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Voluntary Frugality

This time, I’ve moved beyond dipping in here and there and really started to read David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, a book that goes in depth into realms of permaculture that I’ve not fully explored in my time involved with the movement. And, while I’m not yet through the book, I’ve recently been struck by a bit of terminology he’s used to describe one of his own permaculture-based lifestyle choices: Voluntary frugality. I define it simply as living thoughtfully (and comfortably) within our means as opposed to always maximizing our possible take.

Coincidentally, when I picked up the book, I’d already begun writing on this very topic but had come to find myself stumped as to whether or not it was simply blowing smoke or something of relevant substance. Well, if Holmgren is anything, it’s substance, so I renamed my article with his words, got back on the high horse, and continued with what I had to say, perhaps with a little more assurance and little more insight. The result is something that I hope is of value to other permaculturalists looking for more ethical and responsible pathways to happiness and relative abundance.

Vegetable Harvest, Photo by Emma Gallagher
Vegetable Harvest, Photo by Emma Gallagher

For the better part of the last two and a half years, my wife Emma and I have been traveling around, volunteering on farms. At times, we’ve earned meager salaries doing odd jobs that were offered to us, nothing we sought out or needed, per say, for just as often we’ve simply exchanged about twenty hours of labor each week for room and board. Though the situation has not padded our bank accounts in any way whatsoever and, in fact, at this point our clothing is all a little more tattered over backs that are certainly more labored, the experience has still been more than worth it.

I think for a lot of people the idea of working for nothing or “peanuts” is not such an appealing notion, but over these months, we’ve reconfirmed—as, I think, most of us already know—that there is more to a happy life than money and buying things. It’s not that we don’t value the power of a dollar to get us a cup of coffee or lunch on a day out, both for the sustenance and the simple experience of not having to prepare something ourselves, but these luxuries are—as, I think, most of us already know—overused and underappreciated in many modern lifestyles, ours included.

Happy Campers, Photo by Emma Gallagher
Happy Campers, Photo by Emma Gallagher

I certainly don’t want to be misunderstood. I don’t believe restaurants or cafes are intrinsically evil, just as manufacturing t-shirts and shoes or building a computer isn’t a bad thing. We’ve got to eat, clothing comes in handy (on a cold day especially), and computers are a tool nearly unparalleled in their usefulness in communications and research, even earning money. All of these things are part of my life, and truthfully, I don’t really want to start living without them. But, over this journey, I’ve felt myself going about it all truly differently, as well as expecting the companies I support to do so, accepting that that might mean occasionally doing without.

Unfortunately, sometimes it’s nearly impossible (or ridiculously expensive, I think, more due to niche marketing than actual production) to do so. Where does one buy a pair of underwear that comes from a source that isn’t muddied by pesticides or exploitive working conditions or, more likely, both? How much is such a pair of underwear worth? In essence, voluntary frugality and conscious purchasing have helped me get a grasp on, or just as often helped me let go of, some of the taker characteristics—not that I’m by any means an angel now—I’ve carried throughout my entire life. (In other words, for the time being, I’ve given up underpants.)

Underpants?, Photo by Emma Gallagher
Underpants?, Photo by Emma Gallagher

And, I also don’t want to be misconstrued in some way as to mean that being impoverished and voluntary frugality are the same thing. Impoverishment is not something that is chosen but rather, more often than not, foisted upon the less fortunate. In these circumstances, i.e. real poverty, cups of coffee and meals out are more akin to luxuries either unreachable or at a substantial price with regards to actual needs. Obviously, when, as with poverty, fiscal choices don’t exist, frugality is not voluntary. Poverty is not something to strive for, whereas I’m proposing that voluntary frugality is.

In my opinion, the type of impoverishment that results in malnutrition and famine has been most often been addressed as an economic one rather than recognizing people’s capacity to supply their own food. Aid too often comes in the form of handouts as opposed to empowerment. Even when empowerment is a factor, it’s too often aimed at the mercy of monetary systems in which the poor are already behind and beholden. Perhaps that is the reason why the same problems seem to persist in “developing” nations and even in the ghettos of developed places: The answers proposed are too dependent on the status quo.

