“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci
What is downshifting?
Downshifting is possibly the most important but least understood concept related to sustainability. It’s about earning less and consuming less, and as such is only applicable to people with a reasonable disposable income – which means mainly (but not exclusively) people in developed, wealthy countries like the UK.
Human activity is causing ecological damage, and it’s increasing. Two things increase human impact – population growth and economic growth. Global population is beginning to stabilise, but economic growth is still what all governments are chasing. But it’s not possible to live in harmony with nature (which we need to do if we want to survive) AND have perpetual economic growth. Sustainable growth is an oxymoron. Downshifting is steady-state economics in microcosm. We can’t slow down or reverse economic growth if the majority of people just want more, more, more.
Downshifting is essential because, paradoxically, measures intended to reduce the consumption of a resource by increasing efficiency usually end up increasing consumption, as people use more of it because it’s cheaper. This is a well-documented phenomenon called the Jevons paradox. For example, James Watt’s steam engine used coal much more efficiently, but caused coal use to grow exponentially, as it was so cost-efficient. There is only one way round this, and that is to reduce earnings in line with the savings you make. So for example, if you install insulation that saves you £250 a year; then work a bit less and reduce your income by £250, otherwise you’ll spend it or invest it in the growth economy, which will end up using as much (or more) energy than you saved with the insulation.
The British Medical Journal ran a series of articles exploring the role of the medical profession in helping to tackle climate change. However, consultants and GPs can earn over £100k a year, and if that’s the case, then surely everyone can aspire to earn that much? And that will massively increase the human impact on ecology. Wealth and sustainability are no more compatible than economic growth and sustainability. Even if you try to do the right thing, and only spend your money on locally-produced environmentally-friendly goods, money still moves around the economy, and will eventually be used for more damaging things. High incomes contribute to ecological damage directly because of money spent / invested, and indirectly because they contribute to other people’s aspirations to ‘keep up’ and spend more.
What are the benefits of downshifting?
Ecology: less ‘stuff’ consumed or required.
Less time spent earning money: which will free up more time for socializing, being with loved ones, relaxing, reading, growing food, exercising, sleeping – all the things you know you don’t do enough of, but will almost definitely have a positive effect on health and happiness.
Children: they need our time – but we give them things instead.
Materialism is the opposite of spiritual development; whatever your religious or spiritual persuasion, this is a given, surely?
Employment: downshifting won’t ‘destroy jobs’, as consuming less is balanced by working less. Following the logic of the ‘destroys jobs’ position, then growing your own food or building your own home would be bad things because it takes jobs from supermarket workers and construction workers – but if you think that growing your own food or building your own house are bad things, you’re on the wrong site. An economy based on small companies, smallholdings and self-employment is more labour-intensive, and so a move towards part-time work in the local economy would create more jobs. It’s crazy that we have the longest work hours in Europe, but at the same time millions unemployed. Certainly downshifting wouldn’t be good for jobs in the corporate, banking or advertising sector, but hey, we’ll manage without them.
What can I do?
Work less, earn less, spend less
Save money by learning how to grow food, keep bees or chickens, install renewables, DIY, make furniture, bake bread, knit, make soaps or skincare products – the list is endless. Well, not endless, but here are lots more ideas.
What don’t you need? here are some things you could give up, with some money-saving, health-improving alternatives. See this flowchart for guidance.
- There’s no need to be self-sufficient (unless you have a particular fetish for it) – just belong to a community of like-minded folk, so you can trade / exchange things.
- Buy more durable stuff, and maybe think about whether you need the latest gear – be it clothes, furniture or gadgets; do you need to replace clothes, furniture etc. when they’re still functional?
- Use second-hand shops and freebie exchange websites.
- Downsize – maybe think about moving to a smaller house with a smaller mortgage / rent; an extreme example of downsizing is Simon Dale’s £3000 house – not easy, but not impossible either; a big house can’t be green.
