THE WAY I LIVE

 

Ted Trainer

4.2005

This account is intended to make two important points. Firstly we could live very cheaply compared with the normal lifestyle in consumer society, and secondly this could yield a very high quality of life. Unfortunately people tend to think that we could not move to much lower rates of consumption without giving up most of the things that make life enjoyable, but this is a mistake. Living simply does not have to imply hardship or deprivation. There are many sources of interest, activity and satisfaction available in a materially simple lifestyle.

Secondly, big reductions are not possible without radical change in social systems and structures; changes within present lifestyles and systems will not make enough difference.

The passages in bold type below refer to the way I actually do live. The normal type refers to things I am not able to do but would do if I lived in a neighbourhood that had been redesigned according to alternative principles.

This documnent overlaps with "How Cheaply Could We Live?"...which is more recent and detailed, but focused on possibilities for a community.

I live in a house mostly built from scrap World War 2 army materials, which would probably be valued at less than $30,000. It has no appliance under 20 years of age (the kitchen stove is 70+ years old). As far as I'm concerned it's a quite comfortable and convenient house, although ideally I would like to live in a much smaller and cheaper house. Until recently we had no phone. We now have a mobile phone (because there is no public phone nearby) but no electrical appliances apart from radios, small black and white TV, and laptop computer.

I dress in very old and patched clothes (except when going out to paid work.) Where possible I buy second hand items. Patching, darning and sewing of jumpers, trousers and socks, and making leather sandals and slippers are some of my leisure time activities. In this way I keep many things going for years. I had one jumper that was 37 years old. Clothes for going out are few and cheap and ordinary. I use only one pair of going out shoes.

Space heating is via a wood fire and small 12 volt fans to take the hot air around the house. The wood is collected in the bush near the house. Collecting and cutting wood is a enjoyable leisure activity, which is mostly carried out to get warm on cold winter afternoons.

Almost all the food we eat is produced within a few hundred metres of home, some in our garden, poultry pen, orchard, fish ponds, some from small farms in the neighbourhood, and some from the many fruit and nut trees planted in local parks and beside roads and creeks throughout our suburb. Much of this food is free to pick from the trees that we help to maintain by voluntary working bees. Very little food is imported into the neighbourhood. Just outside the settlement there are small family owned dairies, grain lands and sheep pastures. The town has its own forests, timber plantations and mill, orchards and fish farms.

The food we eat is the best in the universe; fresh, varied, pesticide free --and mostly simple. And the best cooks in the universe live in our neighbourhood, along with the best actors, musicians, story-tellers, commedians and handymen.

Our house water comes from the roof, via rainwater tanks; the sweetest drinking water there is. We use another four types of water, including swamp water for the garden, and salt water from the river to drive water wheels. We have no air conditioner. A 50w fan extrasts warm air in summer.

While at breakfast we plan things to be done during the day. The washing up is done by hand after tea at night. We do not have a dish washing machine because they are resource and energy costly and easily done without. We only use one liquid and one solid type of soap for all purposes.

Washing up is a family activity, during which we sometimes have general knowledge quizzes or spelling bees. The soap is made by someone living nearby. It is hand made, in small batches, from locally produced ingredients. Sometimes it includes fragrant oils from local flowers and plants. Income from this small scale craft and hobby business helps that family to live comfortably though very simply.

I have to go to work in a paid job only two days a week. That brings in more money than I need. I get there by bicycle, because most work places are close to where people live. I don't own a car. These small local firms are mostly family owned or cooperatives. They provide most of the things people need that are not produced at home or free from community commons. Many are normal high tech factories in our region, but few are big and there are no transnational corporations.

We spend most of the week "working" on things that we want to do and that are productive or valuable for our own household or for the neighbourhood. About 12 hours a week are spent in the vegetable garden and looking after the animals, mostly poultry. This is not work; these are things we really like doing. There are rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, ducks and geese, so feeding time is more like a visit to the circus than work. (We obviously don't eat our friends!)

