Why We're Downsizing, Buying a Sailboat, And Chasing Our Dream of Off-Grid Sustainable Living
In recent years, there has been a wave of alternative lifestyles becoming popular within American culture. Pictures of tiny houses, RV’s and even sailboats flood social media channels, Pinterest boards and reality TV shows. So, what is alternative living all about and why would Bryan and I decide to upend our lives on the cusp of my graduation, with what looked like a promising career ahead of me?
What is Alternative Living?
Alternative living is any way of living that is unusual, especially when one chooses to live or work in a way that is not considered normal by other members of society (Cambridge Dictionary, 2020). Tiny houses, downsizing, and minimalism are some of the more recognizable terms, with widespread understanding of these ideas. Other ideas within the alternative lifestyle community include off-grid living or living disconnected from privately and publicly owned utilities such as gas, water, and electricity (Olsson, 2020). This disconnection of one of the driving forces for the movement, with many people seeing detachment from the mainstream as a chance at freedom not afforded by traditional housing and lifestyles.
People gravitate towards this movement for a variety of reasons. One important reason is the rising cost of housing across the world. According to Eviction Lab, a research project centered around understanding the trauma surrounding eviction, poverty, and housing instability across the country, landlords in the 27 cities tracked by Eviction Lab have filed for 162,563 evictions since the pandemic began, pushing the nation to the verge of an eviction crisis (Eviction Lab, 2020). According to this data, 3,526 evictions were filed just this week alone (Eviction Lab, 2020). Additional figures indicate that tenants who are facing eviction are behind three months’ worth of rent, an insurmountable and exorbitant debt most will not be able to erase, suggesting that evictions will continue to increase into the new year. With a growing number of Americans not able to afford the increasing costs of housing, and more potentially facing eviction following the end of the federal moratorium on evictions, more and more people are turning to housing alternatives for respite.
In addition to exceptional housing costs and freedom from corporate utility control, proponents of downsizing and smaller homes, such as author of Not So Big, Sarah Susanka advocate that the demands of today’s society requires us to rethink what we as a society define as a good home. In her book Susanka describes that the need for a large house is something that we have been socialized to believe is ideal,when realistically, we don’t need the space we think we do (Susanka, 2008). Additionally, Susanka criticizes the “McMansions” that have become customary of middle-class neighborhoods across the county. She argues that understanding what you truly need out of a house is the key to picking the home that’s right for you.
Another reason people are considering alternative lifestyles is the appeal of a smaller personal impact on the environment. A recent study found that environmental motivation as a factor in 50% of decisions made by people who chose to live in tiny homes (Boeckermann et. al., 2019). Common within the philosophy behind this reason is the rejection of over consumption, greed, and capitalism (Olsonn, 2020).
Tired of Playing the Game
So why was a sustainable, off-grid, minimalistic lifestyle so appealing to Bryan and I? Simply put, we were tired of playing the game. The corona-virus pandemic was a wake-up call in a lot of ways, and it really showed us the importance of creating the life that we want for ourselves and our family. Before we had kids, we talked about living in tiny home, cut out high fructose corn syrup from our diet, and even cut out any food not made in our kitchen for over a year. And while some of these things we haven’t stuck to, the one common thread between then and now is that we, as a family are trying to reduce our impact on the planet, the people around us, and our bodies.
We now recognize the great privilege that comes from being able to choose raw and whole foods, having clean and organic options, and even just having access to food close to our home. So much about the way we live is dependent on your social position. I often think back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and wonder how leaders, politicians, and corporations can be so unaware of the needs of the people that they prioritize profit over lives, even in the face of a deadly pandemic that they themselves cannot buy a cure to escape from. Has their privilege removed them from our shared reality so much that they truly expect us to remain productive despite the uncertainty of this crisis?
But I also understand that this has always been the American way. I write this on Thanksgiving, a “holiday” rooted in genocide. White supremacy, and the myth of American Exceptionalism. Its origins are so deeply connected to capitalism that it’s easy to see how its falsely romanticized narrative proliferated for 400 years. Capitalism has been the driving force behind so much of the world’s colonization, that to participate in its system is to participate in the legacy of genocide.
While we can’t escape capitalism completely, living off-grid, floating our home across the ocean, seems as close as we can get to that freedom, and allows me to dedicate my time to unlearning, deconstructing, writing, sharing, and creating. I don’t believe that we were meant to live our lives fueling corporate interests with our labor and our consumption, and I hope to continue to unlearn the socialization that 29 years of living a life devoted to always having more or better or working harder. I look forward to facing the hard truths necessary to confront after such a time.
Society puts so much emphasis on the things we consume, the size of our houses, the year of our cars, and so many other THINGS that just don’t matter in the end. In researching this lifestyle we kept coming back to the questions, “What would you do with your life if money wasn’t an object?” and for us, the answer was to travel the world with each other and our children, to reduce the impact we have on world around us, to continue to educate ourselves, to write, to tell stories, and to continue to grow together. It has become clear to me, as we continue to downsize our belongings in preparation of living in a 40 foot sailboat, that so many of the things I have are just that, things, and for me, I’d rather have priceless memories than any of those things.
With every passing day, we lose more people to COVID-19 and with each of these tragedies, we are reminded that life is precious, and our time on this planet limited. We are taught to work all of our lives for the hope that we can retire, live out our dreams of traveling or resting, and told that this is success. But some of us will never have the privilege to grow old, to retire, to see the world. Some of us will spend our entire lives trying to live the life that society has told us is right only to die young, to lose our house to a fire, to unexpectedly lose our best friends and lovers. The truth is we don’t know how long we have to live, and we would rather spend it travelling, learning, creating, and sharing. We see this point in our lives as an opportunity to do something that we never thought possible, or even considered to be a reality before now. 2020 has shown us the flaws of this society in a way that wasn’t entirely clear before, and this clarity has led us to believe that the present is the best time to take the chances we’ve been waiting for, and create the reality we’ve only dreamed of.
The leaders we put in charge have failed us, the current system of capitalism has failed us, and we can’t wait for a force outside of ourselves to create a life worth living, we have to do that for ourselves. This week congress put forth a relief package, that feels like a slap in the face. For 10 months, we’ve isolated, socially-distanced through the holidays, sacrificed our mental and physical health in the name of the greater good, and the leaders we’ve chosen didn’t hesitate to offer us mere crumbs while simultaneously dishing out millions to a xenophobic border wall, foreign intervention, and bailing out corporations including the airline industry, AGAIN. We’ve been shown repeatedly, that to the people in power we don’t matter and our needs and demands for the future are largely ignored by politicians and corporation alike. I’ll continue to pressure leaders, I’ll continue to fight for equity, for healthcare, for human rights, but I’m also living life on my terms, I’m not leaving it up to politicians and wealthy Americans to decide. I’m prioritizing my values, my goals, and my life.
Alternative Living is Feminist Living
In doing research for our transition into sailboat life, I kept coming back to the idea of feminism being a large influence on the push for alternative housing and lifestyles. It turns out that feminism and alternative living have been connected for decades. Even before feminist theorists wrote about alternative forms of living within the capitalist society, these ideas were taken from or influenced by indigenous traditions and culture. Next week, I will explore this idea more with a full blog post on the indigenous and feminist connection to alternative living, the tiny house movement, and sustainable living. Check back later for that post!