The threats to our planet and our way of life are overwhelming. It’s tempting to succumb to a sense of powerlessness, to hunker down or to insist on business as usual, just because it’s hard to know what to do.
There are some things we can do. I don’t intend to offer false optimism: it’s foolish to believe that planting some herbs or changing my shopping habits is going to have an impact on a climate ruined by industry, government policies, and human greed.
But still, self-respect demands that we live an honorable life, and hope suggests that we might have some small impact as a result.
So it occurred to me to compile a list of ideas for sustainable living that would go from the simple and inexpensive to the massively life-changing, from things we could do right now to things we could plan and save for in the future.
There’s no rule that says these changes have to be made in any particular order, but perhaps it would be useful to lay out a tentative process for people who don’t know where to start. These ideas are only the beginning; you will have others to add.
I invite readers to share as an encouragement to us all to live as if the survival of the planet depended on it.
Step One: Instant Sustainability
These changes can be made the next time you go shopping, or after a minimum of research. Some are free or will even save you money; others have some minor initial costs.
- Set up a clothesline. If you don’t have a yard, you could shock your prim American neighbors and hang your laundry on your apartment balcony like a Bulgarian housewife.
Or you could buy a folding wooden drying rack and dry your clothes indoors. The drying rack I have can hold two washer loads and folds to fit easily under a twin bed. I use it every week in the winter, not just to save electricity on the dryer but to humidify the winter air for free.
- Make a pledge to buy your clothes in one of two places: from local and sustainable producers, or from resale shops. The world clothing industry is notorious for human rights abuses, waste, and pollution and doesn’t need any encouragement to expand.
Shopping at second-hand stores, while a bit hit and miss, has some advantages over buying new clothes. One of the best things about them is that the selection isn’t limited by current fashion – if you like mom jeans or hip-huggers, miniskirts or tailored suits, you can find them all with a little looking.
If you are an inspired shopper, you may never need to buy new clothes again.
- I can’t speak for you, but in general, Americans have far too many clothes. For the sake of limiting your support of the clothes industry and saving on laundry, have fewer clothes.
A good plan is to have a week’s worth of outfits for summer and winter, with a few extra things for special occasions or hobbies. Donate the rest to your local thrift store and help out your neighbors who are trying to save money and live responsibly.
- Moving from clothing to food: the ideal is for all of us to produce some food and buy the rest directly from the producer, at farmer’s markets or through CSA programs.
That isn’t possible for everyone; a lot of people don’t have land for growing, and too many of our cities are food deserts where residents are lucky to get what they can. But given that, there are steps most people can take to shop more sustainably. If you have the choice, buy fresh things rather than processed, things with less packaging rather than more.
That’s going to mean more work if you have to pack lunch boxes or are used to microwaving prepared meals; but in the long run, not only will you reduce your environmental impact, you’ll save a lot of money. There are good books that teach healthy and inexpensive shopping and cooking habits.
- If you can, go to local markets and get to know where your food comes from. You might be able to order eggs or vegetables from a neighbor, for money or for barter.
Look up CSAs, or community supported agriculture programs. These weekly subscription programs are getting more popular around the country and are offered by farmers, churches, urban gardens, and others.
- For a small initial investment, you can learn to can your own food, even if you live in an apartment. The advantages to canning your own, above the enjoyment and sense of accomplishment it gives, is that you cut packaging to a minimum, since you reuse the same jars year after year, and you can buy produce when it is cheap and eat it year round.
I haven’t seen them yet, but apparently there are Georgia peach trucks that come north to our region during the summer and announce where they will park each day. People can buy peaches by the bushel, can them in reusable jars, and never have to buy processed peaches from the store again.
- Another way to save on money and waste is to use non-disposable household and personal items. Cloth napkins will last for years, unlike paper ones, and rags outlast paper towels every time.
Cloth shopping bags, glass storage containers, and china dishes are better than the disposable alternatives. If you can’t afford them, thrift stores always have a great selection! There are even reusable feminine hygiene products.
It takes a few changes in routine to shift to more sustainable housekeeping, but like so many other things, once you make the leap, it’s really not a sacrifice at all.
