Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Is Living Sustainably Unsustainable?

The other day I was talking to an old blogger friend, one who hasn't been posting much in a while. This is not unusual. In fact, of all my old blogger pals, only a handful still regularly post. The rest have mostly retired or post on rare occasion.

Blogging is tough, make no mistake. Writing day in and day out can be a chore, and at a certain point, you get to a place where you wonder if you have anything left to write. After all, how much can one write about not shopping?

But I think with eco-bloggers, there's more to it than that. Many of us started blogging at the beginning of our journey. Our first posts were about how proud we were for giving up plastic grocery bags. Gradually, we started increasing the eco-difficulty: giving up paper towels, going to the farmers' market, cooking more, making our own butter. Some of us line-dried our clothes. Others started gardens. Others gave up toilet paper. Others gave up their fridge.

And then ... time goes by. Life catches up to you. Work gets busier. You move house. You break up with your partner. Or maybe you get married. And you realize that living this so-called sustainable life is HARD.

So you start to back slide. You start throwing loads in the dryer again. Just once, one time, because you're on a tight schedule and your son needs his soccer uniform in a couple hours. And then because you're going out of town, or someone is visiting, or because it's Thursday, damnit and you're tired. And pretty soon you're back to using your dryer all the time. And you feel really guilty about it, but you also just don't have the energy to use the dryer.

Or if you're me, you go from cooking all the time to cooking almost never. And I do feel guilty about it, very guilty about it actually. And yet, somehow I rarely have it in me to prepare a full meal.

It's not just the cooking I've backslid in. I've gone back to using toilet paper (though I buy 100% recycled, and honestly I personally think the giving up toilet paper produces such minor eco-benefits that it's more of a bragging point than anything.) I use my space heater more often than I should. I take longer and hotter showers than I should. I drink more soda than I should. I use a face wash with bad chemicals. The list goes on and on. On rare occasion, I've even committed the ultimate sin of getting a plastic bag at the store.

I think the issue is that so much of eco-blogging was or has been about challenging oneself to do MORE, MORE, MORE. Meanwhile, we live in a world where everyone else is doing ... pretty much nothing really. Where it's more of the same from our elected officials. Where Copenhagen is a big ol' bust.

So it's very difficult to be busting your ass trying to live this eco-life. You start wondering what you're doing and why. And you question whether you can really maintain work, friends and family, and your eco-nutty life. AND blog about it every day.

So my question to you is this: Is living sustainably actually unsustainable? If you think not, how do you do it? How do you find the right balance? What is your right balance? And how long have you been keeping this balance going?


Allie said...

I totally went through that process. It's done in earnest, I think. I think we all do this out of love and a desire to do better. But about a year ago, I realized that I also have to live my life. And the same way you can't keep up a crash diet, you can't keep up a crash lifestyle. So I've made a conscious effort to prioritize. I make every change I can make that doesn't really change my lifestyle at all, or improves my lifestyle - buying greener & fair trade products, scheduling my car trips to be more efficient, bringing my own bags, etc. And then think about what's worth it to me and what isn't. I didn't bring my reusable mug with me today when I ran errands - it wasn't worth it to get a coffee even though I wanted one - and it didn't hurt me one way or another. And I don't mind washing cloth napkins with my towels. But when I've got a rough deadline, you can bet I'm going for easier foods that may come with a little more packaging. I've tried to focus on doing what I can when I can and not feeling guilty about it when doing things takes away time from my career or family in a way I can't afford. Otherwise, I feel like it's the equivalent of saying that I may as well eat fast food for every meal from now on, because I had a piece of cake. My feeling is, enjoy the cake without guilt when you do eat it, but don't do it often.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I see myself backsliding now, but I think part of that is winter. Winter just makes it hard to live locally in terms of food. It makes me want to take a hot bath and turn up the heat. It makes me want to drive instead of walk. Combine that with being in the 3rd trimester of my pregnancy, and I'm busted. Buying foods I used to make (tortillas, bagels, bread, even pie crust!!!) and spending more time on the couch in front of tv.

But I'm looking forward to spring and summer as a time for rebirth. Because being an eco-nut part of the year is better than never!

