The New Frugality

A recent article in The Atlantic, “The Cheapest Generation,” argues that millenials no longer want cars or houses. Working and middle-class people are beginning to realize what many rich people have known for a while: it is better to pay for access than ownership, especially when it comes to things that are not necessarily assets, but may be liabilities, such as cars.

There seems to be a minimalist movement afoot. Weʻve got the tiny house movement,* which shows people that more space means more electricity, more water, and that we donʻt necessarily need most of the stuff we own.

Tiny house in Denver, CO.

Weʻve got millenials living in cities (and consequently abandoning small towns), using public transport (think Portlandia), and sharing housing and just about everything else (Uber “taxis” are just one example). I see three reasons for this; first, they canʻt afford anything else (the average millennial 18-34 years old in Hawaiʻi made $34,000 last year, barely enough for rent), second, public transport and urban revitalization have reversed white flight to the suburbs, and third, the American dream is looking more and more unbelievable, that is to say, they donʻt believe in it. The resulting “sharing economy” is one of the only viable alternatives to straightforward capitalism to emerge since the failure of the communist experiment 25 years ago.

Tiny houses are often 150 to 200 square feet, on wheels because they donʻt meet building codes, and use composting toilets.

This bodes well for the environment, as people greatly reduce their ecological footprints. If you think this is insignificant compared with population growth, think again: the average American uses 20 times the resources of the average Indian, but has about a third as much population. This means the US has six times the ecological impact of India, despite its smaller population. Footprint matters. And the sharing economy is not backward-looking like the back-to-the-land movement, in fact (and this should be obvious) it relies on technology, mobile apps and the like. There is no longer a need for bulky file cabinets, CD, book, or even art collections (mine is on pinterest).

There is much more that can be done on the transportation front. The transportation minister of Copenhagen was on public radio a few days ago, and discussed a proposed new transportation system for the city based on access to multiple modes of transport. It may be an app in which you enter your destination and it gives you five possible routes using various modes (including bikeshares), and gives you the price. Some days you may want to ride public transit; other days you may need a van. One statistic stood out for me: a car represents $20,000-$30,000 of investment (more when you include interest), and sits idle in a parking space 97% of the time. He called that investment “Lazy money.” Through carsharing, the overhead costs of the car are spread among many users, and less parking is needed because the cars are much more often moving (and there would be fewer of them).

This method of using the pocketbook to argue against ownership of cars (which cost, on average, over $5000 per year to operate), is quite effective in my view: show people clearly how they are wasting their hard-earned money, and how it might be better spent elsewhere (perhaps on that college degree that more than two-thirds of Americans still donʻt have – but thatʻs another story entirely). This makes them ask themselves (it made me ask myself) “is what I need really to own a car, or to get places?”

If I bike to work, I wonʻt have to spend three hours in the gym every week, and Iʻll save $10 a day, or over $200 per month. On really bad traffic days in West Oʻahu it can take two hours to drive 10 miles (5 miles per hour) – I can go 15 – 20 miles per hour on a bike, some can go faster than that). I ran to work for six years in three different cities (Boston, San Francisco and Honolulu), so there are no mental barriers there for me, just logistics (do I ride with my laptop? what about dropping off kids? – to name only  two obstacles), but these arenʻt insurmountable.

It is this kind of win-win situation that, if supported by infrastructure, makes for viable revolution in the way we live and impact the planet. Thrift was an American value more than a century ago, but it was subverted by the consumer economy. In Hawaiʻi, urban revitalization seems underway for better or worse. Perhaps a silver lining in the hyper-capitalism we find ourselves in is that this reliance on overconsumption will undercut itself, and allow people to reinvest their assets into things that matter: education, health and the next generation.

* Tiny houses have been proposed as a solution for houselessness in Hawaiʻi, and  are beginning to be used in other cities: see Civil Beat, “The Little Solution to the Big Housing Crisis.”



Filed under Environment, ʻĀina, Globalization, intellect

5 responses to “The New Frugality

  1. As a former Portlandian, this column makes my heart happy! Your comment on biking to work, and saving a trip to the gym, echoed a sentiment from an opinion piece I wrote on bike commuting for my college paper in Cali way back in the 80s. The “green gap” that exists between Hawaiians (of all people, given our ancestors really were architects of sustainability ) and our nearest neighbors in California, Oregon and Washington is huge! Thanks for doing something to narrow the gap!!


  2. good article – thanks’


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