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.