Chile said...

I think finding balance is important, especially since the world and our personal economies are set up in such a way that we have to spend significant portions of our day making a living. Balance isn't just about time, it's also about effort and cost.

For me, I try to look at the biggest bang for the buck, whether it's an actual dollar, an hour of my time, or hard physical labor. The cloth wipes stay in the game because they require little extra effort in washing and they save money in not buying TP for urination. Hand-washing laundry is more rare because it doesn't save all the much water or electricity really, and it costs me a lot of time and energy to do it. Hanging the laundry on the line takes time but makes a big difference in the gas bill and this time of year the rates are higher.

Do I get the occasional plastic bag, eat out because I'm tired, or drive when I could bike? Yes, but I try not to make it a habit.

Hope you find your balance point.

Color Me Green said...

i see what you're saying. i found my balance a while ago and have pretty much flatlined. and to me it seems silly to blog about the eco things i do every day because i assume most people out there have already heard about doing them from other, better eco sources. but then i talk to my friends who are clueless and realize they could use my advice. and i would like to take things up a notch for myself because i'm feeling guilty about some of my own habits. so i'm resolving to do more eco blogging this year.

Sam said...

I've mainly moved my focus. Toward bicycling and promoting it in whatever shape or form I can.

I still eat locally. I've loosened my guidelines because I'm striving to seek a balance (a middle way so to speak). Organic milk is only available from Strauss for example. The local milk here in San Diego is not accessible by public transit and is about 60 miles away. Not a destination I want to ride to regularly.

I'm still car-free in a city that everyone thinks is impossible to be car-free in. And I'm not really bumming rides or cabbing my way around town either. But like you said, how many different ways should I write about that?

I still do wash occasional clothes by hand (or actually Mr. Beany does that, angel that he is). I don't shower on a regular basis and still have short showers.

In other words, many of those initial posts have resulted in habits.

I did stumble lots when we were first settling down in San Diego. I did go to Target to buy socks and bras. I did buy non-organic onions a few times. I just go read some of these eco-blogs and am re-inspired. I've read the archives over and over again for re-inspiration and it works. I bean stalk your old posts, chile's posts, Crunchy's posts, GB's posts.

The plastic. I still stumble. Sometimes there is no choice. Do I not grease my bike chain or use a grease that is environmentally friendly yet comes in a plastic bottle?

Just keep trying and trying and trying. And don't lose sight of why I started this craziness.

Celia said...

Hi! My name is Celia, I've been reading your blog for awhile but I've never commented..

I first read your title and thought "Oh no! Everything I'm working towards is all wrong! Sustainability doesn't work!" and freaked out a little. But then I read on, and I get what you're saying. I certainly understand that it's really, really hard to live the kind of life you think is right, and that's why it's so important to make bigger changes - policy changes and social changes that make a difference in how everybody acts, that allow the people who want to live more sustainably to do so. I feel so daunted by that idea, that we can make drastic changes to our own lives but in the end we're just one person and whole bunches of people have to change almost everything about their lifestyle before our little changes are possible, but I try to be optimistic about it. (I'm sure you know how NOT easy that optimism is!)

Anyways, I feel like I could go on all day about that, but I'm sure most people here already get it. Thanks for bringing it up though, I enjoy reading your blog!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I think it's about finding your sweet spot. After Colin Beavan finished his No Impact experiment, I read an interview with him where he talked about what things had stuck after the project was over. He related how during the no-electricity phase his daughter had gotten sick and threw up all over the sheets. At that time, he was washing clothes by hand in the bathtub, but he couldn't bring himself to wash the icky sheets by hand so he threw them in the washer. And then it seemed too much trouble to wash anything by hand, so he quit doing that part of the experiment.

His point was that there is a point in going green where your pushing yourself and pushing yourself and then it's no longer fun or comfortable and you've gone too far. Up until that point, every change you've made makes you feel great, and the spot in the middle of comfortable and uncomfortable is your sweet spot.

As eco-bloggers, we probably do push ourselves a little too far sometimes in our efforts to encourage others to go green. But then we need to take a step back and find our sweet spot.