The non-paid work I do around the home is entirely up to me to decide on. The range of tasks is extremely wide. Following are the sorts of jobs that might be done in a normal day; fix a windmill pump, make a cupboard door, paint a chicken shed roof, cook dinner, weld a heat exchanger for the open fire, make some mud bricks, plant out some seedlings, dig some drains, oil the windmill, make compost, cut some glass and putty it into a window, dig some potatoes, mend a fence, solder, put a 12 volt light into the circuit, cut some firewood, shear a sheep... We can start and stop each of these activities whenever we like, and see and own the product.

The activities listed above are household tasks. In addition there is voluntary "work" for the neighbourhood, such as helping on working bees a few times a week, e.g. painting the community hall or windmill, pruning the community fruit trees. There are also committees to attend. You might be on the orchard care committee, the library committee and the looking-after-old people committee, the library, fish pond or energy committee. There are also irregular contributions one makes to the local area, just helping people do things in their houses or things they are working on for the benefit of the community. For example someone might say they thought they'd plant some flowers around the new play equipment in the park tomorrow, and would we like to join them, and can you bring some tools and spare plants.

Because I only work in a paid job for two days a week I have much time to spend as I wish, partly producing things, partly contributing to community projects, partly in art and craft and community events. If I get into an interesting discussion at the shop I can stay there as long as I like. If I find a job interesting or if I can't get it done quickly I can keep at it and do other things later.

My work around the house and locality is all interesting and enjoyable. It is highly varied; I do many different jobs in one day and each yields satisfaction from the exercise of skills. I like the sense of having done the job well, having repaired something solidly so it will last, keeping machinery oiled, making something so it can be easily dismantled when necessary, having minimised the use of resources, having figured out a good design, having done the job quickly and without mistakes.

Much of the work I do around home involves creativity, skills and responsibility. Much of the time you are thinking about design; how to make the thing work well, be strong, repairable, durable, adjustable, and nice to look at. Much enjoyable time is given to thinking about the design of things, e.g., sketching ideas while at the dinner table. We buy nothing we can make and we repair bought things as much as possible. We can do these things because we have a home workshop and access to the neighbourhood workshop. We build our own sheds, water tanks and machinery such as windmills and waterwheels. We built the two houses on our block. We never get professionals or corporations to do things like this if we can help it, partly to save money, but mainly because we enjoy doing the building etc. Often we can do a much better job than the professionals or the corporations! For example we build our own pumps, cheaply and to last and to be repairable. We have built our own 12 volt drill, lathe and model-making saw.

This way of life involves a great deal of autonomy, freedom and responsibility. You are free to do what you want, the way you want, when you want…but you must think very carefully about what you are doing because if you get it wrong or design or repair it badly you will have to fix it again later. It’s your system and if you don't run it well you will pay dearly in breakdowns, repairs, remakes, and getting the goat out of the vege garden. You have to think carefully, get it right, stick to it, be sensible. This orientation is conducive to good citizenship, because it creates a strong concern to see things running well, so that there isn’t waste of time and resources, and this orientation extends to social machinery. It is very annoying to contemplate social institutions that leave problems unsolved, partly because this is just machinery that hasn’t been designed well and kept in good running order.

No fertiliser or pesticides are used in the garden. Kitchen scraps and animal manures are used for fertiliser. Leaves raked ;up during fire break maintenance are used as mulch. All prunings and weeds from bush regeneration are taken to the garden compost heaps. The poultry are rotated around pens that enclose garden sites. Many materials are recycled from local tips, including many tonnes of broken up footpath for making paths and walls. Collecting and laying these slabs is an enjoyable activity.

Any one task is usually only done for a short time and at irregular intervals, so there is always change and variety. If you had to collect slabs of rubble all day every day you would not enjoy it.

I rarely buy anything for myself; maybe some hobby equipment now and then totalling $40 a year. However I spend about $100 per week on materials, hardware, seeds etc for developing and maintaining Pigface Point educational site. This could be seen as spending on the things I do in my "leisure time".

I refuse to travel, except for the occasional invitation to conferences. I would never travel by air for leisure. Any car travel is disturbing; I fret about the weekly trip to shops, approximately 20 k there and back. I am troubled about the fact that I can buy beautiful wood and steel and screws, when most people in the world can't. I use scrap and recycled materials as much as possible.

