Just how green is the frugal, simple-living locavore?

by Emrys Westacott

ImagesSages through the ages have advanced many arguments in favour of living simply and frugally. For instance:

  • it keeps you away from morally corrupting temptations;
  • it cultivates virtues like self-sufficiency and hardihood;
  • it makes one better able to cope with adversity;
  • it is the surest path to happiness since it curtails misguided desires and directs us toward enjoying simple pleasures
  • it helps us focus on what really matters in life, like love, friendship, and our relationship with nature.

One idea that has come to the fore in recent times is that living simply is better for the environment. The basic argument is pretty straightforward. Industrialization and population growth have 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.

Reduce, reuse, recycle. This is the familiar slogan shared by both frugal zealots and environmentalists. Books, articles and blogs abound advocating “ecofrugality” and advising us how to simultaneously save money and the environment by following practices such as walking or cycling instead of driving, drying clothes on the line, buying used items whenever feasible, and so on

Such 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.”[1]

Critics and skeptics, however, can point out that simplicity is not always green.

Some aspects of simple living are actually worse for the environment than the less rustic alternatives. For instance, living close to nature and being self-sufficient are often viewed as important components of an ideally simple lifestyle. But as David Owen argues in Green Metropolis, if this means rural living, it is unlikely to be better for the environment than living in a city.[2] Living in the countryside usually means a detached house, which takes a lot more energy to heat than a city apartment that is typically more compact and surrounded on all sides but one by other apartments. It also usually involves a lot more driving compared to life in big cities where there is extensive public transport and where walking is often preferable to driving. If part of being self-sufficient and harking back to simpler times is heating the house with wood you've cut, this is probably worse for the environment than heating with gas. Even when the wood is properly dried and burned in an efficient modern stove of the type approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency, burning wood still gives off far more fine-particle pollution than heating with oil or gas furnaces.[3]

If simple living has to be inexpensive, there is the additional problem that the frugal option is often not very green, while the green option can be quite pricey. The cheapest fruit and vegetables are produced on an industrial scale with massive amounts of pesticide and fertilizer; organic alternatives can be two or three times as expensive. The policy of repairing and reusing rather than replacing is a frugal strategy familiar to all card-carrying tightwads, but new appliances such as water heaters, refrigerators, and washing machines often meet higher EPA standards of efficiency. Signing up for electricity from renewable sources may help support the shift toward green energy, but up to now it has usually meant higher monthly electricity bills.

These are valid points. Simple living encompasses many ideas and practices, and there are times when some of these conflict. But this hardly constitutes a wholesale objection to the environmentalist case for frugal simplicity. Most frugal practices clearly do reduce one's ecological footprint. The more people choose to live in smaller houses, walk or cycle rather than drive, compost their waste, turn off unnecessary lights, put on a sweater rather than turn up the thermostat, and so on, the better. Except in the case of inefficient or polluting machines, getting by with what you have rather than throwing stuff away and buying unnecessary replacements reduces both waste and the demand for industrially produced stuff, as does buying used items where possible.

A specific example of how criticism of a supposedly green practice associated with simple living may make a legitimate point without amounting to a devastating objection is provided by the debate over locavorism. A locavore is someone who prefers food that is produced locally, say within a hundred miles of where they live. So given a choice, they will buy local apples rather than apples shipped from thousands of miles away, and they will look to eat what is in season where they live insofar as this is possible.

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Obviously, locavores differ in how seriously and rigorously they apply these principles, but the thinking behind the philosophy is common to all. Locally produced food, they argue, is usually better quality since it is fresh. Because it is often produced on a small scale by Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), organic farms, community gardens, or backyards, it is healthier and more trustworthy than what comes from industrial agriculture, where fruit and vegetables are drenched in pesticides and animals are pumped full of steroids and antibiotics. It typically requires less energy to produce and transport. In towns and cities, a desire for local produce encourages small farming enterprises and community gardens on vacant lots, which improves the urban landscape with pleasing areas of greenery.

