Frugality, simplicity, and environmentalism

by Emrys Westacott

Many people today are drawn toward the ideals, values, and lifestyles that fall under the broad concept of “simple living.” ImgresDownsizing, downshifting, embracing radical frugality, building and living in “tiny houses,” going back to the land, growing one's own food, choosing greater self-sufficiency over consumerism, and seeking to preserve or revive traditional crafts: these are all part of this trend. So, too, is the Slow movement, a general term for the various ways in which people seek to combat the frenetic pace of modern life. The movement includes Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Sex (all originating in Italy), the Sloth Club (Japan), the Society for the Deceleration of Time (Austria), and the Long Now Foundation.[1]

According to some, the millennial generation (roughly those born between 1980 and 2000) are helping to boost this trend Compared to their elders, they are less interested in home ownership, happy to share cars rather than buy them, and savvy at using technology to save money and keep things simple through using companies like Zipcar (transport) Airbnb (accommodation), and thredUP (clothes).

A lot of people live frugally out of necessity, of course. But there are also philosophical arguments in favor of simple living. In a venerable tradition stretching that goes back to ancient thinkers like the Buddha, Socrates, and Epicurus, two lines of argument have been especially prominent.

1. Simple living is associated with moral virtue. E.g. It keeps us physically and spiritually pure, fosters traits like resilience and independence, cultivates sound values, and is typically viewed as a sign of integrity (think Gandhi).

2. Simple living is the surest path to happiness. E.g. It helps us be content with what we have, enhances our enjoyment of simple pleasures, allows us more leisure time by enabling us to work less, keeps us closer to nature, and generally promotes peace of mind.

In recent times an additional reason for embracing simplicity has come to the fore: namely, the environmentalist argument.

It is pretty straightforward. Over the past two centuries, industrialization and the rapid growth in population has massively increased the impact of human beings on the natural environment. Much of this impact is negative: smog; acid rain; polluted rivers, lakes and seas; contaminated groundwater; litter; garbage dumps; toxic waste; soil erosion; deforestation; extinction or threatened extinction of plant and animal species; habitat destruction; reduced biodiversity; and perhaps most significant of all in the long term, global warming. Consumerism, extravagance, and wastefulness increase the damage being done; living frugally and simply, by contrast, reduces one's ecological footprint. The philosophy of frugality thus expresses the outlook and advocates the lifestyle that will best help preserve nature's beauties and sustain earth's fragile ecosystems. Images

This is not an argument that would have occurred to Socrates, or to anyone before the advent of industrial society and the concurrent explosion in the world's human population. The first Western philosopher to say anything along these lines was probably David Henry Thoreau (1817-1862), the sage of Walden Pond whose mantra was “simplify, simplify”. His concern over our growing alienation from nature contained the seeds of modern environmentalism.

Today the environmentalist case for seeking ways to live more frugally and simply seems fairly obvious. At the level of individual actions and lifestyle choices, there is often a straightforward connection between being frugal and reducing one's ecological footprint. Reduce, reuse, recycle. This is the familiar slogan shared by both frugal zealots and environmentalists. And there are countless books, articles and blogs offering advice on how to simultaneously save money and the environment by following practices such as:

· walking or cycling instead of driving

· installing energy efficient appliances

· turning off unnecessary lights

· drying clothes on the line

· raking leaves instead of using a leaf-blower

· eating leftovers

· sharing tools

· buying only what you need and using until it is worn out

· buying used items when possible

· drinking tap water instead of bottled water

· turning down the thermostat

· washing only full loads of laundry

· reusing wrapping paper (or better, making reusable gift bags)

Each of these measures, in addition to saving money, reduces the consumption of energy either directly, as when you turn off unnecessary lights, or indirectly by reducing demand for the production of new commodities. And as ecofrugalist Keith Heidorn says: “Reduction of waste in any form is a win for the environment. Reduction of material and energy use is a win for the planet and all life forms.”[2]