I do not go without any thing I want that can be bought. I could easily live on two days work a week at the average Australian income, even without access to a local economy where I could get many things without having to earn money. I am very poor, but I am very rich. My monetary expenditure is low but that has little to do with my quality of life. If I won the lottery it would make no difference whatsoever in my lifestyle; there is nothing more I would buy. Right now I buy everything I want, which is not much. My situation illustrates the Buddhist idea of being "poor in means but rich in ends." Your wealth should mostly exist in the form of the community property, facilities, landscapes, commons, celebrations, people, skills, concerts that you have free and easy access to…as distinct from your possessions or bank balance.

I do not like new things. I like things that are old, scruffy, rough and ready, second hand and cheap, and that have been patched up and kept going.. Such things are morally good, because using them means new items have not been purchased. New things are usually expensive, badly made, unnecessarily elaborate, and luxurious and will probably break down soon. (We recently had to buy a stove; we got one made in the 1930s.) If I can make it I won't buy it.

I am not opposed to high-tech things, but I see little need for them. We have solar panels and I use a computer in my city office but mostly I work with ancient hand tools. I built our caretaker's cottage with hand tools.

Although I "work" most of the time, people living in alternative ways usually proceed at a leisurely pace with plenty of time off. There is nothing like the pace and busyness typical of consumer society. Note that by not travelling to work every day I have about 10 hours every week to put into activities I value.

We live in a beautiful landscape, green, interesting, with animals, ponds, forest and wetland, and watermills and projects, with no roads or litter. Within 15 minutes cycling distance there are an inexhaustible number of beautifully landscaped ponds, forests, caves, hobbit houses and other magic places people living there have built, which greatly enrich my leisure resources.

I never go away for holidays, apart from a half day picnic or hike a few times a year. I would never travel overseas for leisure. Why? Mainly because I have many interesting things to do all the time. Most of these are jobs, but some are reading and hobbies, including model making, sculpture, painting, pottery, candle making, basket making, paper making, and gardening. Our most common leisure activity, engaged in maybe three times every day, is going for a short walk, perhaps to give scraps to the horse or visit the rabbits or look at the birds in the wetland. One of my most valued leisure activities is digging in mud with a shovel. Over many years I have excavated many channels and lakes in the swampy area we are landscaping. The mud is used to make bricks. These leisure activities have no dollar costs and can be productive. For instance we might look at a project that needs some thought, or collect some fire wood or repot some plants. Highly valued activities are taking the barrow to get a load of leaf mulch for the garden thereby reducing the bushfire risk, or collecting a bucketful of horse manure for the garden.

In this lifestyle it is really not possible to distinguish between leisure and work. Almost all time is spend doing something useful, but almost all of this is done because you want to do it and you find it enjoyable, and you are happy to go on doing all these things throughout your weekends and holidays away from paid work. You always see the results of your work, the seeds you planted, the rock wall you built, the mug you made. You are working to produce things that you will see being useful in your community.

Most of the work you do is outside the cash economy. You work to produce things to use, or to give to or swap with others, or give to your community. When you produce something for the community you benefit in many ways. You too can use it, you get satisfaction from seeing your area improved and enriched, you feel good because people you like and who do things for you will get benefit from what you did. Getting enjoyment from contributing and giving like this is crucial for maintaining community energy and solidarity. These bonds of appreciation and friendship, these feelings of gratitude for what others have done for you and to make your neighbourhood work well are among the most important rewards in the alternative lifestyle.

To think that any of this can be accounted in terms of dollars is absurd. The full economic analysis of this situation would have to take in moral considerations, the satisfactions, the resource costs and savings, the learning, the enjoyable company, the feelings of solidarity and peace of mind reinforced, the security, the ecological and social costs and benefit. Conventional economics cannot deal with any of this and so it is no surprise that it usually leads to the wrong conclusions!

This way of life is well described as "subsistence", i.e., there is a high lelvel of self-sufficiency and production for use, as distinct from production to sell. The concept applies to the community, not just the individual. Conventional capitalist-consumer development despises subsistence as primitive and inefficient, and seeks to eliminate it, yet it is crucial in a sustainable and just localised economy.

