Princess, a friend from the United States, once came to visit me. I took a shopping bag with me when we went to the shopping mall. She remarked on it. I said that getting a new bag at the shop produced unnecessary waste. She then called me an environmental extremist. That reinforced my prejudice of Americans being wasteful consumers. Why should we make things to throw away? But perhaps, she was right. Bringing a shopping bag with you might be a minor inconvenience, but it can be the first step on the road to extreme living where nothing gets wasted. Before you know it, you are separating your waste for recycling. And what’s next? It is scary to think of it.
My mother once said that I overdo things. Buying second-hand is what poor people do, usually not privileged people like me. I have done my best to appear normal, but I can’t help eating scraps others leave behind or using paper towels my son has thrown away after hardly using them. Waste and spillage unnerve me somehow. It is better not to upset others, but I cannot always guess what disturbs them. Once, I wore worn-out clothes at a family party. My father was not amused. It probably reminded him of the poverty in which he once lived. He wanted me to have a better life. But can you overdo environmentalism? Buying new clothes is one of the worst things we can do to our planet. And some people do much more to save Earth than I do.
Indeed, I am a most peculiar person, and the evidence is mounting. Lately, I began having second thoughts about ‘normal’ living again. We are using far more than Earth can provide. The cuts in profligate consumption might need to be drastic, like in the vicinity of 100%. And excessive is anything we do not need. So what is extreme living? You can go out bungee jumping, take a vacation to a far-away country, or indulge in a hot dog eating contest and think that is extreme, but you are just unnecessarily turning precious resources into waste. That is normal living. My great-grandparents hardly ever left the village in which they lived. They had never been to Germany, even though it was only ten kilometres from their home. And bungee jumping was not on their bucket list either. That is more like it.
Perhaps it is not as hard as it seems
Most people in the past led extreme lives, and many still do today, most notably in areas that have not yet developed into consumerist economies. Compared to them, I am reasonably conventional. I do not live in a shed without heating, nor do I grow food in a kitchen garden. Well, I tried the latter. Indeed, there are stranger people out there than me. But my wasteful lifestyle cannot remain a standard for much longer. People like me should drastically reduce their consumption. Perhaps it is not as hard as it seems. You can see extreme living as the destination of a journey. You are not there yet.
There are many things you can do now. And there is always another step after that. And after you have taken action, you might be as happy or miserable as before. The 80/20 rule states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. And so, excessive consumption might only contribute a small part to our well-being. Many of us see that differently because squandering is a virtue nowadays.
In the consumerist economy, squandering boosts profits and employment. Those who do not waste energy and resources are deplorable because they are poor and cannot do what others can. We envy the rich and famous with their extravagant lifestyles. But if living a modest life is a virtue, and we see squanderers as planetary destroyers or wreckers of God’s creation, poor people become less deplorable. And there may be another benefit. A lot of crime comes from people desiring status goods they cannot afford with an ordinary job. But who needs a Rolex watch or Nike sneakers?
Time is money or convenience
Times have changed. We will not go back to the nineteenth century. So what is extreme living today? Perhaps, you think it is living in a car or a cold home, but that is just appearance. It is about saving the Earth and our future. The consumerist economy is about spending and squandering resources and energy. We should stop doing that as we are running out of resources. If you spend less, you save money. We hear that time is money. But if time is money, money might be time. For instance, if you spend half your income on rent, living in a car saves you lots of money. And you may only have to work half days to make ends meet, so it also saves you time. A tiny house is less extreme but comes from the same logic.
Convenience translates into using energy and resources. Advertisements tell us how easy the product is and the time or trouble it saves you. They do not tell you how many hours you sweat for it. Eating out is convenient, but you have to work for it. As a result, you have less time and crave more convenience. Before you know it, you are like a mouse trapped on a treadmill. If you forego ease, you may have time. In the past, people had time, for instance, to grow their food or mend their clothes. That is a lot of work, but food and clothes were expensive because incomes were low. Buying clothes meant more work, so mending saved time. It may not be a coincidence that poor people often have more time than rich people.
The consumerist economy is about selling stuff. And you work for it. If you do not need a product or a service, the advertising industry gets the order to make you believe you need it. Soon, you may find celebrities flaunting the product on social media. The more you work and buy, the wealthier you appear. It increases GDP and profits, but it harms life on the planet. Businesses make money if you buy their products, while your employer makes money when you go to work. Economists call it creating wealth. That is why time is money. There is no problem with that unless your job or the products you buy are unneeded and use energy and scarce resources. It applies to most people in today’s ‘advanced’ economies, myself included. But worsening the future of our children is not creating wealth. And so, we need a new definition of wealth.
