Monday, July 02, 2007

52 Weeks Down - Week 10 - Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, Do Without

The famous quote about frugality "Use it up, Wear it Out, Make it do, or Do Without" applies very well to reducing one's emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. Everything we buy has an embodied energy cost - that is, the energy to make it contributes to global warming. It also has personal energy costs - more of our hard earned dollars means more time spent at work, or more stress over our credit card bills. Frugality and environmentalism don't have a 100 percent overlap, but often, doing the frugal thing is also doing the environmentally sound thing. Everytime we buy new, we say to that manufacturer "Make one more." One more is often too many.

So how do we do this? First, we use things up - we extract every single last drop out of something. That means we scrape the pan thoroughly, so that we don't end up throwing away food. It means we use our thumbs to get the last bit of egg out of the shell - do that with six eggs and you've got the equivalent of another. Take those scraps of ratty old tshirts and make a quilt, or handkerchiefs to substitute for tissues, or cloth tp to substitute for paper, or whatever. Take the time to really get all the use we can out of things. That includes pleasure, time and love - that is, if we get all the pleasure we can from our simple lives, we won't always need more. If we make good use of all our time - rest and work - we won't be running all the time. If we make full use of the love and support of others, we might look up one day and have a community to rely on.

Wear it out. That means making things last as long as possible. That means darning our socks, mending our jeans, reheeling our shoes instead of just chucking them and getting a new pair. The longer we can extend the lifespan of our things, the less we'll need to buy. And with that in mind, it is often wisest to buy things that really last, and also things that have potential for long term reuse or repair. That means wood furniture, not plastic, metal tools, good quality clothing. It isn't always frugal just because it is cheap - we need to start thinking about the whole lifespan of a object from where and how it was made to what we will do when it breaks or is worn out. A wooden bowl that your grandchildren will use is a better investment than 10 plastic bowls that won't last a decade. A wool sweater that can be felted down to fill a quilt at the end of its life as a sweater is a better investment than an acrylic one. Remember the story about the man who had an overcoat - when it wore out, he made a jacket. When the jacket wore out he made a vest. When the vest wore out he made a scarf. When the scarf wore out he made a handkerchief. When the handkercheif wore out, he made a button. And when the button was finally lost, he told the story. There's almost always a little more wear in things.

Make it do. This requires imagination - what substitutes can we find? How can we use something we have, instead of something new? What can I make? What can I do? It requires living life artfully and imaginatively - much more so than saying "oh, I need a new dish drainer - off to the store." We ask children to make do all the time, or at least we used to. Don't have a train set? Use your imagination. Carve one? Make one out of a cardboard box? Pretend? We need to take the same advice we used to give children, and start finding ways to make do with what we have. Most of us have houses full of stuff. Our sense that we need just one more object to make it complete is probably wrong. Oh, there are exceptions - particularly if you've been living a fossil fueled life, and now need to power down. But most of the time, if we just imagined, we could make do with what we have.

Do without. I live in a 3500+ square foot farmhouse filled with books, tools, kids, toys, etc... I've met people who live in 200 square foot huts filled with themselves and a few tools and pots. Many of those people considered themselves happy, fortunate and blessed - so if you can be blessed with 200 square feet, what is the rest doing for me? If you and I can't do without, who can? Before you buy something, ask yourself - can everyone have one? That is, if everyone had one, would it be good for the world? Did my grandmother or grandfather have one? Did they need one? If not, why do I need one? Sometimes you will need it. But surprisingly often you don't.

We all need food, water, shelter, love, education, joy, clothing, some simple tools, good work to do, comfort, support, peace, security, art, imagination. More than half of these you can't buy at any price, in fact having too much can prevent you from enjoying them fully. The rest can be met 90% of the time in our present society with something used, or with less than you thought. They can be met by making things or finding things or reusing things. Doing without isn't impoverishment - it is life as art.




Anonymous said...

It's not just an art -- it's also, very often, fun!


Anonymous said...

life as an art. beautifully said.

Jenny said...

Well said, I really like this post.

Correne said...

I can't help commenting on this post. I am desperately trying to avoid acquiring ANY stuff. It just keeps coming my way. I don't even know where it all comes from.

My husband is an only child, and my MIL has been collecting "nice things" for decades. My parents also have plenty of "nice things" like crystal, knick-knacks, vases, linens, silverware, tools, gadgets, and general stuff. Since they are getting on in years, I know that in 10-20 years, we are going to be recipients of 2 houses FULL of STUFF.

I look around at all the houses in my city, every single one of them filled with stuff, half of it no one wants anymore. What are we going to do with all this stuff?

My husband wants to build up a great DVD collection. AAAACK! Who is going to watch those movies in 10-20 years? They are made of plastic, they will be with us for ETERNITY.

I feel suffocated by stuff. I wonder if we all do.

I love giving stuff to Goodwill, but thinking about self-sufficiency and "use it up and wear it out" I wonder if I should hang on to this stuff in case I might need it one day. I know that's how my MIL ended up with a lot of her stuff. She has things like her MIL's embroidery and needlework needles and thread. She died in 1976!

Shaunta said...

My family of five has spent the last 3 months living in a four hundred square foot apartment. It sucks HARD. Can we make do here? Well, based on results, we can. But it's so unpleasant that it has been impossible to be happy.

