FEATURE: Living with Less
How some valley dwellers are rejecting consumer culture.
Jackson, WY – Who lives in tiny houses, uses biodegradable materials, recycled water stored in an outdoor tank, and composts their own garbage?
Who recycles, rebuilds, refurbishes, or reuses objects and goods instead of buying new?
Who lives out of their cars, owns few clothes and no furniture? Borrows no money? And spends almost nothing?
Is it really possible to produce little waste and live a truly sustainable lifestyle?
Inspired by the concept that consuming less quells the quest for more, many individuals in Jackson Hole, and nationwide, are finding alternative ways to live, questioning ideas of currency, consumerism, values, what’s worth keeping and what’s worth throwing away.
Many are joining the “tiny house” movement, starting intentional communities or barter economies, and consuming less.
Daniel Suelo, the subject of Mark Sundeen’s 2012 novel “The Man Who Quit Money,” has lived without money since 2000. Suelo paid off his debt, ditched his meager savings in a phone booth, and lived in a Utah cave surviving off wild vegetation, road-kill and dumpster diving. “I take only what is freely given or thrown away. By doing this, I find a return to balance,” Suelo softly explained. “We accumulate what we don’t need out of fear and anxiety.”
Suelo believes that the only true balanced economy is a gift economy, one where everyone “gives and receives without calculation or thought of return, or a sense of debt (guilt).” Suelo does not insist on a new form of currency, rather the abolishment of accepted ideas of currency.
Sundeen, the renowned author of Suelo’s story, admits, “Suelo’s extreme lifestyle is not a model of replicable sustainability. If everyone was getting food out of the dumpsters, who would put the food in there?” He says he is not going to emulate Suelo’s lifestyle.
Instead he has made small changes such as biking instead of driving; transferring his money from Wells Fargo to a small credit union to avoid the bank making interest off his earnings; buying CSA vegetables at the beginning of the season, rather than produce from grocery stores and refinancing his house through the credit union. “None of this sounds as sexy as building a greenhouse,” Sundeen joked, “but these are decisions you can make in the real world.”
Tiny home, big freedom
Three years ago, Brittany Gibeau was working as a preschool teacher in Jackson. She and her husband Dan realized that if they went the conventional way, they would be “trapped in the consumer driven lifestyle.” They decided that a tiny house could set them free financially, teach them how to live with less and allow them to leave a smaller environmental impact.
In four and a half months of full-time work, the Gibeaus built a 200 square foot solar-powered, off-the-grid tiny home with a composting toilet. They used ReWall materials, made from 100 percent upcycled meld of fiberboard for interior and exterior walls, ceilings and roof tiling, flooring, structural insulation and countertops. The finished product contained no chemicals.
They transported their tiny home to Colorado; Fireside Resort in Jackson and Painted Apple Ranch in Victor. They took a three-month road trip with it, and planted it in friends’ backyards. This gave them the freedom to live simply, off the grid, using no utilities. They used a 40-gallon tank they had to refill often in the winter, so it wouldn’t freeze. They took short showers and did efficient dishes. “We realized that we didn’t need much water,” Brittany said. The toilet only held three 5-gallon buckets at a time.
The Gibeaus saved $35,000 in two years living in a tiny home. “It’s really not a sacrifice,” Brittany said, “except for the actual square footage of where to put things, we lived really comfortably. We became very aware of personal belongings. Even when a person gifted us a candle, we often didn’t have anywhere to put it.”
Each day brought new challenges; solutions came “one problem at a time.” The Gibeaus try to reuse everything – instead of buying a piñata for a recent work assignment, Brittany made one; she also refurbishes old furniture, makes soap, cleaning products and her own Christmas presents.
By escaping the cycle of earning and spending as they focused on living with less, the Gibeaus started a filmmaking business. “Rather than working all the time to pay the bills, we had all this time – we worked on passion projects.” They learned about building, maintaining, carpentry, siding, roofing, composting, troubleshooting RV appliances, giving them a skill set. “It made us feel really in control of our lives,” Brittany said.
