THE LARGESSE OF LESS

by Ken Bowers ’71

For my entire adult life, I have made a point of living within my means, both fiscally and physically. Having enough material possessions to meet my needs, but no more, meant less stuff to buy and maintain. Taking good care of these items reduced the need to purchase replacements, which decreased not only financial demands but also the amount of trash to recycle. Avoiding the tyranny of debt and monthly payments by really owning my possessions has further freed my life.

Residence hall living and an excellent K education in the physical sciences solidified these values. The residence hall experience pointed out just how little living space and how few personal possessions are necessary to enjoy a worthwhile quality of life. My academic training, particularly in physics, underscored the imperative for minimizing material consumption. Today, certain conventions once viewed as articles of faith are being revisited, based on the realization that limitless growth of the human economic enterprise is unsustainable.

The big lesson is that there is no such thing as something for nothing.

More than enough human-made assets exist currently for everyone worldwide to live a meaningful and materially secure life. We need to make do with less in order to ensure a viable future for the ecosphere, of which we are part and on which we depend. We must downsize the extent of existing human-made assets and then ensure their equitable distribution.

Views about standards of living in the (materially) developed world have largely been molded by advertising. Material consumption equated with standard of living has been advertised as desirable. But experience and the physical limitations of our planet teach us a different lesson. Stuff can easily become an impediment and burden. It has to be produced, bought, maintained, and ultimately disposed of. Intangibles such as personal relationships and a full appreciation of the natural world are free, yet priceless.

Some argue that consumerism is hardwired into humans and offer as proof the large numbers of people who, by voice or action or both, consider it a virtue. That’s a circular logic about which our critical thinking should inspire skepticism. There are, in fact, many people who do not consider consumption a virtue, at least not until they are persuaded by advertising to do so.

Consumerism requires the energy to create, use, and dispose of consumer goods. There is no such thing as free or totally clean humanly-useful energy. Some energy extraction methods are less damaging than others, but all methods come with consequences. Ideally, we should use the least destructive energy extraction methods and then confine our energy use to meet actual needs.  And per capita, what is really required is very small by the standards of the materially developed world.

We need nowhere near the size of housing units that materially developed cultures suggest we require. I live in a space of about 180 square feet in both my homes (Oakland, Calif., and Duluth, Minn.) That space suffices for personal use and for the equipment I need to work, and yet I don’t feel cramped, in part because I haven’t accumulated a lot of consumer goods I don’t need. My utility costs are miniscule by the standards of my culture. Both of my homes are units that have been subdivided out of a larger building—getting more use out of an existing structure. In part because I haven’t purchased a lot of things, my property is paid for, so there is no monthly payment required for me to live in my homes. One great benefit of having low utility bills and no monthly payments is freedom from a fiscal treadmill akin to indentured servitude that for many people includes a grueling commute to the job required to keep up the payments.

When it comes to commuting, too many people too often think their choice is limited to one: the personal automobile. But the manufacture and the use of a car carry a cost to the planet. Huge amounts of materials and energy are required to build each one, and they require enormous amounts of energy to use. They pollute. They are often stressful to use in heavy traffic and over long distances. And they require a massive effort to properly dispose of, even with recycling of the recyclable components. Electric cars are advertised as a cleaner alternative to their gas-powered cousins, but the electricity has to be obtained somehow, with the attendant consequences. Automobile-related infrastructure is expensive, and the demand for the private automobile (sometimes more than one per capita) is not balanced with real need.

I have a car that I use as my work vehicle—a 20-year-old Geo Metro XFi which gets 60 MPG with no hybrid or plug-in features. My previous work vehicle was a VW Squareback (40 MPG). I do home rehabilitation work, formerly the main activity of my construction business, Plumb & Square, and now done
It's doable and liberating!
on a volunteer basis for those unable to maintain their homes or pay for such maintenance. (Many of the Plumb & Square jobs also involved subdivision of larger properties into smaller units.) So I use my car, but mostly I walk, cycle, or use mass transit for my daily transportation.

Those modes of transportation help me achieve an energy consumption profile within the global per-capita sustainable range. I have enjoyed a high standard of living without a high level of consumption. It’s doable and liberating. My specific way won’t work for everybody, but each of us, in our own way, can achieve a sustainable level of energy consumption if we’re passionate and creative in directing the trajectories of our lives.

Earth is our beautiful and bountiful home, which we share with fellow inhabitants. And of those inhabitants humankind is a very small fraction with influence and power disproportionate to its numbers. With that power comes the responsibility to appreciate and care for our home and for our fellow inhabitants, human and otherwise, with whom the family of humanity is absolutely interdependent.

It’s time to steward, appreciate, and cherish. It’s time to care for ourselves and our home.

Ken Bowers graduated from Kalamazoo College in 1971 with a degree in physics. His varied career includes actuarial work (Met Life), founder and owner of Union Art, a photography and graphics business, and of Plumb & Square, a contracting business specializing in residential rehabs. Semi-retired currently, he has a residential properties business called Harmon-Hoben Properties, named after the residence halls he inhabited as a K student. He also uses his retirement to lecture on ecology and do all he can to help steward a physically and fiscally sustainable and socially just world. He’s written a couple of books, many op-eds, and taught courses in ecology and sustainability. He would enjoy having a conversation on matters that fall within that purview, and he can be reached at kenne.bowers@gmail.com.

Photo 1 - The author, Ken Bowers ’71, uses a car for work but relies on other, more sustainable, modes of travel for daily transportation.

Photo 2 - The author’s home. Fewer possessions mean more room in less space and, for Ken Bowers, more freedom.


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3 RESPONSES TO THE LARGESSE OF LESS
Robin Jaynes 1971 on September 18, 2012 at 3:18 pm
Good going Mr Bowers. I live in the "Canary in the Mine" city of Detroit. Without input of energy or just plain "benign neglect," "things fall apart." If more people heeded Mr Bowers example, even partially, our present day concerns might include healthier people and a healthier environment.
Teresa Lyn on September 18, 2012 at 4:30 pm
I think you are my idol Mr. Bowers! You may be interested to hear that in Kalamazoo there is a grassroots effort to create an ecovillage (http://www.manitouarbor.org/) that embraces these values. The sad thing is that in this economy it has been very difficult to sell enough lots to move the project forward.
Tom Brown, 1967 on September 25, 2012 at 5:02 pm
Ken, I heartily endorse your themes of being fiscally and physically prudent/frugal. My Scottish heritage weighs heavily on my daily activities. Although I have tried to obtain only those resources we need to be happy and healthy, we have accumulated too much stuff. I am now trying to downsize in anticipation of a future move to a smaller home. We have lived in our home since 1973 and have filled up every available space with too many things. Your nifty operating name of Harmon-Hoben definitely captured by heart as my first two years at K were spent living in those fine dorms. By the way, you might want to look at the spring BeLight and read about my very close relationship to Kazoo. Although my family name is Brown, my grandfather was T. Allan Hoben. Toward the end of my professional career as a financial analyst, I changed from driving my car to work to taking the bus, or on good weather days, my bicycle. It was a very satisfying change. Best wishes to you!
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