Tracey Smith describes herself as a “very contented downshifter” who is trying to “normalise sustainable behaviour and take the freaky out of eco”. She is the creator of International Downshifting Week, which aims to inspire people to embrace a simpler way of life. In 2002 she began, with her husband and children, to grow her own vegetables and rear (and sometimes kill) her own food. She hosts a weekly radio show for Apple AM in Taunton.
Q: What is downshifting?
Downshifting is all about finding ways to spend less money, learning to live with less and embracing a simpler, happier way of living. It’s about pulling back from a consumer-driven existence and at the same time being kinder to the environment.
A: Is now the right time for this movement?
Yes! It’s really exciting. In the past, people have tended to think of downshifting as being something you did if you wanted to ‘drop-out’ and that you must be a sandal-wearing hippie to embrace it. It’s really not about that at all, its just an alternative way of living, eating, playing, having fun, raising your kids and being with your partner and it’s gaining popularity all the time.
How widespread is this movement for change?
During downshifting week this year, in April (2008), we had 15,000 visitors to the website from over 100 countries, which is testimony to the fact that this is a world-wide movement.
So how do I start downshifting?
Your change towards a more sustainable lifestyle should be an evolution, not an overnight thing. If you read my book and tried to implement all the changes in the first week you’ll think “I can’t cope, it’s information overload!”. So what you need to do is start gently, do a couple of simple things, enjoy how you feel about having made those changes and then migrate on to the next thing. Start with your time issues. Try and create pockets of time for yourself, maybe suggest to your employer that you have a day where you work from home. Or start by taking a “Do I really need this?” checklist with you when you go shopping and try to get rid of one superfluous item a week from each shopping trip. Or, if you’re feeling brave, cut up at least one of your credit cards! Go on, cut up whichever one causes you the most angst and you’ll get this incredible feeling of ‘I’m not tied to this any more!”
A few years ago your life was quite different, how did you downshift?
Back in 2002 my husband, myself and our three kids were living on the edge of London, my husband was working in the city and we were just doing the thing that everybody else does: paying the mortgage, running two cars, spending money on take-aways on Friday nights that actually you’re too tired to eat because you get home too late. All that kind of stuff. Then we did what I advise people not to do - an extreme change! We went to live in south-west France, where we grew our own food and lived in a totally different way. But, and this is important, we had put about a year’s worth of planning into our downshift, it wasn’t a five-minute decision. We’d dipped our toes into the water and made some small changes within our own four walls first, so we knew it was right for us.
Did you find the change hard?
No, not at all. I can honestly say it felt completely right, because the benefit of it was spending time together as a family. And I feel that telling people about downshifting is what I was put on this earth to do. I’m very lucky to feel like that – from age 40 I’ve known my purpose and that’s really a very comforting and privileged position because some people get to their 80s and think ‘I don’t know why I’m here’. I know what I’m here to do, I’ve got the ability to chat, have a bit of a giggle and take the downshifting message further afield and now I’ve just got to crack on and do it. You know, I’m a regular, everyday mum of three, I’m nothing special and I’m not a purist either – I can’t stand purists, they drive me up the wall! I think everyone should ditch the guilt about what they are not doing and start feeling good about the things they are doing.
What inspires you?
My inspiration is my three kids, who are eight, nine and eleven. I think they are going to see more sociological, technological and climatic changes than any previous generation. I think the end of oil will come a lot sooner than predicted because the government will reserve huge amounts of oil and will be telling us it’s gone long before it has actually gone. I’m 42 and I reckon we might even see it in my lifetime, so everyone is going to have to find other ways of doing things. The impact of peak oil will be massive, but actually I see it as a really exciting thing. Everyone’s saying “Petrol is too expensive, it’s too much money to heat the house, what are we going to do?” but I don’t see this as depressing, I see it as a good thing because it’s going to get people out their houses talking to each other and trying to solve the problems thrown up. There’s going to have to be a huge change and I can feel it starting now..
What is the concept of obsolescence, that you describe in your book?
Obsolescence is a very scary thing! To understand it you need to know a little bit about the history of rubbish. After the Second World War, the government realised that the best way to get the country back on its feet was to get people out spending their money. If they could get everyone to buy goods, that would give a boost to the manufacturing industries which had suffered in the war, people would then get back to work, products would fly off the shelf and the economy would get back some stability. So, the concept of ‘Planned Obsolescence’ was born – in other words, everything was manufactured with a built-in, keel-over date or shelf-life. Things were basically designed to break after a certain time, that way you had to go out and buy a replacement. Trouble is, of course, is that all these new things are made from virgin resources, which are out. There is another type of obsolescence too, called ‘Perceived Obsolescence. It’s better known as fashion or keeping up with the Joneses, you know the kind of thing: “Is that the latest phone? Are you sure it’s the right colour for this spring?”. It’s crazy! The only way to get over perceived obsolescence is to poke a finger in the eye of the media that perpetuates it and say “You know what, I don’t care if heels are in this season and flatties are out, it’s all just rubbish!”. Just say no, embrace the charity shops, spend less money and don’t get sucked into it.
What can you expect to see on your site?
People want to know how to begin living more sustainably and it’s my job to keep the whole topic fresh, which is why I started the site because I’m constantly thinking of new things. I post something different on the site every day. There’s stacks of diverse stuff on there, from recipes to discussions about transition towns.
What has life taught you?
To live with your planet. Whatever the planet is kicking up for us, whether that be incredibly long wet summers or cold harsh winters we need to move with what Mother Nature gives us and try and embrace it and adapt to it.
Tracey is the author of “The Book of Rubbish Ideas – a guide to reducing household waste” (published by Alastair Sawday Publishing Co. Ltd at £6.99).
You can hear Tracey spreading her message on the weekly radio show she hosts on Apple AM (broadcast from her local hospital in Taunton) on 1431 KHZ www.appleam.com/presenters/tracey-smith
Interview by Fiona McClymont
Photo by Jo Halladey
First published issue 55 (winter 08/09)
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