Looking at a Lifestyle

Image of earth.

Image by Elena Mozhvilo.

“Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its lifestyle”. – Pope John Paul II

Preamble: It is universally recognized among those who are paying attention to political, economic and environmental changes, that how most of us will live in the not distant future is uncertain; but though uncertain as to details, certain that many of those using the most of the earth’s bounty will have to use less. The details of how to distribute the reductions for all of those using more of the earth’s capacity than can be justified will become the most vital and important history ever lived and written by us, either the greatest possible demonstration of our capacities for compassion and goodwill or the greatest demonstration of our talents for destructiveness. 

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I am, I suppose, like most people; I want to live and work in my community and society, to be seen as normal and acceptable. I am an unlikely person to be an environmental activist; a poor boy from the rural south, the attaining of a middle class lifestyle, while not a primary goal, was an accomplishment; my adult life has been lived as a teacher and a small business man.

In an enlightening moment in the mid 1990s I came across a data collection and summarizing effort called The Ecological Footprint. This monumental project was attempting to use the vast amounts of economic and behavioral data collected by the world’s institutions, governments and other sources, to measure the human use of the earth’s resources; and to use ecological data collected by governments and academia to measure the earth’s productive and buffering capacities. If reasonable measures of these things could be made, then our use of the earth could be compared to the capacities of the earth to meet our uses.

The first summaries of the data proved shocking: humans were using the earth’s resources at a greater rate than the earth’s capacities to produce and recover; for earth’s life sustaining systems that would be catastrophic!  Further, the researchers who created the Ecological Footprint measurements have never been criticized for being alarmist, but only for being too conservative and cautious.

An online tool was soon added to the system allowing individuals to measure their use of the earth’s resources in either how many hectares (or acres) their lifestyle required or in terms of how many earths would be needed if everyone lived as they did.

When I used the tool, I found that the relatively simple life I was living required the productive capacity of more than 4 earths if everyone lived as I did. At a deep emotional level this was unsatisfactory to me. I had grown up loving the wildlands of this earth in such a natural way that I didn’t even realize the depth of that love until I watched the draglines, bulldozers and dredges turn ‘my’ wildlands into housing developments, roads and parking lots.

What does one do when you know that something is wrong, existentially wrong; when you know the solutions, but that they would be life changing, for you and for everyone; when you know that people, in general, will not make the changes required without great effort?

Raising my children seemed to require an acceptance of the lifestyles of my community, but when they were grown I decided that I would try something, try something even if finally the wrong thing; I would still learn and potentially be a source of information for others. I decided to try to live as close to a ‘one-earth’ lifestyle as I could while remaining part of the society. I wasn’t trying to escape society or to be noble; I simply couldn’t not respond to the measured and clear reality that humanity was using more of the earth’s resources than the earth could sustainably supply.

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I knew that my project was ‘artificial’ from the start, people in general couldn’t do what I was planning to do. For my experiment, It was necessary for me to live in a rural off-grid setting; I wouldn’t be allowed to live as I do where the vast majority of people live, and where it is most important to make the kinds of changes I was going to make.

My experiment is not a criticism of others; that is not the point. I have consciously chosen a process of discovery; clearly the vast majority of people don’t have such an option, just as I didn’t recognize the possibility for a long time. I rather think of it as an experimental vehicle on a test track: not ready for the open road or city traffic; it is funny looking and uses a fuel that isn’t readily available, and sometimes you have to give it a push start as part of its design.

It was my hope that if people, broadly and generally, realized that we are using, right now, much more of the earth’s capacity than is supportable over the ecological/geological long term, even over the next several generations, then more of us might look to these kinds of lifestyle changes and try different forms of small and large experiments in their own living situations**.

To presage one conclusion of my experiment, the singular greatest limitation to the success of how I live as a way to reduce the human impact of the environment is that there isn’t a community sharing the effort; not necessarily to make it physically easier, but to share effort and material; to share experience and to share the new feelings that come with the daily activities; it is from the sharing of how one feels that new expectations come. This is a limitation that would be more easily addressed in the places where the most of us live.

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I live in a 500 square foot house, designed and built mostly by myself with help from my children and a couple of their friends: I was 71 years old the summer the house was built. The design made the most efficient use of commonly available construction materials. It is comfortable, efficient, embracing and lovely.

The off-grid solar-electric set up is driven by a 1200 watt solar array for the house and 200 watt array for the workshed. The house wasn’t designed primarily for solar gain, but does have large south facing windows with the roof line placed to cut off direct sun in the summer and to collect direct sunlight in the winter, effectively warming the house on sunny days.

House water comes from a hand pumped deep well and is hand carried. Rain water is collected in barrels from the house and shed roofs and transferred to storage barrels for garden, greenhouse and other sundry uses.

While I could go into detail about how every need is met and how waste is composted, how there is a plan to build soil over several years, how the greenhouse is used, how there is an attempt, ultimately not met, to have inputs and outputs net to near zero as natural ecological systems do – I am recording these details – but, it is more important to talk about the principles that inform these efforts.

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It is the natural habit of people when acquiring new skills and experiences to copy what they see; this is usually a good way to do things, but not so much when the situations one is applying the new learnings to are each very different. Then it is more important to have the principles underlying the actions clearly in mind rather than the specific actions. At this time most of the people trying for more environmentally appropriate lifestyles are living off-grid in rural settings while the greatest need for changing lifestyles is in the towns, cities and among the affluent. Only a tiny percentage of people can live off-grid on several acres, but what they learn, and can teach, about how changing lifestyles works are the principles that reduce their impact on the environment, principles that can be applied to other situations with imagination and the desire to make these important changes.

