Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why Buying a $32,000 Car is An Act of Minimalism

A $32,000 toy hardly is anyone’s idea of simple living, or of “doing without.” Yet, my $32,000 car precisely represents how I view minimalism, and how that kind of cost can be justified as being responsible.
My toy is a 2009 Prius – a hybrid vehicle that, in winter, gets 42mpg (Imperial gallons, 51 US gal.), and 60 mpg in the summer. Yes, that is a little way from the 72 mpg rating that it has received, but those tests are made on the flat, at constant temperatures and speeds without the air conditioner on. But this kind of mileage is one of the reasons I bought my responsible toy. Each year, based on the average distances I drive, with a fuel cost of $4.50/gal (Cdn), I will spend $2,700. The next best mileage in a comparable vehicle would cost me $900 more per year. I plan on keeping that car 20 years. I will save $18,000 in fuel alone.
My experience with Toyota vehicles is that they last longer than the Energizer Bunny. My most recent car, a Toyota Echo, is still going (I gave it to my son to replace his Ford F150), and has 496,000 km on the odometer. It has been treated extra roughly, maintained poorly, and used, often, like an offroad vehicle. But, until I gave it to my son, I spent less than $1,900 on repairs and maintenance, including tires and windshield wipers! Estimated cost of maintenance and repair on the average sedan is more than $1,100 per year, so I will save at least $16,000 on repairs.
My Prius is not a small car. We have transported my wife’s parents on long excursions on three occasions. Luggage for four people, plus those passengers still did not fill the car completely. So, I will seldom need to rent a trailer or U-Haul to move items.
The Prius is designed for older people, with its easy-entry doors, high seats, good site lines. We will still be able to drive this car safely when I am almost 80!
The car’s colour is quite neutral. Fewer washings, less worry about fading, easy exterior maintenance all reduce costs.
Toyotas hold their value. If I needed to sell the vehicle, my return would be far better than any domestic car. So, again, its initial cost is not a cost, but an investment.
There are dozens of other reasons why this car is economical, dozens of reasons why it represents green stewardship, dozens of reasons why it is the best car a minimalist could buy. There are very few reasons you could find as to why buying the Prius is an act of excess, or indulgence. But, in spite of all the pros, and very few cons, there is one overriding reason why I bought this car – my wife insisted on it!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Is Minimal Living An Act of Selfishness?

From George Bush to Barack Obama, from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown, from Jean Chretien to Stephen Harper, every leader has, in one way or another, urged us to spend more to save the economy, to create jobs, to make the nation strong.
Minimalism teaches us that we should do without. Environmentalism guides us into using less of nature’s resources, and to protect non-renewable and renewable resources alike. Survivalism demands that we eschew the excess of society and government, and rely on more primitive lifestyles.
Clearly, the urgings of governments are at odds with the “isms.” If we are to rely on the wisdom of collective society, then, we should heed our government, not our urges and isms.
Let us examine the paradox of using less being selfish. If we stop using energy, then the earth is not being depleted. However, if we stop using energy, then new research into alternatives will not be needed, and jobs will dry up. If we stop using energy, the cost-per-unit to produce for others will increase, and they will suffer, because of our decision.
If we consume less food, we deprive growers, processors and retailers of their livelihood. At the same time, cost=per-unit, again, will increase, placing a burden on those that do purchase.
If we get rid of one of our cars, we’ll save gas, and wear and tear on roads. But, for every 18 cars, one job is created directly, and four others indirectly.
If we opt to downsize our homes, countless tradesmen will suffer, not to mention lawyers, real estate agents, repairmen, etc.
If we choose to do without government programs and assistance, countless politicians will experience a sense of loss and abandonment, while bureaucrats will slowly become extinct!
And think of the loss if we choose to barter, grow our food, help each other instead of relying on social networks, learn to enjoy having less but experiencing more!
I choose, though, to live minimally. Instead of using and abusing, I leave, for others, the responsibility and burden of consuming too much, living too large and asking for too many rights. My right is the right to waive my “entitlement” to waste, and, if I am displaying a selfish attitude by so doing, that, too, is my right. There are too many in need for me to believe that rights are granted to me to take extra food out of the mouths of the poor, clean air out of the lungs of the sick and frail, and the right to share in the world’s resources from those that treat this world with respect.
I, indeed, suffer from one, if not all, of the isms. And I’ll proudly wear my badge of selfishness.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Living green and lean

