The New Living Large Is Living Small

Recently, I wrote a few pieces around the concept, “The New Living Large Is Living Small.”  The concept suggests that society will experience significant upheaval when it becomes “cool” to be “green.” I don’t want to over-aggrandize the importance of my idea here, but I wonder if a modest “movement” couldn’t take place around this notion.

Adult Americans consume an average of about 2500 calories endosomatically (into the body) every day, but we use about 230,000 (almost 100 times that much) with all the other stuff we have around to add convenience to our lives: big cars, huge houses with perfect indoor temperatures, etc.

A few basic points:

1) It wasn’t that long ago that most of this excess didn’t exist – even for the wealthy few.  If we wanted work done, we did it ourselves.  We didn’t resent a hard day’s work; in fact, we cherished it.

2) This trend isn’t sustainable. A growing population simply cannot live much longer on a planet running out of oil and other resources, while choking, poisoning, bombing, and otherwise ruining itself in the process.

3) Perhaps most importantly, we weren’t really that miserable without all this over-consumption. When I was a small boy half a century ago, I played outside, even in the cold winters, and I had a truly terrific childhood! My friends and I burned a bunch of calories, and they didn’t come from the processed garbage sold in today’s grocery stores.  We had almost no childhood obesity, and the rate of other diseases among kids was near zero.

If there is something of a “movement” here, i.e., if a significant number of people start to look past the thin veil of materialism and begin to see their lives in grander terms, it will come despite the immense power of modern consumer marketing, whose goal is to convince us that we’re inadequate as people if we don’t get that big car, big house, or latest gadget.  In fact, we’re bombarded with these messages at every turn — thus the utter brilliance of the videos at The Story of Stuff.org.

Let’s acknowledge that it will be an uphill battle.  But I’m wondering if I don’t see a recent change in consumer tastes in this direction. There are many reasons that I don’t drive a 5800-pound Cadillac Escalade or 6600-pound Hummer, or some equally ridiculous car, but one of them is that I don’t want to be on the receiving end of the contemptuous glares of a growing number of people communicating, “We all need to share this planet. You obviously didn’t get the memo on this, did you?”

The trip back toward normalcy won’t be that terrible; trust me.

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Posted in Sustainability
28 comments on “The New Living Large Is Living Small
  1. Cathy G says:

    I agree with you in large part. However try to remember that those heavy vehicles are the ones who protect their occupants during a crash. My husband and I drive a 7500-lb diesel Dodge truck because (1) it carries things we need, (2) its American, (3) diesel engines take sustainable fuel (you can use many other materials besides diesel fuel, such as hemp oil, corn oil, etc.), (4) it gets 23-28 mpg, (5) the engines will last 300,000+ miles (that’s sustainable), and (6) it protects your person and your life in case of accident (and accidents aren’t all that rare). It is possible to make a fuel-efficient vehicle, but it isn’t cost-effective (i.e. profitable) for the automakers to do so. The answer isn’t all the tiny little tin can foreign cars, either. Even comparing a Dodge truck to a Toyota truck, the difference in weight and structure is amazing; a small car T-boned a Toyota truck and it became a u-shape. Imagine the condition of the driver and passenger! This doesn’t happen in heavier vehicles because they use real steel, not plastic.

    • Cameron Atwood says:

      Large vehicles may serve to protect the occupants from a possible collision, but with the resources they consume, both in their manufacture and their operation, they also definitely serve to hasten the coming energy crash and contribute to the continual wounding of the biosphere upon which we all depend. So, let’s review – possibly protect one person (usually) from an accident that MAY happen during a short span of years, and assuredly cause a little harm to millions of people and billions of life forms for generations. I suppose it depends on your priorities.

    • Glenn Doty says:

      Cathy,

      Accidents are extremely rare. Accidents that result in death are shockingly rare.

      In 2009, only 24,474 passengers died as a result of traffic accidents. That’s less than 1 in 10,000,000 Americans.

      The number of vehicles involved in accidents were ~5,211,007 passenger cars vs. 3,950,074 light trucks… And the numbers of occupants killed in vehicle accidents in 2009 included 13,095 passenger car occupants and 10,287 light truck occupants.

      In other words, the real world likelihood of you dying in a collision while in a passenger car seems to be 1 death for every 398 accidents, and the likelihood of you dying in a collision while in a “light truck” seems to be 1 death for every 384 accidents.

      You are MORE likely to die in an accident if you are driving a light truck… also you are statistically more likely to be involved in an accident if you are driving a light truck.

      Finally, in accidents involving light trucks in 2009, 3.8% of pickups and 4% of SUV’s experienced a rollover. In passenger cars, only 1.6% experienced a rollover, so the likelihood of injury also shows higher likelihood if you are involved in an accident in a “light truck” than if you are in a passenger vehicle.

