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Applying Systems Thinking to #VanLife

Let’s make it a choice, not a necessity.

Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash

An increasing trend these days is the desire of people to adopt a “Van Life” nomadic lifestyle or living in a small RV or tiny home. This trend has grown alongside an interest in living minimalistically á la Marie Kondo. In the public imagination, this lifestyle offers a more free and more sustainable way of living which appeals especially to the younger generations, as evidenced by the popular use of the #vanlife hashtag by social media influencers.

(For simplicity’s sake, I will use “van” or “vanlife” in place of all full-time living situations involving mobile vehicles such as vans, minivans, cars and small trailers or RVs. Giant RVs are not in view here in this article, because most people who can afford to purchase and operate one of these land-yachts are not in the same desperate financial situation as most of the working poor but are truly using these as recreational vehicles for leisure travel. For the most part, these people are not living in them full-time as their sole residence.)

For many, living in a van is not as much of a trendy choice, but one borne of necessity. The rapidly rising cost of affordable housing along with the lack of well-paying jobs that keep pace with soaring inflation is pricing many out of permanent long-term housing. For these people, the choice of adopting a nomadic way of life is a logical choice, even if it is one step up from abject homelessness.

And, for many people such as myself who find themselves in their middle-age approaching retirement age without savings, finding a way to live a full, free life while living on as little as possible is a mandate if one is to survive long into the elder years. “Living in a van down by the river” is no longer a joke, but a solution to an impending disaster.

Much like Henry David Thoreau seeking to live as simply as possible in the woods with as little negative impact on one’s environment as possible, modern van-dwellers are akin in spirit inheriting a long tradition of those who “tune in and drop out.” Adopting vanlife is also a practical way to become a conscientious objector to current systems of oppression in our society.

One could decry many factors in our society that has led to this circumstance, but I do not find it helpful to agitate or complain. As a designer, my choice to live this way offers a unique opportunity to design an alternative life that does indeed offer greater freedom with lower cost in addition to providing housing security independent of the current system of rent-seeking landlords. My tiny abode on wheels is not a bug but a feature of choosing freedom.

A Systems’ Analysis of the Housing Issue

Housing in the U.S. is a complex issue, with many factors contributing to an individual’s choice to seek alternative housing. What seems to be evident when one maps out some of these factors and relate them to each other is that those with a higher amount of resources coupled with a lower amount of mitigating factors typically gravitate toward permanent housing. Those with fewer resources or resources dependent on others, coupled with a high amount of mitigating factors tend to choose (or be forced to choose) alternative housing.

Applying a Systems-Thinking Approach to Life in My Trailer

One of the major challenges I am facing in transitioning into this lifestyle is the need to prioritize tasks. In a small trailer where life is extremely truncated, every little decision matters. Additionally, most things do double or even triple-duty in their function. For example, a 5-gallon bucket not only serves as the toilet (with a bag and camp seat!), but also as storage for toiletries and to perform other myriad tasks where a bucket is required such as dealing with gray-water or cleaning. Since the cost to acquire such a bucket system for toileting is so low, then there is no need to wait very long to implement the system.

With a limited amount of funds, equipping my trailer is not something I can do all at once. It needs to be a phased approach, and I need to decide how and where the money is best spent. The key to making these decisions is to analyze where the purchases will impact higher-priority needs, such as the need for health and safety.

To help me understand better, I diagrammed out the main needs, the decisions I can make that will provide a solution and reinforce it, any mitigating factor that impact the outcome, and the desired results. When looking as the various ways I can address a need, I can more clearly see where the decision interacts with a mitigating factor and which desired result is most affected.

In the diagram below, the solid arrows represent direct impacts and the dotted arrows represent secondary impacts. These are not the only interactions possible, but enough to illustrate how this kind of analysis can help draw some conclusions.

When analyzing the diagram, one can see that the greatest impacts are indeed those made to health and safety, with safety being at the top. A number of the possible solutions contribute to these impacts, and are therefore the ones which need to be prioritized. All of these factors are important, but some solutions may be able to be phased-in. Some are not, such as the need to get reliable heat and insulation in the face of a quickly approaching Winter and single-digit or subzero temperatures in the near-term forecast. Since the negative impact of dealing with extreme low temperatures can be death, the need to address this is the top priority. Others that impact things like comfort are not as high as a priority, though these still remain important.

Some Takeaways

In my little analysis of my current housing situation, I am struck by the complexity and challenge in addressing these issues. With a systems-thinking approach, I can take a broader view of my circumstances and hopefully make a few better choices.

I also gained an appreciation of how much more of a complex issue housing really is in our country today. It seems simpler to place blame on one factor, or one political party or economic weakness, but by developing a deeper understanding of the problem through a systems-thinking approach I can also see where some great improvements can be made if there is the societal/political will to do so.

Let’s hope that one day we will be able to come together as a society with a deeper understanding and good intention so that so many people won’t be faced with an intractable choice because they lack the financial freedom to do so. Our own intentions must be pure and our eyes open to what is truly happening in our communities, and we must be willing to make brave choices so that no one who wants a home would be unable to get one.