- Cut up your credit card.
- TV is a direct route into our living rooms for corporate advertising. If you have a TV, you’ll probably have a laptop, so you could watch programmes on that, but you can avoid the advertising; try giving up your telly for a few weeks and see how it feels.
- After you’ve put all these money saving ideas into action, you could reduce your hours at work; do it incrementally – do something that saves money, then work an hour less. Click here to see what your rights are regarding flexible working – it’s not just for working mums.
- Try sharing a lawn mower with a neighbour, instead of having one each. One less lawnmower means a bit less metal mined, a bit less energy used in the lawnmower factory, and a bit less fuel for delivery. Try it with other things too. If millions of us do it, it could make quite a difference.
Don’t believe the hype
- Keynes recognised the difference between absolute and relative needs. Absolute needs have to be met for us to thrive, and they have a limit. Relative needs (or ‘keeping up with the Joneses’) have no limit. The first rule of low-impact living is to ignore the advertising that large corporations spend huge amounts of money on to stimulate our relative needs.
- Advertisers are upping the ante, with websites following your every click, ‘spontaneous’ events in public, social media campaigns, ads that follow you on floors and escalators, product placement in films and subtle ‘guerilla marketing’. But you can thwart them by:
- Downloading an Adblocker.
- Opting out of junk mail.
- Not giving your money to big advertisers – i.e. not to large supermarkets, corporations or banks; this means finding small, local alternatives, which might cost slightly more. This may seem paradoxical, but if you reduce costs elsewhere, you can afford it, and you’re giving an income to small businesses, rather than feeding the corporate / financial monster – the engine of growth, consumerism and the advertising industry.
- In fact, as a rule of thumb, you could use TV, magazine and billboard advertising to decide what not to buy.
- This is much more difficult with kids, who can be bullied for not having the right trainers; but we have to break the cycle somewhere, and you’ll be doing them the biggest favour you can, by helping them not to become corporate/credit card slaves. Sweden has banned adverts aimed at kids; if only UK politicians had the balls to do the same.
- Downshifting is the only thing that can’t be co-opted by corporations and their advertisers to be repackaged and sold back to us, as they’ve managed to do with the most surprising things. Punk rock? Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop advertised corporate dairy products and insurance. Surfing? We now have plenty of expensive, corporate surf gear. Hippy culture, Buddhism, yoga, even environmental concerns are all used to sell corporate products.
Help change attitudes and aspirations
- Maybe it’s time for society to accept that working for global corporations, then using credit cards issued by global financial institutions to give money to global corporations is a mug’s game – talk to friends and family about this; see what they think; suggest alternatives.
- Understand the concepts – don’t let people believe you’re doing it because you’re lazy (although if you are, there’s nothing wrong with that – it will have the same effect).
- If your peer group judge you by your income or the brands you buy, it might be worth considering how much you share values with that peer group. There are lots of ways to meet like-minded people: join an environmental organisation and go to meetings, conferences, events and festivals; attend courses; go to your local Transition meetings, or set one up; go WWOOFing; get an allotment – you’ll meet lots of interesting people that way.
- People who take more than their fair share of resources are called successful; we need to change that – and call them selfish.
Whilst you’re here, why not take a look at the other 25+ day-to-day living topics available? And don’t forget to visit our main topics page to explore over 200 aspects of low-impact living and our homepage to learn more about why we do what we do.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Jane Turnbull March 31st, 2016
The whole idea is brilliant and makes so much sense, but I worry I am so used to the “easy” corporate lifestyle that it will be impossible to change my way. Any ideas or help appreciated.
2billyrichards89 March 31st, 2016
I feel the same way, but think of it like this, changing a persons whole lifestyle is a massive task, that doesn’t even consider the convincing required of a family to do the same. I get bogged down sometimes trying to reach this simpler spiritualist lifestyle now, but realise that it may be a slow game to start off with, nobody knows how to play the piano straight away.