But it also goes to show how personal change can only take us so far and why policy change is also extremely important. I wouldn't have to make all my food from scratch to avoid eating harmful chemicals, supporting big ag, and producing excessive waste if policy changes were implemented to solve those problems. I wouldn't have to walk so much to avoid using my car if my city would improve it's public transportation. Etc.

Eco Yogini said...

I see your point and you are right- some of these changes are difficult.

but i see it more as a lifetime of consumer-ridden conditionning to get rid of... so of COURSE it will be hard and I don't expect it to change in one year, two or a few. I expect my adjustment to take time...

I think the scary culprit is the whole idea of "guilt" being an obstacle.

I also agree with a lot of what Colin says- about how sustainable living can provide MORE time. Like- instead of working more hours to pay for more stuff, you work less, buy less stuff and have more time...

ugh, it's a scary balance, but when I think about how soon we won't really have a choice (with Peak Oil and such) then really, my perspective changes.

Katy said...

I'm probably just going to be echoing what everyone else has said. Everyone has their own family/work/life styles and it can be hard to balance all of that and live eco friendly. It would be awesome if our society was ordered in a way that made these thing EASIER, (ie public transpertation and reusable containors for take out), but its not.

There is a balance out there and everyone just needs to find what works for them. I got into bloging because I read echo blogs (even though its not the focus of my blog) and I have to say that I am sad a lot of the echo bloggers have given it up.

I get that once you give up your car for good its hard to keep writing "oh... I biked today.." but I would love to see more bloging about finding that balance. I would love to see more people be more vocal about what happened the year AFTER their challenge.

Carine said...

I think it's impossible to live sustainably with the way of life we have in "developped countries". Doing more stuff by ourselves (cooking, gardening, ...) takes a lot of time and that's what everyone miss most nowadays. Cutting the working time would be a very simple thing to do to reduce unemployment (less hours per person means more persons employed), consumption (less hours = less money = you buy less and do more by yourself), and give more time to people to enjoy their friends and families.

Rosa said...

Second the "this is why we need policy changes." I am still waiting for a local food restaurant to open up in easy biking distance of my house, so I don't have to choose between high-work and low-ethics dinner choices.

The other thing is, making change in different areas of your life isn't always possible all at once. Sometimes you have to take your focus off continual improvement in your carbon footprint and put it on improvement at the office, or a new baby, or a sick parent... or transitioning after you graduate grad school.

We all backslide, we all improve. Sometimes both at once. I've got this crazy back-to-the-land hippie book called Total Loss Farm (and the companion book the author's friends wrote, where they call him an asshole) where he says, you know, the folks who go to lame jobs in town to pay the note on the homestead, if they sneak off for a hamburger once in the while, that's OK. It really is OK - the important stuff is the 90%, not the 10%.

I think Beth's post about personal change leading to activism is really important - if nothing else, someone like Beth can start a campaign and all of us small-personal-change folks can pitch in, which most people won't do if they haven't started with some personal reflection/change. You might (gasp!) start eating lunch at restaurants and contribute to a white paper that actually affects development practice. We'll all cheer.

Green Bean said...

Well, you know how I feel since I'm the blogger you were talking to. ;-) I agree with some of the commenters that it is about bang for the buck. I still eat mostly local but I also use my dryer on a regular basis. I still don't use paper towels but I don't ride my bike as much as I used to.

I think living sustainably would be/will be so much easier once we start seeing the marketplace catch up and once we start seeing policy changes. Hey, if I had solar panels, I would care less about running my dryer. If my car was electric, driving wouldn't be as big a deal.

Perhaps we are ahead of our time. Perhaps we are the vanguard. I think its okay, though, to take a bit of a breather sometime.

Fantastic post. Wish I'd written it myself . . . but then that would require writing and I'm taking a bit of a breather on that too. ;-)

mother earth aka karen hanrahan said...

in the early 90's i started my green journey more around alternative foods - organics,no dyes, no preservatives etc - those of us who went there with our thoughts and label reading were highly ridiculed, the hippies were ridiculed before me - so here it is almost 20 yrs later and I am still beating the same drum. what i find exhausting or feel impatient about is trying not to say SEE I TOLD YOU SO to the now popular and trendy all knowing crowd who now think eating clean is the next best thing to sliced bread - literally and figuratively. Even now with it's popularity I feel like when will someone really listen? I mean red food dye at one point was completely banned - something else said oh when supplies run out - what did they do manufacture enough maraschino cherries to last a zillion years?