Essentially the same argument is made in favor of other aspects of simple living. Increasing self-sufficiency by growing some of your own food is cleaner and greener than buying the products of industrial agriculture that are produced with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, involve a high level of waste, and consume additional energy through being packaged and transported. Contenting oneself with simple pleasures close to home as opposed to buying expensive toys or exotic experiences reduces both energy consumption and the production of waste. Moreover, the connection between simplicity and environmental protection runs both ways: by preserving natural beauty we ensure that the important simple (and usually free) pleasure of enjoying nature will continue to be available–and those that enjoy it will perhaps be more likely to adopt green practices.

Communities can also create institutions and pursue policies that simultaneously help people live more cheaply and protect the environment. Good public transport reduces energy consumption, pollution, and congestion. Public parks and gardens improve air quality in cities and allow people to enjoy greenery, beauty, and open spaces to play in without having their own large private gardens. Allotments or community gardens encourage local food production. Libraries limit the need for individual acquisitions.

The environmentalist case for simplification is strong, but legitimate questions can be raised concerning the real value of some of the measures mentioned. Here I will consider just one. It is often said that the small things people do to reduce their ecological footprint by living more simply or frugally make a miniscule difference. They may give these people a warm fuzzy feeling inside for doing their bit to save the planet, but what really decides whether we can reduce the rate of global warming, make our air cleaner, and our water purer, save species from going extinct, and so on, are the actions of governments and corporations along with technological innovations.

In the case of global warming, for instance, what will really make a difference are measures such as the introduction of a carbon tax, the replacing of coal-fired power stations by cleaner forms of energy production, and the enforcement of stricter regulations governing industrial pollution and vehicular emissions. Individuals remembering to turn the lights off, or choosing to walk to work, barely moves the needle. The value of such actions is subjective rather than objective.

This is a commonly heard argument, but I think it is a poor one. It is true, of course, that the fate of our environment will be determined most of all by the big decisions made by the big players­–the politicians who make the laws, the experts who advise them, the agencies that enforce the laws, and the corporations that enjoy outsized political influence and whose large-scale industrial enterprises have a significant environmental impact. But this hardly proves that there is no point in any of us trying to reduce the negative impact we have on the environment as individuals. One could just as well argue that there is not much point in voting in an election where it is a foregone conclusion that a single vote will not affect the outcome; or that a family shouldn't worry about wasting water during a drought since the amount involved is trivial, especially compared to the quantities being used or misused by large factories and farms; or that we shouldn't feel any compunction about failing to declare little bits of additional income to the tax office since the tax we thereby avoid paying is a drop in the ocean compared to the billions that big business and the superrich manage to avoid paying.

The objection that small measures are inconsequential is misguided in two ways.

First, and most obviously, although the impact on the environment of each individual action may be minute, when millions of people do the same thing, the impact can be huge. State and municipal authorities that prohibit the watering of lawns during a drought are not being stupid: the actions of individuals, multiplied many times, make a difference. And the larger the population, the bigger the difference made.

If everyone who could do so conserved energy in all the ways that frugal zealots recommend–turning out unnecessary lights, drying clothes on the line, choosing fuel-efficient vehicles, driving less, consuming less, and so on­–our overall consumption of fossil fuels would dramatically decrease, which everyone except oil company executives agrees would be a good thing. If everyone were to completely ignore the EPA guidelines on disposing of household waste, pouring used motor oil and other toxic materials into the ground while flushing all their old medicines down the toilet, the consequences for the water supply would be serious.

Second, encouraging individuals to participate in the general project of reducing the harm we are doing to the environment is worthwhile not just because they then, as individuals, do less harm, but also because it helps to foster concern for the environment as the default attitude in a society, an attitude that gradually gains ground until it becomes widespread. And as it becomes more widespread, its practical value increases. The growth of recycling offers a good example of this.

