal land in a way to support communities in decline.

Confusing Needs: Creatively Use & Respond to Change

My partner barged into the bathroom, on a mission. He flung open the vanity drawers, grasping at the contents. He sighed when he couldn’t find what he was after. “Do you know where the scissors are?” Slightly perturbed that my relaxing morning shower had been interrupted, I bit back “Which scissors? Do you need to cut your finger nails, or..?” This wasn’t the right answer apparently. “I need to open the soy milk container” he mumbled on his way out of the bathroom, presumably to turn upside down a drawer elsewhere in the house.

He didn’t need scissors at all. He needed to open something.

We can be a misguided lot. We don’t need a lot of things we say we do. We don’t need a shovel. We need to dig a hole. We don’t need a car. We need to get ourselves and our things from one place to another. We don’t need a house. We need a place to live–which can mean different things to different people. We don’t need to go grocery shopping. We need to eat.

I think this tendency to mix up what we need and want (or are use to in a particular situation) restricts our ability to come up with creative solutions. If one is dead set that food comes from the supermarket, what are they going to do if the supermarket shelves are bare, or they can’t afford to make the weekly trip? They’ll probably spend a lot of time agonising over the situation rather than targeting their energy at putting food on the plate. Likewise the house example. Not only do we think we need a house to live in, there are expectations as to how big that house should be, how many bedrooms, what sort of appliances it is fitted out with, and how it blends in with the rest of the street. With the number of people struggling to afford their rent across the world, or worse, living rough, this seems like an arbitrary way of looking at the situation. Some argue that it’s about dignity. Does dignify really require three bedrooms and a dishwasher?

By thinking the only way to put food on the table is to go to the shop, the novel ideas of swapping, moneyless economies, growing your own, and trade and barter don’t get feet. Rather than considering how it might possibly work, it’s too easy to say that it won’t or can’t. Simply because it is so distant from our current ways of addressing the situation of feeding ourselves. Passionate productive gardeners are still called hippies.

What’s the moral of all this, you ask? The permaculture principle: Creatively Use and Respond to Change. By change, it isn’t meant economic collapse or natural disasters, necessarily. It can simply be a change of consciousness. Perhaps you realise that living in the normal house and buying your fruit and vegetables from Coles is risky or not as good as it seems. What if you lost your job? What if there was a disaster? The cost of running your big house in the suburbs is getting higher and higher each year. You read an article about pesticides and fungicides on commercial vegetable crops–you’re worried about your iceberg lettuce from the supermarket. None of these situations need be addressed by throwing your arms into the air and giving up. There simply isn’t just one way to address them. By understanding that you don’t need scissors to open the packet–perhaps there is a better, more efficiency way–you can appreciate that the world of problems isn’t as you see it. Problems can become opportunities.

Oh, by the way, we used to a knife instead. Did a fine job of opening the Bonsoy.

Border Inn, Apsley, Victoria, To Reopen

Great news. The Border Inn Hotel in Apsley in the Wimmera region of Victoria has changed hands and is set to reopen. I was very close to buying a block of land in Apsley until I had a change of heart and chose to stay in South Australia. The town is on the cusp of becoming a ghost town–in recent years the hotel, general store, motel and service station closed. This was part of the appeal to me as the lack of services played on property prices. Property in Apsley is cheap.

A group of farmers bought the hotel through a cooperative ownership structure. Similar has happened before, but it’s usually a town’s store that is saved with cooperative ownership. I believe the business and property had been on the market for some time without much interest. It took a creative solution to finally reopen the doors of this great pub. Say locals, a vital part of the community.

On Impending Ownership of Dirt in the Boonies

Everybody I know that has brought property has taken it in their stride. I have been feeling a little nervous. The bill from the conveyancer is due to roll in next week. The funds—that money I have worked so damn hard for—will leave my bank account destined for the vendor’s. Two weeks from today the paperwork will be signed, sealed and submitted and I will be the owner of a 2000-square-metres of land in the Murraylands. This is profound for me to ponder. I never thought I’d be doing this.

Years ago I thought my destiny had been decided. I was at university and working full-time and a career seemed like the right thing to do. Every couple of years I would be promoted, earning more money. I’d certainly move to bigger, nicer houses as my pay packet grew. Maybe I’d move interstate to a big city: Melbourne or Sydney. Eventually, as my heart changed, Melbourne or Sydney became Hobart or Launceston or Christchurch or Wellington. As my heart changed some more the whole idea of the career dissolved. The whole dream, or more truly, expectation, had lost its gleam. Now it was murky though translucent. By surprise the gleam had been stripped from the target and planted firmly in my mind. The possibilities were endless, something I had never realised.

As I sit here, a couple of weeks out from being a property owner, I feel comfortable with my decision. This isn’t me just playing some deterministic game. This is me embarking on what will be one of many great adventures.

A Critique of Prepper Philosophy

Jeriah Bowser writes an impressive critique of the ‘prepper’ philosophy:

The “defend what’s mine” mentality states that the moment “shit goes down,” every other human in the world instantly becomes either a resource to be used or a threat to be eliminated. Whomever you designate as “your tribe” are the only people with any value – all others are simply mindless sheep to be picked off with your shiny new AR-15.

I wonder what will become of these sustainability-discarding types when they finally emerge from their bunker, their stockpile of beans and powdered milk depleted.

My Permaculture Journey Begins… Now

Some years ago I became disillusioned with my lot. I was struggling with consumer debt I had accumulated as a dumb and irresponsible 20-something. I wasn’t enjoying how I spent my days–at work, mainly. It seemed the more I tried to live the worse the predicament became. It was at this point I decided to live more deliberately.

First I traveled. Didn’t enjoy is as much as I should have. Then I started a business as I believed it would bring me more freedom. Wrong. I became an employee of myself. Finally I decided that I needed to take everything back to scratch. There were so many things I enjoyed doing with my time more than work so I wanted to be in a position to be able to enjoy those things more. Call it an early retirement – without being full retired. At this point I discovered the voluntary simplicity movement and permaculture. Both of which made perfect sense to me. Fortunately, I liked the sacrifices these philosophies required.

So what would I do to better my life? I decided I would buy a cheap block of land somewhere in the Australian countryside, build a tiny house and live a kale-and-compost permaculture lifestyle. With a slight twist: relying entirely on bicycle and public transport for transportation. Oh, and the interwebs.

Where am I now? I currently live in a rented unit in Adelaide. I just bought land in a speck of a town in SA’s Murray Mallee region – settles in January 2014. By the middle of the year I hope to have my 7×4 metre straw bale tiny house completed and the land on its way to sustaining most of my needs. This blog will be a chronicle of my journey from this point on, perhaps with the odd story about my past and how this all came about. The permaculture philosophy will underwrite most of what I share. Expect some political ranting.

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The author of Mallee Permie, ‘Paul’, is an IT professional and small business owner from Adelaide, South Australia. Permaculture has become his guiding ethic. He believes in Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share.