Wealth could be the time we can live off our capital. If you own € 50,000 and need € 10,000 per year, you are better off than someone who has € 100,000 and needs € 40,000 per year. We save to increase our wealth. If we live off the interest, we do not touch our capital. In either case, we forego consumption to invest or live within our means. And even though we do not own it, the most precious resource we live off is Earth. By saving Earth, we create wealth. And so, most activities in the consumerist economy do not create wealth. Extreme living is about saving the planet and providing the children of the Earth with a better future. Sustainable living is living off the interest and keeping the capital intact. Sadly, we live on borrowings and have consumed a significant part of our most precious resource. And so we should restore Earth first. That requires investment hence savings, hence sacrifice.
We prefer a comfortable life, but extreme living could be our near future. And if we do it, we probably will do fine, and it will become normal. If you are honest, you might arrive at this conclusion too. I do not believe we can expect solutions to come from corporations and governments alone. It begins with us. Once we stop buying unnecessary and harmful products, corporations will become less wasteful. And if we do it ourselves, governments do not have to tell us that we should do it. Costs are the best motivator. Low costs inspire us to squander, while high costs motivate us to save. When natural gas prices soared because Russia cut the gas supply to Europe, natural gas consumption in the Netherlands dropped by 30%. My savings were considerable too.
Most of us think saving energy is good, but we do much more if we are rewarded or cannot afford it. High energy prices cause a lot of stress because we are accustomed, or perhaps addicted, to low energy prices. We have to adapt and give up comfort. We have built our lives on cheap fossil fuels. High energy prices cause shock. Some businesses, for instance, bakers, get in trouble, while poor people with high energy bills face stark choices. If energy prices remain high, we have to deal with that and prevent essential businesses from closing and the poor from freezing. But many things we consider necessities nowadays have never been necessities in the past. If resource and energy prices had always been high, we would have different lifestyles and a higher price for a loaf of bread. And it would have been normal rather than extreme living.
Living without a car
My great-grandparents never owned a car. They walked, and perhaps they had a bike. They might have taken the train occasionally. Today, many people work one day per week for their car alone. You can have lots of extra spare time if you ditch your car. You might need that time because the same trip takes longer if you use public transport, but you can ditch that trip too. Why should you go there? In the past, people usually did not go outside their village. Back then, if your aunt celebrated her birthday and lived thirty kilometres away, you didn’t go, and she wasn’t offended. There were festivals in your village you could attend instead. Extreme living is about not doing things that cost energy and resources. Does that sound boring? Sure. But think of what you can do instead, for instance, taking a walk or visiting your neighbours.
Your family and friends expect you to emit greenhouse gases to come to their parties. They might be offended if you forego the occasion to avoid contributing to global warming. That is socially unacceptable, so you have to find other excuses, like feeling sick. Few people want to hear that the Earth is more important than them. But you can also cancel trips without offending someone. Nearly every week, I go to the forest with my wife, which is a thirty minutes drive. After that, we go to a pub before returning home. Alternatively, we could go by bus. That would take fifty minutes. In that case, we must plan the trip as there is one bus every hour. Sometimes the bus might not come, and we must wait another hour. It is an inconvenience that car drivers prefer to avoid. But going to the forest is just walking and watching trees. We can do that near home. And there are pubs in my hometown too. One of them has become the theme of a song.
For many years, I did not own a car while having a job that required it. My employer could send me to jobs all over the country. But I lived in a remote city. I had a job over there, or the job was at least 200 kilometres from home, so I had to stay in a hotel or rent an apartment. In either case, I could go to my work by bike. For long trips, I used the train. Using public transport requires some planning, extra time, and sometimes sacrifice. I remember a thirty-minute walk through the snow to reach the Oracle office in De Meern because buses only go there during rush hour. And all that waiting at train stations. But it saved me money so I could buy a house. After all, time is money.
After I met my wife, we often borrowed her mother’s car for trips, so my life was not entirely without a car from then on. And we rented a car if we needed one. Most people can do without a car most of the time, but it requires planning and sacrifice, for instance, sharing a car with colleagues, finding another job or relocating. The proximity to a public transport hub was a reason for me to buy my house. In areas without public transport, there is room for an alternative. When I was on vacation in Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean, I noticed that van drivers provided this service to the public. They had no timetables, but the driver went off once the van was filled with people. Usually, you had to wait fifteen minutes or so. But the people who used this service had time. In the Summer of 2021, I started using public transport again when travelling alone if it was not too much trouble.
Turning down the heating
My great-grandparents did not have central heating. It was cold inside their home, and it could freeze. They warmed themselves at the stove in the living room, the only warm place in their home. More and more people in the Netherlands only heat the living room. And so do I. A few even turn off the heating entirely and put on a warm vest or a coat. You may not want to go that far, but heating only the living room makes sense. It is the place where you spend most of the time when you are at home.
Others turn down the heating. I do that too. That is healthy for most people, except for the elderly and the sick. I can work at 17 degrees Celsius if I wear extra clothes and thin gloves. Cold fingers are my biggest worry because I work with a computer. If the temperature inside your house goes below 15 degrees Celsius, you may need to ventilate more often. If you feel chilly, you can do some physical exercise. The heat you generate can help to warm the room. In any case, you will feel warmer.