The fact that more people are coming around to the idea of a back to basics lifestyle means that a change in culture is occurring. That needs to happen before political change can begin to fully bring this lifestyle into fruition.
Learn all you can about a sustainable life and slowly put it into practice, once you are confident with it, you could be the support for someone else to do the same.
I started off by going green with my utilities (ecotricity), bulk buying organic products (ecotopia). Now I’m starting to grow my own food.
This is all whilst having a full time job, a toddler and one on the way, hopefully these difficult changes to my unsustainable lifestyle make it easier for my children to forever live a sustainable one.
3Angela1986 May 3rd, 2016
Hello everyone! ?
My name is Angela, I’m 29 years old and am currently living in germany.
Being born and raised here was wonderful, but by now I really have problems with finding my place in an economy that screams ‘More, more, more!’ and ‘Work harder, work longer or you are not worth a single Cent!’ in your head all the time. Since a few years ago I am suffering of sleeping problems, that not even a therapist could help me with and I refuse to take meds against them. That was the time when my interest in alternative lifestyles kicked in.
I started looking for alternatives but very soon I noticed that, in germany, the government is keeping a very observant eye on people who want to break through the circle of consume.
Building a low-impact house here would be nearly impossible, I think.
I just found these websites a few days ago and am so happy about it.
It will be hard for me to leave (just meaning it would be expensive for me!), but I really wish I could be part of one of these projects…
I hope that one day, I will have a sweet low-impact house myself…
4Kristine May 12th, 2016
I feel the same. Building laws in Norway discourage “weird” or unconventional building methods as they think they are less safe, which is simply not the case! I have been dreaming about my own natural home for so long, and we are slowly saving towards our dream. As soon as my partner is done studying abroad and we turn our nose home, we will aim to make it happen! I am so excited! I squirrel away pennies and cents whenever I can (£5-10 to the savings account every week instead of buying coffee, for instance).
Let’s keep our spirits up, we can do it together! ?
5vegetableagenda May 13th, 2016
Great article and I love what Simon Dale does, I live just up the road from Lammas, BUT I really wish the fallacy that you can build a house and be allowed to live in it wasn’t repeated again and again. You either need to own the land already and have planning permission or form an eco village with all that entails or if in Wales go for OPD, but you can’t just build a house for £3000 on a bit of land and just live in it …you may get away with it for a while and good luck to anyone who gives it a go, but the number of misled young people who have repeated it is worrying as it gives them an unrealistic view of what they might be able to do.
On a positive note, Good luck to all ‘down shifters’ it’s hard work but worth it!
6Dave Darby May 14th, 2016
Hi. Are you talking about this page? It doesn’t say anything along the lines of ‘just build a house for £3000 on a bit of land and just live in it’. It only mentions that houses can be built a lot more cheaply than most people imagine. See here – http://lowimpactorg.wpengine.com/lowimpact-topic/land-reform/ and here – https://www.lowimpact.org/lowimpact-topic/0-planning-permission/ – for more on land / planning issues.