Step Two: Digging Deeper
This next stage involves a little more knowledge, skill, and occasionally expense, but it also brings great rewards, both practically and psychologically.
- Plant a garden. If you don’t have a yard, you might be able to find a community garden where you can have a plot, or perhaps you can talk your building supervisor to allow some pots on the roof.
Growing some of your own food is a pleasant and practical achievement, but it also has a big impact on the amount of fossil fuel we use and the pollution it produces.
Apparently standard, non-local meals in the United States travel around 2400 kilometers from field to table. We use ten times more energy producing and shipping our food than we get from eating it. While a tomato plant on an apartment balcony is symbolic rather than world-changing, it is a start.
And for those of you who have land, in a three- or four-hundred-square foot patch you can grow a substantial proportion of your vegetables for the year, especially if you’ve learned how to can and can invest in a freezer.
My garden is about 450 square feet, and I’m still eating last years’ onions, green beans, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini. (A caveat: It is a good thing to garden, and many more people can grow food than currently do; but gardening takes a bit more skill and experience than just sticking plants in the ground.
It can take a few years to get good at producing food and figuring out how to use it, which is why I’ve put gardening in the second stage and not the first.)
- Composting is a related craft that both provides rich soil and gets rid of a lot of waste that would otherwise go into a landfill.
It takes some knowledge and experience, too, but it can be done indoors, with worm composting, or outdoors in the more traditional manner.
People who compost, especially those who avoid packaging, find that their weekly trash output can be drastically cut.
- Buy and install a rain barrel.
- Raise some livestock, if you’re able to. Chickens and other poultry are the easiest and provide both eggs and meat, but other animals can be managed on small plots.
If you get your meat and eggs from a standard grocery store, know this: the amount of manure that industrial meat producers create in our country is more than twelve times the human manure produced by the entire population of the US, and that waste, unlike most human waste, is not filtered.
When you bear that statistic in mind, having a few of your own chickens becomes an act of ecological heroism.
- Learn to make fabric and clothes. As with gardening, this takes some time and skill, but it is practical and deeply satisfying.
It isn’t cheaper to make your own clothes, especially if you shop at thrift stores, but it does support local producers who are committed to ethical fiber arts.
It is aesthetically pleasing as well, to handle the colors and textures and to enjoy the finished products on family and friends.
Hand work is also therapeutic; I find that knitting during interminable administrative meetings, or at tense family gatherings, keeps my blood pressure down and guarantees that I am still productive even when I feel my time is being wasted.
- Other handicrafts are important in the same way: carpentry, leatherwork, tin smithing, and practical mechanics can all cut down on your involvement with industrial practices and support local products as well as create a sense of accomplishment.
If you can’t do them yourself, find local people who can and shop from them.
- Explore alternate transportation. For people who live in a city with a good public transport system, this item belongs under Step One, but for others this might require more creativity.
Investing in bike equipment, establishing a carpool, or even lobbying local authorities to provide better public options are ways you can reduce your impact on the environment.
This is true for vacations as well as commutes: can you take a little more time and get where you’re going by train rather than air, for example? Or can you decide to explore your own state in more depth instead of taking a trip overseas?
- If you want to do these and other things but find that they aren’t possible where you are, consider community activism.
Again, this requires some time and skill, but it is impressive what committed individuals can do. Start a community garden if there isn’t one, and get the local school on board.
Arrange for a farmer’s market in your town. Ask local government to make bike lanes and expanded bus routes. Start a library of things. Plan communal meals, concerts, and action groups. No one needs to do everything, but you could do something.
Step Three: Building a Sustainable Future
Here are some major projects, ones that might take years to bring to fruition. They involve a lot of money, at least initially, and drastic changes in lifestyle. That’s not to say you can’t do them, especially if you have already gotten your local government on board with allowances, tax breaks, or other means of encouraging sustainable living.
- Solar power. This might mean installing solar panels to heat your own water. It might mean photovoltaic cells that generate and sell electricity to the grid.
It could mean building a passive solar home from scratch, one that is adapted to your climate, whether in Tucson or Duluth.
Even existing houses can take better advantage of solar power by a smart use of windows and window coverings, internal air circulation, and landscaping.
