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Non-Ascetic Downsizing/Simplicity

Downsizing is both a challenge and a source of great satisfaction. But one must be careful not to get sucked into Asceticism. The travel blogosphere is full of Holy Prophets of the Desert (grin), who think that when they die they are going to Heaven to sitteth upon the right hand side of Thoreau or Gandhi.

In fact 'Less is More' is no more rational than 'The Bigger the Better' or 'The More, the Merrier'.  Despite the apparent dichotomy, both poles of this duality care more for out-shining the Joneses than anything else, albeit in opposite directions. 

Let's look at the Downsizing mantra from a rational viewpoint, and avoid pseudo-religious emotionalisms. The concept of Diminishing Returns is one of the most universal and true ideas in life. The first bit of Goodie X is wonderful; the next unit helps too, but not as much as the first unit, and so forth, until you are getting less and less for each additional unit of time or money.

This is such a basic idea that just about everybody agrees with it. So why do we tend to forget it, and apply it so inconsistently? Why is a "normal" life set at a point to the far right on that graph?

The graph shows why Downsizing, Simplicity, and Minimalism are inaccurate slogans: the Point of Diminishing Returns has the maximum slope. Therefore a real camper is a Maximalist (or Optimalist) rather than a Minimalist. Why does this bottom curve get such little emphasis?

How many things in your life can't benefit from applying the concept of Diminishing (Marginal) Utility? So why would Downsizing (rigs and possessions) be any different? It's because the obsessive downsizer has made a religion out of it. 

We live in a post-Christian age. We've outgrown our religious traditions intellectually, but not emotionally. Most of the "new" secular ideologies since the Age of Enlightenment have just been reworkings of the main Judeo-Christian myths. Of course, the "new" ideology is dressed up in scientific garb so that it looks intellectually respectable. But underneath the facade they are just the same old rhythms, sung to different words.

The Life-on-Wheels sells itself by puffing up as one of these pseudo-religions that offers salvation and redemption, although those actual words are not used, of course. (That would make it too obvious.)  People without any historical perspective can easily be sucked into repeating the ascetic competition of desert monks of the Egyptian and Syrian deserts in the early days of Christianity. 

In "The Five Stages of Greek Religion," the famous classicist Gilbert Murray said, "To be guided by one's aversions is always a sign of weakness or defeat." A traveler who thinks that downsizing, i.e. subtracting, is an open-ended project, is sadly mistaken. He needs to realize that Subtraction is just the first phase of his new lifestyle. Soon he must move on to Addition, but with more discrimination and selectivity than he used in the past.

On a personal level my "alternative lifestyle" went through the Subtraction phase first with television, motor vehicle idolatry, then women, normal American consumer behavior, salary-slave employment, and finally, house slavery. (The crucial breakthrough was turning away from women.)  But I wasn't a real full time RVer until I began to add things, such as my first dog, mountain biking, different types of music, new geographical preferences, and dispersed camping.  


Consider a trivial but concrete example of this. Many mainstream RVers make coffee in one of the standard Mr. Coffee type machines. These are high power devices that usually require an expensive inverter and generator. (We are only concerned with real RV camping, outside RV parks and electrical hookups.)

I knew an RVer who once owned a coffee shop in the Puget Sound area. He enjoyed explaining the chemistry of coffee, how different chemicals dissolve at different rates, and how the amount of time the hot water is in contact with the grounds affects the taste and caffeination of the coffee. He used one of those Italian jobs for making espresso on top of a stove. (No electricity required.) This seemed advantageous, so I bought one. 

(Isn't it odd how few retirees know anything of use to an independent lifestyle, despite spending decades in a respectable, well-paid profession. It's as if their usefulness was limited to the organizational niche they filled. Pull them away from their cubicle and they become uninformative as stand-alone individuals.)

But the other day I was showing this espresso maker to one of the Prophets of the Desert (grin), Just saying it out loud made me realize how undesirable it is to use several cups of water to clean a gadget that makes one cup of coffee.  So I went back to the old plastic cone with the paper filters, since no water is needed for clean-up. But this time I forced myself to use another tablespoon of coffee grounds. That's all that was needed to make good-tasting coffee by the cone method. This trivial matter gave me real satisfaction as an example of living at the maximum of the lower curve, above.


Bob Giddings said…
In regard to maximizing the minimal, there's an old song, sung I think by Doris Day, that might serve as mantra in this regard:

"You got to accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative,
And don't mess with Mister inbetween."

