Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Thoughts on Sustainability, Sacrifice and the Culture of Convenience

Do you have to sacrifice in order to be sustainable? It's a question that's been on my mind of late. For the past month or so I've been participating in the Show Us your Plastic Challenge over at MyPlasticFreeLife. And while I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the opportunity to bond with other like-minded folk, there is one thing that has left me feeling, well, unsettled. At the end of each week, participants in the challenge are asked a number of questions, among them is: What items would I be willing to give up if a plastic-free alternative doesn’t exist?

To be clear, I don't intend these remarks to be a criticism of Beth Terry, who totally ROCKS, it's just that I have issues with the whole notion that we must sacrifice in order to be sustainable.

You see, I come to the green movement from the world of voluntary simplicity. Most folks in the simplicity movement are people who "gave up" their spot in the rat race... me, on the other hand, I fear I never really made it to the starting line. I'm not sure if it was my youth as a hyper-achiever, or some inherent quality of my being, but for some reason I seem to lack the ability to tolerate things that most people in our society take for granted... like traffic jams, alarm clocks, pantyhose, high heels, jet engines, air fresheners, small talk, fashion rules, office politics, weed killers, cell phones, busy schedules, keeping up appearances, etc. etc. etc. Maybe I was just born in the wrong century, but I can't help but think that all of these "trappings" of modern life, really only serve the purpose of keeping us... well... trapped!

In my experience, "living with less" has never been about altruism... it's been about saving myself from the craziness that surrounds me. When people who are caught in the web of society's machinations look at my lifestyle, they often see a person who has very little money (I live comfortably on less than $20K annually) and assume that I must somehow be suffering. People see me using my hand push mower, or growing my own vegetables, or hanging laundry out to dry, or making food myself, or walking to the grocery store, or any of the other day to day parts of my existence, and say things to me like "that looks like hard work." But I really, truly don't see it that way. What sounds like hard work to me, is having to spend your life wedging yourself into some mold that society has created for you!

So, back to the concept of sacrifice... When people talk about making changes for the sake of the environment, the conversation is generally steeped in the concept of altruism. We must "do without" or "give things up" or "work harder" or do something that is somehow disagreeable or negative in order to help out the planet, or the polar bears, or the starving people in Africa, or whatever it is that we're focusing on at the moment. In general, many of the things that people are asked to "give up" are items that exist to make our lives "more convenient."

But it seems to me that so much of what makes modern life an environmental disaster is that we have constructed a world where "convenience" is required in order to survive. We have a society that imposes ridiculous requirements on people's time and energy, in order to make money, and fill our role as consumers, and "keep up appearances." So when people weigh the prospect of trying to cook their own food, or get around on foot or by bicycle, or do things by hand instead of having a machine do it for you, their first reaction is "I don't have time for that!" But the only reason people "need" SUVs, and TV dinners and blow driers and gas powered lawnmowers and bottled water, etc, etc, is because they live in a state of constant frenzy and exhaustion.

It's not that my life is completely bereft of items that make it more convenient. There are plenty of times when I'm faced with tough choices in terms of what's best for me vs. what's best for the environment, and it's also not like I lead a life of problem-free bliss. But when it comes to the big choices, I have found that usually what's good for me is also good for the environment. Having a small house means that I don't have to spend so much time with cleaning and upkeep, it also means that I don't need much money to pay the mortgage. Growing my own vegetables means that I don't have to buy them from somebody else, and I get to play in the dirt! It also means that I have much less lawn to take care of. Working from home means that I don't need a work wardrobe, and have no commute, but it also means that I control my own time. Not owning a bunch of expensive gadgets means that I don't have to make the money to pay for them, or have a house big enough to hold them all, or pay to get them fixed or replaced, or spend time cleaning them or figuring out how to use them. I could go on forever, because there are about a million examples, but what it boils down to is that living with less means I don't have to be a slave to the culture of convenience.

I guess the long and the short of it is that I think the environmental movement would be much better served if it concentrated on showing people how to get out of the trappings of modern society, and take back their lives, rather than telling people that they just need to suck it up and suffer for the sake of the planet. With just a small paradigm shift away from the culture of craziness and convenience, we'd all be able to life much happier lives in a much more sustainable way... no sacrifice required.

So, have I sacrificed for the sake of the planet? Well, I've given up alarm clocks, and uncomfortable clothing, and eating toxic garbage, and deadlines, and busy schedules, and all sorts of other disagreeable things, but I'm not sure I could really call any of it a sacrifice! Likewise, I don't think that it's accurate to talk about "giving up" chemical-laden pre-packaged foods, candy bars and disposable plastic this and that, and other "convenience items"... because it's not a sacrifice... it's a liberation! So maybe instead of talking about "giving things up" we should be talking about "freeing ourselves" from these items.

