Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Art of Downsizing According to Paul Conlin

by Daniel Lorber, WilderPress! Issue #1

In this second decade of the American green movement (the first being the ‘60s and it’s "back to the land" and "natural" ethos) there has been much talk, architectural design and actual execution of the concept of downsizing. In yet another way to reduce our carbon footprint, many people are considering reducing the size of their dwelling space, or actually doing it. Americans are known for their massive homes, in comparison to many other western countries. I myself have lived in a rambling and spacious old farmhouse in upstate New York since 1987. It has much more space than my wife and I actually need to live -- about 2,000 sq. ft.. We now own a much smaller home in Bisbee, Arizona with a total of 700 sq. ft. You would think 700 sq. ft. is a sacrifice and an appropriate living space for two that will reasonably need to be heated in the winter and cooled in the summer. But there are those who are taking the art of downsizing much further. The internet is rife with start-up companies touting the advantages -- and pleasures -- of small houses. I’m talking 150-200 sq. ft. here. How fast or how slow these houses catch on may rely on energy costs over the next decade or so. Don’t forget, it wasn’t the Iraq War that doomed George Bush and the Republicans, it was the economy. The only way to get most Americans to change is to hit them in their wallets. Ethics, morality, practicality, environmental soundness be damned -- take their money and they’ll buy the tiniest car, the tiniest house, the biggest windmill or solar panel.

For Paul Conlin, the concept of downsizing is different from most Americans; I’ll go so far to say it is different than most humans. You see, Conlin is downsizing from a 90 sq. ft. living space to 20. That’s right -- 20 tiny, claustrophobic, inadequate square feet. Or, if you have a different perspective, 20 luxurious, spacious, plentiful square feet (if your current abode is a two-man tent)

Paul Conlin has a well-tuned life. He is a carpenter by trade, who has built a business exclusively by word-of-mouth. His spring, summers and early fall are spent in the Berkshire Mountains of eastern New York and western Massachusetts. There he lives in a small cabin at the end of a dirt road in the woods. He has no computer, no TV, no air conditioning. His refrigerator runs on propane. His lights are powered by propane as well. His bathroom is an outhouse a stone’s throw from the cabin. The only modern technological items he has are a cell phone, mainly to be able to conduct business, and a portable DVD player with a seven-inch screen. He has no health insurance. For a 21st century man, he’s pretty well off the grid.

For the past six or seven winters Paul has been living in southern Arizona in a vintage 1968 Silver Air Stream trailer that has a small bedroom and bathroom, tiny kitchen and a couch of sorts -- which, along with a small side table makes up his living room/eating nook. The whole place comprises a total of 90 square feet.

Paul’s current humble abode

I visited Paul earlier this winter at his trailer, which was parked at the Shady Dell in the quintessential hippie town of Bisbee, AZ. The Shady Dell is a kind of retro-RV park that caters especially to owners of those old-style RVs like the Air Stream Paul owns. We were sitting in his minuscule living room, imbibing a Mexican beverage, when he told me he was going to sell the trailer. "It’s more room than I need," he explained. When asked where he would live, he said he’d take his 1978 VW microbus out west next winter and live in that. The VW has a bed, sink, stove, refrigerator and a few lesser comforts. Total square footage: 20.

Now some might think taking the concept of downsizing to such a minuscule level is going too far, but not Paul Conlin. He seems to have a sense of what a person needs to live this life: adequate food, shelter, a good book, a few liberal periodicals to read weekly or monthly, access to a library with a good DVD collection, a decent beer now and again.

“The word 'comfortable' is purely subjective. For Cindy and John McCain, comfort may mean 7 houses. For someone else, it’s the back of a van with a comfortable bed, a headlamp and a little heater. But what does a person really need?”

He told me that he will often travel too far from either his western or eastern base to commute each day to whatever carpentry job he’s engaged in. So he’ll take his vehicle, park it at or near the worksite, and live in it until the work is done. Paul does not see this as a hardship. In fact, he’ll tell you he is perfectly comfortable lying in the back of his Izuzu Trooper (which has none of the amenities of the VW) parked in your driveway. Conlin has gone so far as to prefer the Trooper or the VW van to a bedroom in the house he is working on. I met two friends of his in New Lebanon, NY who told me they had invited Paul to stay in their comfortable and spacious house while doing a renovation for them. He declined and lived in his VW for 3 weeks.

Conlin, who is 56, grew up in Freeport, LI, in a family of seven children. He came of age during the 60s and at 16 he attended the Woodstock Music Festival. In his late teens and 20’s he drifted around the country: he worked at the molybdenum mine in Climax, Colorado; he did shrimping and roughnecking in Texas; he worked on a fish boat and did geothermal mapping in Alaska. All these jobs had one thing in common: they were all outdoors. Paul is an outdoors guy -- he most often hikes or bikes -- and he needs to be if he is going to spend 6 months of each year in a 20 sq. ft. domicile.

But Paul Conlin’s downsizing decision brings up the question at the heart of the matter: how much room, really, does a person need to carry on a fulfilling and comfortable life? The word "comfortable" is purely subjective. For Cindy and John McCain, comfort may mean 7 houses. For someone else, it’s the back of a van with a comfortable bed, a headlamp and a little heater. But what does a person really need? A 200 sq. ft. kitchen? A den, living room, family room, exercise room, office room, room, room, room ad nauseum? Americans are known to be overindulgent in every aspect of their lives leading to the fact that even though Americans constitute 5% of the world's population they consume 24% of the world's energy. It’s time to take a lesson from the likes of Paul Conlin and join the Downsize Revolution.

Late 70’s model Volkswagen Microbus similar to the one Paul will call home.

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