I personally downsized from a 27 foot fifth wheel into a 22 foot Class C, which was perfect. But then I sold that and bought a 17 foot trailer, which was "a bridge too far". Thus does the narrow-band search for perfection drive out the good.

I also settled pretty quickly on the no-muss plastic 6 inch Melitta cone. My problem was that I liked several cups of coffee of a morning, and without a microwave I had no convenient way to reheat. The glass carafe that came with the filter was too fragile for my sort of travel.

It took a while to find a metal wide mouth teapot - one that didn't have a handle in the way - on which the Melitta filter would settle stably. After that, I'd just pour the cold cuppa back into the coffee pot and reheat it quickly on top of the stove.

Coffee gets cold fast up in the mountains. And without a plenitude of coffee so do I.
Bob, I appreciate what you mean by the "bridge too far," the 17 foot trailer. A few years ago, that size always involved puny (13") tires and low (6'1") ceilings. Sometimes the bathrooms were incomplete.

Another example: Although I admire people who can make vans do as their full time rig, I've yet to find one that has enough headroom, and I'm only 5'11.5".
Bob Giddings said…
Yeah, I've spent a lot of my life being jealous of short people. It started when I got interested in sports cars. They got to drive them. For me it was more like wearing them.

Finding a small trailer that fits you and won't hang up on the first rut you encounter or blow tires going out the driveway because a bag of groceries makes it overloaded... well, there's a lot of luck involved. Especially in the used market, which is mostly where I hang out. You have to know what you want, and be decisive when you come across it. Dithering don't cut it.

I found one that is 6'4" inside and takes 15 inch 8 ply tires. But it is still pretty darned cozy for someone like me. I am 6'4", so I can just about stand up in there, if I'm careful.

My most comfortable RV was a 1992 22 foot Lazy Daze Class C. Those things are really put together. At 20 years old, it still didn't rattle or squeak much, and it's plenty tall inside.

I can't explain properly why I sold the LD. I missed having a 4wd truck along for escapades. And then there was 2 years I couldn't use it because of a family illness. I started thinking too much about perfecting just a few parameters. So I bought the tiny trailer and fixed it up. It'll get up the switchbacks, but it's just a little too small for me.

If you want ample headroom and a small footprint, try to find an old 22-24 foot LD. They are hard to beat for comfort, and built like a tank. I bought mine for $9700, spent $3000 fixing it up right, took a few long trips, and sold it for $11K. Wish I still had it.


Sometimes your blog reminds me of the National Electric code, it's only 800 long
But the book that allows one to understand the code is about 5,000 pages and
The pages are 4 times as big.
Bon vivant said…
Yes, I (fulltimer, albeit not degreed) began using cones a few months ago (for the same reason) after using a press for the previous 16 years while land based. There are several GOOD options for brewing but when it comes to fulltiming this will likely be the simplest for centuries.
dr.dave said…
I used a coffee cone for years, with handmade re usable filters (get some muslin, take apart a paper filter and use it as a template), but clean up was always a bore, and eventually the filter clogs up with mineral deposits. Then I found a MSR backpacking filter and its about as minimalist as it gets, a small mesh cone that sits in your coffee mug, boil some water in/with anything that can boil water, pour it in slowly, let it steep for five minutes. Clean up is dump out filter (I usually let the grounds dry first as it makes clean up so much easier), rinse filter, rinse cup, done.
Heather said…
Just found your blog and I'm reading through the entries. In response to this entry, I've had a similar problem with those advocating simplicity. For me, a certain kind of simplicity is desirable--I don't like complexity when it comes to bills. I want a simple system where I know what's due, when it's due, and I want as little paper and mail involved as possible. But when it comes to ideas and my larger natural environment, I desire complexity and don't want simplicity--complexity provides more opportunities for learning and growth.
I just had a look at your blog. Quite interesting.

Glad to see that someone appreciates the ADDITIVE part of deliberate living. The Subtractive/Downsizing part of it gets too much attention, and just sounds hackneyed and sophomoric, anyway.
Simply Lesa said…
Add. Subtract. And constant reorganizing! (grin)
I still' like' the simplicity I had when attempting a thru hike in 2011! Having a few comforts makes a rainy day inside better tho.

Coffee: I'm happlily stuck on my GSI Haulite Tea Kettle and Mini Minit. Filters! Clean up is rinsing the coffee mug!