      The SUV salesman lied.
      http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/transportation/motor_vehicle_accidents_and_fatalities.html

    • Frank Eggers says:

      Actually, heavy vehicles are more dangerous. Think about it. If you were stopped at a red light, would you rather be hit from behind by a heavy vehicle or a light vehicle? Probably you would rather be hit by a light vehicle because light vehicles inflict less damage in an accident.

      The above shows that driving a heavy vehicle for safety is basically selfish. One who drives a heavy vehicle for safety is saying that his life is more valuable than the lives of others.

      One of the problems here in the U.S. is that we think of safety as being provided by the vehicle. We have seriously neglected driver training to the the extent that driver training here is nothing but a joke. If we had better driver training and people took driving as the serious responsibility that it is and endeavored to work continually to improve their driving instead of treating it as a casual activity like loading the washing machine, our road injury and death rates could be greatly reduced without depending on heavy vehicles for safety.

    • Jay Gee says:

      If all the rest of us drove cement trucks….I guess you would have to change to a bigger transport to ‘Be Safe’???
      How safe do you suppose those of us that walk or ride a bike feel with you driving 7500# of steel spewing black clouds of lung damaging exhaust into our faces….( Something to think about while walking a mile in another ladies shoes ) Jay Gee

  2. Glenn Doty says:

    Craig,

    The problem here is that there needs to be some kind of crisis which serves as a catalyst for societal change. It isn’t enough for a small portion (~5%) of the population to just start doing things and expecting the world to follow along.

    The last real chance for societal change were after 9/11 – when a semi-competent national leader might have led the charge for reduced reliance on Middle-East oil (and sort-of worked in energy efficiency at home and work along with it).

    Since that didn’t work (we had a shill who took marching orders from the Saudis in charge at the time), there was another attempt in 2005 with the extraordinary work “An Inconvenient Truth”, which was released in a year following a record year of storm damage that the nation was still recovering from. But perhaps inconveniently, the weather patterns shifted (likely caused by global warming) to the arctic dipole anomaly which caused a dramatic reduction in hurricanes in the Atlantic the very next year, and we’ve had record low storm damage for the past 6 years.

    The next event around which a cultural change might occur will be the complete melting of the arctic ice cap (sometime within the next 6 years), or a multi-year continuation of the heat wave/drought in Texas and the Southern Midwest (though since Perry is currently governor of Texas this certainly won’t be well exploited until after government changes hands in Texas).

    If those opportunities are missed, or misused (Perry), there’s no telling exactly when the next opportunity will arise… but there has to be something that will grab the attention of the common American long enough for them to consider changing their lifestyle. It cannot just occur randomly, we don’t change like that.

    • Frank Eggers says:

      Simply making vehicles smaller and more fuel efficient will not solve the problem; people will just drive more. We need to reduce dependence on private cars for transportation. That will require better city planning else there will be no way that public transportation can be efficient, effective, and convenient.

      Modern technology has been used to increase power far beyond what would have been thought possible fifty years ago. It’s been done while also increasing fuel efficiency. However, fuel efficiency would be even greater if the power had not been increased so radically. But again, unless increased fuel efficiency is combined with less dependence on private cars, it will simply result in more driving and we will gain little or nothing.

  3. The other element of this that has always been fascinating to me is the horsepower measurement. Even the smallest car has 100 horses “under the hood” and those ridiculous monster SUVs have 400 or more. Interesting that motation used to involve ONE horse, or perhaps 2 if the whole family was piling onto the wagon.
    How quickly our culture adapted to comfort! The comfort of leather seats and intermittent wipers. I admit that I enjoy the comforts as well as anyone, but it is wise to think about one’s contribution to unsustainability.
    This binge of consumption will come to an end, perhaps abruptly. Those with awareness of that inexorable change will be better equipped to adapt.

  4. David Dewis says:

    Cool to be Green is an interesting concept and will always find a home in a certain demographic. However, it is likely to be economic factors that will give the greatest boost to the “Green Movement”. Where common sense and the desire to maintain living standards prevail.

    Events can be augmented by Government, as in Europe, where high fuel taxes lead to smaller more efficient vehicles. If allowed to occur naturally, economic factors will ultimately drive us to conserve.

  5. Vicente Fachina says:

    Hi Craig,

    Timely point! Our minds got used to be wide open to other minds´ideas, thus all the things we´re told to buy because our life quality is supposed to get better…I´ve learned to keep my life frugal, yet balanced enough materially.
    If we all learn how to close our eyes for some minutes daily, eventually for some hours in one day weekly, as in meditation or similar technique, we should live better with less, and so to discover how marvelous our life can be, even to come to terms with that very only constant in life.

