Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reflections on Sustainability: countdown to the new year

The new year's almost upon us, and I'm feeling particularly reflective—maybe it's the gray weather giving me too much time to think. Who knows, but this week, I'll be doing a series of posts titled "Reflections on Sustainability" that will cover the six big areas we've been working on, in no particular order: consumption, water, electricity, waste, food, and gasoline.

I've been thinking about what steps we've taken this past year, where we still need to go, and how long we might have to get there. I vacillate between wanting to stay put, making our current home as sustainable as possible versus wanting to start from scratch, which in some ways is easier than trying to retrofit. Essentially I have two plans rattling around in my mind: one short term, one long.

However, the important part about working towards making this homestead as sustainable as possible is that we have a chance to learn and make mistakes along the way, and we'll have a relatively sustainable farmstead should a move never materialize. Of course, there's no such thing as an ideal property, but there are changes I'd make if we move some years down the road, which is still the current plan—not the least of which would be building a green home.

More important, even, is the work we do to make our lifestyle more sustainable in the present. That's the danger with focusing on ideals and long-term plans: they allow us to remain complacent in the present, to fall into that all-American trap of believing we'll be happy in some illusive future and forgetting to live within the moment, forgetting that happiness and change and action all happen only in the present.

Since it's the day after Christmas, I'll begin my reflections with the related big "Cs"—

Consumption, Consumerism, and Commercialism:

This is a really tricky area for me as I try to live my own values without imposing them on my family. My choices are just that: my choices. What I don't have is the power to make choices for others in my family, nor do I want that power or the judgment that goes along with it. While this world may well be heading to hell in a hand-basket, no one really knows for sure what the descent will look like, or how far or how fast we'll plummet. So, for the time-being, I'm working on changing myself and resting content with the ripples that produces in my family.

Consumption is a tricky category to parse, too, because it encompasses so many of the other categories in terms of resources, which is why I've chosen to pair it with consumerism as a way of focusing on consumption particularly in terms of buying and spending. What I've been concentrating on in the past year is trying to spend our money in ways that matter and in places that matter: refocusing our efforts on buying less for sure, but also buying smart and sustainably.

Whenever possible, we've worked to cut out the middleman, giving our dollars directly to those who did the work. When we can't produce something for ourselves, we go directly to a local producer and give them our money. We've bought local beef from two different farms; we've switched to a local creamery for most of our dairy; and when we used up our own produce stores this winter, we've gone to the farmer's market to replenish. I'm still no where near completely independent from grocery stores, but we're trying, and we've gone back to buying through the local United co-op, cutting out at least one step in the supermarket chain.

For many years now, I've refused to buy retail clothing, a frugal habit that started more because of our own impoverishment than because of any political statement. When I buy new, it's rarely over $10 and never over $20 unless it's something designed for a particular job and to last for a long time. For instance, footwear: we don't buy many shoes, but we do buy good, relatively expensive shoes. I'll buy a new pair of Birkenstocks, for instance, every 7-8 years, and Jim will get a new pair of Timberlands every 4-5. I have a nice pair of Timberland work boots that my father-in-law bought me about 6 years ago, and they're still wonderful. Other than that, we primarily wear our $16 muck boots and knock-off croc-mocs around the farm.

For clothing, we've shopped second-hand and outlet sale-racks exclusively, and we've had a long-standing circle of clothing exchange where ever we've lived, limiting even further the clothes we need to actively purchase. Jim and I keep our clothing for a long time, basically wearing it until it falls apart. That neither of us needs to buy work-clothes tremendously reduces our clothing budget. What Jim can no longer wear to work, simply becomes work-wear for around the farm, and I don't buy something I can't wear on a walk through our pastures, plain and simple. I have some nice clothes that I wear out and that I wouldn't work in, but they still need to hold up to a walk out to check on the animals when we get home, for instance.

Take the outfit I'm wearing in the photo above, which is very representative of the way I'm normally dressed: the hat is a hand-me-down from my nephew, the shirt is from Goodwill, and the pants were a $10 buy 10 years ago. The scarf and the shoes are new. The shoes were a big splurge because they act as slippers that don't look like slippers, letting me answer the door on CSA day in something that felt respectable since we just don't wear shoes in the house.

The fact that the kids don't go to school is a mixed blessing in terms of consumerism. It certainly helps with clothing—they don't need a lot and they're blissfully ignorant of all the current fashion trends and the consumerism that fuels. But we do need to spend money on learning materials, fueling passions and supporting interests. This means that we buy museum memberships, books, toys, games, computers. The kids have a fair amount of money at their own disposal that is their's to spend, giving them the means and space to experiment with their own relationship to consumerism. This approach has provided invaluable empowerment and learning opportunities that I wouldn't trade for a more sustainable approach.

We've all vowed to do more yard-sale-ing this upcoming year. As loathe as I am to drive around looking at other people's junk, there are a couple big ones that we'll definitely hit. We've participated a lot on freecycle this past year, finding it a wonderful resource for getting rid of stuff, but not such a great one for getting what we need. We buy used video-games exclusively, and have found Netflix and the library to be wonderful tools for reducing our consumption. We're also considering memberships in audio book and video game clubs, which would reduce consumption in those areas as well, though we don't buy audio books.

Our Christmas this year was low-key, and the kids were thrilled with it nonetheless. I was unsure whether there would be evident disappointment, but there was none. Last year was low-key as well, which probably helped prep them. From us, the kids each got a used gamecube game, and jointly, a beautiful, new full-size acoustic guitar and a raincheck for some kind of drum since I couldn't find anything I liked—maybe a djembe or some bongos. From Santa, they got an amazing set of snap-circuits, the new Harry Potter dvd, and new art and beading supplies. Sam received the ant farm he'd been wanting, Jules got stained-glass paint, and Em got a Fashion Angels design kit. We gave Jim a couple great books on meat and a bottle of single-malt scotch. Me? I get that beautiful farm painting I blogged about a while back as soon as our friends arrive this weekend.

Are we still consumers? You bet, but we're working on it, moving steadily away from commercialism, and trying to consume in a way that's mindful, sustainable, and filled with abundance and gratitude at the same time. A certain amount of consumption and trade are necessary; the key is to get off the endless treadmill of commercialism, consumption, and waste.


jenny said...

I came over here from Wendy's blog and just spent the last hour reading your posts all the way back to June before I just had to come back and leave a comment.

I admire what you are doing with the CSA and trying to sustain your family with your farm. While I am no where near the scale of yours, we do have a garden every year and I can whatever I can harvest. We had a torrent of hornworms this year and I pulled off 10 daily, which resulted in poor tomatoes this year, and I didnt get to can any- boo hoo! We DID get lucky with our berries and I made lots and lots of jams.

Anyway.. SOrry for making this so long. I'll be returning and I am adding you to my blog list, if you don't mind.

Danielle said...

Welcome Jenny, and thank you for the kind comment! I'm pleased to hear you'd like to put my blog on your listing.

We're spitting distance from West Virginia, and I'd love to get land there one day. In fact, that's the long term plan I mentioned in this post.

We've done a lot in a relatively short time, but my husband works outside the home, which makes a big difference. Of course, there's still so much more I'd like to do!