Friday, June 20, 2008

The New Frugalist

Although England has a reputation for heritage and retrospection, judging by the national daily papers it's pretty enthralled by fad and fancy too. When I was in the UK last week I tried to read a couple of papers a day, and they were filled with the usual blink-and-you-miss-it celebrity froth, pop-culture impulse and political nonsense.

One thing did catch my eye – the new Frugalism. I say “new” Frugalism because the idea has been talked about a long time before now, in the context of Victorian industrial economics. But according to the Independent, today's Frugalist is motivated by more complex concerns. This is a blend of economic imperatives, green values, and a desire for a simpler, less consumer-centric life. It seems to me that it's the economics that is really new – with oil pushing $140 a barrel, with global food shortages, and with globalization accelerating, Frugalism may simply be a new way of expressing a modest, middle-class discomfort in the wallet, while for others it's a more brutal slide into poverty. I also think it's an expression of anti-globalism, and a falling back on regionalism: when you can't afford to travel, or to ship things long distances, it encourages a natural set of parochial values.

Around the same time in the same newspaper I read an excellent article by Rupert Cornwell about the implications of the oil crisis on the American way of life. One thing that strikes visitors to the US is how much the car is king, and how a sprawling suburban life is fuelled by cheap gas and endless miles of highway. Car culture is real and engrained, and is central to everything from urban planning to entertainment. All this could crash pretty soon.

Frugalism may just be another fad. But it could also be the first wave of post-consumerism.

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