Home-making and community-making, not career, is the major life interest and source of satisfaction of most people around where we live, male and female. Nothing is more important nor more satisfying than helping to run an efficient,

productive and happy household economy, e.g., to exercise the many skills needed to cook a great dinner, to keep tools in good shape, and to run a productive vegetable garden. The most important roles and skills are those of the home-maker. No one is more important than a grandma who can make irresistable bread, baked dinners, and can knit jumpers and make tomato chutney…and can advise and console.

Some of the main reasons why we live this way are to do with the satisfaction's that come from being part of a strong community, from knowing that there are many people around here who are concerned about the welfare of this place, work for its benefit, think about others and what needs doing, give time and energy and things which help each other and who volunteer time and skill and good will to our projects and gatherings. We do not all have to like each other. We can have our differences and arguments, but it is important that there is a high level of commitment to the welfare of the locality. Knowing and experiencing this sense of solidarity helps to make living here nice.

It is also satisfying to be involved in running our community, i.e., to be on committees and to participate in the meetings that maintain parks and windmills and cooperatives and that plan working bees and special events. It is very important to us to feel that we have much control over what happens in our area and how well people here can live. We have the power to identify and fix problems in our local society. Its good to feel that it is our society, under our control, so we have the power to make it a more pleasant place for all.

Because of this level of concern for the town and for each other, everyone experiences a high level of security. If someone is ill, or has an accident or their house burns down many people will immediatelyhelp them. Our area has a voluntary insurance fund for emergencies. There is therefore much less loneliness and depression and breakdown around here (and therefore less trouble for the rest of us.) It is nice to know you live in an area where people will help if there is a problem . In addition you get satisfaction from being able to help others, and from knowing that this mutual concern keeps community spirit in good shape.

A major reason why we cooperate and take responsibility is because our welfare depends very directly on how well our ecological and social systems are working. We all know that the quality of our water, food, energy, festivals, meetings etc. will deteriorate if we do not work cooperatively and conscientiously.

Very important sources of enjoyment and community solidarity are the local events we organise, the festivals, picnics, displays, concerts, dances and celebrations. We all know that these will succeed best if we all make an effort to contribute or attend. We have many great actors, musicians, commedians and writers around here. They love performing so we are always being presented with new skits, poems, performances, and pictures and sculptures. Many are very good, and some are quite amateurish but that does not matter. We do not need slick, professional and expensive performances. If those are all you ever see via the global corporate media your appreciation becomes spoiled; you become dissatisfied unless you always see top quality.

We despise luxury, firstly because if you have expensive things like a "normal" house, you have taken more resources than you need, and resources which many people desperately need. Secondly, luxury debauches! Very important in the alternative way is the capacity to appreciate simple and ordinary things, and to derive satisfaction from home-made and rough but honest things. In general I strongly prefer not to have highly polished or factory made or professionally made things. The Amish strongly prefer humble things; elaborate and expensive things say "Look at me; I must be superior to be able to afford such high quality." We value things that are " Rough but honest". Most people in consumer society crave luxury; they want the highest quality, the most expensive version, if they can have it. But our concern should be what is sufficient, at the lowest dollar and resource cost. When I was young we had quilts made from chaff bags. I'd still be quite happy with them. Ordinary people would see many of my "standards" as primitive at best, and probably disgusting. But if everyone was content with what I’m content with a peaceful and just and sustainable world would be possible!! It is emphatically not possible when everyone wants a luxurious lifestyle.

A major source of satisfaction and peace of mind is to know that the community I contribute to works well for others; for all the people who live around here. Its no good if some people here are lonely or unemployed or bored. I feel good if I know that we have developed procedures and activities and institutions which ensure that everyone around here is at least reasonably contented and fulfilled and has a valued contribution to make. I know I have the power, along with others, to take steps, such as in neighbourhood meetings and via the working bees, that will improve our capacity to ensure these things.

Many of the things mentioned above have the effect of bonding us more firmly together and to the community and increasing solidarity. Important here is reinforcing a "sense of place", a commitment to our land, our town the landscape and to what we have built here.

