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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living with Less

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood talks with author Vicki Robin on the idea of downshifting — spending more time with family and smelling the flowers than paying the day care provider and jeopardizing health and relationships. Ms. Robin refers to this shift as trading quality of life for standard of living, considering the effects on the environment and the economy, as well as the family.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. While Senator Dole and others are trying to reduce Federal spending, there is a growing group of Americans who are rethinking their personal spending habits and trying to simplify their lives. Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez are leading thinkers in what's called the Voluntary Simplicity Movements. They encourage people to help improve the environment and the quality of their own lives by getting less stuff. Their book, Your Money or Your Life, has sold more than a half a million copies since 1992. Their advice: keep track of how you spend your money. Then adjust your spending to match your values. I met Vicki Robin for a chat about her work, and asked her to explain how she believes reducing consumption can increase the pleasures of living as well as helping the environment.

ROBIN: Frugality for me is a very juicy word. It means the pleasure derived from the use or possession of something. It's the maximum joy to stuff ratio. It's like, if you liked it when you got it from the store, you might as well use it till it turns to dust because you're going to get the maximum pleasure from that item. And you don't even have to own it. Because every dollar that we spend is the equivalent of one pint of oil extracted and burned. So your consumption is directly related to what's happening to the earth. Any environmental problem you look at, it's kind of like you turn the stone of any environmental problem; underneath it you will find a consumer. And we here in North America are by all measures the biggest consumers on the face of the earth.

CURWOOD: Okay. So if you consume less you help the earth more, but what's the human incentive to do that? Why have less? What's the good for them, personally?

ROBIN: Well that's the approach that we're taking. Actually, the environmental benefit is a byproduct of a sane, rational relationship with money. What we say in Your Money or Your Life is look, all money really is in your life, it's the hours that you invest in getting it. That you pay for money with your time, and your time is precious, and you're actually not doing as good an exchange as you might think.


ROBIN: Because if you have a $20 an hour job you might think oh, that's a pretty decent job. But if you think about that hour, actually that $20 you have to take off taxes, car fare, day care, job costuming, looking right for work. All of that is expenses associated with your job. So it might be that every $5 that you spend represents an hour of your life. So the less money you spend, at some point in your life, the more time you get back.

CURWOOD: Wait a second. You're saying even if you work for $20 an hour, actually you're only working for $5 an hour?

ROBIN: We have people do this computation for themselves. This is an example that I'm giving. But there was one person who did this program, who realized his salary was a wash. He and his wife were both working, and the amount of money he was spending on his truck and tools etc. etc. etc. to maintain a job that he did not enjoy and was not on his desired career track was such that he could leave the job, go back to school, retrain, and his family would come out ultimately ahead.

CURWOOD: If people follow your program and don't work any more, who's going to do the work, and how will in fact business go ahead?

ROBIN: What you're " the question is grounded in the old way of thinking. Either I work for money or I'm a lazy bum. We're saying that people who followed our program, within a year their expenses are down by 20 to 25%. We've done surveys. So maybe they can cut back on their hours; maybe they could work 30 years instead of 40 years. There's all sorts of options that open up.

CURWOOD: Okay. So let's say that by following your program that people's consumption does go down by 25%. What happens to the economy? Doesn't that go down by 25%?

ROBIN: What we'll have is a kind of a settling out of the economy. And so that it may be that there are some industries that go belly-up, as there always have been in a free market economy. I mean, what happened to the horseshoe makers? I mean, that industry's disappeared. But we have new industries that grow, and hopefully they'll be more environmentally sustainable industries. Maybe we will have, if people save money maybe we'll have a pool of capital that can invest in wind power, solar power, clean technologies.

CURWOOD: But what you're saying is that the economy should shrink, actually, if we follow this program. That we would have a smaller, numerically speaking, economy.

ROBIN: I am not a macro-economist. I'm simply somebody who helps individuals rethink their consumption. But I, my sense is that it's possible to have a steady state economy rather than a growth economy, one that is not producing as much waste and is not as overheated. And where people are harvesting time instead of more stuff. And that time that they're harvesting, they can either spend time with their family and friends, they can have one wage-earner in the family instead of two, so that we wean ourselves from this over-monetarization of our lives, where we pay people to take care of our children, to take care of our problems, to take care of our cars, our accounting. I mean, we pay people for everything. And so maybe we could become an increasingly empowered society where people once again have a sense that they can manage their own lives.

CURWOOD: What you're talking about would require a whole shift in values.

ROBIN: Mm hm.

CURWOOD: How do you do that?

ROBIN: There are things in life we have already sacrificed on the altar of our material wealth. And that all you need to do is point to them and people know that they're true. People have sacrificed time with their children. People have sacrificed their health. People have sacrificed knowing their neighbors. People have sacrificed safe neighborhoods. So we have sacrificed quality of life for standard of living. But the idea that you're going to live your life according to your values is kind of quaint. You know, it's not a bottom line idea. And so, to ask yourself month in, month out is how I'm spending my money, i.e., my time, in line with my values, introduces that question perhaps for the first time in people's lives.

CURWOOD: What's your long-term goal here?

ROBIN: My goal is a dual goal. Number one, my goal is sanity, social sanity. Perhaps you would call that spiritual sanity. And then the secondary goal is saving the Earth. Is basically stopping this juggernaut of consumerism from sweeping across the face of this globe, and the only way I see it has a hope of stopping is if there is a turning here in North America. We just have a sense that this is what needs to happen.

CURWOOD: Vicki Robin is cofounder of the New Road Map Foundation and author, along with Joe Domingus, of the book Your Money or Your Life.



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