Or you might just start with a low-tech outdoor shower made of a black-painted barrel above an enclosure, where you can wash off after a day of working outside. Ideas for using the sun are being generated yearly by new research but also extend backward for thousands of years.
- Alternative heating and cooling. Again, these ideas might be old-fashioned, like burning a hot fire in a masonry oven for radiant heat or transoms over doorways for air flow, or they might be cutting edge.
In both cases, change will be somewhat expensive to start with but will ultimately pay for itself.
Of course, there is no completely climate-neutral way to heat and cool as much as we’re used to, so figuring out ways to adapt – cheerfully – to more extreme temperatures will be necessary.
This is when you come to appreciate the heavy wool sweaters and light cotton shirts you’ve learned to make.
- Reduce the amount of energy you use on water. If you live in the country, have composting toilets or a state-of-the-art outhouse rather than flushing the toilet.
Install a cistern up high and have your water run into the pipes by gravity rather than an electric pump; a windmill can pump it from the ground to the cistern. Heat it through a passive solar installation.
- Again, if you live on your own land, you can install a grey-water system. Grey-water systems are not just a practical way of recycling a valuable resource, they can be beautiful and even part of your local food production.
If you don’t have the means to make a grey-water system yourself, speak to your municipality to see what it can do to purify and keep grey water in your immediate ecosystem.
- Reduce or eliminate lawns. Lawns occupy three times as much land in America as irrigated crops do and suck up water, chemicals, and effort that could be put to some other use.
Instead grow food plants or re-establish the native plant ecosystem on a small scale on your property.
- Build a permaculture. This is a lifetime job, but even the first stages, of integrating food and nature and plants and animals, are rewarding to pursue.
If you don’t own any property, try educating your city council in how to create a healthy natural environment in an urban setting.
- Think about your living space. Tiny houses are a growing option for many people, but perhaps in some cases the better choice would be to share larger houses.
Whichever you choose, you should be thinking carefully about how much used and unused space you heat, clean, and maintain.
I love space and privacy myself, but I realize that on global terms my behavior can be self-indulgent. There are efficient ways to live in smaller spaces that simply ask that you reduce how much stuff you own – which you already have done, if you’ve gotten to this point.
The Kyrgyz, for example, who used to live in yurts, are experts at reconfiguring rooms morning and evening to shift from sleeping to working, gathering, and entertaining in the same space. We could do more of that.
- Embrace zero-waste. This is a hard thing to do and requires full-time changes to every aspect of your life: bringing all your own containers to a store that sells in bulk, washing everything instead of throwing it away, reusing everything you can and so much more.
But even if you don’t achieve zero waste, reducing your waste by half or more can have a huge impact on your local landfills and a smaller but still significant impact on the great industrial waste-producing machine.
The Final Barrier
This list is the barest beginning. It represents things I’ve done for years, things I’m trying, and things that are only a dream for me. There are many ideas I haven’t mentioned, and I hope you will add your ideas to mine.
But although practical suggestions like these are inspiring, there is still a barrier to making life-long changes: the daily grind.
A single dramatic sacrifice is both easier and more admired than the niggling daily efforts to fight against culture and habit. Waving a sign at an energizing climate protest feels great, but then you have to go home to daily life without paper towels or central heating.
Living sustainably can be an uphill battle, especially knowing that tomorrow you have to make the same little sacrifices, which will be either unnoticed or mocked by the people around you.
I’ve been trying to live a countercultural life for forty years, and still, on far too many days I find myself standing by the trash can, debating whether to throw out the yucky stuff or to wash and recycle it.
Or I’m standing in the aisles of the grocery store and rebelliously think, What the heck. I’ll buy paper napkins for once. The devil on my shoulder whispers, “What difference does it make, anyway?”
Like me you will probably backslide, be tempted by cynicism, and just get exhausted. Any of you who have battled an addiction or ingrained habit will recognize what I’m talking about. And our modern developed lifestyle is, if not an addiction, certainly an ingrained habit.
Breaking that habit will hard, and you will never be entirely free from the struggle. But life without struggle isn’t real life. Why not struggle to build a sustainable future, one step at a time?
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