Di Hickman said...

wholeheartedly agree with you. I had a green blog for a while but found it hard to keep up writing new topics etc. I think the problem also arises in just everyday life. For example here in So Cal it pretty much rained non-stop for a week. I HAD to use the drier during that time, no other choice. Unless I was about to invest in 10 clothes drying racks! I rarely use the drier but during these recent winter storms it got used frequently.
I agree with the commenters though, it's about balance. I found that the natural face cream was better for my skin, but the shampoo's were useless for me. I tried the bars the liquid and all worked for a while then just ended up a real mess. I got a sample of some chemical laden shampoo, tried it and was in heaven so I've switched back to regular hair products. I still use recycled products, take my own bags, grow some of my own food, vegetarian etc. I do what I can without sacrificing things that make me, me.

Mindful Momma said...

I'm so glad you brought up this topic Ruchi...I'm going through a bit of eco-blogger burn-out as well. My goal with both my blog and with the way I live my life in general is to do things because I WANT to do them, not because I think I should. It doesn't work all the time but it helps. :)

Holly said...

This makes me think of Edward Abbey's famous "One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourselves out...." < >
It's important to remember why we do the things that we do. And personally, if I can't enjoy myself while I making my efforts towards a better world for my children -and yours- it's a hell-a lot harder. Not everything is fun, but if the reason for doing it gives you peace, then continue. If it's too much to bare, take a break and come back when you can.

Life gives us curve balls. What we do with them is our story, whether it is written down to be read or not.

knutty knitter said...

I think my problem is that I do most of that stuff just because thats how it has always been. I can't take any credit for that because that is how our part of society has always been. Its normal:)

The challenge is to find stuff that isn't here yet. Cloth wipes are good along with cloth napkins, hankies and such. I was also pleased to be able to ditch the plastic bags and the shampoo.

The next challenge is to teach my class of 11 year olds to recycle old jersies and make them into other stuff - socks are our present target.

The hardest thing is to try to go against the society you are embedded in so any halo we wear should relate to that only. We simply cannot compete in sustainable terms with most of the third world but we certainly can with our own society.

viv in nz

EcoGeoFemme said...

It's kind of similar for money saver writers. I was really into that for a while, but then it seemed like everything I read covered the same material and I lost interest.

I saw a great seminar by a dissertation/life coach a while back. Her main point was that in order to achieve a big goal, you have to keep in mind why it is that you value that goal. You have to stay focused on the endpoint - the goal - in order to be able to look past all the distractions that come up along the way that could derail your progress.

With that in mind, I wonder if the problem here is that after you meet your big goal, you have nothing to pull you through the distractions.

I also wonder if building a personal green lifestyle becomes a de facto hobby for some bloggers since they have to constantly be on the lookout for new approaches to Green so they have something to write about. After a while, anybody can get bored of a hobby, especially such an invasive one. But even if it's sort of a hobby, it's a commendable one, and it's important to remember that people discover blogs at all different times; a new blog that covers old territory could seem like a revelation to someone who has never thought about this stuff before.

Chile said...

EcoGeoFemme brings up an interesting point that's been on my mind for a while: that people stumble across blogs at different times. For people that have stuck with me since I started (over 2 years ago), I worry that posting on some things may seem repetitive. However, new people are not necessarily going to go back to the beginning and read everything I've ever written. Some of my posts kind of assume they know all that I've posted before. The only solution I've come up with is linking to old posts, hoping that if they want to know more about whatever I've referenced, they'll go read it.

How do you other long-term bloggers deal with readers who've been with you for different lengths of time?

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

If you get all hard core psycho about it, no living sustainably isn't sustainable. If you slowly incorpret green changes into your life that work for you, where, and how you live and find more than one way to green the same thing - then yes you can.