Here are the principles that I have come to, some I began with and others came as part of the experience. They are of two types: structural – things that are physically designed into the way of life; and habits, beliefs and expectations that support that way of life.

Principles designed as structure:

Hands-on steps should be designed into as many need-meeting actions as possible: in my case, a hand pumped well, hand tools rather than power tools (within reason), wheelbarrow and shovel rather than machinery and more.

Material inputs should (nearly) equal outputs in the manner of natural ecosystems. This is an impossible goal in the present economy, but is a goal none-the-less. If perfect, there would be little or no garbage or waste product that isn’t usefully used in some way. It can be simple, like using bits of a paper bag as kindling to light the woodstove or more complicated: a composting system for all organic waste that produces clean soil building compost over the years.

Make it difficult or impossible to be wasteful. This is to be a matter of design to limit choice, an effort to create new habits and expectations. For example, I have a very small refrigerator/freezer suited to my small solar electric system. This informs my shopping and nothing ever goes bad. My solar heated shower can hold, by intention, only 3 gallons of water.

Habits and expectations:

The habit of questioning what you are doing and why; is it wasteful? Can it be done with less pollution? Is the drive necessary or would walking serve as well?

Learn about your space: Whether you live in a forest, desert or a city, the place where you live can be used with greater ecological efficiency when you know it well.

Create comfortable spaces; an important part of your efforts come from your devotion to and comfort in your space.

Seek joy in what your are doing; finding joy in how you are living can come in many ways, but often is related to the willingness to find it.

Mixed structure and expectation:

Use community resources and support their maintenance. As one example where I live, our roads are maintained by the people who live here. We get together a few times a year and repair sections. Support libraries. Support local farmers.

Use technologies that increase safety, knowledge, communication and engagement with the space in which you live. Avoid technologies that distract from the primary purpose of an ecologically sustainable lifestyle and that have high environmental costs; requires ‘hands-on’ research.

While I have come to these principles living in a rural setting they can be applied in various ways to non-rural settings with imagination and desire. It seems to me that in urban settings there would be a greater need for leadership and community organizing of group activities, but organizing can be done around these principles and the variations of them as people discover new possibilities.

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Conclusions: The kinds of lifestyle changes that will ultimately have a meaningful impact on our precipitous movement toward environmental instability will only come from communities adapting to and adopting new expectations for how to live. Individual lifestyle changes will never be enough. Individual, family and small group** actions can help show options and provide encouragement, but a major effort will be required to adapt these beginnings to our communities, small towns, urban settings and the profligate. These efforts are underway, though under-reported and under-supported.

It is also clear that human inventiveness will have to be a major part of how we approach the solutions to the changes in lifestyle; there will be no stepping back to simpler times even as we will be living more simply. The controlled, thoughtfully negotiated uses of technology will be essential; even, potentially, AI systems might facilitate community sharing of resources. Technology** in support of less environmental impact rather than being a source of greater impact must be a goal.

The present economic system in the developed world makes ecologically sustainable lifestyles effectively impossible. Individuals and families, even with their best and most committed efforts can seldom have Ecological Footprints less than 2 or 3 earths. The averages for the affluent can go to 100s of earths of consumption. Placing the responsibility for lowering environmental impact on the general population in wealthy countries and on the poor generally is a distraction by the greatest energy and material using entities to avoid responsibility. A large majority of people in developed countries are concerned with and act at some level on environmental issues; they need to understand that their efforts to live more sustainably, while laudable, will only be effective if the very wealthy and corporate interests greatly reduce their environmental impacts. More would be accomplished by actions that hold the major environmental abusers to account than by the relatively small reductions of impact from lifestyle changes like I have made.

It is obvious, sitting in the loft of my little house looking out over the beautiful high desert landscape, that the lifestyle I have been living is only a pale effort in the face of the challenges humanity as a whole faces, but it points out possibilities, more about the human capacity to try than the details of those efforts.

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Final thoughts: Humanity is now the most powerful force acting on the earth’s biosphere on a daily basis (other than the sun); our individual lifestyle choices…not so much choices for the most of us, but rather uncritical acceptance of lifestyle…will determine what the world will be like for many of those alive now and for their children and for their children. Most people will follow the expectations of their communities which makes leadership of vital importance.

The economic equity and social justice movements must include stronger environmental protection emphasis. Reducing our impact on the environment will only be accomplished by reducing our total consumption by almost all sectors of society, especially by the worst abusers, toward what the earth can sustainably provide and can only be peacefully done with equity and justice: this is not a trivial observation! Reduction in human impact will happen either under our influence or not; it will happen with the consideration of equity and justice or not. It is up to us.

And then, finally, what about my efforts? My Ecological Footprint, living alone off-grid even with my best efforts, has never been better than using 1.6 earths, the global average. If I lived much closer to a town and could walk or bike most of the time or if I was even more isolated and directly provided far more of my needs, I might reduce that number. If another person lived in the same house, the number would be reduced. But, ultimately, what matters is that how most of us live is very demanding of the earth’s resources. Reducing our impact on earth’s systems to the point of sustainability will require the attention and active engagement of a significant percentage of us at all levels of the society; this will be the ultimate and possibly the final test of our human capacities.