Our town centre has only a few shops, each run by a family or cooperative, set closely around a small landscaped park and amid various community facilities, such as the community workshop. There is a "tavern" with much space for sitting and chatting, and a big log fire that goes most of the day in the winter. There are always at least a few people you know there and on Saturday nights it can be crowded, maybe because there's a talk or slide show or our musicians are playing or the drama club wants to try out a scene from its latest production. This is where we have our town meetings and concerts, our library and notice boards. Next door in the community workshop are our recycling racks, galleries and craft rooms. We planned and built the place through voluntary community working bees.

I go out for dinner maybe four times a year, to a movie maybe three times a year and never to pubs or parties. I have plenty of interesting hobbies or things to read at night. I don't watch TV. I don't drink any alcoholic beverages, smoke, gamble or use drugs. We have the best meals in the world, but they are only simple home-made dishes. We drink some fruit juices and wines made locally.

I like to keep very busy but you could organise things differently if you wished. The biggest problem in my way of life is insufficient time to do all the things I want to do. Most people would probably opt to spend much more time relaxing, chatting, reading, socialising etc. Remember they could have plenty of time for these things, because it will not take much time to get necessary work done. (In consumer society we work about three times too hard.)

This way of life generates a long time perspective. It takes many years for a nut tree to fruit. Gardening makes you think about what varieties went well last year, what to try next year. The landscaping of your area involves thinking about how it will look in 10 years. These concerns give a sense of slow, long term progress; you are developing your locality and its systems towards being a more productive, efficient and pleasant place to live. You are always learning more about ways to garden or make or organise things.

So one of my strongest interests is in seeing my place and my town develop over time. I can look at big trees that we planted long ago, and walk along paths we laid, beside ponds we dug. In a sense you feel as if you own your whole town, along with other people; it's yours and you want to see it become as nice a place for people to live as is possible. You get satisfaction from seeing each step that contributes. So when I help on the working bees improving the town swimming place I'm not doing it just to improve my swimming options, I'm doing it for the enjoyment of the process, and for the sense of improving the town.

Remember most people here only spend a couple of days a week at paid work so they have much time to practise arts and crafts, and to learn things. People use their skills to enrich the experience of others. For example the sculptors put little figures here and there beside the paths in the town centre, the painters have murals all over the community workshop ceiling, and our concerts and dances have live local performers. I have access to all this talent so it is easy for me to learn to paint or to play an instrument. At any time of the day I can drop in on someone I know who is pottering at some craft and watch or ask questions. I could arrange to pay for lessons but mostly people like to explain and teach others their skills. The more of this that goes on the richer the area is. The more people that Fred teaches to play the flute the more musicians we have around here.

Thus there are many synergistic effects here. A good deed or a valuable contribution multiplies goodness. If I teach people how to grow good strawberries they can teach others and then there will be more strawberries for all of us. The more yo9u give the more you get, including the satisfaction from giving. Contrast this with a competitive, selfish, acquisitive society where the sum is less than zero; my gain is your loss, but in addition the relationship between us has been damaged.

In other words I live in a place where it is easy to get information and to learn things. There are many people I know here who know a lot about history, or welding, or literature, or grafting or maths. There are discussion groups I can join. From time to time a group will get together and arrange for someone who knows all about something to run a short course on it. It is easy to get advice or solutions to problems. We have a library at the community centre and lists of people who can be contacted for advice (a "skill bank".)

Every Saturday afternoon I can walk down to the village market where many local people sell garden, household and craft produce. This is an important social gathering. We discuss local affairs. Many people earn the small amounts of money here on which they can live well. Visiting the market enables me to buy some things, to keep up with local issues and to meet friends, and it is an important leisure activity. After the market on Saturday night there is a communal banquet at the community hall or the workshop and usually a film, speaker, debate or concert.

One of the most important activities in my life is participating in the government of my area. We have regular town meetings where one can speak or vote. There are always issues being discussed informally for a long time before they are

voted on, such as what to build where a parking lot has been eliminated. Many things are run by voluntary committees. These activities give us a sense of taking responsibility for the development and the quality of our town and the welfare of each other. For instance we have committees keeping an eye on what young people need, what old people need, and how to make sure all have access to jobs. When you look around and see things going well, things you made or grew functioning as intended, there is satisfaction in knowing that you helped to do that.

