When you hear about sustainable living, you tend to get a focus on global impact. How much CO2 are you contributing to global warming? How many Earths would your lifestyle require? Those are important questions but my concept of living sustainably starts at home.
To me, “sustainable living” is a pretty simple concept. If you can maintain (sustain) your lifestyle (how you’re living) for the foreseeable future, then you’re living sustainably. The global component, the one we all hear about, is how we’re going to maintain our culture and civilization over time. As it is now, we’re only able to maintain our lifestyle because someone else is going without or because we’re using resources in a profligate waste (or both). In this case, the right thing to do is to figure out what we can do without. For most people, the answer seems to be “allow other people to have my standard of living.” Obviously, that’s not sustainable. People aren’t willing to give up their comforts so that I can live a better life. Instead, I’m trying to figure out what I can get rid of to try and meet these people halfway.
Part of that is encouraging others to reduce their usage (of land, natural resources, air quality, etc). In a selfish sense, if other people use less, there will be more for me! If I reduce my consumption as well, it might be possible to find a middle ground where people in the global sense are living sustainably. That is, the average person will be using up fewer resources than are naturally produced.
That’s pretty long-term pie-in-the-sky thinking, though. I lump it in with things like setting up Mars colonies or creating a technologica singularity. They’re neat to think about and might even be laudable goals, but I personally just can’t live my life working towards them.
I prefer to focus on making my local life sustainable. Some of these items carry over from the global view. Eating local food keeps me healthier, which means I’ll be able to keep doing what I’m doing. Driving as little as possible has similar benefits.
That’s still pretty abstract, though. My general day-to-day focus is on making sure that my life is sustainable. Primarily, that means focusing on money, which is something I don’t see much about in the green community.
The best way to weather future changes (that is, to make sure that your current lifestyle is sustainable) is to live within your means (reduce your lifestyle) and to save as much money as possible (to extend your lifestyle if it becomes more costly). Right now, I save 30-40% of my income (small though it is). That means that if I suddenly have a paycut, my lifestyle isn’t affected at all. It also means that lots of little things become easier because I don’t have to wait for a new paycheck in order to do things. I also feel like my income is less likely to disappear than other people’s because instead of having one boss, I’ve got multiple clients. Even if I lose one of them, I’ll still be making something.
Buying a house and getting it set up have definitely eaten into those cash reserves, so I don’t have as much saved now as I’d like. However, I feel like owning a house is an important step in my never-ending quest to make sure my life is sustainable. My monthly rent is now much less variable over time and eventually will become much less. I’m also now free to do whatever I want to the place, which means I should be able to maximize my happiness better. If a gazebo would make me happy, I can put one up. Or if honey would bring a smile to my face, I can get bee hives.
If you take anything away from this post, I hope you’ll remember to look at things locally and not just globally when you’re making choices. Thinking globally, it makes sense not to drive, to live on a farm in the middle of nowhere, to avoid having children. Locally, that might not make sense at all. Perhaps a job that you love requires a certain amount of travel. Or maybe you get hives whenever you get too close to cows.
Sustainability is local too. If you can’t maintain a lifestyle because it would make you miserable, that’s just as unsustainable as a lifestyle that uses up too many resources. The key, as with most things, is to get rid of unnecessary junk and to continually find ways to improve.
I hope to hear more about your experiments as you do so. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot that will help me live more sustainably as well.
This post brought to you by the letters APLS.