ARTS & EDUCATION | In Love with Stuff

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So I fit in the stock tank/bathtub, but will it fit through the trailer door? Photo: Shellie Proctor

By Jennifer Clark –

The idea of living simply isn’t new. Whether it was Thoreau writing about living a simple life in the cabin he built on Walden Pond; Edward Abbey documenting the years he spent living in a travel trailer in Arches National Monument in his book Desert Solitaire; Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel developing the idea of our “ecological footprint” as a means of assessing the impact our consumption has on the Earth; or, Jim Merkel spurring a new movement in voluntary simplicity when he wrote Radical Simplicity in 2003, voluntary simplicity has been discussed almost as long as we’ve been collecting things and acquiring stuff.

Our modern world is obsessed with stuff. The acquisition of material possessions is advertised as the ultimate sign of our success as people. You aren’t considered successful unless you’ve got a nice house, a new fancy car, all the latest gadgets in our homes, and motorized toys in the garage. Even as children, we are defined as cool, or not, by the clothes that we wear, the toys we have, the things our parents buy us. But does this stuff make us happy? Sure, sometimes it does if it enables us to do an activity that we enjoy—but it also burdens us. We have to store, maintain, and pay for this stuff.

An often neglected question about stuff is how does the acquisition of all these material things we collect impact the planet? Every item we own has an embodied “footprint” of consumption in terms of energy, raw materials, and time. What impact did the creation of that couch or car have on the planet? What impact will it continue to have in the future? Will it off-gas toxins? How will disposing of it when it has reached the end of its useable life affect the planet? I believe that we have passed the point where we can responsibly ignore these questions. I’ve been thinking about these things a lot recently, as I’ve embarked on the process of downsizing, getting rid of my stuff in order to go tiny.

Probably nearly everyone has seen or heard something about tiny houses in recent years. They are a major phenomenon in modern housing, with thousands of people across Canada and the US purging their possessions and downsizing to live in tiny houses, whether they are built on a permanent foundation on a property, or constructed on a trailer frame so that the house can be easily moved from one site to another.

Odin forest cat, Jen's sidekick, publicist, and travel trailer guardian guarding the travel trailer door. "What's the password?" Photo: Jennifer Clark

Odin forest cat, Jen’s sidekick, publicist, and travel trailer guardian guarding the travel trailer door. “What’s the password?”
Photo: Jennifer Clark

If you’ve watched any of the numerous television shows or documentaries about tiny houses, you might have noticed, as I have, that these houses are often incredibly expensive. It seems counter intuitive to go tiny to reduce your expenses while spending tens of thousands for all the latest technological gadgets and fine finishings. In a housing market that is increasingly unaffordable, going tiny may be the best option for me to own my home, but I will never be able to scrape together enough money to spend $30,000–$50,000 outright to build or purchase a typical tiny house. So how do I go tiny, when I can’t afford to go tiny? I’m sure I’m not the only one struggling with this question right now.

My solution has been to buy an 18-foot-long, 1976 travel trailer that has working appliances (stove, oven, fridge, furnace, hot water heater) and a full bathroom. In the past two months, I have partially gutted it, repaired and renovated it to add storage and improve the use of space, and insulated it for full-time living. It isn’t finished yet—not by a long shot, but I’m living in it now, and trying to finish it as I go along.

While I’ve been tackling this crazy project, I’ve been thinking a lot about how going tiny is causing me to rethink my relationship with stuff, and to consuming things. I’ve started having this conversation with friends. How do we relate to our stuff? How does having stuff limit or free us? How does it impact the planet and sustainability? As I move forward with renovating and continuing to simplify my life to suit living tiny, I hope I will keep having this conversation with people, and look forward to being able to expand it via TheGreenGazette.

 

Jennifer Clark grew up on her family’s horse and cattle ranch in the East Kootenays. She has studied sustainability issues and urban planning at Selkirk College in Castlegar, BC and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She is a wildland firefighter, a fanatical gardener, and has worked and taught urban gardening at garden nurseries in Metro Vancouver. Jennifer is also an experienced potter, occasionally teaching beginner’s classes. On a nice day, she can be found outside, gardening, hiking, or if she’s lucky, kayaking in a borrowed kayak.

 

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