Google “minimalistic lifestyle” and every one but one of the first 100 websites focuses on getting rid of stuff you own and discarding ownership. Both concepts are ridiculously simplistic, and, unfortunately, completely unrealistic. It is the realm of starving artists and struggling students.
Perhaps the term “minimalism” leads us into an overly basic view of living minimally. And the term evokes different ideas for different people. Ask an environmentalist, and your response probably will focus on cutting back on non-renewable consumption. Ask a survivalist, and expect to hear how “going minimal” means eschewing government, big business and big-city lifestyles. Ask a young person and money, furniture and belongings will be the focal points. For an entrepreneur, it will mean “trimming the fat” from operations.
This bias of interpretation comes from the subjective perception of “doing without.”
Back in 1984, Canadian Prime Minister John Turner bragged about he had grown up in relative hardship. Apparently, the house staff had been let go due to hard times when he was a child! Not to be outdone, his opponent, future Prime Minister Brian Mulroney bemoaned his own hardships – a corporate lawyer with an affluent background! How many millions of Canadians wished they could have faced the same tough times.
Minimalist lifestyles could more simply be viewed as living “green and lean.” But that catchall phrase misses a basic human characteristic. Appreciation of beauty is innate, and may be one of the reasons we adorn our homes and ourselves. So we need to extend the quotations to include the word “living.” Living is not existing, subsisting, or depriving oneself. So, to be minimalistic, one must appreciate living, and learn to appreciate beauty wherever it exists.
Beauty may come from a newly opened flower, or a panoramic view of the wilderness. It may be found in the innovative scribbling of a graffiti tagger. It may be found in the dyed purple hair of a rebelling teenager, or the concentric, expanding circles from a rock tossed on the water. However, it should not come from a need to accumulate, to own bigger, to climb over others, etc. True beauty, for a minimalist, is found in unique and exciting places, and there is no need to own beauty. Instead, beauty needs to be appreciated, where and when found.
Understanding and framing the concept of minimalism in relation to your own lifestyle and needs is essential to being able to adopt that “living green and lean” philosophy. Once you are able to identify your concept of beauty and comfort, once you prioritize your needs versus your wants, and once you realize that being minimalist is less realistic than going minimalist, you have taken the first step to going lean and green. After all, like life itself, a lifestyle is a journey, evolving, adapting and embracing new ways & days.
I wish you good luck on your journey. Can if offer you anything less?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Building my yurt: a doorway to a new lifestyle.

