Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, December 06, 2010

Escaping from the American Dream

by Peter Goodchild (November 22 2010)

The "stagflation" of the 1970s has returned: high prices and low wages. The difference is that this time it isn't going to go away. In response, we must increase our income and decrease our expenses, although that's easier said than done. The magic word is "frugality" or "thrift". And it's not just "recycle": the original expression was "reduce, reuse, recycle", in roughly that order of importance. In terms of maximizing income, my own particular rule has been to take on high-paying jobs that most other people aren't willing to do, although I sometimes think that if I get any luckier it will kill me.

We should forget everything we've learned from advertisers. "Save! Save! Save!" means its opposite. It's not a shame to live in modest surroundings while building up a good bank account; if the neighbors have several cars, rather than one, in their driveway, and they use their credit cards to the limit, that's their problem. And if we work so hard for such a modest pay check, why should we double our misery by taking that hard-earned money to the nearest big-box store and throwing it away on things we don't need?

Owning some property in a rural area is good insurance: a cheap piece of land with a small house, the latter more of a "fixer-upper" than a "tearer-downer". Finding the money to buy rural property is not so easy, though. It's often a case of what might be called the Marie Antoinette syndrome: to a large extent, the people who can go off into the country and play shepherd and shepherdess are those who have high-paying urban jobs and already own their own houses in the city. When the genuinely poor and needy come to "cottage country", they're likely to get put in the back of a police car.

The other catch is that earning a living in the country is not easy unless one has blue-collar skills. So whether one should actually move to that rural property right away, or keep it as a kind of "halfway house" - or even, for now, just a "weekend retreat"-- is a big question. Some things even cost more in the country: distances are greater, so more money is spent on gasoline, and electricity is more expensive because there are fewer houses per kilometer of power line.

Buying lakeside property is a big waste of money, and it means being crammed in with noisy neighbors. But having property on a river is nice, as long as it's only deep enough for a canoe to go past. There should be enough land for a vegetable garden, but that starts with getting the soil checked by a government agricultural agency; most land is not suitable for crops.

Ultimately, we shouldn't think about dealing WITH the economy, but with getting OUT of it. The next big question is: Are we young enough or strong enough - or just determined enough - to do without such things as cars and electricity? And then there's the catch that in most of the US and Canada, and no doubt other countries, there are strict rules about residential standards: it's generally illegal to live in anything except the conventional suburban-type house, and that includes modern electricity and modern plumbing. Obeying all those laws about residential standards means being right back in the old trap of spending huge amounts of money. In other words, it's illegal NOT to spend money: that's an interesting thought in terms of freedom, justice, and all the other political ideals we were supposed to believe in. Being away from paved roads has its advantages, though: building inspectors don't want to spend an hour struggling through underbrush.

Getting around the laws also means considering alternative types of domicile. For example, a small trailer or mobile home may be better than a conventional house. For that matter, it's actually possible to build a log cabin with nothing more than a few hand tools and a handful of nails, as I know from experience, although that's not exactly five-star accomodation.

The main catch with rural living, I suppose, is that most of us have become such delicate creatures that spending one's life among mosquitoes and blackflies, and without air conditioning or central heating, might seem like a death sentence. For that reason, as odd as it may sound, I tend to think that physical fitness is a big part of survival in the twenty-first century - but, no, that doesn't start with spending a thousand dollars at a sporting-goods store.


Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians (1999), published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is .

Bill Totten


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