And so my family and I are entering into a period of transformation. Moving to the west coast is part of a plan that we’ve been talking about for years. We have been actively researching ways to live a sustainable, wholistic existence. As a couple we already exist sort of on the fringe of society, with regards to our taste in movies, authors, food, clothing etc. We don’t own a t.v. so consequently we do not partake in any of the culture surrounding that. We try to buy only from companies that we believe in. We try to buy mostly local food. We recycle and compost (though we had a little incident with some rats which has curtailed that a bit). We try to limit unnecessary packaging. We have decided to not buy anything that cannot be recycled in the future. And yet there are many ways in which we feel we could do a LOT better. But in order to accomplish those bigger things, there will have to be some major changes in our lifestyle.
And we ask ourselves, “if WE don’t do it, then who is going to?” How can we claim to be defenders of the environment if we are not willing to do the big things, (like give up the car)?
To our defense, we moved to upstate New York a few years ago so my husband could go to graduate school, but since he finished we have been living in a state of suspended motion. When you have a child it’s inevitable that some bigger questions come into play. What kind of environment do we want him to grow up in? What kind of lifestyle do we want to embody for him and for us? We have done pretty well with what we have, but there are still many areas that make it challenging (namely, the town we are in currently is not walkable. we must drive to run errands making us car dependent). The local grocery store has made a few positive changes in the last few years, but is still behind on many things (mainly overuse of packaging).
As many of you already know, the quest for sustainability is a rather complicated one. As soon as you decide what the right thing is (buying a hybrid car), you find out that there are many negatives with it (production of cars is a big negative on the planet’s footprint). The whole process is so incredibly confusing that it will make your head spin. As someone who wants to “do their best” it starts to feel quite overwhelming. To help myself out I have been reading the “Toolbox for Sustainable City Living” by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, which has helped clarify a few things. Particularly in the area of “green consumerism”, about which they have this to say:
“Green consumerism encourages consumption of a different variety. It does nothing to challenge the patterns of over-consumption and excess that have created the environmental crisis. Green consumerism only reinforces the destructive capitalist paradigm while giving people a dangerously false sense that real change is being made. Capitalism, natural or not, requires infinite expansion and consumption of material resources. In a world that is fragile and finite, such a system is inherently unsustainable. Any “sustainable” solution that fails to take this into account will not address the fundamental cause of planetary and human degradation.” *
While this perspective may seem extreme to some, for me it means that if we are going to “walk the walk” it is important to think consciously about all of the ways we “consume” and if we need to purchase something how can we think differently about it? Not just “is it green?” Can we find something that already exists in the world, instead of always buying the new? Can it be recycled in the future, (cradle to cradle)? Can it be reused? Is it something that can be repaired? Can I make it myself?
Another issue that we have dealt with is, “doesn’t the whole society have to change for it to impact the planet for the better? what’s the point of putting so much energy into using less when most of north american culture doesn’t give a shit?” (In upstate New York, you can get pretty discouraged about the lack of care for the environment. SUV’s and waste galore). What do we do when our individual actions feel insignificant in the context of the planet? I will let Anna Lappé (daughter of Frances Moore Lappé) give a response to that:
“When I have a sense of futility from feeling insignificant, a metaphor comes to mind that my mother and I talked about one night when we were trapped in a hotel room in Seattle with the rain pouring down. We sometimes fell as though we’re just a drop in the bucket, right? As we were talking about that sensation of futility, of feeling like a drop in the bucket, all of a sudden I said: “Wait a second. You know, here in Seattle if we were to put a bucket out right now, it would be filled probably within the hour.” And so I think it’s less that we feel like a drop in a bucket and more that we feel like a drop in the Sahara because the drop is dissipating before it even touches the ground. If you conceptualize your individual action as a drop in a bucket, that means your drop is adding to all the others. You have no idea if yours is the first drop, the mid drop, or the last drop before the water will go over the edge. So when I get into that mindset of “Oh, anything I do is so small, so futile, ” I remind myself of that bucket.