Does that mean that I lead a life free from environmental impact? Well, no... there are those pesky plastic cheese wrappers after all, not to mention the furnace and hot water heater and... well a zillion other things. But would I prefer to have cheese that doesn't come in plastic... that's locally and organically produced? Absolutely! Would I prefer to have a solar hot water heater if I could afford it? You betcha. And would these things make both economic and environmental sense if society were to adopt them? Clearly they would.

So where does that leave me? I guess I just have to keep making the best choices I can, for me and for the planet, and keep working to help the rest of the world see that living sustainably doesn't have to be a burden. After all, I can't control the rest of the world, I can only control myself.


  1. This is a gorgeous post. So well said! I think we forget (myself most definitely included) that language has a tremendous power. Liberation lends a completely different feeling than sacrifice. Oy.

    And I'm totally stealing this line: "what it boils down to is that living with less means I don't have to be a slave to the culture of convenience." PREACH!

  2. Hi Guys,

    Thanks so much for reading my little rant. I know I'm preaching to the choir, but I feel so much better having said it!

  3. i really like this post and especially points like that the 'trappings' of modern life are just that.
    and that what's good for the environment often lines up with what is good for us. surely it has to be this way, because we need the environment to live. i think part of the issue is that people have got separated from their environment and the consequences of abusing it.

    thinking of it as freeing rather than giving up makes much more sense to me. but it may be hard to convince some people that it is freeing because you really have to try it to experience it.
    i haven't given up much yet but people are still often surprised that i don't have a tv or use a landline or tumbledryer. that i bake from scratch and without a blender or electric whisk.
    ta for the post!

  4. yeah, you've nailed it. The green movement needs better marketing. Folks are less likely to do something they think of as sacrifice & more likely to do something if they think it's a gain. The more I think of the Great Garbage patches in the oceans eventually killing the fish and us, the more I think I would gain by buying less plastics. Too true...can't change the world to think that way, only me.

  5. SlowSimpleConscious - I think not having a TV is a huge step. I actually own one, but no longer have cable service. It's my private movie theater... so I'd say you're doing pretty well!

    Fonda - Your walk story reminds me of what happens whenever I bring out my hand push lawn mower... some well meaning neighbor inevitably comes running out to offer me the use of a "real" lawnmower. I'm also glad to hear that things are still slower in Norway, I was afraid it might have been completely Americanized by now.

    Dmarie - The word "marketing" makes me shudder just in general, but I think you're right. And I think that if more people realized that plastic in our oceans eventually means plastic in our own bodies, they might feel differently about it!

  6. hey! thankfully it has not been 100% American-ized.. My city is one of the most American ones though due to the big oil and 35,000 expats in the area.. mind you my town has only 180,000 in the area - so it is highly foreign here.

    However as you can imagine that most everywhere else (exclude Trohdheim, Oslo, and Bergen since they are the big towns) are still fairly old school in there ways but had the technology of today.

    When we visit family up north I really notice it more then I do in Stavanger.

    People still sort there garbage into paper, compost and rest-of-all bins. But many take it a step further and take there glass and tin to a extra bin as well as all soda and beer bottles are returned for a deposit. People are still walking and busing like crazy. The countries power supply is hydro (funny since we are such a HUGE oil producer) I read recently that just over 80% of the plastic in Norway is recycled..

    It is still normal to be done at work around 3.30 or 4.00 and family is still the overall main priority here!

    so i think that they are doing good! and enough rambeling for me! i just like to 'talk' :)

  7. http://slightlyirritatingandinconvenient.blogspot.com/2011/03/bitlets-for-you-this-past-week-feb-28.html

  8. You could make your own cheese, I know you want to (and probably already have :>)

    Somebody told me that that they recycle their plastic films at the supermarket in the recycling bin for plastic shopping bags. Not sure if this is acceptable or not.

    My final thought - it's not a sacrifice if you enjoy doing it. Sometimes it's just a matter of shifting one's perspective. I used to loathe mowing the lawn but came to realize that those grass clippings make great mulch for my garden to keep down the weeds. I used to hate raking leaves in the fall but I've learned that those leaves provide rich compost for the garden. I've learned there are few things more satisfying than eating something that I grew with my own hands -- and it's healthier too.

    Great post.

  9. Great article. Lots of good sense, well-written, fun to read. Right on!


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