Why would anyone give up a comfortable house in the city to live in a yurt in the bush? For me, the decision has more to do with enriching my life than it does with simplifying it. For my wife, it is an adventure.
A yurt is a Mongolian felt and animal hide structured tent, in which they live year-round in the Himalayas. Modern yurts are constructed of lattice, space-age insulation and polycarbonate tarpaulins.
BC Yurts, a Canadian manufacturer of these innovative antique structures, claims that they are liveable – indeed, comfortable – at temperatures below -35C. Their round shape allows winds to flow aerodynamically around them, with little wind resistance and, consequently, reduced wind chilling effect. Their 30degree sloped domes allow snow loads to slide off like an avalanche. Because they are constructed as a single, large room, air flow is free, reducing heating demand. In summer, the dome skylight and screened windows allow such good ventilation that, on the hottest day, these houses are quite comfortable.
But, why move to a yurt? A yurt is more a statement about reducing clutter, waste and excess than it is an actual reduction in lifestyle. A yurt is symbolic of true minimalism. It gives you more, for so much less. At a cost of under $15,000 for a complete 800 square foot unit, it clearly minimizes the impact on the pocketbook, compared to typical 800 square foot homes or condominiums in Manitoba that cost upwards of $125-190,000.
The one-room concept provides a great-room feel, with absolutely no wasted space, uncomfortable corners or hallways. As a result, one room provides the impact of a huge house.
Minimal complexities of design and layout reduce cleaning and maintenance requirements. No hard walls means no painting. Open rooms minimize demand for lighting and heating infrastructure. Minimal infrastructure means minimal maintenance, and more time to enjoy life.
Our yurt will be entirely “off the grid.” Our lavatory is a composting system – completely waterless. Our lighting is provided by a combination of wind and solar, with LED lights, and 90-watt refrigeration. Our cooking equipment will consist of biogas-fuelled ovens and grills, while backup energy is provided courtesy of a biodiesel-fuelled generator. Heating comes from a unique geothermal/biomass heating system. Grey water from the shower and sink will be filtered through an eco-pond, and used to nourish our nearby garden.
All of this may sound a little avant garde, or even idealistic and unrealistic. However, our entire concept has been tested successfully, in various component prototypes. In fact, rather than being a little too idealistic, we believe that our move to reduce our environmental footprint and minimize our economic crater of consumption is a major enrichment of our lives.
We invite you to follow the building of our yurt, and our first year living our new lifestyle. Each week, we will be updating our progress on our new blog,, or visit our occasional posts on this blog location.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

New Image Needed for Minimalism

Almost without exception, ask someone to describe a minimalist lifestyle, and you will get “Getting rid of everything you own and living without much of anything.”

That’s not minimalism. In polite circles, that’s a Spartan lifestyle. For those of us prone to being too blunt, that’s dumpster thinking. Life in a cardboard box.

Minimalist art certainly is not about eliminating everything. It is about simplifying background noise to allow viewers to focus on the simple, obvious item in front of them. It is about eliminating the unnecessary. Minimalist living should be the same. The public image requires re-branding to drag the lifestyle from obscurity to avante garde.

Today’s environmentalists are on the cusp of minimalism. Their public persona is that of caring for the world around us, of reducing our eco-footprint, of living clean, and independent of the noise of pollution. How is that different from minimalism?

One of the major impediments to large-scale embrace of the minimalist approach is the people with whom the concept is identified: radical artists, reactionaries and starving, idealistic youth. Environmentalists, on the other hand, are perceived as well-educated, somewhat affluent and insightful.

To explain to an acquaintance that you are a minimalist, you invite their view of you as living on the cusp of poverty. In my world, I deal with a variety of bureaucrats, a wealth of money-handlers, and an army of potential entrepreneurs who are looking to score their millions. To explain to them that I live a minimalist life would immediately cause them to revisit their beliefs in my competence as a business developer. I know. I’ve done it, and am not likely to repeat that error!

I have compensated. When I leave work, none of my clients are invited into my personal life. I go home to my barebones home, in my ultra-economical Echo, and change into my $5 tee-shirt and $16 jeans. In the morning, I climb into my suit, pick up my Blackberry and laptop, and rejoin the “normal” world. Am I comfortable with this compromise? Not really. But the public image of minimalism currently does not allow for coming out of the minimalist closet.

While my approach may seem hypocritical, it is essential to survival.

When one adopts a divergent approach to anything, and is called to defend it, a person almost always takes one of three tacts: deny passively, adapt, or defend aggressively. As a solid environmentalist, I support forest conservation. I do not support the approach of radicals who pound spikes into trees to thwart chainsaws. As a solid believer in small business, I do not support the heavy-handed irresponsibility of multinationals. I also do not support those protesters who inflict violence and destruction on innocent businesses at the G-9 conferences. Unfortunately, those extreme approaches are the very visible reactions by people who are challenged to defend their divergent views, and are unwilling to passsively accept any alternative.

