The road towards sustainability

Under the name Naturalness Research (instagram @naturalness.research), my partner and I are planning an experimental living project intentionally moving towards ecological sustainability, partial self-sufficiency, quality-of-sulife enhancement, re-establishing or establishing a prosperous and harmonious relationship between humans and the earth (ecosystem), and similar things. I’m also surrounded by people who are very determined to rid the world of plastics, organizing beach clean-ups, ocean clean-ups and linking various recycling projects together. So my thoughts have been revolving around these topics recently.

As we are looking for land in remote areas to be as immersed in nature as possible one of the first things we have to think about is transport. As much as we would like to be non-reliant on fossil fuels, the truth is that without a car we would not be able to get the building and living supplies we need to get started (and getting there ourselves would be a long journey as well). Of course we could have them brought to us without us owning a car, but the amount of fossil fuel used would essentially be the same. And bringing things on donkeys, horses or on foot is an incredibly impractical solution that would be un-economical and thus doom the project before it even got started.

Another topic is the use of energy once on the property. Realistically, we are not willing to give up the many advantages electricity has to offer, and so we will have to generate electricity through solar power. While this may seem an ecological solution, we must not forget that the panels and batteries were very certainly produced within the economy of scale (which we are trying to out-grow) and by using fossil fuels again (and who knows what else) – so the true ecological cost of using solar energy is a lot higher than you would think. It would take several years of use until the emission-cost (among other things) of their production is outweighed by the low emission of their operation. Mind you, I don’t have the exact figures, but I’m sure it can be calculated…

So is this a problem? We clearly have no way of going 100% green – there are so many hidden costs or externalized costs even for a project with the best intentions; and the infrastructure of our economy is not really prepared or designed to support those trying to escape the linearity of it – waste and wastefulness are programmed into everything we do and make as a civilization. But we are dependent on it for its cumulative technology, unless we want to go live like the ancient tribes-men, before the bronze age.

If you have a knee-jerk aversion at that thought, and suddenly feel discouraged, fear not! There are not just two options here – returning to primitive life or living in decadence until all resources have been turned into waste.

For now we have to buy sustainability by unsustainable means. This may seem like hypocrisy, but it’s not! It’s a strategy to transform civilization and its technology, not by throwing away what we’ve developed so far (that would be wasteful), but by upcycling what is there. Once more and more ecologically smart and “sustainable” projects exist, they can carry each other towards higher and higher green-ness, towards less and less emission, waste production, pollution etc. and they can, by pooling their clean technology and their experience together, developing better methods for those that follow along. So that each new project will have less environmental impact than the previous. We cannot foresee how exactly this will unfold. The life-style, the economy, the solutions will have to develop together with the availability of assistance, resources, products and tools, plus the creativity of those around. And this will greatly vary with the region and climate zone. 

The important part is to start somewhere and then gradually increase the standards by which you live. Document the things you cannot avoid now and compare them to in 5 years. How much plastic waste do you produce in your household on average in a week, or a month? How much water do you waste? How many kWh of energy are being used and for what? The more you ask of yourself and your environment, the more things you will notice that need changing andadjusting – things that you hadn’t even realized that had hidden/externalized costs or are not quite eco-friendly. You will develop strategies that you can share with others, and the more you do the easier it will become, because the more your social and economic environment follows the same strategies that you do, the more this community will accommodate these choices (i.e. zero waste shops and other eco-businesses opening up, ride-sharing, bycicle paths, urban gardening, local farmers co-ops, …)

But remember, it is not really possible to go 100% green right off the bat, now;and setting that as the goal will only result in discouragement. We are talking about long-term development that requires a long-term investment with an adaptive strategy that covers the entire bandwidth of human activity and experience. More about this in a future post!

Some places to start being greener that you can do whether you live on the land or in the city alike: shopping for food and clothing – stay away from things with excessive packaging or, if you’re capable of it, any packaging at all. Use refillable water bottles, and a water filter at home to make tap-water drinkable if necessary. Buy second hand clothes, do clothing swaps and make the things you have last. Try to buy locally grown produce. Eating seasonal vegetables is a great way to tune into the rhythms of nature anyway… Eat less or no animal products and if you do buy animal products make sure they are ethically farmed.

Also, if you are a girl and you’re not using one already: get a menstrual cup and washable pads! It takes some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, there is nothing better!

Try to use less electrical energy, by unplugging stand-by devices and switching off lights and other devices. During the summer months try to follow the rhythm of the sun so you won’t need electrical lights so much. Keep your refrigerator filled with water bottles if it would otherwise be empty – water keeps the temperature stable for longer than just air, so once it is cooled it will save power. Wash your clothes in cold water…

Use less products with questionable chemical compounds that may be polluting the environment and your body – like many commercial soaps, shampoos, cleaning products, cosmetic products, processed foods and perfumes. Natural soaps are easy to get and pure oils like avocado oil, almond oil, coconut oil, shea butter, cocoa butter etc. are great, natural alternatives to a lot of the skin products on the market. For your laundry you can use a mix of vinegar and bicarbonate! Vinegar and vodka or higher percentage ethanol also work great for cleaning surfaces in kitchen and bathroom and can be bought in glass containers or in bulk to reduce packaging waste.

We should also learn to adopt a supportive attitude towards others who seem to be moving a bit slower in this direction than we are. I understand that we may feel strongly about climate change and pollution and it’s true that these are a real planetary crisis. But having a “greener-than-thou” attitude and guilt tripping others for their wasteful ways is usually a sure way to get ignored or worse. Not everyone will start with the same steps. Some might not want or cannot cut out meat from their diet (I know this is a controversial one…) and might find it hard to buy only ethically farmed meat due to its high price. Perhaps it is more important that they focus on other areas first (and perhaps they are already focusing on areas that you haven’t even considered yet), areas that come more easy to them, so that their road to a sustainable lifestyle can begin to pave itself, and then perhaps later on they will find a way to integrate a more sustainable and ethical diet. I mean let’s face it, it’s incredibly difficult to sustain a habit that feels absolutely unnatural, against the grain, and means only more hardship for ourselves. You can do it to prove a point, but after a while you relax and lose interest. The real trick is finding a natural and easy way to move towards these habits by taking small steps, so that by the time you reach their full flourishing they will feel natural and easy, too.

It might not be as radical as some of us would like the change to look like, and as radical as the crisis would demand necessary, but it’s more likely to provoke true and deep changes in how we live and relate to the world, rather than just being a fad.

Why not share your thoughts and ideas about this topic so more of us can get started on our road to sustainability!

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