The New Frugality: Environmentalism Versus Consumption
Can frugal environmentalism work in a growing economy?
Posted March 5, 2019
As countries produce more and more goods, they also generate increasing amounts of pollution and garbage that can damage the planet and crash ecosystems. Hence the emergence of frugal environmentalism that reduces personal consumption.
Limits to Consumption
Environmentalists have always emphasized the fly in the ointment of global prosperity. The White House solar cells that had been installed by President Carter were ripped off by President Reagan.
Reagan's point was that we live in a country having unlimited resources so that we need not fret about saving energy, or anything else.
With growing concerns over climate change, history has not been kind to the Reagan perspective. The environmental consequences of endless economic growth, and accelerating consumption, are just too great to be ignored. The frugal living movement also questions the view that greater consumption is inherently desirable.
When living standards rise, beneficiaries are never really content with where they are. There is always someone else who has a better home, a better car, better furniture, or sends their children to a better school, or spends more on travel. Aspiring to a more luxurious life is a treadmill that keeps consumers in debt and constantly working harder to get where everyone else seems to be. This is good for businesses but bad for customers and for the environment.
Enter the frugal living movement that is inspired partly by environmental concerns and partly by an awareness that consuming ever more goods does not equate to happiness. Indeed, cultivating a more modest lifestyle with a greater emphasis on simple pleasure and environmental responsibility may yield greater happiness.
One key insight underlying the frugal living movement is that most of the sum total of human economic activity ends up in landfills. Instead of producing ever more goods and waste that is polluting and damaging to ecosystems, perhaps it would be better to do with less and to reuse garbage.
This view animates much of the recycling agenda now instituted by many municipalities. Unfortunately, reusing garbage often requires more energy than the original manufacturer with conspicuous exceptions. One is metals where there is a huge investment in mining and refining, making recycling highly desirable. Another may be paper, although the collapsing market for recycled paper puts this into question.
Otherwise, most of the recycling done by municipalities is harmful to the environment because recycling uses more energy than the original manufacturer. This is difficult for frugality enthusiasts to accept because recycling is a quasi-religious dogma for environmentalists.
Other approaches are more likely to solve the garbage problem. These include greater use of biodegradable packaging and development of more easily reusable raw materials.
Frugal living aimed at environmental benefits is laudable but the recycling issue is only the beginning of its logical problems.
The Logical Challenges of Frugality
The main problem with modern environmentalism is that although the diagnosis of key problems is clear enough, there is little consensus on the best ways to solve them.
What consensus there is is often based more on quasi-religious thinking than on empirical realism. This is illustrated by a blind embrace of renewable energies. Yet, most, or all, of them boost consumption and energy use compared to fossil fuels, once there is a full accounting of the costs of research, manufacture, and installation (2).
Most environmentalists can agree that a key aspect of environmental responsibility requires individuals to cut their personal consumption of goods and use of energy. However, doing so would depress economies and put millions of people out of work.
This uncomfortable truth is often blithely ignored. There is no way of being frugal that does not detract from economic production and affluence.
In addition to recycling and repurposing trash, frugality practitioners sometimes produce some of their own food, whether by gardening or by keeping chickens and goats.
Such activities can be personally enriching and may result in better tasting produce, but they are generally inefficient. The backyard gardener burns more energy per unit of food produced compared to agribusiness that must turn a profit and is therefore highly efficient, even when the energy cost of transportation is accounted for. This is because gardeners are very small producers and small operations are inherently less efficient. Local sourcing may help to build community but it is of little use in fighting climate change.
A similar argument can be made about the reuse of trash. While this may be fun and artistically fulfilling, it is of little use either in solving the problem of over-consumption or in mitigating climate change. If one spends hundreds of dollars in using original timbers to rebuild an old door, for example, this is a distinct step backward because the recreated item consumes more energy than the original manufacturer.
Frugality scholar and enthusiast, Emrys Westacott, argues that while one can always quibble about the impact of frugality on the environment, people are nevertheless better, and happier, for acting as though they care about the environment. This seems undeniably true but it is of little help to the environment if the actions of large numbers of people are not beneficial in mitigating carbon pollution.
Modern frugality offers a few ineffectual tweaks to an unsustainable economic system. Whatever the personal benefits, more radical measures are needed than each individual trying to reduce their personal carbon footprint.
Examples include a basic redesign of products and packaging to reduce energy consumption and increase reuse and biodegradability. Homes, machines, and vehicles need to be made more energy efficient. Buildings need to be better designed to reduce their energy consumption.
Once these obvious measures are implemented, we can determine whether it would be good to reduce the size of homes to about half of their current size or to discourage single-family homes in favor of more energy-efficient apartment blocks, or to dispense with private cars.
Such profound social experiments would quickly discover how much real frugality our economies can bear.
1 Floud, R., Fogel, R. W., Harris, B., & Hong, S. C. (2011). The changing body: Health, nutrition, and human development in the Western world since 1700. Cambridge, England: NBER/Cambridge
2 Lambert, J. G., Hall, C. A., Balogh, S., et al. (2014). Energy EROI and quality of life. Energy Policy, 64, 153-167.