Minimalists tend to overreact. (That comment is sure to get a rise out of those readers who choose the more divergent approach to the concept, by divesting themselves of every piece of comfort and every stick of worldly possessions). However, what I mean by the comment is that we tend to want to show our dedication to the philosophy by throwing away everything, and every link to conventional lifestyles.

A more moderate approach is much more successful if change is to be sustained. Obviously, I now have both a barebones wardrobe, and the more worldly one. My two suits and five shirts are more than adequate to “put on the Ritz” when needed. On out-of-town business calls, I rent the occasional mid-level intermediate sedan. I own technology, but I do not subscribe to more than basic cable (news channels are an essential!). I largely “live off the land,” but bring along store-bought (instead of homemade) wines when I socialize. The transitions are easy.

For me, the move to minimalism was more abrupt than for most of you, in many ways made out out of necessity. Maintaining the lifestyle became a choice. But for most, the move to minimalism should be made gradually, partly because of the shock to the system when you first seek out your fine jewellery for that special outing (and it is no longer there) or when the children come crying fore the latest designer clothes because their friends are mocking your kids’ perceived poverty. But gradual moves will enable you to integrate your public persona with your private lifestyle, and allow you to be selective in your new minimalistic approach.

Getting rid of everything may give you a momentary feeling of triumph, but climbing into that cardboard box at night is sure to send a feeling of chill down your spine!

To be sure, minimalism needs a new image, but, to paraphrase the old saying, “image-building begins at home.” Get your own head around what minimalism means to you, before you try to convince the outside world of the rightness of your divergent approaches.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Living the High Life on a Low Budget

Dr. Frank De Luca says, “A rich life is cultivated, not learned.” But Napoleon Hill and Andrew Carnegie’s book, “Think and Grow Rich,” focuses on how to acquire financial wealth and live in riches, and virtually ignores the De Luca philosophy of richness of living. It is this rush and thrust toward material success that blindly leads many of us to assume that material wealth and rich living are synonymous. They are not.

I know few people who feel they have reached the pinnacle of wealth accumulation. In fact, a constant in today’s world is that the vast majority of the upper middle income and upper income earners do not categorize themselves as “wealthy.” It is almost comical to observe a politician trying to re-define “middle class” so that he and his well-heeled family will fit, or re-brand his middle-income upbringing as a “poor joe” experience, so that he can relate to the masses. Indeed, it is an axiom of society that, whatever we have, there is more that we need.

Unfortunately for most of us, the quest for a rich life bypasses the real richness that is available to every person.

Living a minimalistic life can be very easy, very sanguine. However, it is getting to that level of comfort that poses critical challenges. I promote embracing a 15 step system of acclimatization.

These steps are:

1.Know before you go! Inventory your life, your assets, your priorities.
2.Head & Heart Conditioning. Prepare yourself mentally & emotionally
3.Choosing direction. Identify what is important to you.
4.Always be prepared! Identify fallback (emergency) items
5.A soft place to land: Identify items & emotions that are based on nostalgia & memories
6.Putting your feet up: What you do for entertainment, and what you need for it
7.Double duty, half the cash: Identify multi-purpose items
8.Twopence, cautiously, frugally invested in the bank! Know economical from expensive
9.Mental de-clutter before material de-clutter
10.Conditioning the pack rat: Reorganize before de-cluttering
11.Any friend of mine … Network of associates reorientation
12.One part of your life, one activity, one room at a time
13.Monitor and measure
14.Spongebob’s philosophy — soak it up.
15.Steer clear of the pulpit.
Many of the points seem outrageously obvious. But, like trying to put on your underwear after you have buckled your pants and laced your boots, sequence and attention to the little things are vital if you want to sustain and maintain your new approach to life.

I will go through each of the 15 steps over the next several weeks, offering anecdotes and illustrations, as well as the “whys and wherefores.” Converting to a rich man’s lifestyle on a poor man’s budget is rewarding, but it will require some thought and significant adjustments. Please, be patient, and enjoy your journey.

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