In late May, New York magazine noted a highly unusual advertisement that appeared on Craigslist. A young Brooklyn couple had decided to sell virtually everything they owned, from electronics to furniture to designer shoes, for $8,500. As it turns out, the couple was planning on taking their two young children and setting out for the open road. Two weeks earlier, the New York Times profiled several other couples who had made a similar choice — to surrender their accumulated possessions and, with toddlers in tow, to leave a dreary, consumption-driven urban existence behind for something nobler and more environmentally sound. One couple, the Harrises, have been chronicling their adventures on a website called ‘Cage Free Family’, a clever reference to the cage-free hens so dearly loved by the ecologically correct. Though Jeff Harris had achieved financial success as a computer network engineer, he and his wife felt very keenly that they needed to reconnect with the land. And so the Harrises intend to leave bustling Austin, Texas for the greener pastures, literally and figuratively, of Vermont.
Now, it could be that these back-to-the-land bohemians are mere curiosities, puffed up by New York and the Times simultaneously to delight and guilt-trip their status-obsessed readership. No one knows how many Americans are embracing ‘voluntary simplicity’, whether by becoming ‘freegans’ — that is, people who dive into rubbish bins for food out of choice, not necessity — or by abandoning suburban ranch houses to live in communes or campers. But my hunch is that these cage-free families represent the coming of a new hippie moment.
The hippies are now remembered mostly as foul-smelling, tie-dye-clad libertines who, when not covered in a thick haze of marijuana smoke or indulging in ‘free love’, could be found protesting against the Vietnam war or some other supposed outrage perpetrated by ‘AmeriKKKa’. At the same time, the hippies represented a very American rebellion against the cultural conformity and political stupor of the 1950s. As the prime beneficiaries of postwar prosperity, the hippies briefly became the first ‘postmaterialist’ generation. After all, it was, and is, easy to be postmaterialist when all your needs are cared for by doting parents. So began a series of occasionally bold, at times ingenious, and often imbecilic ‘experiments in living’, ranging from the proliferation of middle-American ashrams to anti-authoritarian homeschooling, a cause later embraced by socially conservative evangelicals. The downside of all this is by now very familiar. Licence led, inevitably, to licentiousness. The patriarchy the hippies so bitterly opposed had the advantage of providing children with reliable material support, something children of the Me Generation couldn’t always count on.
And yet a great deal of good came out of this fertile moment. America’s technological leadership is arguably rooted in the tinkering of young techno-bohemians like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs and software visionary Richard Stallman, who fiddled with computers out of utopian enthusiasm. As the left-wing cultural critic Thomas Frank argued in The Conquest of Cool, Madison Avenue eventually cracked this countercultural code. The hippie quest for freedom was co-opted by the capitalists. Consider the advertisements that, during the age of cheap petrol, showed hulking SUVs breezily wending their way through exotic landscapes, this despite the fact that in real life these monstrosities would inch along congested roads from subdivision to office park to supermarket and back again in a hellish loop of suburban torment.
The hippies thus traded in their shapeless garb for power suits, eventually giving rise to the corporate-cultural elite we now know and loathe — a group that manages to combine the self-righteousness and self-regard of the hippies with the shallow consumerism that made the 1950s such a drag, man. Lately we’ve seen the evolution of environmentalism, the hippie cause par excellence, into a consumerist caricature. Earlier this month the Discovery Channel launched Planet Green, a new cable channel dedicated to the green lifestyles of the rich and the vacuous. Suffice to say, the channel’s agenda isn’t to encourage less consumption so much as more expensive green consumption. It is apposite that the Prius is the ultimate badge of a green sensibility — manufacturing its nickel battery is extraordinarily carbon- intense, and buying an ancient Toyota is at least as good for the environment.
There are, however, countervailing trends. Etsy, a much-buzzed-about internet retailer based in bohemian Brooklyn, directly connects consumers to creators of handmade goods. The goal, for founder Rob Kalin, is to spark a revival in the handicraft sector, and over the long term to build a new, more ecologically sustainable global economy. Granted, this is all slightly ridiculous. You can’t build a flourishing economy on knitwear, eccentric earrings, and homemade pashminas alone. But Kalin has tapped into the power of what you might call the dropout economy — the millions of bright women and men who are turning away from soul-deadening office work, and who are also turning away from what the left-wing Cornell economist Robert H. Frank has referred to as ‘the positional arms race’. The Harrises and Kalin are, in this sense, opposite sides of the same coin.
Indeed, one can’t help but admire the Harrises, and other families who’ve chosen to ‘downshift’ their consumption, for putting their money where their mouth is. Whereas others on the liberal Left rue consumerism and inequality, they almost invariably expect the government to step in and solve the problem by, for example, hiking taxes on the rich. You’d think we were children who couldn’t help but work longer hours or buy expensive new automobiles in lieu of darning socks and eating thin gruel. What if the real inequality problem isn’t a technical problem? What if it really is a moral problem? Not moral as in ‘envy is a corrosive thing, so get over it’. Moral as in no tax hike will prevent people from building overlarge houses or custom cabinets at the expense of spending time with family and friends. A culture that is plagued by materialist excess won’t be cured by taxes. It can only be cured, if at all, through a revival of postmaterialist values — that is, a revival of hippie values. Assuming Barack Obama is elected and he doesn’t achieve paradise on Earth by 2012, it is easy to imagine a new generation growing cynical about politics and, like the hippies, deciding to beat the system in their own idiosyncratic ways.
I’m by no means convinced that consumerism and inequality are the worst things in the world, or that we are hurtling towards environmental doom. But wouldn’t it be nice if all those who believed these things to be true moved to bucolic communes where they’d busy themselves with handicrafts instead of tormenting the rest of us?