Growing your own food or local farming
There is not much I can tell you about growing food. I have tried it, but it was too much work. The clay soil was not easy to till, and the savings were negligible. If you love gardening, it can be a great hobby, but I do not expect that kitchen gardens can provide for our food requirements. High energy prices may revive farming for local markets and growing crops in their seasons. Agricultural products are bulky. Today, farmers offer their produce to national or even world markets. Transport costs can be substantial. It can make sense for farmers to diversify and grow several crops for local markets.
The distribution of these goods can be an obstacle. In the past, agricultural products were usually sold on local markets. Today, they are sold in supermarkets. Selling local products may require a separate distribution channel, for instance, someone collecting the produce from farmers and running a stand in a shopping mall. For several foods, there are safety considerations and they may require industrial processing. Still, a wide range of foods is suitable for local production and consumption. Governments could relax regulations to promote small-scale local trade, but food safety regulations exist for a reason.
And some crazy things are going on, like growing crops in South America to feed livestock in Europe to produce meat for Asia. That brings us to the damage and suffering caused by meat and dairy consumption. Taking in less is already an improvement if you cannot stop. I forego meat if it is not too much trouble, and I never buy meat for myself. Meat substitutes likely become available that cause not as much animal suffering and damage to the planet. Let’s hope it will happen soon.
Compared to heating, you probably use less energy for showering or bathing. I would not recommend turning yourself into a stinky monster, but if you bathe or shower daily, you can save energy and water by taking shorter showers and doing it less frequently. If you do not sweat, you might not need to shower daily. My great-grandparents did not shower or bathe but may have used a washcloth instead. For that, you need to warm a bit of water, add some soap, and there you are. Compared to taking a bath, you use 99% less water and energy.
There are other savings you can make. You can wear your clothes longer and wash them less frequently. Again, if you do not sweat, you may wear your clothes for a week without becoming smelly. You may scrub under your armpits regularly to lengthen the interval between clothing switches and showers. I do these things too, and two or three short showers a week usually suffice. I think there are a lot of tips on the Internet if you consider going more extreme, for instance, doing the dishes manually, cooking your meals shorter or installing solar panels and adapting your electricity use to the sunshine.
Not throwing away
Pundits talk a lot about recycling, but what about not throwing away? Recycling costs energy, and you do not recover all the waste. For instance, glass must be melted at high temperatures. You can recycle glass by throwing it in a glass container, but recycling still costs a lot of energy. And there is so much packaging. And thirty brands sell the same stuff. They call it freedom of choice. Take, for example, shampoo. You go to a shop and buy a bottle. And you throw away the old bottle. That is normal. A crazy individual might suggest that a supermarket should have a tank and that you can fill your bottle there. Once you think of that, you can imagine a wide range of products supermarkets might distribute in this way. For instance, you might bring a bag with you for apples. Some are doing that already.
There are some considerations. It is better not to mix the shampoo with a detergent. And so, there should be different types of bottles for products that we should not mingle. The hard part is, and that is why consumers might oppose it, you must bring these bottles and bags with you. That is an inconvenience if the shop is far away and you have forgotten some bottles or bags. Having thirty brands is also a waste. You need thirty tanks for shampoo, not to mention thirty trucks delivering shampoo to the distribution centre of your supermarket. If you say that, consumers can get angry. Their identity is attached to the brand of shampoo they use. The advertising industry has done its job well.
But there are some really crazy things going on. Recently, I saw a documentary on Netflix about bottled water. There is a multi-billion industry selling a free commodity. Did you know that drinking the recommended eight daily glasses of water from the tap costs less dan € 1 per year? The same water in bottles costs you more than € 1,000. Did you know that Americans use over 70 billion bottles of water per year? The energy to make them could fuel two million cars. And nearly all those bottles are disposed of, creating an environmental disaster.
It is about marketing and brand identity. Cool dudes and gals cannot go without bottled water. That is what the advertising industry told them. But what if they are mere idiots paying a thousand times more and producing waste that ends up as microplastics in their health foods? Water from the tap is at least 99.9% the same. You might consider giving the money you save from not drinking bottled water to a charity that provides clean drinking water to people in developing countries. They often have no choice but to buy these expensive bottles. Talk about exploiting poor people. They can do a lot with an extra € 1,000 per year.
If it is about being cool
Buying bottled water or choosing between thirty different brands is often about being trendy and cool, at least if we believe the word of the advertising industry. But if wasting nothing becomes the new awesome, then we do not need bottled water or brands. And all those salespeople, influencers, brand managers, bloggers and advertisement sellers may have to find a job that contributes to society. Big internet corporations might stop tracking you, but you may have to pay for their services.