The Wisdom of Frugality: The Environmentalist Case for Simple Living

wisdom of frugalityThis is the seventh entry in an eight-part weekly series that provides a detailed look at the book The Wisdom of Frugality by Emrys Westacott. If you’re new to the series, feel free to hop back to the first entry.

This chapter of The Wisdom of Frugality takes direct aim at one of the biggest benefits often cited for living a simpler frugal life: it’s environmentally friendly. A frugal person, as the argument goes, uses far less resources than an affluent person and thus puts less of a strain on the global environment. Many people carry this concept forward and use it as a big part of their moral justification for frugality.

Historical Background

This part might not seem relevant to frugality, but bear with it.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, there was no need for people to be concerned about the environment. The individual actions of humans in a pre-industrial society did not add up to nearly enough to cause environmental damage on a scale that could consistently cause significant and widespread harm.

Nature was seen as a wild force for man to exploit. It was far beyond the ability of man to control it or interfere with it in any significant way; rather, man found ways to accentuate the benefits of nature and minimize the negative impact on human life.

Over the centuries, humans gradually developed technologies that allowed them to exploit more and more of the earth’s resources, eventually leading to the Industrial Revolution and widespread exploitation of those resources.

Alongside the Industrial Revolution, a backlash of sorts arose in the form of Romanticims, which lauded natural untamed landscapes and distrusted artificial things. This eventually developed into a broad tradition, with people like Henry David Thoreau rejecting many aspects of technology and eventually growing into the modern environmental and political movement.

The Environmentalist Argument for Frugality

Frugality and environmentalism find a great deal of overlap because of similarity in tactics. Both of them find a great deal of value in minimizing one’s use of the Earth’s resources and getting as much value as possible out of the resources that we do use.

The idea of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” for example, is as much at home with an environmentalist as it is with a frugal person. Both will seek to get as much value out of things as possible, but for somewhat different core reasons. The environmentalist wants to reuse and reduce in order to minimize their impact on the Earth, while the frugality wants to reduce and reuse in order to minimize the expense.

The specific tactics that both groups use in their daily life tend to match up really well, too. Strategies like using less water, consuming fewer manufactured goods, using less electricity, and finding low impact things to do with one’s time are strategies that both frugal people and environmentalists share, even though they may be doing those things for different reasons. Often, frugal people and environmentalists are on the same page with broader initiatives in the community, like having an effective mass transit system, which lowers overall environmental impact (great for the environmentalist) while also lowering individual cost (great for the frugal person).

Objections to the Environmental Argument

However, a great deal of synergy in tactics doesn’t add up to full agreement. While there may be some overlap between the beliefs and tactics of the environmentalist and the frugal person, there isn’t perfect alignment.

First of all, ecological impacts are often difficult to articulate and evaluate. Things like biofuels and rechargeable batteries might seem to be environmentally friendly on the surface, but the full picture of their environmental impact often isn’t nearly as clear cut. For example, rechargeable batteries often require some very environmentally unfriendly practices and materials requirements to manufacture, for example. They may be frugal, but are they environmentally friendly? It’s a bit harder to tell for sure.

This is true for larger strategies that might seem like great synergy between frugality and environmentalism. Is it more environmentally friendly to install solar panels on your home than to keep buying from the grid? What about the manufacture of those panels – what kind of impact does that have? Figuring that out becomes very difficult, whereas crunching the numbers to determine the cost-effectiveness of such a choice is much more cut and dried.

The thing to remember when being skeptical of ecological impacts of individual choices is that it’s good to be skeptical of the individual practices, but recognize that the overall principle – reduction of environmental impact – is a good one.

The second issue to consider is the fact that simple living isn’t always green living. A great example of this came from the “burn barrel” we had when I was growing up. We didn’t have trash service and the only real option for trash removal was to haul it to a dump that was many miles away, so instead we had a “burn barrel” – an old barrel that my dad picked up somewhere – in which we burnt our trash. When the barrel became full of ash (and with a few unburnt items in there), then we’d pay to have it hauled away. It was far cheaper than actually having trash service, but far less environmentally friendly.

In retrospect, the environmental cost of services out in the country where I grew up was much higher than it would have been in the city. The environmental cost of running power lines, water lines, roadways, and other such services to us out in the country was enormous. Furthermore, to have access to other services, like grocery stores, we had to drive quite a few miles.

The idea of “simple living in the country” is really only environmentally friendly if you decide to completely go without a lot of basic services. Some people in rural areas do eschew a few services that people in urban or suburban areas might expect (such as speedy internet), but people in rural areas do expect an awful lot of the basic services that all Americans expect, like drivable roads, drinkable water, and so on, and those services have a pretty big environmental footprint when they’re offered in rural areas.

Another great example of how the frugal option isn’t always the most environmentally friendly option is the choices faced when buying fresh produce. Local, organically produced items are going to have a lower environmental impact than produce that came from a factory farm several thousand miles away… but the local organic produce is going to be more expensive because the factory farm methods squeeze a lot of cost out of the system.