    My best,
    Vicente Fachina
    Rio

  6. arlene says:

    I always enjoy your optimisms. Would that they all come true. Wall-E did a very entertaining job at portraying the opposing but current trend.

    This particular blog entry benefited from the good fortune of an early comment demonstrating the rationalizations that plague modern society. The majority of people tend to be hopelessly slavish. Your thesis herein certainly takes advantage of that, but correspondingly is also diminished by that same phenomenon in those whose fears are easily nourished by any entity that benefits from such fear.

    Life is dangerous to your health. It is quite senseless to think this can be mitigated through progressive micro-improvements. Penicillin as a macro-improvement was perhaps a good thing. Keeping my house at a perfect 70 degrees or decreasing the likelihood of a fatal crash by .1% is silliness.

  7. I agree with you, I remember growing up with the simple life and it was great and people helped people. We were poor, but life was good. One person can make a difference, JESUS did, We are such a greedy Nation and have lost so much of our values and the care for one another it is pathetic, We care more about animals than we do Humans, How sad, We can change and realize that when we quit trying to impress one another and start helping each other life can and will get better. GOD Bless

    • I agree with you totally. It is so sad to see the little importance placed on a human life. I also tend to see the lack of people reusing. We are a throw away society. Why fix it if we can just throw it away and get a new one. The buck starts and stops with all of us.

  8. Nima Kaz says:

    Very well put Craig! Less is indeed becoming the “more” of our generation. Going forward, life on this planet promises to be more like so, at least for the sake of sustainability & continuity for our very civilization. Perhaps this shift in paradigm may rise out of necessity rather than desire, but nevertheless our collective will is what drives the resulting changes home! Any opposition to the systemic lowering of consumption can only come from our modernized humanness with which comes adversity to change & the fear of true transcendental progress. With the conscious participation of 5% or so (as per Glenn’s comment above) we start & with the effective engagement of 100% our civilization shall succeed in sustainable continuity!

  9. Garth says:

    Craig, your question paraphrased “can we change our direction?” is a profound and viable one. I don’t think we need another catastrophic event nor even the suggestion of one to get our attention, rather continued educational pressure on the next generation through the “new electronic media” we all take for granted now.
    My grandchildren operate a computer much better than I, and they access far more information than I did at their age; they are not unaware of the issues we’re facing but this stream of information is the norm for them; they don’t see it as a warning or even as the potential future. They are changing but I fear that the very tool that is giving them insight is stealing the very thing I took for granted – my time spent with nature while growing up.
    The reality of recognizing what is real and what is a cyber space creation is becoming blurred and the significance of that reality is lost. Taking a child out into nature and introducing them to something tangible, touchable and fragile can be a stark experience; explaining to that child that the world must change its ways or that piece of nature might be lost forever is difficult at best and in many cases that child might prefer escape back to the games and media unless the time is taken to educate and communicate that without nature we will not have what we have now, that life will be far more harsh and unforgiving than realized. One doesn’t “double click” on nature; you have to experience it with the five senses.

  10. Barry Saitman says:

    Its fine to be idealistic, but idealism only creates revolutions. Glenn Doty points out that crisis doesn’t promote change…and will not without substantive leadership. If you want evolutionary change, then be pragmatic instead. Cathy G is when it comes to vehicle safety. So if you want change, any change, then use the tools today’s change agents use. Marketers adapt fear, sex, image, lust and greed to influence buying habits. Living small can be “cool” if tied to the above ploys. Your “small is good” movement will come about when someone can profit from it. Automakers and housing developers are already practicing this driven by fear of rising oil prices and household downsizing. Figure out the formula, sell-it and create your movement this way.

  11. marcopolo says:

    Craig,

    Sorry to be the only voice of dissension among so many beautiful idealists, but a minimalist, smaller, poorer, approach is never going to happen!

    In every generation, these Utopian ideals become fashionable, but always fading the cold light of economic reality.

    What you are proposing would remove the basis of civilisation!

    Consider how ‘civilisations began. Civil societies are the product of group of human farmers forming a community to exploit surplus production.

    ‘Surplus’ is what you have after the basic needs of food and shelter to sustain life, are provided.

    Once you create a civilisation, the ball is set rolling, human creativity does the rest!

    Art, engineering, logistics, trade, science,law, technology, methods of preserving and educating knowledge etc continue to expand collectively. As the civilisation advances, individuals lose the ability to create any major contribution without depending on a really vast number of others to assist and contribute.