Before we lived here, we lived in a 2,400 square foot house. One of the reasons we moved from big-city to small-town when the only option was the teeny apartment was because, at that time, I really believed what you're saying in this post. That I could be happy anywhere. Maybe looking from that side, when you aren't trying to raise kids in less than 100 square feet each with no yard, it's easy to think anything will do if you have the right attitude.

Anyway, what we've taken from this experience is that we can definitely be happy with less than we've ever had before. We're ecstatic to be moving into a 1000 square foot, two-bedroom duplex with a yard this week. Thrilled doesn't even cover it. It feels almost decadently spacious.

Plus, finding somewhere decent to rent has freed us of the "we have to buy something, anything, right NOW" mentality.

Cameron said...

Correne -- I think it might be useful to try thinking of giving stuff to thrift shops as practicing a form of community self-sufficiency. Works for me, anyway.

At least the knick-knacks are relatively easy: never in my life have I actually needed a knick-knack.

I'm an only child, and my mother has a three-story house full of stuff. (Thank goodness my husband is one of three.) Next year, she'll be moving to a two-bedroom apartment. Yikes. We've been getting rid of a lot of her stuff through various means. I'm bound and determined to see as little as possible of this stuff going into storage.

I think it's a lot easier to get rid of the "nice things" while your parents are still alive. For one thing it helps me to know which of those "nice things" my mother has secretly hated for decades. (Her mother's fussy china, for instance.) If I'd inherited these things, I probably would have kept them out of some vague feeling of daughterly obligation. Instead, out they go. Freedom for both of us!

As we start having to make the really hard calls, I'm going to bring out my secret weapon: photos. I'm betting that a lot of things will be easier to let go if I save photographs of them.

jewishfarmer said...

Shaunta, I've never been in your circumstances precisely, so I can't comment, except to say that I know others who have had success.

I have lived in very small spaces - in a tiny hut in Asia with two other people, in an 800 square foot urban apartment with six other adults, and during the winter the six of us routinely live in the 800 square feet of superinsulated apartment in our house. I've certainly met many people - hundreds - who lived with large families in very small spaces, and their lack of space was never the worst of their problems. I remember the family on Frontier House, who owned a 6000 square foot house at home lived in a 286 square foot cabin for 8 months with 6 people in it and said that the house never felt small. I say all this not to undermine you, but thinking back on my own (admittedly not as acute) experiences with small spaces.

But none of this is intended to undermine your experience, which I have no doubt is really hard. I think the big difference that I can think of is that in every one of those experiences, outside was readily available, even an extension of the house. You say there isn't really any outdoor space - and I think that would be the constraint that would make me insane - no where for anyone to get out. And particularly in an apartment, where you have to be careful about too much noise, etc... I can imagine that would be extremely difficult to manage. Cooped up with young kids is really tough.

I also think that open arrangements, as are common in third world housing and cabins and such would be much easier to manage than many conventional apartments.

I hope you get to your new house soon - and I genuinely appreciate the perspective.


kettunainen said...

re:small spaces
I've found that it's not so much the amount of space you have but how it's arranged and the attitude you bring to it that can make all the difference in the world. And there is the very real fact that sometimes certain things just do not work for certain people. That's not a bad thing -- it's more a matter of finding, in a conscientious way, what works best for you.

Anonymous said...

My wife came up with a great idea on DVDs last night. We're starting lists of neighborhood loaner items. Things like our wheelbarrow, or the tiller Robyn's dad gave her which we are willing to loan out. Or the non-power mower, we and our neighbor Tammy bought together to share. But DVDs are the popular items. We loan em out, and borrow ones we don't have, so we don't need to expand our collections. It already happens informally in our neighborhood, but we can make it one step more institutionalized. But more importantly, the whole project sets in place the social networking in a painless way, so that when we need to borrow and loan more important things very locally, the social procedures will already be in place. At least that's the theory, we'll see if it works.
-Brian M.

rhonda jean said...

It is encouraging to see posts such as this. In the past, the huge American frugal movement has been focused solely on saving money to have to spend on other things. I think the tide is turning over there now as more and more Americans focus on saving not only money, but also the planet we all share. Let's face it, as the American portion of the global market is so big, if Americans don't get on board with this, we're probably all stuffed, despite the measures we take in other countries. I see the greening of the American frugal movement as a very positive thing.

Jan Steinman said...

Sharon, you left one pattern out: "salvage it."

No matter how those of us on this list follow these patterns, there will always be others who don't.

So take advantage of those who aren't smart enough to get the most value out of their stuff!

We recently built a mobile chicken coop for just $62, for example.

Another example: some friends of ours were going to burn down a 10'x12' building. We took it apart and hauled it home. The scrap lumber will keep our small building projects going for some time!

We've also put together a biodiesel test-batch processor from a cafeteria-size coffee percolator and an old blender -- both from a thrift store.

We'll all have good reasons to acquire certain "stuff" from time to time. Just make sure it's it's the lowest impact "stuff" possible -- which generally means someone else has already discarded it.

Phentermine said...

Thanks for interesting article.

Anonimous said...

Excellent website. Good work. Very useful. I will bookmark!

Anonymous said...

I would argue that the thing you need more than any other "thing" is your health. Without it your life is almost always sad.

I appreciate all of your posts.

It's a pity that the word consume has lost it's original meaning (be careful with, be economical with etc)


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