How does a person decide what the right choice really is? It’s not an easy decision no matter what you choose. There ends up being several reasonable choices when it comes down to balancing various environmental factors, and often the “best” choice ends up being influenced by other factors like health benefits, the impact on the local community, and so forth. Often, this best choice does not end up being the least expensive choice, which can put a price conscious person at odds with an environmentally focused person.

Furthermore, it can be argued that the choices of individuals make no real difference. The actions of governments and corporations will make the real difference, not individual frugal choices. The things I do in my daily life have very, very little impact on the environment compared to the impact of large scale agricultural businesses and manufacturing businesses.

This is the reasoning that many people use for individual poor behavior. “I can’t possibly make an impact,” goes the logic, “so it doesn’t matter what I do.” Thus, people excuse their own unethical and damaging behavior.

The thing is, individual actions multiplied many times can make an enormous difference. Consider, for example, a community that has limited water in its reservoir that agrees to some general water use rules within the town. If everyone chooses to conserve a little, everyone has enough water for their needs. An individual person isn’t going to be able to fix the water issue through severe cutbacks or non-use, nor is that individual going to be able to singlehandedly drain the reservoir, but when lots and lots of individuals agree to limit their water use to merely meet their needs rather than all of their wants, there ends up being enough water for everyone to meet their needs.

This pops up over and over again. When people agree to use restraint when utilizing common resources like water and wood and other such things, there’s enough for everyone to have their needs and sometimes their more important wants met. If individuals assume they have no impact and then uses the resources recklessly, then simple arrangements where everyone has their needs met can never occur and some will be left without needed resources.

When lots of people take little steps, economies of scale kick in. For example, if everyone in America gave a single dime toward a cause, that cause would suddenly have $30 million dollars. Little efforts are only small when they’re seen in isolation – if they’re repeated by everyone and looked at from a distance, they appear enormous.

Another counterpoint is the idea that our best hope for fixing the environment lies in technological innovation. Many of the tools that we have for keeping our environment healthy come from technological innovation – solar panels (and their steady improvement), wind power, algae power, tidal power, tools for environmental cleanup, and so on. As powerful as frugal living can be, it can’t fix the damage of the past and it can only somewhat alter our trajectory going forward. Technology has the capacity to fix our past mistakes and radically alter our path going forward.

The problem is that technological innovation, as it’s happening, often has a huge environmental impact itself. It can take a ton of resources to go from whiteboard idea to something that works, and that first version that works is usually very rough and takes a long time to refine. In other words, development of the technologies that we really need to make things better is going to require some significant short term environmental impact, and there’s not even a guarantee that those technologies will help. Furthermore, other technological innovations will likely continue to increase our use of resources while we stumble towards any kind of solution to the environmental impact of that resource use.

Stepping up activities that are causing the problem is illogical. It’s the equivalent of eating more when you’ve just been given a prescription for diabetes medication. Yet it’s essentially a requirement if we believe technology will just fix everything.

Many people hope that this research will happen as a result of the economic booms that have come from the development of earlier research into high-demand products. The reality is that the kind of research that’s done in the wake of a successful product is usually not in solving big societal problems, but in developing a follow-up product. Apple’s R&D department didn’t start trying to solve humanity’s deep questions once they developed the iPhone. Instead, they went to work on the iPhone 2 and the iPad.

Final Thoughts

Most of the arguments that people make in favor of frugality are individual arguments. They look at things purely in terms of the individual – how can I get the most value out of this situation, considering my needs and wants and my financial bottom line? The environmental angle is an attempt to move beyond that individual approach. How does frugality come into alignment with larger societal needs? It happens to line up well with being green.

When you start looking at frugality through the lens of what our moral obligations to others actually are and how we live them out, it’s clear that frugality can be a major part in terms of living out our obligations to our community and the world. If we live a less expensive and simpler lifestyle, we’re left with more resources with which to use to make the world a better place, plus we’re consuming fewer resources ourselves. There are a lot of ways we can use those resources to make the community and the world a better place.

In short, frugality is a powerful supplement to a public service oriented lifestyle. If volunteerism and other forms of public service and public work are a major part of your life and you want to actively work to make the world a better place, then frugality plays a strong complementary role in that because it reduces the amount of time and energy and money you need to commit to meeting your living expenses, which thus increases the amount of time and energy and money you have available to commit to the causes you care about.

There’s another interesting underlying issue in all of this: just because something feels right doesn’t mean that it is right. It might feel “right” (for an example that hits home here in Iowa) to buy ethanol-supplemented fuels, but the significant reduction in fuel efficiency plus the environmental cost in the conversion of plant matter into ethanol means that I’m not convinced that what “feels” right actually “is” right (the jury is still out for me on this one, to tell the truth). It takes a lot of work to move from what “feels” right to what actually “is” right, and that sometimes means giving up on some tightly-held beliefs. That’s a kind of effort that’s in short supply in the world, sadly enough.

Next week, we’ll tie up this book with some final thoughts on the book as a whole and what it means for people practicing frugality today.

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