At present my household (three people) electricity consumption is about 2% of the Australian average.

I rarely want to go anywhere, except by train, so I almost don’t need a car. In the kind of settlement we want few of us would need one. There would be almost no energy cost in my food, house construction, hand made furniture, clothing.etc.,

I estimate that if I could live in the way I’d choose in a highly self-sufficient community of like-minded people, the per capita footprint within that community could be cut to about .25 ha, compared with the Australian averaged of 7 — 8 ha. When the few things I’d need to import from regional, national and international factories were added my footprint might be .5 ha. (By 2050 the available land on the planet per person will be c .8 ha.)

Frugality is satisfying. It is about getting the most out of things, for example putting aside off-cuts to use on another job, warming up leftovers for dinner, taking only a few leaves from a lettuce plant in the garden rather than picking the whole plant, cutting as many leather soles as possible from the piece, picking up fallen twigs for the fire, taking the raked leaves to the garden for mulch. I even like using up the short bits of treads in my sewing box! And it is good to find some job that can be done while waiting for the tea to draw. It all adds up. All this is central to the original notion of economy; I believe "oikos" was the Ancient Greek word for household, and it is satisfying to feel that you are running your household economy well, which involves getting the most out of the resources you have.

Sometimes you have to grind away at something you would rather not have to do, so there is a very important place for that sort of discipline. Again you just have to face up to the fact that if you don’t get up the windmill tower now to check that rattle, at night in the cold wind and rain, the damn thing might have blown down by morning. It is therefore a way of life that is a very long way from the image of the hippie dropout lazing in the sun. It is in fact a life of almost constant work, in the sense of productive activity and thought, but in general necessary chores can be experienced as satisfying means to the goal of running the household economy well. Again collecting firewood is a good example; this has to be done but it isn’t work.

Above all there is the satisfaction of knowing that one is living in ways that are more morally defensible than those of consumer society. We use relatively few resources and cause relatively little environmental damage.

When you live close to the earth the changing seasons provide many sources of new interest and activity. At different times the different fruits become available, pruning needs doing, ground has to be dug, trees flower, different birds are heard. In winter there’s wood getting and open fires and darning beside the fire at night. In autumn there is storing and preserving the harvest, including bottling fruit. Once a year the honey is taken from the hives. Once a year the sheep gets a haircut(·inflicted by a circle of giggling people wielding scissors and shears.). You do these things for a short time and then there are new things to do, and it is good to look forward to each as it comes.

There is also a powerful sense of place, of belonging to the locality. It is where you have lived and planned and hoped and tried things and growth things and failed and succeeded for years. You know it well and you know its seasons and moods and the animals that come and go throughout the year, and when the sunsets are best and when the rains will come. You are conscious of how it has changed over time, what you have achieved, and how things are slowly moving in the direction you want. You have lots of ideas and plans and purposes for the place. You think decades ahead, for instance when you plant a blue gum. There are the jobs and projects you know you will not be able to get to for years to come, and the things you put aside to use then. There is also the way you want the place to be. You have a sense of dependency and limits; there are things that you can't do here, because those plants will not survive our summer, or the flood will wipe them out if they are put on the flat. There is therefore a sense of working with nature, trying not to confront, but deferring to her better judgment. (She knows where the potholes want to form on the track no matter what you try to get rid of them.)

For these sorts of reasons the idea of "owning" your land is a silly mistake; you belong to it. It is your place, not your possession but the place you belong. When you see a place this way its welfare is of intrinsic value. The ecosystems of the planet are not likely to survive unless people everywhere develop such a bond to their locality, a bond based on a long term involvement with it and dependence on it for the satisfaction of economic and spiritual needs.

It is not that I am reluctantly willing to live very frugally and self-sufficiently because I have to in order to save the planet, buying as little as possible and making and growing as much as possible. Living this way is what I enjoy and would choose to do even if it was not necessary; making things and growing and repairing and living frugally are my central sources of life satisfaction and I would not have it any other way. If I became a billionaire I would not change a thing. People will not shift to The Simpler Way unless and until they want to live that way, enjoying its rich rewards.