Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Amidst the landslide of greening and sustainability books constantly being marketed and touted (get the irony?), two jumped out at me. Reading them as a pair made it clear that Plenitude, by economist Juliet B. Schor, and The Cheapskate Next Door by journalist Jeff Yeager are describing the same contemporary trends using very different language. People can earn fewer dollars without their quality of life being diminished, IF they also experience an increase in free time. This free time can be invested in social capital, healthy lifestyle, creative self-provisioning, and ingenious thrift, aided by everything from social networking to asking grandma to teach canning techniques. Schor’s book is analytic; Yeager’s is a how-to-do-it manual.
Reading over and over again how we aren’t “over” this Great Recession because none of us are buying enough, hence the jobs producing all of it are lagging, has often made me wonder how that squares with the carrying load of the planet. The fact that personal savings have actually increased seems like good news, not bad. The fact that demand for fossil fuels has decreased – isn’t that the goal here? Schor, an economist with an emphasis on ecological concerns and the author of two other terrific books, The Overworked American and The Overspent American, reviews the basic theoretical underpinnings of modern economics and concludes that they don’t square. As developing world incomes rise, driving massive additional consumption, the world’s growth limits will be tested. We can’t just keep on extracting finite resources on the cheap and expect it will all end well. Likewise, she predicts there will never again be enough conventional jobs for all who seek work. We’re becoming too efficient and productive for that, through ever improving and disseminating technology.
Schor’s solution,, that we cut back on workers’ hours, thereby employing more people over all, is not original. This has been tried in many places and times, often to avoid laying workers off. Kelloggs of Battle Creek, Michigan, famously offered a six-hour day for decades which workers loved, along with all the others lucky enough to live there. Schor’s original synthesis is to combine this with the new realities of environmental as well as social stress, to define a life of Plenitude less dependent on material excess. By editing out the waste of American life, and utilizing the dividend of extra time, whole new micro-economies are evolving, allowing people to live healthier, happier lives that – paradoxically – are lower income. She effectively decouples standard of living from quality of life, as happiness studies have been confirming is correct, once people move past subsistence.
She cites examples of lowering overhead by resource sharing, plugging Freecycle, CraigsList, carsharing, Open Source internet software – much of which I have written about over the years. Local agriculture, from gardens to micro-farms, is a favorite example, written about glowingly throughout the book. She describes people once again learning to cook, preserve, sew, and build their own downsized homes. It all sounds very idyllic; I want to believe her, I really do. Except that what she is talking about as a trend looks more like an interesting trickle of outliers (Hi, Anna! How’s the honey going?). OK, I grow a few tomatoes. That doesn’t make me Ma Ingalls. But perhaps a generation from now her manifesto will prove true. If so, we will all be the better for it.
The Cheapskate Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of Americans Living Happily Below Their Means is a charming hybrid of two terrific classics, The Millionaire Next Door and The Tightwad Gazette. Those books were all about resource conservation from a financial standpoint – why leave good money on the table? TheMND describes a value-oriented affluent population who eschews conspicuous consumption. TTG was more about people scrapping together a nest egg, even on a tiny salary. The secret of both is living beneath one’s means. However, they were written before the age of environmental awareness. All their strategies translate quite well to a new eco-age. The Cheapskate took himself on a national book tour – by bike, CouchSurfing his way across the country.
His book is a lot of fun. My main takeaway is that if you create good habits, these too are hard to break. One becomes a reflexively resource-conscious consumer [a description I prefer to “cheapskate”]. Case in point. Two friends and I were at the beach in search of 1% hydrocortisone cream for my friend, suffering from a bee sting. We grabbed the first brand we saw. But I couldn’t resist going back to look at the shelf, where I found a generic tube for half the price. Then I saw a generic tube half the SIZE. It is generally more economical, both financially and ecologically, to buy a larger quantity. But! Only if you will finish it all. Having just thrown out boxes of unused, expired OTC meds from my old house, I knew the smaller generic tube was a good choice. Time expended: 1 minute. Amount saved: ~ $6.00. Since I earn less than $6.00 a minute, it was a good use of my time. However, you can’t send a child to college or pay for health care –America’s two huge and ever escalating price tags - on small salaries supplemented by self-provisioning and judicious cheapskating.
If you’re following these authors’ advice, be sure to check these books out from your local library soon!