The Upside of Downsizing

Over the past year, it seemed that every major media outlet declared "the end of men." The latest in this series was last month’s Newsweek cover story, which declared that the economic meltdown has rendered males an “endangered species.” I’m as eager to see a gender shake-up as anyone, but I’m afraid that the obsessive focus on this one side effect of the economic crisis is overblown and distracting us from some other significant cultural changes. Gender may be shifting but so is how we consume and commune.

For starters, small is beautiful -- again. Though the phrase was first used in the 1970s, to describe a back-to-the-land mentality, it’s being reimagined in modern design. The Not So Big House movement, started in 1998 with the publication of architect Sarah Susanka's book of the same name, has truly taken hold in this tough economy. Susanka advocates that people look for a house that is a third smaller than the one they previously thought they needed. In contrast to the McMansion boom of the housing bubble, last year the National Association of Home Builders and the American Institute of Architects began noting that Americans on the market for a home, at all income levels, were expressing an interest in smaller spaces.

Sales of cute and compact BMW Mini Coopers have continued to grow 30 percent every year since 2007, even as overall car sales have dipped dramatically. It’s no longer cool to have the biggest and most garish gadget, but the smallest and most discreet -- evidenced by ever-shrinking iPods, FlipCams, and lightweight laptops, like the Dell Adamo -- dubbed the “MacBook Air killer.”

And it’s not just objects that are getting smaller. Andy Hobsbawm, author of the upcoming book Small Is the Next Big Thing, explains, “We're seeing a fundamental shift in the centre of gravity and balance of power from the monolithic, the hierarchical and the centralised, towards the miniature, the networked and the distributed.” He talks about how everything from media production to urban planning are being taken over by the “little people”—nonprofessionals with great ideas and goodwill.

There’s also a growing movement toward what co-authors Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers call “collaborative consumption” in their new book, What’s Mine is Yours. “Simply put, people are sharing again with their community,” Botsman and Rogers write. “But the sharing and collaboration are happening in a way and at a scale never before possible.”

They point to fast-growing companies like Zipcar, a car-sharing service whose membership tripled in 2009, and Airbnb, an online marketplace for renting out private or commercial space. According to Botsman and Roo, “In the midst of the global financial crisis, when the federal government was bailing out the ‘Big Three’ car companies, car-sharing membership increased by 51.5 percent in the United States.” Airbnb now has more than 12,000 users and serves travelers in more than 1,700 cities around the world.

Of course, these are a few silver linings in what has otherwise been a very dark cloud of a recession. Too many Americans continue to struggle to find work at a living wage. For the unemployed and their families, there is no reliable comfort to be found in such trends. They’re not trying to downsize or rent out their homes; they’re trying to stay in the ones they've got.

Even so, there is something deeply promising about these trends toward smallness and sharing. The environmental benefits are vast and, not to put too fine a point on it, necessary for our continued survival. As more and more people jump off of the treadmill of consumption, sober up about their financial reality (the average family carries $8,000 of debt on eight credit cards), and commit to more sustainable lifestyles, our trashed-out, heated-up planet gets a rest. Botsman and Roo argue that a fifth “R” should be added to the old thinking—“reduce, recycle, reuse, repair, and redistribute.”

It’s not just the planet we’re reclaiming; it’s our own integrity and sense of community. Collaborative consumption, Botsman and Rogers argue, relies on principles like belief in the commons and trust between strangers. Trends like Community Supported Agriculture, co-housing, and Freecycling bring people together in essential and inspired ways. They also re-create neighborhood connections we lost sight of while we were, as Robert Putnam famously put it, “bowling alone” throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Sure, Zipcar and other “sharing is better than owning” businesses may be in it for the money, just like the all-powerful Apple, but they afford consumers the opportunity to do more than attach our identities to a brand or logo. This time around, we’re aligning ourselves with a sustainable worldview. It may still be relatively shallow, but at least it’s not wasteful.

“In the same way that brands have manipulated us to want more and more stuff by connecting advertising campaigns to deep fundamental human needs and motivations, brands can make us want more of the sustainable values and benefits attached to Collaborative Consumption,” Botsman and Roo write.

After floundering in the tricked out, overhyped economy of the past couple of decades, this is a refreshing trend. We may be humbled and hurting today, but we just may end up healthier and happier in the long run.