Reveling in self-reliance
Wilson residents Hugh and Karlene Owens repair everything – they even use wood chips to biodegrade cotton clothing. They firmly believe that, “We can simplify our lives when we stop bringing junk home,” and urge people to “stop making your house a dumpster.” They do not believe in borrowing money or buying anything they cannot fix. “Most of the stuff we get is broken and it’s fabulous,” Hugh said. “We try not to buy anything new. We don’t want to waste energy. We buy used items and fix them up. I haven’t bought a new car or new lumber in 40 years–everything for our home came from Habitat for Humanity.”
As Karlene takes four loaves of fresh-baked bread out of the wood-burning oven, a ritual she performs each Sunday, the house fills up with the smell of molasses and wheat. “If you make your own food and don’t buy processed food, that reduces a lot of trash,” she noted. “We buy everything in bulk, including 100-pound sacks of grain–we reuse the sack. We grow as much of our own food as possible, which doesn’t require consuming packaging or using fuel for travel. We stock and can food from our garden, and have raised livestock.” Half the week, Hugh has grain or oats for breakfast. This costs practically nothing versus Cheerios that cost $4.99 for five servings. “Not only is it not as healthy as porridge, the box and plastic wrapper have to be disposed,” Hugh said.
The Owens heat their home completely with wood. The logs come from their own 5-acre property and construction lumber. Hot water is heated from their personal greenhouse and solar energy, and they cook in a wood-stove that has old radiators, which circulate to the water tank. The water they use comes from waste heat from the cook stove, and a convection loop of concrete encircles their property. Clothes are dried on a line or in the greenhouse.
“We have not had trash service for eight years, make no trips to the dump, and do not own a trash can. We burn our garbage including all food grade [non-halogenated] plastics,” Hugh said. (Burning plastics made of polythene is safe. Halogenated plastics, made from chlorine and fluorine, are unsafe to burn.) “We literally heat the house trash,” Hugh laughed.
They use compost bins to generate soil for garden, and feed organic waste to the chickens, pigs and sheep. While trash from Teton County travels all the way to Sublette or Bonneville County, this is their attempt to “take trash that otherwise would have gone to the dump and make soil.” The Owens are busy building a tiny home from local aspen and pine lumber donations as “a backup plan.”
In terms of a broader solution, Hugh noted, “To cut down on carbon dioxide, fuel should be taxed. To cut down on electricity, tax the service. To cut down on something you tax it. The political system is broken. The best thing to do is reduce waste, and try to develop new skillsets.” Troubled by the truckloads of food shipped in to Jackson, he said, “We make nothing here. People need to reprioritize their time. Money will never buy you security.”
Mirroing Owens’ philosophy on taxation, Sundeen asserted, “you are subject to economic forces beyond your control. The best solution I know is to continue to fight the overall tax system. This requires grassroots political action.”
Suelo echoes this notion, praising the perfect life cycles in nature. “When I stayed in a small village in Ecuador, it astounded me that there was no garbage, and there was no garbage pick-up,” he said. “You eat beans, you throw the pods on the ground, and that’s exactly what the ground needs. It is not garbage, and it does not stink, because it is in balance. When food is taken locally and thrown away locally, all becomes in balance, and there is no longer litter.”
Ultimately, people can begin to shift behaviors by first shifting their perceptions, Hugh said, by peeling off a label that has somehow come to define humanity. “Think of yourself as a citizen. There is no hope for a country comprised of consumers, but a country made up of citizens can accomplish almost anything.”
The simple, happy life
Tony Niro, a Jackson resident, estimates that he saved $28,000 from living eight summers in his SUV. His car was his storage unit, his bed, and his means of transportation. “My dumpster was on wheels,” he laughed.
Living simply allowed him to travel more, take hikes from Idaho to Wyoming, focus on his goals, and participate in the community. He refilled water in public restrooms or friends’ houses, used the bare minimum of utensils for cooking, cooked burgers with sticks on the fire, and kept a small bag of trash. He dumped the contents once a week and then reused the bag, and he ate only nonperishable food since he didn’t have a fridge.
“I didn’t consume a ton because I didn’t have a place to put it,” he said. “I tried not to accumulate.”
Now, dismayed at the cost of utilities as a new homeowner, Niro reminisced: “Not having a home is not a bad thing. It forces a person to get out into the community–where we really live –instead of staying home that day.”
