Is Your Sustainable Life Sustainable?

I have been thinking a lot about sustainable living, and the so-called simple life lately. Dixiebelle wrote a self-flagellating post recently about her wicked fall into a fast food lunch, and in general about falling short of one’s ideals.

Oh sweetheart.

I’m not particularly old (33) but I came to this “green consciousness” early, I think. I’ve got 15 years of trying to find and live a sustainable, ethical life under my belt, and let me tell you, I’ve weathered many a storm myself. I’ve been up, I’ve been down, I’ve felt superior, I’ve felt like worthless shit. I’ve wasted entire days (back when my life allowed such luxuries) under the covers, bemoaning my own inevitable participation in such a hideous world.

And I did think the world in it’s present state was hideous (I do still when I stop to consider it, though having kids helps you to see beauty and have hope.) I think we have been informed into oblivion. I listen to NPR and am emotionally outraged when they follow “two protesters for human rights killed” with “name this top forty song.” All over the world, people suffer in factories, animals suffer in feed lots, wilderness suffers anywhere it still exists, so that we can have stuff for cheap. We keep our eyes on the prize and fuck everything else. Look out for number one.

When my eyes opened to the horrors of the world, I was young. I thought I could change, not the world exactly, but my part in it. Drastically. I would become independent from the system. What else could I do? How could I participate in something so egregiously wrong?

I spent a few years learning to live with truly minimal participation. I started out extreme, and discovered that the technical aspects of the simple life are more than possible. It was not exceptionally difficult to build a small shelter out of mostly scavenged material, to heat our modest home with foraged firewood cut with a handsaw, to grow and gather a majority of our food, to live well on a few thousand dollars a year. What was difficult, what proved the unravelling of my “simple life” was the extremity of change.

Are you prepared to live with feelings of complete isolation? Are you prepared to leave behind everything you grew up with? Are you prepared to give up all feelings of belonging to your own species?

I was not.

As fucked up as humanity may be, it’s my people. They are we. I am them. You can’t get away from yourself and the culture that’s woven throughout you.

My fall from grace is not remotely new. Every back-to-the-land movement throughout recent history has left a trail of disappointed, disillusioned, tail-tucked folks heading back to the city. Those who manage to stay find they have made huge compromises and reconcilliations. The fulfillment of their dream rarely looks like what they set out for. I have come to think that, apart from a very few remarkable people, most of us simply cannot make so much change in a single lifetime.

So, over the course of many years, I decided to cut myself some slack.

I looked towards those who have stayed, not at the very fray, but within shouting distance. Those good folks of my parents generation who have managed to walk the line. Not living as radically as they once dreamed, but not turning away either. Keeping at it.

They had cultivated flexibility, learned to accept less than the grandeur we’ve been taught to expect, and perhaps most importantly, kept a good sense of humor.

I am a realist. Perhaps that means I am a pessimist too. Perhaps I cast aside my dreams in a big sell out. But I saw my realistic options as continuing to try for hard-core and eventually burning out, or compromising for a middle ground that I could actually sustain.

And that’s when I realized the irony.

“Sustainablility” is such a buzzword now it’s easy to forget what it really means. If you’ve discovered the sad realities of the mainstream and want to carve out instead a sustainable life, congratulations on your clarity and courage. But make sure your changes are sustainable for you, and for your family.

And here’s one of the biggest sticking points. Those “remarkable people” I mentioned earlier? The ones capable of sustaining radical change? Pretty much never have kids. Rarely even manage to keep a spouse or partner. Like anyone who accomplishes extraordinary things within just one life, they have to guard their time, energy and motivations. Keep everything for themselves and their cause.

For the rest of us, we can keep our spirits up by remembering that extraordinary things can also come from the sum of many lives. We can allow ourselves flexibility, compromise and self-forgiveness. Rather than hanging our heads in shame for our transgressions, let’s celebrate our own and one another’s sustainable change.

16 thoughts on “Is Your Sustainable Life Sustainable?

  1. Maybe it’s just the pregnancy hormones, but I almost cried reading parts of your post today. I spent parts of my life living out of a backpack on very little money and very high ideals. Now I find myself caving in to string cheese to keep the kiddo happy on a trip, not always organic, I admit. I feel self-loathing both ways: when I hardly let my mother-in-law feed our son because her chemical-laden food freaks me out (what kind of a mom doesn’t let her son have cookies from a loving grandma?!?) and when I myself make lazy shortcuts just to make my day easier. It’s really hard, but I think forgiveness, mindfulness, and a sense of humor help enormously.

    Ultimately, I think you are right about human relationships being at stake when one radicalizes. I want to have good relationships with my neighbors, but I don’t want to chemicalize my lawn so that it “fits in.” I want to be welcome to visit my parents whenever we want, but I also plague them with a list of what we will and will not eat while there. I love my neighbor & fellow mom up the street, but nearly have a coronary when I see my son eating Skippy & white bread sandwiches and washing his hands with triclosan at their house. As much as I hated getting a flu shot this year, I did it for my friend with Leukemia to whom the flu could quite literally kill her because I value being near her to help her through this above my “ideals.” I love people– I love my neighbors, my family, my in-laws, my best friend, the other moms in the world. It’s tough. I agree.

    Let’s hear it for cutting ourselves some slack in favor of fostering community with our fellow people. Hey, we may subtly change some thinking along the way. Who knows.


  2. This is such an important post. I wish I had more time to write but I have to get in my gas-powered car and go to a university with a no-doubt enormous footprint. …It KILLS ME! I loved living in the woods, but we can’t do it all alone.