-excerpted from “Eat the Sky: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork” a lecture for the E.F. Schumacher Society by Anna Lappé
So here is the argument we have based our current thoughts on. There are some things that we know for sure, we must use less energy, we must eliminate our dependence on oil, we must create less waste, we can make many choices that can lessen our impact. The bottom line is, “I need to FEEL like I am doing the best job that I can.” And right now that means going a LOT further. For me, using green light bulbs and shopping locally is not enough. And as we said before, “If WE don’t do it, then how can we expect others to do it too.”
In the last few weeks I have been thinking a lot about my Nana who partly raised my sister and I. She was from Newfoundland and all of these practices I look to now were just a way of life for her. It was not just due to living through the depression, it was based in living in a place that had limited resources so every material was consider valuable and multipurpose. Pieces of old clothing were made into hooked rugs, every last fabric scrap was repurposed into something else, ever paper scrap, every tin can. In her way of looking at the world, the act of buying something new was a radical act (in contrast to today where the act of not purchasing has become radical.) How can we alter our habitual ways of thinking about buying (that it must be new, that “disposable” is okay, that someone else can deal with the waste)?
And so we have created a plan. To be completely implemented in the next couple of years. Our main goal to have a family oriented, sustainable lifestyle seems very possible. Moving to Vancouver B.C. is the first step as it seems to have all of the things we are looking for, (forward thinking, socialized healthcare, nature on a grand scale, a good public school system, plenty of local food, a walkable existence). Sadly, one of the things it lacks is affordable housing, so we would be back to renting again, but this is a tradeoff we are willing to make when we look at the benefits. Right now we are paying $600 a month on healthcare premiums with a $10,000.00 deductible for the family, that is all I could get being a self-employed person in New York State, (the new healthcare reform will sadly not impact this at all). Public schools in much of the US are in a state of crisis, so if we chose to stay here in a few years we would have to pay for private school ($8000 a year, and up to $12000 to $20000 when our son is older), or pursue homeschooling which I would only consider if there was a large homeschooling community (i.e. socialization).
In doing my research, (which is still ongoing), I have been amazed and saddened that it *seems* impossible to find “lower impact” housing in an urban environment (unless you are rich). There are many people out there hoping to change this for the future, but we already have the technology, why aren’t there more places in development now? Europe has been doing much more of this for years. We just need people who are willing. We need to encourage and persuade infrastructure to be more accepting of greener practices. In truth, we need to put the environment *before* the need to make money. This is the biggest deterrent to change.
I know none of this is news to you. But I for one, am ready to do it differently for myself and my family. It’s time to stop talking about it and act. I am ready. A bit nervous, but ready. I know it is impossible to do it perfectly, that is not my goal. But every change we do make is another “drop in the bucket”.
If you are interested, here is the ongoing and ‘open to change’ plan:
*note: I am about halfway through this book and while I am very inspired with the grassroots creation of self sustainable items (bike part windmill, wetland to filter wastewater), I find many of the ideas completely impractical for people who are renting. Surely there must be ways to be sustainable in the city without having to break the law? (i.e. outdoor composting toilet that they recommend you use “covertly” so as not to alert the authorities? The image of this makes me laugh quite a bit. I picture a person waving to neighbors while carrying a rake and whistling nervously as he goes out back to the “toolshed”.
I have just started reading “Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture” by Shannon Hayes. It is fantastic so far, though less of a ‘hand on’ kind of book and more of a social history. It includes interviews with a wide swath of radical homemakers, people who have shunned the status quo and chosen alternative lifestyles based on their own belief systems and needs. I am learning that people make different choices based on their individual needs (it is not always about growing your own food, some people may be better at repairing goods, or bartering).
I am also loving Gayla Trail’s new book “Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces”. It has a lot of great ideas that were new to me (growing tomatoes upside down in a bucket).
p.s. I am off to the NYC tomorrow for further surgery on my eye. A few of you have asked for the date so you can send me good energy or do something ceremonial. It is Tuesday the 11th at 10 am. I may be there all day as they don’t know at this point how intensive it is going to be. Needless to say I am a bit on edge right now. I’ll let you know how it goes.