Today, looking around his new condo, Niro says his experiences helped shaped his new trajectory in a brick and mortar abode. “I’ve taken a lot of my values from living in my car into being a homeowner. Everything in my house was free. Everything is found. My dining room table chairs were going to the dumpster. I try to take care of things, and be mindful of them; what I use, I use properly.”
He is not totally convinced that his decision suits him. “I am already missing my simple life, with no worries about utilities. I think I might rent out my house and go back to living in my truck this summer,” Niro divulged.
Niro’s experience has also led him to examine society’s idea of currency, much the way Suelo’s extravagant rejection of money did: “We could lend and borrow in a different way. We have to change our idea of currency. We could trade radishes for a meal, for instance,” he said.
Driggs resident Jake Seipel has lived and worked out of two Airstreams for six years; he is currently restoring a third. From the inside of his 120 square foot home, he works as an online DUCT designer, designing ventilation systems to help contractors build more economically. Living in a small confined space, Seipel breaks down packaging and finds ways to reuse it. “I am more aware of what I consume in my Airstream,” he said.
All of his organic waste goes to horses, and he buys small portions of everything. Seipel saved the box his phone came in, and uses it to collect bolts and screws for his projects. He has developed a new skill set by living simply, mostly by breaking things to fix them. He believes this is different than the average consumer.
Certain that it will take a catastrophic event such as a natural disaster or a shortage of goods for Americans to change their consumerist ways, he is uneasy about the dependency on computers and Internet access, private and postal mail service, weekly trash pickup and landfills across America. “We have to be inundated with trash and nowhere to put it for things to change.”
On a recent visit to his brother’s suburban home in Allentown, PA, Seipel says he was distressed by the two large rolling garbage containers worth of trash his brother and his family churned out each week. “They are piped into the system,” Seipel said, noting some of their behaviors that have become commonplace among many Americans. “They drive to Starbucks every morning for coffee instead of making it themselves. Everyday the UPS man drops a package off.”
Seipel believes that “Money is the problem. You have to make money. Even in permaculture communities, money prevails. If everything were on a barter system, if we had to go to work and wash dishes for three hours for a meal, the definition of currency would change.”
Downsizing and learning new skills
Crista Valentino, a six-year Jackson resident, inhabits a 250 square foot studio and heads CoalitionWILD, an international environmental initiative for emerging conservation leaders. As she slowly downsized her life, it became easier for her to decipher between what is worth throwing away and what is worth keeping. She admits she never used to give much thought to trash, throwing it away, and what happens afterwards. “Our infrastructure is designed that way. You toss something in a big dumpster and forget about it, no matter what it contains. Huge bins are set up for discard without much thought or judgment,” she said.
Valentino considers that “what might be garbage to one person, might not be to another.” Once you begin looking at the potential of something rather than its current state, it becomes really easy to be creative and reuse or up-cycle materials. She is currently restoring pieces of an old fence to build shelving for her studio, and sanding down a thrown-away wooden ladder to access her loft. “It comes down to what we value, and how we uphold those values with our everyday actions. Take time to ask yourself what it is you really need and why,” she said.
A firm believer in changing the way we view currency, Valentino suggests a trade-based economy, where we could wash dishes in exchange for a meal, care for an elder in exchange for books or needed office supplies, fix a fence or plant seeds in exchange for produce.
“We need to move away from thinking of currency or philanthropy as monetary,” she said. Many of the young people she works with don’t have expendable money – what they do have is knowledge and skills. “Things like knowing how to develop a website, being a photographer and donating images for use, having graphic design skills, carpentry, offering airline miles for travel, or even having networks and connections are all examples of important contributions that someone can make that isn’t directly monetary,” Valentino explained. “The key is tapping into something you’re good at and being willing to offer your time and expertise to someone else.”
Like the Gibeaus and Seipel, Valentino says she’s witnessed her own personal transformation as she simplified her life. “My skills have grown. I have learned how to mend clothing and gear, gotten creative in reusing items for multiple purposes, and practiced my carpentry and building. My priorities have changed – less things to have, to take care of and manage, including the size of the space I have to keep clean and work on, has allowed me more interaction with those I love, and more time doing things that I enjoy.”