Volunteering in Ecuador, Photo by Emma Gallagher
Volunteering in Ecuador, Photo by Emma Gallagher

Self-sufficiency, though definitely easier to approach and achieve with some capital, doesn’t need to be based upon money. More so, there is a standard of living in which our needs as humans are met. And when “needs” are actually needs, not a mountain of misappropriated luxuries, those needs are hopefully even exceeded. This doesn’t require a huge income, nor does a huge income (or the ability to earn one) constitute the need to live far beyond our means. It’s our detachment from how those needs actually come to be realized, which is not by a good salary but rather the sweat of someone’s brow, that has caused much of the inequality, injustice and environmental woes the world is now facing.

When our lives are overly reliant on money, as has become the norm, we become exploitable, especially by the uncaring machines of profits: stock markets, corporations, governments—. Our well-being becomes completely dependent on strangers—CEOs, bankers, tax attorneys. Even at that ideal of middle-class, it’s an existence that can feel largely lacking and spent in pursuit of the wrong things: raises, brand names, jewelry, this year’s version of the ultimate surround sound system. It’s not that things never have value, but the value placed on them can be and usually is problematic. What’s more is that such middle-class pursuits almost ubiquitously come at the expense of those who’ve not yet risen to such a station.

The Garbage Overflow, Photo by Emma Gallagher
The Garbage Overflow, Photo by Emma Gallagher

When Emma and I set out on our journey all those months ago, our plan was to last as long as we could with what we had. This, in and of itself, we realized was a privileged position—having something—from which to begin, but we went about it as humbly as we could. We actually lived far beneath our means, but in doing so, we discovered a sense of self-reliance, confidence and freedom previously unimagined. What we learned was that, such a life—one in which earning money is not the primary concern—is not only possible but, for us, better.

Over the last thirty-six months, Emma and I collectively haven’t earned more than $5000 in a year (granted this is more than many national averages but it’s meager within our own upbringings), yet we’ve managed to be fed well, to have shelter, and to even indulge here and there in a night of drinking or a weekend sojourn. We’ve also voluntarily gone “without” when—eating a steady diet of self-prepared rice, beans, soups and pasta’s made with the vegetables on hand—a take-out might have been really appealed to us. It has felt a bit like choosing life over convenience.

Food in Good Supply, Photo by Emma Gallagher
Food in Good Supply, Photo by Emma Gallagher

Overall, I also believe this path has led us to a cleaner, healthier lifestyle, for us and the planet and other people (The three ethics of permaculture). Making our own food, as much from the gardens we were tending as possible, and otherwise from mostly whole food farmer’s market selections, has put us more in tuned with our bodies. It’s also meant that our footprint has significantly shrunken, with our meals requiring minimal food miles and hardly any processing. And, of course, by buying from markets, we are supporting local farmers and merchants, either resisting the pull of international food growers or simply cut off from them.

Plus, what we’ve given up hasn’t been a bad thing. I drink much less beer (though I still enjoy—probably much more—a few). Our clothes are either bought secondhand or, more likely, handed down to us. We currently live in a place with an extension cord as a power outlet and one twelve-volt light, our kitchen merely a counter added to the railing of the porch; nonetheless, we earn enough income writing online to pay for bus transport and the groceries we eat. We make our own shampoos, toothpaste’s, deodorants and so on for a fraction of the cost and with much less in the way of harmful chemicals. Our lives are now consumed with caring for ourselves (and gardens and others) rather than consuming, and that feels more right.

Happy Living, Photo by Emma Gallagher
Happy Living, Photo by Emma Gallagher

In the end, I’m not sure exactly what conclusion this brings us to, other than being on this side of the journey—one that I’m certain has much more in store—makes me want to share that it’s not just a fantasy, not only a hunch but something some of us can begin doing now. Most likely, for the sake of the planet and humanity’s spot on it, it’s something—to one degree or another—those of us who can need to do. We can choose to do, make, and/or sacrifice rather than buy, and we can choose to only buy that with which we can feel ethically in balance.

Doing so has opened up doors and possibilities that seemed far-fetched just three years back. Doing so has only made me want to move further down this line, to discover just where it takes me. Doing so has inspired me to re-envision how the good life feels.

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