    Interdependency, and co-operation in the economy are essential. There is no such thing as ‘waste’, all products, useful or not, are the fruits of human creativity and play an inter-dependant part in the economy. No one part can be, removed in untimely fashion to suit a particular philosophy, without damaging the whole economic structure. The good and essential along with the trivial and unimportant.

    It’s dangerous to think of a ‘smaller’ society! The smaller, the less interdependent, the more self-sufficient and isolated, the more likely to adopt warfare as a means of resolving disputes.

    I know it’s unfashionable to understand and accept the true structure of human civilisation, but anything else is just a delusion.

    Better to concentrate on expanding our economies by replacing outdated, less efficient technology with newer and more beneficial technology.

    More challenging, more exciting!

  12. Ken Chan says:

    Craig: Childhood times were wonderful. Chlldhood activities kept many of us, really fit. I wonder if the young kids today with their computer games culture, can survived in our world 55-60 years ago.

    Having said that, I would add that growing up was quite like the ‘bell curve’. Roughly, from ages 1-20-25 you grew up and then from 25-55-65 you accumulated, and then by 55-60-65, you start to live with lesser and lesser possessions, for me at least, even giving up all the Benzes & Range Rovers & the hugh houses that perhaps most of us lived in.
    Living a green lifestyle is really good and ‘cool’, however one can still live in a luxuriously big house with all the right modern technologies in place. Hybrid cars are also cool and electric cars even cooler, only if the electricity are from renewable energy sources and not from dirty coal fired or fossil fuel fired power stations. In Australia and in my apartment in Beijing, I have several bags for papers, plastics & packagings, bottles, for recycling and reuse and one separately for food waste.

    Will the people on planet earth live a “greener lifestyle” voluntarily? I hardly think so. This is something for the government and other good NGOs or Voluntary Organisations to initiate and regulate. This is a mission of Scale and someone once said, the needs of the masses outweigh the needs of the individual.

    For Glenn Doty: Number crunching:24474 Americans died in motor accidents, in a population of 300 million Americans. That is 1 in every 12,258 Americans (not 1 in 10,000,000)

    Cheers….Ken

  13. Alex says:

    All this “bigger is better” BS has been sucessfully brain washed into the minds of the weakers by the big automakers and specially oil companies. I’ve been driving small cars for quite some time now because I believe I don’t have the right to waste precious natural resources just to show to my neighboors or friends that I have more money than they do. My small car (a Smart ForTwo) has in fact saved me from accidents several times. Because it is smaller and lighter than 99.9% of the other vehicles out there, I’m able to dogde dangerous situations more easily. This is something Cathy’s 7,500 pounds gas guzler will never be able to do.

  14. Marc Vendetti says:

    Craig, excellent article. You absolutely get it. The problem is you’re preaching to the choir here. You need to get your message in front of those who DON’T agree with you to really get the conversation going.

    • Craig Shields says:

      Thanks for the kind words. And yes, you’re right about preaching to the choir, though that’s not at all by design. I’m doing what I can to introduce as many new people as possible to the subject, but I could always use more help and ideas.

  15. Luie says:

    Hi Craig,

    I’m really sold to the idea that living luxurious life doesn’t really make much in achieving a satisfactory and meaningful life. “Green life” make life more meaningful knowing that you are in harmony with the environmnent.

    Right now, I am thinking of buying a gadget that would help me alot in my work as violist and in my study in the field of environment. Can you help me decide what kind of gadget that is cost effective and green, where I can store files, read, play and listen. etc. So suggestions will be highly appreciated.

    THanks

    Luie

    • Craig Shields says:

      I’m flattered that you think I could recommend a gadget that would help you in your work as violist and in your study of the environment. But I’m afraid you have me beat on this one. Anyone? :)

    • George Alger says:

      Hi Luie,

      Although there are probably numerous products that might aid you to “store files, read, play and listen,” there are two general categories I might suggest you contemplate:

      1) Instead of a conventional monitor, consider one with an LED-backlit LCD display:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LED-backlit_LCD_display

      This is truly a win for the green consumer, whereby you get a product that is lighter, uses less power, presents a better image and in many circumstances even costs less.

      2) Additionally, you may want to consider a Solid State Drive for storing music and other files, which is a high-performance, energy-efficient memory technology.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SSD

      These types of drives have an advantage of no moving parts so they are less likely to fail. However, currently their cost is higher than conventional hard drives (like renewable energy costs are higher than coal energy). However the prices are coming down and not too far in the future you will be able to buy SSDs for less money than current hard drives.

  16. Alan Harvey says:

    Graig, you hit the nail on the head! Green is going to be the most ‘cool’ thing that any thinking person can embrace if we are going to save this place.

    Please keep up the great work!

    BTW, ‘The Story of Stuff’ Project is brilliant!

    Regards.

    Alan

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