For an increasing number of Americans, especially those under 30, the “American Dream” is an absolute joke. For those of us in our 30’s, like me, its still a joke, but a harsh one because lot of us got sucked into believing in this dream and buying houses and such just before things crashed down in 2008. Of course, the joke’s on us, I suppose. Even for college graduates (or those with graduate degrees) finding a way to make a decent living and support a family, much less buy a house or anything else, is a fantasy. Those in the trades that I talk to often also don’t have any work. Many friends of mine in their 20’s are still living at home because its too expensive to be on their own, the job opportunities aren’t there, or the bills are too much to consider moving out. Or, they are like Sage, who I described in a post about meaningful work last year–they work several jobs to pay the bills, living from paycheck to paycheck, having no free time or energy to do anything else. Two days ago a new article described most Americans as being one paycheck away from the street. And some are already halfway there–I have numerous friends living in homes in Detroit without heating for the winter, running water, and more–because they can’t afford it. So…this begs the question–what can be done and who is doing it? This blog post explores just that.
From a sustainable perspective, American Dream, with its white picket fences and perfect sprawling lawns, is one of the most destructive ways of living that there is. Especially when that American dream resides in large, suburban homes far away from workplaces. Now, I got sucked into this too before I had my great sustainable/permie awakening and bought a much larger house than I needed (about 2600 square feet). I’ve since been working with what I have to make my impact as little as possible (the subject of many posts in this blog), given the present circumstances in which I find myself. I’ve made several serious attempts in the last two years to turn my large rural home on 3 acres into a kind of hippy commune/small sustainable community, with the idea that more people in a smaller space = less waste, more opportunity, lots of fun experiences, lots of veggies from the garden, but thus far, its not really been successful–hardworking hippies are surprisingly hard to find, especially long-term, and I’m rethinking the whole plan at present. I even had a few friends living in a trailer behind my house for a while last summer. And I do think that model can work–provided you find the right people.
But today I’d like to explore another solution, one that a dear friend of mine has been working towards for the last six or so months. In less than a year, my friend went from renting, working two jobs and barely making ends meet to downsizing her life, owning her own residence, and supporting herself with what she loves the most–her art. She has no mortgage, no property or school taxes, no nagging boss, no rigid schedule, and few of the other problems that life presents to most of us, even those of us like myself trying to live as sustainably as possible. And yet, despite her current status (homeowner, debt-free, mobile, self-supporting, with savings) nearly everyone that she knows thinks she’s crazy and has been trying to talk her out of her “insanity.”
What has my friend and her husband done? They have sold 90% of their possessions, purchased a van and a camper, quit their jobs, and have decided to live in their camper. Why do people think she’s crazy? Because she and her husband have decided, frankly, that they aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid anymore. They aren’t playing the game. The idea that you could just quit the rat race, that you could find more happiness and fulfillment by not working full time, by not taking on a big mortgage, and so on, isn’t an idea that can even be conceived of by most Americans.
My friend’s husband is keeping a vlog (check it out here) where he’s showing off their setup, describing sustainable projects (like the composting toilet) and documenting their journey. In a recent update, her husband (the Earth Bison on Youtube) describes working the insanity of retail over the holiday season and finally getting ready to head out on their adventure. Today marks my friends’ journey from Michigan (where it has gotten quite cold and their little camper has had some winterizing challenges) to warm and sunny Arizona for the remainder of the winter. I am so proud of them for making such a choice.
I want to step back a bit and investigate some of the negative reactions to my friend and her husband’s choice:
1. It comes down to stuff. A big part of it, I think, is that you can’t take all that stuff with you. But really how much stuff does one person need? I’ve given away about 25% of my stuff in 2014, and I intend on downsizing another 25% in 2015. Things can be hard to part with at first (and at first, I literally had to take the boxes into a room, mourn the loss of it, and then eventually after a few weeks, let it go). The more that I gave away, the better and lighter I felt. I found places to give my stuff away that mattered–expensive musical instruments I haven’t played in 10 years to an after-school program (a community partner for a course I teach), clothing and household goods to a place that gives them away for free to those in need, books to friends who are interested in them, art supplies to fellow artists, and so on. I still have a lot of stuff to get rid of, but each time I do, I feel better, lighter. The stuff weighs on us, it really does, and we don’t realize it until we start giving it away. Its so easy in our culture to accumulate it–even if we don’t buy stuff, people buy and bring stuff for us, often without our consent.
2. Space. Another issue–and a valid one–is space. We are used to living big and luxurious…but again, if one doesn’t have all the stuff, does one need all the space? The space requires heating (usually inefficiently via fossil fuel), money and time to upkeep, time to clean, and so on. I’ve been really challenged in this regard with my current living situation. I do host big events (like our monthly permaculture meetings) in my huge great room, and do a lot of other good with the land, but I still feel like I’m taking up way to much space. I do think, given my introverted ways, I might have difficulty living with a person in such a living situation–but I’ve done it before (dorms in my undergrad years) and seemed to be fine.
3. Convenience. I think convenience is another huge issue. Many of us are used to so many modern conveniences and living in a small space sustainably forces you to give up some of those (think about the work involved in a composting toilet, or in hauling your water each day). To give some perspective, last weekend, I had some unexpected guests, including a number of small children, and they kept asking me why I did things “the old way.” I didn’t really consciously think about what I did, but they were really intrigued by me and my old ways. I made them popcorn on the stove with popcorn from my garden in olive oil. I built them a fire to keep them warm (they all slept next to it). They made art and watched the fire since I don’t have a TV (give away during last year’s great giveaway). We played games on the floor (pick-up sticks, which they loved). We cooked on the stove since I don’t have a microwave (again, by choice, also given away in last year’s great giveaway). Since I’ve made shifts slowly away from modern conveniences slowly and integrated them into my life fully, I guess didn’t realize how different I now live than others. But children have a way of pointing out things in ways adults won’t. I think about my friends–they have made many more shifts than I have–living on solar power and limiting energy use, composting toilets, and greywater systems….these are shifts that I’m also planning, but I haven’t yet gotten there!
4. Fear. Ultimately, a lot of resistance to my friend’s plan came down to one thing–fear. Fear of the unknown. And its a big risk, quitting one’s job, leaving a roof over your head, and going off into the great beyond. Others have done it, and many others plan to do it–and as they become the trailblazers for their generation and document their experiences, still others will muster up the courage.
But given the economic circumstances that so many of my generation and those younger than me face, I do think this path–tiny houses, campers, and other smaller spaces–is a really viable one. The choice and what it offer can be summed up in one word: freedom. I think many more of us, myself included, are thinking about how to escape at least some of this rat race, how to live sustainably and meaningfully, how do meaningful work in the world. The yurt living movement and tiny house movement is gaining steam rapidly–more and more people are seeking alternative living that is debt-free, sustainable, and fulfilling. I’d love to hear from others who are considering the same choice or who are enacting it. I have some big life changes ahead for me as well–I might join them one day. It certainly is a tempting proposition.