By Vered Talor Arnon
Author’s note: This is a direct response to the article “I Love The Victorian Era. So I Decided to Live In It.” by Sarah Chrissman. The reader should peruse it first, so that the structure and subtleties below make sense.
I study life, specifically sustainable lifestyles. My methods are quite different from those of academics, materialists, and philosophers. Everything in my life is connected to my topic of study, in fact there is no escaping it. From the electronic devices I use, to my bathroom habits, every minute detail of my existence pertains to my study of sustainable living.
Seven years ago I moved into an upstairs apartment in a big house on a corner lot. The lot prides itself on the expanse of lawn with southern exposure, which is ideal for gardening. When we moved in, the landlord told us that the garage had been condemned by the city, and shortly thereafter he had it demolished. We dealt with the concrete and gravel aftermath as quickly as our employment schedule would allow. Now where the garage stood we have a cattail pond, a raised garden bed, and an area of grass bordered by mint, chives, grapevine, echinacea, milkweed, chamomile, and other wildflowers. I frequently have to weed out the invasive thistles, Queen Ann’s Lace, and knotweed.
Every morning I make tea and save my teabags for compost. Each day I wash my dishes with a scrubber made out of t-shirt scrap and the orange mesh bag from grocery store oranges. I carefully consider everything I’m tempted to throw away, and keep a store of plastic bags, rubberbands, glass jars, and many other items, which I find ways to re-use and re-purpose in order to avoid buying mass-produced disposable products as much as possible. I hoard scrap paper and have never bought writing paper as an adult, in spite of writing prolific to-do-lists, writing letters, and keeping journals and diaries. I have a “Jamesbury Clinches” stainless steel letter opener with a plastic-coated handle that my dad kept in his desk when we lived in California twenty-six years ago.
There is no air conditioning in our house. When the weather is too hot for comfort, I make large batches of iced tea that I keep in an old gallon pickle jar in the refrigerator. We have box fans but we restrict their use as much as possible, generally only using them at night when it’s too hot to fall asleep otherwise. We also don’t have an electric clothes dryer. We hang our clothes outside on a clothesline when it’s seasonal, or on drying racks in our attic in the winter. I’ve been amazed by how much longer my clothing lasts when the amount of machine aggravation it’s subject to is cut in half.
Our heat runs on natural gas, so in order to keep it low and save resources, we wear sweaters and drink hot tea. In the winter we pile extra blankets on the bed, and our cats all cuddle together instead of sleeping apart. Many of our blankets were mine when I was a child. Many were pulled out of the “discard piles” on move-out days when I was in college. I have never purchased a bedframe. My bed was a stack of futons (collected from move-out days, with the exception of one gifted from my mother) until seven months ago when no amount of fluffing and flipping could remove the craters worn into the cotton batting from years of use. We re-purposed the futons in various ways in our attic, and purchased a foam mattress for our new bed. We considered this purchase for more than a year before making it, since it is a mass-produced product. The lumpiness of the futons was adversely affecting our spinal health, and we knew that we could devote more energy to making the world a better place if our headaches and backaches diminished.
We try to grow as much of our own herbs, fruit, and vegetables as we can, and preserve what we don’t need right away for future use. We shop at the farmer’s market and local grocers, and focus on “buying local”. I’ve been brewing my own kombucha for years now. Most of the utensils and baking ware in our kitchen were used by my family during my childhood. We grind herbs and spices with a mortar and pestle. We have a stove but we often eat our leftovers cold.
Whenever I leave the house, I always make sure to bring a marvelous accessory called a handkerchief with me. The handkerchief can be used to blow my nose or wipe my hands, avoiding the use of disposable products. It’s just mind-blowing to realize how much tissue one uses, once one starts using a handkerchief instead!
I bathe every morning with a wash cloth and soap in front of my bathroom sink. I reserve showers for when I’m actually dirty or smelly, and I reserve baths for when I’m not feeling well and need the medicinal benefits of a hot soak. I wash my hair with vinegar from a spray bottle. I don’t use a hairbrush or comb, although I still have my combs and brushes from childhood. I make my own deodorant out of witch hazel and essential oils. My toothbrush comes from a company that encourages you to mail it back to them when it’s worn out so that they can recycle it to make new toothbrush handles.
I have a cellphone in order to participate in the society around me as a responsible and accessible individual (I couldn’t fulfil the duties of my elected office on City Council without it). I read articles on my computer about problems in the world and write electronic messages to individuals, sharing ideas or passing along information, with the hopes of finding solutions to problems, or at least sustaining the morale of those who share my frustrations. I have never had a driver’s license, and I ride my bike whenever possible to get where I need to go. My bike is a green Schwinn that my partner found for me on Craigslist after he forgot to lock my previous bike and it got stolen. He has a car that he inherited from his father, but he has a bike too and we’re always striving to bike or walk more when we go places together.
The process didn’t happen all at once. It’s not as though someone suddenly dropped us into a pre-established sustainable culture and society one day – that sort of thing only happens in science fiction novels and poetry. We had to work hard for our dreams. And honestly, the life we now enjoy is still far from sustainable in many ways. A sustainable lifestyle is built bit by bit, one commitment or attempt at a time. The best we can do to support each other in moving forward with our dream of sustainability is to keep working at it every day.
