I think a lot about sustainable living as a way of manifesting my faith and my values in the world. Fortunately, I’m not the only one. There are people making it easier and easier to live sustainably, and our entire commercial cycle is slowly turning in that direction.
- transportation is being transformed. Bicycles are slowly becoming comfortable as recumbents increase in popularity. A faired bicycle has a partial or complete shell around it to increase protection from the elements and decrease wind resistance. Recumbent trikes (with three wheels) offer additional stability and comfort, and a much shallower learning curve. Our increasing desire to go farther under our own power has popularized electric assist bicycles, too. Combination of all these technologies has led to vehicles like the twike, the velomobile from go-one and others, and the aptera. Those who can afford to be early adopters are helping to bring these mostly European technologies to US markets; when US production begins then hopefully costs will drop. Meanwhile, calculators like this one let us figure out our true costs.
- our waste cycle is changing. Recycling is a household word, and composting is coming along nicely. There’s regular backyard composting (managed and unmanaged), but there’s also vermicomposting and bokashi, both systems that work well indoors. This makes them suitable for cold and urban environments, where a large pile of decomposing food might not work so well. In vermicomposting there’s a container in your house with red wiggler earthworms. It becomes a mini-ecosystem into which you add shredded newspaper and all your vegetable scraps, and from which you harvest worm casings. The only concern with vermicomposting is that earthworms are actually not native to most of this continent, and should be contained wherever possible. This means freezing worm compost to kill the eggs before you use it in your garden. Bokashi was developed in Japan, and is more pickling than true composting–you put your food in a bucket and mix in a little “bokashi effective microorganism mix”, which is wheat or rice bran which is playing host to a particular mold culture, similar to yogurt or sourdough. The culture lives in and grows on the food scraps you’ve given it, starting the decomposition process and giving the bucket a sweet, almost cider vinegar smell. Apparently the liquid that drains off (mine is always quite dry) can be used as drain cleaner–it’s that strong–but is perfectly safe for pouring on the ground or diluting and putting on plants. The catch with bokashi is that eventually the pickled food scraps do need to be buried somewhere so they can finish composting. However, in places like London there are now bokashi services that take the full buckets and provide empty ones; they charge a small fee, but make most of their money by composting and selling the finished bokashi as plant food. The other consideration with bokashi is that you do need to keep buying the microorganism mix, which costs about $12 for a 2-4 month supply. On the other hand, you can put just about anything in your bokashi bucket–meat, dairy, oils, bread, eggs…all the things that are forbidden for worms and hard to manage in an outdoor pile (because of the animals) can be composted with bokashi. Also, unlike worms, your bokashi bucket can be ignored for long periods with little ill effect, whereas worms die off if they don’t get enough food.
- clothing is one place I haven’t seen much progress yet, but I did notice a well known sports company or two making organic cotton t-shirts. For my part, I’d like to see clothes that don’t need replacing with every weight loss or gain, that are flattering to a variety of body types, and more stable style-wise. The Indian salwaar kameez, sari, dhoti, and kurta pajama, the Kenyan kanga, and the Renaissance European chemise-bodice-skirt or shirt-tunic-stockings are all examples of extant clothing which fit my basic requirements. Blending those forms with modern sensibilities and technologies could give us a much better range of options than what we currently have. Fortunately, the trend back toward handmade items gives us a little more flexibility in styles.
- community is also becoming popular again. Small gatherings in person and gatherings of all sizes and types on the internet are encouraging people to be interconnected. People with rare medical conditions are able to pool anecdotal evidence and data to improve their care; people with unusual interests can share their learnings…and internet marketing makes it possible for small, new technologies to reach wide audiences and stay in production. Publishing has been revolutionized as major presses are once again one of a sea of options, and not the only way to get the word out. Electronic print-on-demand publishers absolutely flatten the playing field, letting the readers decide what they want to read, and how–no matter how bad it is. This requires a much higher degree of discernment from individual writers and artists, as gatekeeping’s art disappears, both for better and for worse. It is up to the community and the individual, and not an appointed authority, to decide what is good and what is bad, what should be perpetuated and what elminated.
- consumption is changing, too. Now we want our food local but exquisite, our clothes sweatshop-free, our containers recyclable. Environmentalist language is in common use: my bank is advertising a home equity loan to green your home with the line, “Reduce your home’s carbon footprint!” Carbon footprint. Fifteen years ago I couldn’t have told you what a carbon footprint is, now as I stand in the store debating between two picture frames my sweetie points out that one was made here, one in China, and it makes our decision for us. At the grocery store there’s a sign taped to the doors: “Did you remember your canvas bags?” Our living room has an outlet with a kill switch. We don’t want to be in debt, and more and more people are moving toward a cash-only or cash-heavy lifestyle. Living within one’s means is a choice that simplifies a lot, reduces purchases, reduces stress. The world has changed. I only wish we could do something to steer countries that haven’t made this many mistakes away from making them, but hopefully the international information superhighway will give them the information they need.
Here’s what I believe: people are fundamentally good and fundamentally lazy. We will do what takes the least effort, but all other things being equal we will choose the right thing, the healthiest thing, the safest thing. In this time, in this place, it is up to us to use marketing and technology to make the right choices easy. I dream of a world with Twike and Go-One dealerships on every corner, of human powered, weatherproof transportation options, of three times as many repair shops and one-third as many stores. I dream of a truly cyclic waste stream and pride in handmade things. I dream of well-paid teachers and consumers that drive the economy to sustainable, green products and practices. I dream of a world where technology makes environmentalism possible, and environmentalism is reflexive, and where we can somehow know people around the world and live in walking-sized communities that share resources.
And I believe we can do it.