Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Living richly

Following an occasional thread on this blog, it is time for a more personal update on my family's decade-long experimentation in sustainable living. We are informed by the active online conversation about this topic, but we draw some different lessons as well.

First, my family begins with the awareness that we are rich.  It would be good for all but the very poorest Americans to begin from this proposition.  Many of us make unwise environmental decisions because we feel economically beleaguered -- constrained by jobs, family, and social expectations to commute by car, fly in airplanes, and eat environmentally expensive food.  Acknowledging that we are rich can liberate us to make the decisions that satisfy our consciences and truly bring us joy.  I rarely talk about faith on this semi-professional blog, but, among the four of us, including my wife and two children, we use religious language to describe this fact.  We know we have been blessed.

Second, our personal goal is not to experience hardship.  Over the centuries, many people have found great insight in taking a vow of poverty, but that is not for us.  We want to experiment with using fewer and fewer environmental resources in order to uncover the point at which we begin to feel materially poor.  Then we'll stop and think before proceeding further.

So, here is some of what we have learned so far about what resources are necessary to live well.

Shelter.  We have a 3-bedroom 2-bathroom free-standing house in a dense inner suburban neighborhood.  Clearly, this already makes us more prosperous than most people in the world, but it is a simpler home than most people in my professional circles have, and we have not yet taken steps toward selling our home and buying a smaller place.  In summer, we use no air conditioning, although air conditioning is common in Boston.  We have learned to open and shut our windows in summer on a schedule that keeps the house a pleasant temperature on all but about 7 days per year.  In winter, we keep the house at 50 degrees at night, and when we are away at school and work, and 61 degrees when we are at home.  The energy company tells us that we use 34% less gas than average homes in our neighborhood and save many hundreds of dollars each year.  We enjoy our slippers and sweaters and feel cozy. 

Food.  We eat nearly a vegetarian diet at home, but frequently have dairy products and occasionally fish.  Counting food from elsewhere, I eat some meat about 4 days per week.  My son eats meat with school lunch, and my daughter eats vegetarian at school.  We use some local food, and cook at home, but perhaps 90 percent of our food comes by way of the industrial food system.  We enjoy our food and feel richly fed all the time.

Transportation by car.  We own one 2000 Honda Civic, which we drive for short trips most days.  My wife bicycles to work, and I bike to a "T" station and then take the subway.  The children are old enough to go to school by bicycle or city bus.  Our car seldom has repair expenses, and the insurance company gives us a discount for low mileage.  Walking, cycling, and on the subway, we feel healthier, happier, and more connected with friends and strangers around us.

Transportation by air.  We realized that frequent travel by air for fun and work threatened to offset all of the gains our family made in shelter and food, leaving us with a carbon impact that exceeded national averages.  So, we gave up flying entirely for a time.  Despite being an active academic researcher, and despite having a new textbook to market, I haven't flown since the first week of May, 2013.  My university's website encourages faculty to reduce flying when possible, but in practice most researchers in my field spend immense resources on air travel to meetings and conferences.  This is strange if the meeting or conference addresses the problems of world poverty or sustainable food systems.  I had hoped to keep up my no-flying discipline for a year, but this week I could not resist adding a trip by air to my calendar for April, 2014, so my freedom from flying will last 11 months in total.  Since May, I've given presentations and attended meetings in DC, Woods Hole, Boston, Cornell University, and even by Amtrak to Ohio for presentations in Cleveland and Columbus, and I have forthcoming presentations in Albany and Philadelphia.  I've learned to work as effectively on the train as I do in my office, so train travel is both more pleasant and less time-consuming for me than air travel.  The rest of my family stopped flying even earlier, in April, 2012.  Our summer vacation in 2013 was a bicycle trip on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.  My family will go without flying for 25 months, after which we will take a vacation in summer 2014 that can only be done by air, a 6-week walking pilgrimage together that we have wished for many years. If that trip comes to pass as we hope, we know it is a blessing.  Our vacations still leave us in the ranks of the world's most privileged people, but it is both good environmentalism and good wisdom to take longer and more peaceful breaks rather than shorter and more resource-intensive vacations wedged between periods of excessive work for high pay.

What is the lesson from this self-experimentation?  We found we can reduce resource use by a large margin without any symptoms of deprivation.  As the community of friends around us grows stronger, working on the same simple living project, we may find it psychologically easier to take more radical steps in this direction.

For me, this experience provides crucial information about the possibility that our global family can thrive even during the forthcoming time of scarcity.  Far more than any technological development (such as GMOs or biofuels), what matters most for the future of the world is the capacity of those who are rich to use fewer material resources.  Because the rich of the world also are politically powerful, and unlikely to will themselves into poverty voluntarily, my hope for this capacity depends in part on whether higher-income people can use fewer resources and still recognize themselves as prosperous.  Quite possibly, the stresses the world faces will cause disruptions, crisis, famine, or war, but I think those events arise from our foolishness as social animals rather than from any material economic requirement we have for an adequate standard of living.  On a material basis, I have seen with my own eyes and felt in my own skin that people in rich countries can undertake drastically lower resource use in shelter, food, and transportation, and still live richly.

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