Infinite growth on a finite planet
The average American generates 4.3 pounds of waste per day, 1.6 pounds more than in 1960. Annually, 220 million tons of garbage in the U.S. end up in one of the country’s 3,500 landfills, the second leading source of methane emissions, according to Duke University Center for Sustainability and Commerce.
In 2013 alone, Americans generated nearly 254 million tons of trash and recycled and composted about 87 million tons material in 2013, according to the EPA. The question lingers — where will we put all of our garbage?
By the end of the century, the world’s population is expected to increase by 40 percent. This demands a focus on sustainability practices for future generations. According to the United Nations, world population is estimated at 8.5 billion by 2030.
To illuminate the necessity to consume less, Austin based professor dubbed “Professor Dumpster” gave up his 2,500 foot square home after a divorce, sold his clothing and furniture on Facebook, and relocated to a 36 square foot dumpster. Intense summer heat drove Jeff Wilson outside when he would have otherwise stayed in. Forced to consider ways people interact with their community and each other in relationship to their homes, he began spending more time at laundromats, meeting fellow community members that way. Wilson’s definition of home began to change, just as Suelo’s did. Living on less shifted pre-occupations with earning, borrowing, accumulating and spending – instead they became those of personal companionship, community involvement, life purpose and spiritual practice.
Wilson described his housing experiment, fueled by sunlight and surface water, complete with a composting toilet as “a pretty good life” to The Atlantic.
His experiment spawned “The Dumpster Project,” a sustainability-focused experiment based on re-imagining what “home” is, and a K-12 curriculum focused on sustainability practices to educate youth on how to consume less. “The big hypothesis we’re trying to test here is, can you have a pretty darn good life on much, much less? So far, I have, I’d say. A better life than I had before.”
Hugh Owens suggests that single use zoning should be abandoned in exchange for mixed use where people could live, work and shop in the same place. He argues that a geo-thermally heated greenhouse near Kelly Warm Springs should be installed, and insists that “this discussion must begin with life’s basic necessities starting with food and water. How can we procure our food locally? How many people could this valley support if we had to feed ourselves?”
The “every family is an island mentality” in America has to be eclipsed, agreed Brittany Gibeau, who dreams of community water collection stations, garbage burning and compost stations.
Although the Gibeaus live in a real home now, they have adapted the values they learned from their tiny home experience to their current home: they re-gift, rebuild, restore and reuse. Their current film project, “Happiness Grows on Trees,” examines social problems as a result of not enough time spent outside.
Brittany explained, “Choosing to have lunch in a city park or an outdoor meeting place, instead of your office makes such a difference. Some cities are greening their communities, outdoor meeting areas–this has a huge impact on people’s health and happiness and makes an enormous societal shift.”
She suggests, “Fast foods can build their stores from their own cup waste. Schools can install new ceiling tiles made from their kids’ milk cartons. Cities can board up their vacant buildings with boards made from their waste.”
Indeed, as Americans accumulate more stuff, landfills accumulate more garbage. “We have to redefine what we think of as trash,” Gibeau said.
But breaking free of food dependency is easiser said than done, especially in the valley. Gibeau says she realizes that climate is a huge concern with a self-sustainable lifestyle. “It’s hard to compost and grow your own food, especially in this climate, and you have to get creative with water.”
Changing our perception of currency
Sundeen’s current project, “The Unsettlers,” examines building alternative economies, much akin to the Gibeaus, the Owens, Niro, Seipel and Valentino’s ideas. This does not imply living without money, but rather how to excise ourselves from the global economy and live more responsibly. The book asks the question, ‘How Could I incorporate these beliefs into my own life?”
Suelo suggests the same, calling it, ‘paying it forward,’ starting with neighbors face-to-face. Service and payment for the service should be exactly equal. “If everybody lived by these gift economy principles, there would be no need to live from dumpsters, and there wouldn’t be a need for dumpsters to start with.” PJH
SIDEBAR: Mark Sundeen visits the valley for Mountain Story 2016, hosted by Teton County Library from January 11 to 14, a literary festival that invites mountain enthusiasts to enjoy the “juncture of great adventure and great writing.” Other notable guests include: Sender Films, makers of Valley Uprising and Aaron Linsdau, author of “Antarctic Tears.” The three-day festival features alpinist and adventure authors, films, a Cabin Fever Story Slam and writing workshops.