'Downscaling' is what I'm going to call the resistance to conspicuous consumption. I have been intimating in several different ways that implication to a Boyd rule is part of the path to sustainability. I've mentioned before that certain New Yorkers have this skill and that it may become something more and more people will have to assume. The Boyd rule is that there are two ways to have all you want, one is to be rich, the other is to reduce your needs to zero. Downscaling is about reducing your needs towards zero.
Urban property is at a premium, and it's a rule of social creatures that we will urbanize. But the concentration of people will not, of necessity create conflict despite what people say about 'income inequality', and I think NYC is the proof. You have very poor people meshed cheek by jowl with very rich people, and there is a kind of indigence possible in NYC that is impossible other places - ie sleeping on a subway train. It can only happen where there are subway trains - the homeless hustle is a skill. But at an appreciably higher socioeconomic level, there is another sort of 'indigence' and this is what I'm focusing on as key to some modifications of middle class behavior past the suburban model.
Here is a kind of preview of what I'm talking about, although there was an excellent article in the Village Voice about the phenomenon of "bohemian cadging" published many years ago. From Kottke.
Ah, to be young and broke in New York. Some astounding stories of discipline and ingenuity about what it takes to make ends meet in the city. What's striking is that some of these people are literally starving and probably malnourished. And yet they still come to the city.
Drinking and eating carry their own complications. Especially if you are, say, Noah Driscoll, a 25-year-old project manager for a Chelsea marketing company whose salary is comparable to what a rookie teacher might make.
"For a little while I only ate grapefruits for my lunch," said Mr. Driscoll, who pays $400 a month on his college loans, "because they have a lot of nutrients and they got me through the day."
Mr. Driscoll has since started packing two peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for lunch. Dinner might be two baked potatoes. On a recent Monday, it was franks and beans. On a good night, he might spend up to $6.
"To live like a human being on the salary that I make is very difficult in this city," he said. "You've got to forget about brands, you've got to forget about, you know, what your mom made you growing up, and take what's out there."
Downscaling is not, unlike the bohemian cadging and homeless hustling, born of necessity. Rather is has a kind of intellectual and social appeal by people who have choices. For example, I think that my willingness to buy most of my clothing at Walmart and Target, although I could afford Gap and Eddie Bauer are examples. So I am cool with the Southern California fashion trend of baggy shorts and cargo pants; I can indulge this fashion trend and downscale at the same time. Buying rice by the 50 pound bag, and otherwise getting consumer goods wholesale is downscaling. Or is it? There has to be a difference between downscaling and smart shopping in both the amount of dedication to the social aspects of compulsive consumption & buying junk and environmental & macroeconomic impacts of such choices. There also has to be a difference between a shallow rejectionism of market winners and smart organic consumption. If McDonald's gourmet coffee is just as good as Starbucks', which do you buy? So one has to be particularly aware of the social vs intellectual components of these voluntary choices.
Motorcycles are, in my mind, a very good downscaling choice. In many ways I think that the guy who buys a motorcycle as his primary commuting vehicle is doing a better downscaling job than the guy who buys a Prius.
How is downscaling different than conservation? I think there's overlap but that downscaling is more of a paradigm shift. I guess that has to be the difference. As I spend more time thinking about it, I'll comment.