I get a lot of grief about my more laid back approach from other eco bloggers, that I'm just not as green as this or that person. Not so. What I do is have a variety of ways to do the same thing so if I'm not in the most green ideal situation, I can at least do it a little more greenly than not doing it at all. That keeps me sane, on track, and not being a jerk to people who don't feel the same way I do about sustainable living.

Daisy said...

Balance is the key word. You make many good points. For example, the toilet paper makes such a minor impact it may be better to put that eco-energy somewhere else where it'll do more good.
It is tough to keep moving farther and farther down the road of sustainability. Don't give up!

Unknown said...

I think some of the more extreme ways people were living are unsustainable. I felt like I backslide big time because I got rid of my apartment and went on the road for a year living out of hospitals and eating their food out of disposable containers.

Right now I'm in another apartment but will be moving this summer so I almost feel like what's the point. Especially when we are hoping to buy a house where we can really make changes.

I'm not sure I ever found the "right balance" because I went from living alone where I could control all the housing choices to having to compromise with other people.

I don't think I'll ever buy tons of stuff I don't need though. That has never been a problem for me as I'm about as miserly as they come and work all the time. I don't even like spending money on textbooks. Just the other day I got an interlibrary loan and saved +$80. It would have been a lot easier to just buy the books but to me $80 is a lot of money and is worth a little trouble to fight to save.

Melinda said...

Awesome post. I have been thinking about this as well. I think it has a lot to do with allowing yourself to be sustainable rather than "simple" - simple living and the back to land movement really threw me off I think. Sustainable is a hugely different thing. Once I started that new way of thinking, it has been a lot easier to achieve a balance in my life.

Simple living is anything but simple. But sustainable is to me about being personally, economically, and environmentally sustainable. And to me that means utilizing my community to do and make a lot of the things I need and want. I don't have to do it all myself. I can go out to eat (as long as I take responsibility for my actions, and eat from restaurants who are socially and environmentally sustainable). You and Green Bean inspired this post:

"Does Living Sustainably Have To Take More Time?"

Melinda said...

Erin, great point - "His point was that there is a point in going green where your pushing yourself and pushing yourself and then it's no longer fun or comfortable and you've gone too far. Up until that point, every change you've made makes you feel great, and the spot in the middle of comfortable and uncomfortable is your sweet spot."

When I was training to be a production designer working on films, my mentor once told me to push a design until you can't go any further - Make it perfect. And then take one step back and that's the one. That has always stuck with me: push yourself as far as you can go, and then take one step back. That's the sweet spot.

Kate said...

I do constantly feel the urge to do more, do better, which is generally to say, use less, buy less, want less. But as for the changes I've already put in place, I haven't felt much urge to backslide...yet. I think it's because of two things. Firstly, because this is for me like having a mid-life crisis or "getting religion." I don't think there's any going back for me. The other is that I made changes gradually and steadily, rather than radically and abruptly. So normal has been constantly redefined over the past few years. At least that's what I'm hoping.

Oldnovice said...

I never did consider myself an "eco" blogger. I blog about what I'm into and priorities change regularly.

My oldest daughter is due to have a baby (my first grandchild and granddaughter) this week and I'm to be her doula. My husband turns 70 this month and is both thinking his days are numbered and thinking he's too old for some of our most enjoyable activities, so I'm busy stuffing testosterone into his food and working on being the most desirable 63 year old on the planet. Last thing I was concerned about was saving water when he joined me in the shower this morning.

I'm looking at a copy of Omnivore's Dilemma with the understanding that my husband (who I'm absolutely CRAZY about) would not want my environmentalism to extend to vegetarianism. For that reason alone, I postpone the read.

I still lay my clothes outside to dry each month but dry underpants, sheets, towels, socks in the dryer.

This year's exposure to my daughter's friends in planning her wedding, showers, etc. with the environment in mind has had lots more rewards than blogging. We did some balancing there, but few went away NOT thinking about environmental consequences.

I think we've found our sweet spot for now, but sweet spots have a way of moving over time.

Anonymous said...

You do have to live your life - if you're trying to make no negative impact, you're never going to get to that point until you're dead, so you might as well do the job now. Since you weren't born just to die, you might as well live.