What Constitutes Sustainability And A Simpler Life?

While reading, The Unsettlers, I mostly wore a look of skepticism on my face. It’s a nonfiction book about 3 couples who live outside of American consumerism society. They grow their own food, live way below the poverty line, and basically live a simpler life. While it was really interesting to read about couples (with kids even!) who are living a lifestyle that they deem sustainable, it mostly made me realize the vast differences in opinion on how far one should go to achieve a sustainable life.

According to Merriam Webster, the definition of “Sustainability” is: “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”

Sounds pretty simple, right? To be sustainable, we just need to NOT be greedy jerk-faces who use up all the resources simple because we can. In America, most people who endeavor to practice sustainability do things like conserve water by landscaping with indigenous plants that don’t need excessive water or conserve electricity by using a clothesline instead of running a dryer.

On the food side of things, many people now visit their local farmers market to purchase locally grown fruits, vegetables, meat, and breads. This is a great way to ensure that, not only does money go back into the local community, but it also saves resources by not requiring that all those products be shipped across the country to a local grocery store. (Okay, yes. Those products are still being shipped across the country, but if you were buying locally, then by not shopping at the big chain grocery stores, you’re telling them that you’d rather they purchase their products from local farmers.)

I can get behind all of these concepts, even it means paying a little more at the farmers market for products I could get cheaper elsewhere. What I have difficulty with is the idea that sustainability means giving up things like electricity, western toilets, hot showers, and using vehicles. This is the reason I wore quite the scowl at times while reading The Unsettlers. A large part of the book focused on a couple who gave all these things up in order to live a simpler life of sustainability. The couple also felt that, in order to save the planet and live a simpler life, that we should all give up these things, too.

Well, kudos to them for living a simpler life, but I can’t say that I can get behind the idea of giving all that up.

A “simpler life” is like an outhouse – looks idyllic on the outside…

Lovely on the outside (if you’re upwind)

But it’s a rude awakening on the inside when you have to use it…

You might get used to it after awhile, but you’ll always miss the real porcelain throne.

Perhaps if I had grown up that way – without running water, electricity, or a family car – then it wouldn’t be so difficult to give those things up and live a simpler, more sustainable life. Instead, I feel that there must be a way to live more sustainably without giving up all of our creature comforts.

For example, if you live in the city, use public transportation or bike to work instead of driving your personal vehicle. Live in the country? Try planning ahead so that when you go on a trip to town, you get all your errands done in one trip rather than four trips spaced across the week. When shopping, try to buy local products and bring your own bag to carry the groceries home in. Even something as simple as using a power strip for all your TV devices (DVD player, Xbox, PlayStation, etc.) and turning off the whole power strip when not in use can, not only save you money every month, it keeps you from wasting resources you’re not even using.

Asking people to completely give everything up is a good way to make them run in the opposite direction and actually consume more. However, if people are given suggestions for how to take baby steps toward sustainability, then I think they are much more likely to comply.

Jennifer Jelliff-Russell

About Jennifer Jelliff-Russell

Jennifer is an employment specialist and writer with novels in women’s fiction and science fiction. She and her husband, Jason, decided to move from Tennessee to Maine and homestead using the most environmentally sound farming practices possible such as organic farming and permaculture. At the same time, they will also be slowly renovating their 1900s Maine farmhouse in order to make it more self-sufficient with the eventual goal of going off grid. Let the homesteading (mis)adventures begin!