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Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future

At a time when huge personal debt and low consumer savings is the norm, living in a smaller footprint can offer the possibility of a transformational lifestyle.   Articles on the tiny house movement often focus on individual case studies – so-and-so built a tiny house and the personal implications of doing so. These stories are incredibly important because they offer inspiration and make real the possibility of facilitating individual change through living more intentionally. And reading about these success stories can inspire change in others: if they can do it, I can do it! But, it is also important to draw attention to and celebrate the political aspects of this grassroots movement. And what the tiny house movement really offers us is the possibility to transform both the personal and the political.

At an individual level to live “tiny” necessitates taking a closer inventory of our wants and needs. Having a smaller footprint to reside in means that every square foot, every purchase, every want, has to be closely examined. While some may consider this a lifestyle of self-induced austerity, choosing simplicity with respect to housing and “stuff” offers more time and energy to focus on what really matters – relationships, creative pursuits, travel, time in nature. But the list of “what matters” is individual and so every list may vary depending on the participant. There is the potential for individuality within a movement that validates the collectivity.

The smaller housing footprint offers the means to be able to live the kind of life one desires, rather than the life modern consumer culture tells us is acceptable and possible. What is powerful about this is that the tiny house movement offers us a choice. We can continue to live in our current footprint, often consuming more than we need, want, or can afford, or we can reduce. Living purposefully means that we are active participants in that decision. Tiny house participants inspire others to take stock and while we might not all decide to go tiny, many are re-evaluating their wants and needs more critically because of the examples illustrated by movement participants.

Tiny house living requires deliberation with our consumptive practices. This is counter-cultural. Modern consumer cultures ask us to buy impulsively and the shop-until-you-drop mentality implies quantity over quality as we are expected to update frequently and shop at a feverish pace. To live tiny makes this impossible and in many respects it is a metaphor for the ecological footprint. How many tiny houses would one need to live the way a conventional homeowner does? This question is akin to determining the number of planets needed to continue the current patterns of consumption in rich consumerist nations. But the movement itself is not really hung up on size. While articles sometimes argue that a tiny house must be within a certain square footage, movement leaders such as Jay Shafer have always been careful not to put too fine a point on what constitutes a tiny house. Instead, a more meaningful and inclusive discussion asks us to consider not the physical size of the home, but rather whether the home is being well used with little wasted space?

At an individual level tiny house living necessitates a deliberate lifestyle. In return for thinking carefully and living discriminately, living tiny offers financial freedom. It is often said that tiny homes are the most expensive houses per square foot but the cheapest overall. Imagine paying cash for your home or putting it on your credit card. Sometimes this focus on financial freedom is viewed as tiny house participants accepting the status quo with respect to the high costs of housing found throughout the United States and Canada. But this assumes that tiny house participants are giving something up by living small. This is a flawed assumption. Stuff does not make people happy. Instead, the movement goes beyond a focus on personal finances because living simply and deliberately can actually facilitate well-being. Rather than losing something important in living a simpler lifestyle, people gain time, energy, and well-being.

The message of the tiny house movement extends beyond the question of what is a home; to a larger question of what do we actually need to be happy? When we pair down to the bare essentials we can lessen consumer debt, distractions, and wasted time and energy. We can also limit the stress and the real outcomes of such stress, related to working long hours to pay for expensive oversized homes. Living beyond our means may facilitate major stress-related issues for individuals and their families. Smaller housing footprints do not guarantee happy families, but they can reduce and even eliminate some of the major life stressors that come from economic debt, occupational and housing insecurity, and overwork.

The larger transformations of the tiny house movement relate back to the personal. As more people question the status quo with respect to housing and consumption, it necessarily draws into question societal values. As momentum is gained, it draws into criticism the culture of overconsumption, consumerism, and environmental degradation. Building community and status separate from demonstrations of economic prowess and consumptive clout begins to shift the kind of societal values we share and can lead to cultural adaptations. Imagine teaching children that status and respect was tied to deeds of kindness, creative pursuits, and community building. And that actions to help stop global warming and planetary crisis were considerations that had to be implemented in our daily lives as well as the decisions that happen at the level of the community, region, country, and globally.

I would argue that at a time when we face environmental challenges that threaten our very existence, the proposition that we live in a smaller environmental footprint is not only personally worthy but necessary for our very survival. The current model of McMansions built on huge tracts of green space in geographically isolated suburbia is not a sustainable model and is not something that we should be fighting to preserve or extend to all. The tiny house movement offers a model of living efficiently by doing away with wasted space, wasted stuff and in the process we can live a richer, more meaningful existence. Given the amount of waste inherent in modern consumer culture, this is a politicized approach that transcends housing and gets us to look inward at our wants and needs, while firmly offering a different model of a socially responsible citizen – one that is engaged and thoughtful rather than a haphazard consumer. Embracing the “tiny house” movement provides a gateway to a more viable economic, socially conscious, and environmentally viable future.

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Tracey Harris is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada. She is also a co-founder of the Animal Ethics Project.

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