Graham Hill, founder of Treehugger

13 March 2013 — The relationship with Olga, the Andorran beauty, finally ended but Treehugger founder Graham Hill’s life of few posessions and fleet footedness continued. Now he lives in a 39 square metre apartment with a pull out bed, pop out table and a fraction of his former books. And he loves it.  Besides, too much consumption ends up producing aberrant, antisocial behaviour, researchers have found.

A US Purple Heart medal with two oakleaves, with a current bid of just AUS$39, is one of thousands of items up for sale each year via abandoned self storage units.

Self Storage Sales Australia says self storage and warehousing facilities have become one of the fastest growing industries in Australia with more than 20 per cent growth in the past two years in all capital cities. About 25 per cent of customers are commercial.

Demand has never been higher, the company says.

But do we need all that space?

How much stuff is enough?

According to researchers at University of California Los Angeles, a study centred on families found that stress hormones in mothers spiked when they were dealing with belongings.

The study, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, also found 75 per cent of the families involved in the study couldn’t park their cars in their garages because they were too jammed with things.

Graham Hill

In a report by Graham Hill, founder of and, published in the New York Times, “housing size, for example, has ballooned in the last 60 years. The average size of a new American home in 1950 was 983 square feet (91 square metres); by 2011, the average new home was 2480 sq ft (230 sq m)”.


The US has a $22 billion personal storage industry, Hill writes.

What exactly are we storing away in the boxes we cart from place to place? Much of what Americans consume doesn’t even find its way into boxes or storage spaces, but winds up in the garbage.

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports, for example, that 40 per cent of the food Americans buy finds its way into the trash.

Enormous consumption has global, environmental and social consequences. For at least 335 consecutive months, the average temperature of the globe has exceeded the average for the 20th century. As a recent report for Congress explained, this temperature increase, as well as acidifying oceans, melting glaciers and Arctic Sea ice are ‘primarily driven by human activity’.

Many experts believe consumerism and all that it entails — from the extraction of resources to manufacturing to waste disposal — plays a big part in pushing our planet to the brink. And as we saw with Foxconn and the recent Beijing smog scare, many of the affordable products we buy depend on cheap, often exploitive overseas labour and lax environmental regulations.

Does all this endless consumption result in measurably increased happiness?

In a recent study, the Northwestern University psychologist Galen V Bodenhausen linked consumption with aberrant, antisocial behaviour. Professor Bodenhausen found that ‘Irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mind-set, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in well-being, including negative affect and social disengagement.’ Though American consumer activity has increased substantially since the 1950s, happiness levels have flat-lined.

A recent study linked consumption with aberrant,

antisocial behaviour

I DON’T know that the gadgets I was collecting in my loft were part of an aberrant or anti-social behaviour plan during the first months I lived in SoHo. But I was just going along, starting some start-ups that never quite started up when I met Olga, an Andorran beauty, and fell hard. My relationship with stuff quickly came apart.

I followed her to Barcelona when her visa expired and we lived in a tiny flat, totally content and in love before we realized that nothing was holding us in Spain. We packed a few clothes, some toiletries and a couple of laptops and hit the road. We lived in Bangkok, Buenos Aires and Toronto with many stops in between.

A compulsive entrepreneur, I worked all the time and started new companies from an office that fit in my solar backpack. I created some do-gooder companies like We Are Happy to Serve You, which makes a reusable, ceramic version of the iconic New York City Anthora coffee cup and, an environmental design blog that I later sold to Discovery Communications. My life was full of love and adventure and work I cared about. I felt free and I didn’t miss the car and gadgets and house; instead I felt as if I had quit a dead-end job.

The relationship with Olga eventually ended, but my life never looked the same. I live smaller and travel lighter. I have more time and money. Aside from my travel habit – which I try to keep in check by minimizing trips, combining trips and purchasing carbon offsets – I feel better that my carbon footprint is significantly smaller than in my previous supersized life.

I live smaller and travel lighter.

Intuitively, we know that the best stuff in life isn’t stuff at all, and that relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy life.

I like material things as much as anyone. I studied product design in school. I’m into gadgets, clothing and all kinds of things. But my experiences show that after a certain point, material objects have a tendency to crowd out the emotional needs they are meant to support.

I wouldn’t trade a second spent wandering the streets of Bangkok with Olga for anything I’ve owned. Often, material objects take up mental as well as physical space.

I’m still a serial entrepreneur, and my latest venture is to design thoughtfully constructed small homes that support our lives, not the other way around. Like the 420 sq ft (39 sq m) space I live in, the houses I design contain less stuff and make it easier for owners to live within their means and to limit their environmental footprint. My apartment sleeps four people comfortably; I frequently have dinner parties for 12. My space is well-built, affordable and as functional as living spaces twice the size. As the guy who started, I sleep better knowing I’m not using more resources than I need. I have less – and enjoy more.

My space is small. My life is big.

Meanwhile, Hill is busy creating small spaces for other people through LifeEdited.

He says by applying “smart design and technology”, anyone can have a compelling, fulfilling life that allows you to live within your means financially and environmentally.

“LifeEdited demonstrated this premise with its first project, a NYC apartment with over 1000 sq ft (93 sq m) of functionality in only 420 sq ft (39 sq m).

“We are now bringing our concept to larger audiences by working with developers to build larger buildings that incorporate our designs.

“We are also showcasing products and spaces as well as giving tips on how you can have more time, money and happiness with less stuff, less space and less waste.”

A video of Hill’s micro apartment is here.

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