7Rob October 17th, 2016
Hello, not sure if this question is apt for this page but couldn’t find one closer. I am looking for a patch of land, unusable farm land, where I can place 2 static caravans convert one into bedrooms and bathroom the other kitchen and living room, then insulate them with local hey and clad them in timber so disguising the static caravan. My dream then is to grow as much veg as poss and become off grid. My first question, is this do-able or am I in dream land? Also how can I approach a farmer with my idea without being dismissed straight away? That seems to be my biggest problem so far. I’ve driven around the area I would like live and seen several plots that don’t seem to be used at all, but ow what do I do? Any help or advise would be great. Cheers Rob
8lkhoward50 March 21st, 2017
Would anyone out there be interested in taking part in my undergraduate degree research project? I’d like to interview downshifters about their everyday lives, probably would involve 30 – 60 mins of your time, plus if possible time for you to do me a photo diary of the things that you find value and meaning in, as a downshifter. Drop me a line if interested, for further info/questions: lkhoward50 at gmail.com. Thanks, Lisa
9Kim Brown May 16th, 2017
Love this article. After years of full time employment in well paid jobs I took a leap of faith and downsized. I was terrified of not having an income but plenty of outgoings. Notwithstanding I completely changed my lifestyle and my mental outlook. The most precious thing to us is our time on this earth and most of us spend it giving our time away for next to nothing. I spent my precious time instead doing something I love and truly believe in with all my heart. Not only have I survived on a fraction of what I previously earned, I have thrived. Happiness, health and feeling you are on the right path can not be bought. So, Angela and Rob in answer to your question never lose that dream and don’t let the naysayers make you lose that vision. Yes it is possible but probably not easy in the UK. I have an off grid place in Portugal that I live in part time but come back to the UK to earn some money like most (not all) of the people I know as work is hard to find there and it is impossible to be entirely self sufficient. Lisa, I am happy to help with your research – email me at [email protected]. Jane – I was very comfy in my corporate lifestyle so know exactly what you mean but I became ill and knew my body was trying to tell me what I was personally doing was not good for my soul so almost created a chaotic change from which there was not going back. Good luck everyone
10Sasha Longworth November 3rd, 2017
Hello- I have been on a journey for a few years now searching for more meaning. I have read loads of books on minimalism,downshifting,permaculture
Etc and got very upset on the state of our oceans and natural world and how humans are treating each other and the planet. I believe a low impact and conscious way of living is the answer. It starts with smalll changes so I no longer buy alot of cleaning products ( life is too short to spend cleaning)
And choose less packaging,eco as much as possible. It would be lovely to meet like minded people to share ideas etc … anyone in Norfolk UK!? Can be lonely – or are there any groups etc I could join?
Many thanks for a great website!???
11Helen Corry April 25th, 2021
Love this site and love this article!! My only gripe is the advice to stop at 2 children. If people like us can produce more people like us then surely that’s a good thing – it grows our like-minded community?!
I don’t believe in population growth being an ecological problem. We have more than enough land, resources and food for billions of people across this world if we went back to a more basic and community way of living. The issues we see now are more about wealth/resources distribution than there not being enough.
The wonderful Vandana Shiva is exposing the way that Indian Farmers have been ripped off and had their ancestral farming techniques trashed by being led to believe that investing in GMO seeds were the way forward. These GMO seeds are patented and OWNED by the rich and powerful corps/individuals who supplied them when they encouraged the contracts to be signed. Now the Farmers aren’t allowed to keep those seeds for next year’s crops (this would essentially be stealing!) so are in a continual state of debt. There have been numerous protests and riots and tragically,10,000+ Farmers have committed suicide over this scandal!! It is these kinds of issues which cause world hunger, not that there are too many mouths to feed!
12Dave Darby April 26th, 2021
Helen – thank you.
Vandana Shiva – exactly.
Although I agree with you that the world could support more people if they were consuming less:
1. if the average is more than 2 children per mother, the population will never stop rising, ever. That’s obviously unsustainable.
2. children are often not at all like their parents.
3. and grandchildren even less so. 4 children per mother / couple will mean 64 great-grandchildren, many if not all of them will want to fly, drive, consume at high levels (and in the west, we all consume at high levels compared to the global average).
4. we’re looking to stabilise the global population at around 10-11 billion, but that’s only because the average number of children per mother is falling to 2 or less. if it’s more than 2, it won’t stabilise at all. if it takes longer to get to 2, the population will stabliise at a higher level. Why would a world of 20 billion people be better than a world of 10 billion?
5. is Japan (126 million) a better place to live than New Zealand (5 million), because it has more people?
6. the trend is not towards consuming less (although I’d like it to be). If that was the real world, I’d agree with you, but it really isn’t.