  3. Wow! This is a great post and it is so incredibly poignant! Only a couple of years ago did I realize that life as I was living it was not right for me. I kept telling my husband, “I want a bigger smaller life!” What I cam to understand was that I wanted a simpler, more sustaible life style. But living a simple life is not simple at all. In this society and particularly in my family, bigger was better, the more stuff the better, and that felt so wrong to me. I have two small boys and they do make it harder for me to stick to my self-sustaining guns, if you will. I am so imperfect at this, it is not even funny, but I try..everyday I try to do better and to live by what I feel is right. My husband the other day laughed at me and said, “I know you are trying to live a ‘green’ lifestyle (his term for it), but you don’t seem so much green to me as you do…maybe…LIGHT GREEN!” I guess it is a start! Thanks for the great blog, I truly enjoy it and am inspired and encouraged by it.

  4. I don’t like the current use of the term ‘sustainable’… I prefer ‘lower impact’. It’s more achieveable, not great, but more realistic at least!

    Great post, these are things I’ve posted about before on my blog, as I am always seeking the balance. It is about compromising, because no matter how important the issues of the Earth and the world are to me, I still want to provide my children with magical childhoods, I want to protect and provide for them. I want to look after their future, but also need to look after their right-now!

    I had pretty much come to terms with these balance issues, but every now and then I still beat mysef up a little! This time, it came about because I’d set myself the lofty goal of eating SOLE food this year… shopping at the local farmers outlet, growing more of our own, cooking more from scratch, solar cooking, artisan bread and fermentation. Getting fast food felt like the complete opposite of that plan!! I followed up with in this post:

  5. Some great thoughts there!

    I’m a realist too, but am aiming to live as an optimistic realist rather than a pessimistic realist. Life’s more fun that way.

    We all have to learn to feel good about what we can do (and not feel guilty for what we can’t). Everyone’s journey towards sustainability is different. And that’s the beauty!

    I pondered this thought a while ago when I realised the sustainable life I thought I was aiming for wasn’t sustainable. I hope you don’t mind me sharing:

  6. Oh, how much better I feel to know I’m not the only who feels hypocritical at times! We are all doing the best we can to tread lightly upon the Earth, but sometimes, we have to compromise. Comprising doesn’t mean that we don’t care anymore – it just means we need to give ourselves a little break now and then. We can’t punish ourselves for it. We need, as you said, sustainable sustainability – and it’s the big picture, the daily things we are consistently doing to live sustainably, not a small transgression here or there, that really matters.

  7. This is exactly where I get horribly frustrated with both the idealists who live in isolation and the city folks’ ways. I have long known that I want the simple low-impact life, but also that I want to live in the city, or at least around a lot of people. For exactly the reasons you state.
    There is no reason that we couldn’t buy a block in the city and live exactly this type of lifestyle, if:
    – the block is big enough (ie. not tiny !)
    – the block was part of say 6-10 other blocks in a group
    We could knock down fences, have common area, one swimming pool, one garden, one chook shed, let the kids roam, etc, while keeping legally separate blocks.
    It would be tricky – as tricky as the out of town communities – to get everyone co-operating, but it would have sooo many benefits.
    I think it’s possible, but as real estate prices spiral out of control, it seems to get further away. But I really do think that this, or something a lot like it, is the future of the human race – we are just in primitive times at present (errrgh, that sounds harsh). Humans are hardwired for small groups, not nuclear families.
    If I become incredibly rich this is the first thing I will do.


    1. Welcome Ben! I hope you’re buying lottery tickets, that all sounds divine.
      Nice to hear a male voice out there. Sometimes us ladies get a little too thick around here.
      I assume you’ve read Ecotopia? If not check it out for dreaming purposes. Though it was almost twenty years ago when I read it. Geesh.

    1. wow, Erica, thanks for sharing. hilarious and very on point. i’ll be checking out more of your blog, and adding you to the Reader’s blogs list.

  8. Oh so perfectly said! I am in the midst of this balancing act too – it was so much easier to be hardcore eco before having children! Like you I came to the eco-living awareness early and it still makes me feel guilty that I spend my time now reading parenting information rather than devouring environmental information and doing my ‘Earth work’. If I think about the future too much I wouldn’t sleep at night (well maybe I would cos parenting is hard work) but I’m also motivated in my choices through the fact that I’d really like my kids to have a liveable planet to grow on. So yes, I too want a life we can all enjoy while at the same time not stamping all over the Earth with a super-size footprint. I think we have to find our own level of integrity and flow with that, even as it shifts on a daily basis. Living on a small island with limited resources I find I want to ship in many of the items I know will be more eco-friendly and healthier for us knowing that the freight has a big cost for the Earth – what a to-do! In essence we have no idea of what the bigger picture in all of this really is so lets keep learning and evolving! onelove

  9. The thing to do is love what you CAN do. I have a solar panel and an alternative-fuel car and I love them. I tell everyone about them and maybe that’ll have an effect. And city life can be greener than living in the country, as I can walk more. So I try to celebrate that too …

  10. Going even further back… :)

    The ‘having kids’ part is important. My mom cooked, sewed, knit, gardened, and did carpentry, wiring, and anything else that needed doing when I was growing up. So when I grew up, I did too. My kids will, too. Your kids will know how to keep chickens, too. :) People who shift toward sustainable, shift more than just themselves. The hard part for me is to keep shifting. My mom’s much more revolutionary than I am, and less lazy as well. Though to be fair, she doesn’t have small children anymore. ;)

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