Buying local is also a way of engaging with and supporting one's local community, keeping money circulating around where one lives, helping to sustain local economic activity rather than sending the dollars off to some distant agribusiness. Last but not least, locavorism encourages home gardening, which in addition to these other benefits gets people outside, exercising, and in touch with nature. (It would also, as best-selling locavore Michael Pollan argues, make suburbia a lot more interesting if some of the lawns were converted to vegetable gardens.[4])

To each of these points skeptics and critics can offer counterarguments. Fresh local food is only the best available when it is the sort of thing that grows well locally: Florida oranges, even after refrigeration and shipping, are always going to be better than anything grown in cooler climes. It isn't necessarily true that what you buy at the farmer's market is more trustworthy than supermarket produce shipped from large farms; the latter, unlike the former, is subject to inspection and has to satisfy government regulations. The amount of energy that goes into producing and delivering any food item can be devilishly difficult to calculate, but it is a mistake to assume that local always means less. As Michael Spector observes in a New Yorker article on the concept of carbon footprints:

Many factors influence the carbon footprint of a product: water use, cultivation and harvesting methods, quantity and type of fertilizer, even the type of fuel used to make the package. Sea-freight emissions are less than a sixtieth of those associated with airplanes, and you don't have to build highways to berth a ship.[5]

Although it seems counterintuitive, the berries you collect at a pick-your-own farm a few miles from where you live, to which you've made a special journey in your car, may have a bigger carbon footprint per berry than the ones in the supermarket that have been shipped in bulk from another continent.[6] Community gardens within a city may be pleasing on the eye, but if the idea is to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, the land they occupy would be better used to site high rise apartments­–by far the most efficient sort of residence. As for supporting the local economy, skeptics will argue that small-scale farming and gardening is generally quite inefficient; that is why, compared to agribusiness, which has all the advantages of scale, CSAs and small organic farms often struggle to be commercially viable, and their prices tend to be high. The skeptics will also point out that any little good we do by eating locally produced food is swamped by the fact that most of the things we spend money on are non-edible commodities, usually made in and shipped from far-away places.

In this debate both sides have reasonable arguments. What the critics of locavorism fail to appreciate, though, is that the preference for homegrown or local produce is typically one element in a package, a general outlook and set of commitments to a certain form of life. It may harbor some inefficiencies and inconsistencies—whose way of living does not?–but it is nonetheless part of a worthwhile attempt to realize certain values; and if more people shared those values and sought to put them into effect, the environment really would benefit and the world really would be a better place.

Small organic farms do treat animals more humanely than factory farms, pollute less, and cause less soil erosion. Homegrown vegetables generally are more nutritious and satisfying than those produced on a large scale. Farmers markets, CSAs, and small local shops provide occasions for interaction that are lost when megastores take over. Gardening is a way for people to be less alienated from nature. Unknown-1The “victory gardens” that people dug in back yards and on waste ground during the second world war made good sense then since they raised the level of self-sufficiency both at the domestic and the national level. And although we no longer have a Great National Cause to which everyone is devoted, it would surely still be a good thing for households and communities to be more rather less productive, and more rather than less self-sufficient, especially where this would be environmentally beneficial rather than harmful.

So, those who question the green credentials of simple living should not be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, the points they make are valuable in reminding us that just because something seems right or feels right does not mean that objectively speaking it is right. Effective environmentalism has to be open-minded enough and self-critical enough to acknowledge this. But the general thesis still stands that more people shifting their lifestyle in the direction of frugal simplicity would help to reduce our collective ecological footprint. And with the same open-mindedness, the skeptics should recognize that the road the world is currently on–the relentless and apparently endless pursuit of economic growth and consumer satisfaction with little regard for environmental consequences–could well be a road to disaster.[7]



[1] Keith Heidorn, “The Art of Ecofrugality, Living Gently Quarterly [http://www.islandnet.com/~see/living/articles/frugal.htm]

[2] David Owen, Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).

[3] Lloyd Alter, “Is Burning Wood For Heat Really Green?” Treehugger, June 6, 2011.

[4] Micahel Pollan, The Botany of Desire (New York: Random House, 2002).

[5] Michael Specter, “Big Foot,” The New Yorker, Feb 28, 2008.

[6] See David Owen, Green Metropolis, p. 300. See also, Will Boisvert, “An Environmentalist on the Lie of Locavorism,” The Observer 4-16-13 [http://observer.com/2013/04/the-lie-of-locavorism/4/]

[7] This essay is adapted from a portion of Chapter 7 of The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More–More or Less (Princeton University Press, 2016).

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