Recycling of certain materials, like iron, bronze or timber, has been practiced from time immemorial, but it was only in the 1970s that municipalities began recycling programs.
Images-1The environmental benefits of recycling seem obvious: it conserves resources, saves energy (since recycling a material usually takes less energy than producing it from scratch), reduces greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of air pollution, and reduces the amount of waste going into landfills.

Naturally, recycling has its critics. Economist Michael Munger, for instance, argues that quite a lot of recycling is inefficient, even absurd. He describes how in Raleigh, North Carolina, the municipal authority wished to discontinue recycling green glass. Making fresh glass from virgin materials is usually cheaper and takes less total energy than manufacturing it from cullet, the ground-up glass produced from recycled bottles and jars. But people in Raleigh, because they were committed to the idea of recycling, voted to require that glass be included in the recycling program. Consequently, it would be collected, sorted, and then taken to the landfill, an exercise in pointless inefficiency.

Munger also describes a ridiculous scene he witnessed in Chile of people spending their Saturday morning driving out to a recycling center where they queued for a long time, engines running, just to deposit a few bottles and tin cans in the recycling bins.[3]

These things certainly seem silly on the face of it, and no doubt there are plenty of other specific examples of well-intentioned policies that aim to reduce waste, pollution, or energy consumption but which fail on all these counts. Nevertheless, skepticism toward recycling on the basis of such cases rests on a somewhat blinkered perspective that focuses on details and fails to pay enough attention to the broader and longer-term context.

Many environmental questions are extremely complex. To what extent a particular act of recycling, or a particular recycling program, is environmentally beneficial depends on many things: what is being recycled (recycling aluminum cans saves a lot more energy than recycling glass); where the recycling takes place (recycled green glass is less useful in Britain than in France since Britain does not produce much wine); the methods used, (slum dwellers sifting through trash burn less fuel than hi-tech processing plants, but the latter are safer places to work); the quality of the technology employed; how many people participate in the program; and what happens to the waste if it is not recycled. In the same way, whether or not recycling is cost-effective depends on a whole host of variables.

But what seems undeniable is that, in general, the more people become committed to recycling–and also to buying recycled goods, a preference driven by the same values–the more efficient recycling becomes, both in terms of cost and in terms of its beneficial environmental impact. As more people do it, the benefits of scale kick in. A truck driving around a neighborhood covers the same number of miles but collects far more stuff. Less waste goes to the landfill. Recycling plants become bigger in order to handle increased volume. Collection methods and sorting processes improve.

All of this has in fact happened, and the various kinds of improvement are mutually reinforcing. Better sorting technology at the recycling plant means that households don't need to sort, which makes recycling easier and boosts participation. This makes further investment in recycling technology viable, which leads to better quality recyclate, which makes products made from the recyclate more competitive. And as recycling becomes standard practice, things start to be manufactured with recycling in view, leading to further efficiencies., and even eventually to “upcycling” where waste is used to produce something of greater value, as opposed to “downcycling,” where what is made from the waste is lower in quality.[4]

The growth of recycling programs, and their increasing efficiency and value, illustrates the general point that the small actions of individuals can have an impact beyond themselves. Encouraging everyone to make their small contributions to protecting the environment helps make environmental concern the normal and natural way of thinking throughout an entire community. And as this happens, so the practical effectiveness of individual actions increases. Narrowly focused skepticism about the value of individual measures fails to recognize this.[5]

[1] For a detailed account of the Slow movement, see Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed (San Francisco: Harper, 2004).

[2] Keith Heidorn, “The Art of Ecofrugality, Living Gently Quarterly []

[3] Michael Munger, “Recycling: Can It Be Wrong When It Feels So Right?” Cato Unbound, June 3, 2013.

[4] See Michael Braungart and William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Berkeley: North Point Press, 2002).

[5] Parts of this essay are taken from Chapter 7 of The Wisdom of Frugality (Princeton University Press, 2016).