Even before I encountered the concept of sustainability, I saw the problems inherent in the way people live. I grew up in the People’s Republic of China, where water and electricity could just stop suddenly, and it could be hours or days before it was restored. I never espoused the prevalent notions that resources should always just be there whenever people want them. I never embraced that sense of entitlement and I hated the title of “consumer”. Looking back, it seems inevitable that I would develop a passion for sustainability, but nonetheless it was a gradual process of learning and self-discipline.
It’s hard to say exactly when or how it started. I struggled when I was younger with health conditions that were resolved by changing my diet. As I stopped consuming high fructose corn syrup and other chemicals, I began to pay more attention to ingredients in foods. I changed my grocery shopping habits and started to see all my shopping habits in a new context. Learning how to live a more sustainable life was a way to make myself healthier, and make the world a better place, at the same time.
I was so intrigued by the changes I began to experience, that I sought out other like-minded individuals so that we could combine our efforts and pursue sustainability together.
Soon after, I started up a commune. But group living and social dynamics have their own separate set of challenges, and fifteen people cannot share a bathroom without plumbing failure. After experimenting with the commune for a few years, my partner and I decided that it was time to scale things back in order to restore balance. As housemates moved out, I stopped admitting replacements, and eventually the human count was reduced to two.
Focusing on sustainability on a daily basis gave us insights into our own intimate connection with the past, present, and future. We became more aware of our physical health, our mental state, and all the harm that unsustainable living has done to us in the past. We came to understand how things as subtle as how many squares of toilet paper we use have an impact on the world around us, now and into the future. As we gained this new awareness, and became accustomed with our new practices, only then did we feel we were truly blossoming into our adult selves.
When we realized how much we were learning from our own experiences, we continued to wonder what others’ experiences could teach us. We kept our minds open and sought out new information, and shared our experiences with others.
We learned about planned obsolescence. We learned that more and more things are made to wear out, rather than last, in order to fuel the system of materialism and consumers. We learned that meaningful interaction between people is often reduced to an excuse to buy a useless gift that the recipient doesn’t need. We saw that people were increasingly deriving their sense of identity from the things they have rather than the things they do.
Everything escalated organically from there, and now my whole life revolves around this ongoing research project. No one gets paid to be sustainable, and maybe that’s why more people don’t take it seriously, but those who don’t take it seriously are making a big mistake. Getting paid doesn’t matter if there’s no water to drink or food to buy.
The artifacts in our homes have become a burden that modern humans obsess over. They provide shelter and insulation to cut one off from the outside world and shut out all the ugliness, fear, uncertainty, and tragedy. People see an advertisement on their television, and that becomes their truth, and they go out and buy a certain food or a certain device. Connection to each other and connection to reality languishes as collections are amassed and “newer” and “better” are coveted.
We’re devoted to getting our own insights and perspectives on sustainability, not just parroting stereotypes that “everyone knows”. Sustainability is a process of trial and error, not a script to read or an image to cultivate. Society has let what’s possible distract us from what’s necessary. Interacting with everything in our lives with heightened awareness helps us to connect with what’s important and see what’s necessary in spite of the distractions. Maybe one day we will enjoy a culture that values balance, harmony, and the conservation and preservation of resources. As we continue learning, we hope as well to be teachers. Sharing the lessons we learn broadens our worldview. Learning from each other inspires and elevates us.
We don’t have to go to extremes to keep in touch with natural seasons. Gardening automatically creates the context and opportunity for paying attention to weather and marking the different points in the year. And we don’t have to reject all technology as “unnatural” or harmful. For example, while human scientific advances are what enabled mills and factories to pollute the rivers, now with our polluted rivers, it is only human scientific advances that will help us figure out how to repair the damage that’s been done. Living sustainably does not require one to mete and measure every ounce of every resource as though the ideal state is to use no resources at all.
A sustainable lifestyle entails living carefully, but living carefully is not inherently sustainable by itself. You can make an elaborate and spiritually symbolic ritual out of polishing an old spoon, but that’s not going to help you or anyone else in the world ensure spoons for future generations. When we create rituals that replace awareness, we succumb to distraction and lose touch with our dreams and goals.
Of course many people still haven’t encountered the concept of sustainability, and it’s a challenging lifestyle to choose given all the pressures and obstacles our society, especially American society, presents at every turn. Materialism and consumerism are entrenched so deeply that simply opening a dialogue about their harms can be perceived as a personal threat.
But really, more people should be talking about sustainability. So many people masturbatorily expound upon how to be happier with their “true selves” or why their escape from reality is sexier than the last person’s. There are a lot of problems out there, and quite frankly, we shouldn’t be pursuing lifestyles that ignore them. Everyone likes to think that their life is hard enough as it is – but the truly hard part comes when another town runs out of fresh water or another swath of farmland turns into another swath of desert.
We live in a world where people are preoccupied with their sense of identity and struggle to be different. Nonconformists are bullied while everyone else tries to pass themselves off as a nonconformist in some way, in order to feel a sense of individuality. The true victims and the true nonconformists suffer while their voices are suppressed and privileged narratives dominate our cultural consciousness.
This is why more people don’t follow their dreams. They know the world is a cruel place, but they’re afraid to accept their own responsibility for the status quo, and are persuaded by the dominant narratives that they’re not “cool” or “unique” enough to be a force of change anyway. In this process, people turn to materialism for comfort because they no longer dare to dream of a better world for everyone.