Sunday, January 25, 2009

Living richly

For several years, my wife and two children and I have been experimenting with different environmental disciplines. Our goal is not to live miserably, but instead to see how much we can improve our impact on the world and still have our life feel prosperous.

There is some kind of fairy-tale magic at work. Every time we give something up, we get more in return than we sacrificed.

We adopted a low-car-use calendar, but it turned out to be more fun than driving. We now get a rebate from our car insurance company for low mileage on our one beat up old Honda Civic. We see more friends in the neighborhood. Our kids are tougher and less needy. We get more exercise without spending more time.

We bought a new boiler for heat and installed better insulation in our home. They save us money. We recently put extra blankets on our beds and started lowering our night-time thermostat one degree every few nights, planning to stop when we became uncomfortable. It hasn't happened yet. We just save money and sleep as well as ever.

At my profession's annual meeting last July, I told some colleagues to enjoy the beer we were sharing because they might not see me as frequently next year if I decide to limit my air travel. I expected them to express concern about the resulting harm to my career. Instead, they teased me for being self-indulgent and shirking my work, putting my family and personal happiness before my profession. Uniformly, they agreed less travel would be no hardship. "Sure," one joked, "why don't I say I'm an environmentalist too and spend more time with my family." This week, I took the Amtrak Acela instead of the air shuttle from Boston to DC for business. The view of the ocean shoreline was beautiful, there was a plug for my laptop, I worked the whole time without interruptions, and felt as if I had gained time instead of lost time.

After years of doing these experiments on our own, we recently decided to try to find a larger community of people around us, in part to reassure us we're not crazy.

We invited our church congregation members and neighbors of several faiths to a dinner at our church a couple weeks ago. Astonishingly, more than fifty people, including 20 kids, accepted the invitation. With help from our children, we cooked a bean chili with a little hamburger over pasta, cole slaw, fresh bread, and fresh whole fruit for desert.

There is a tradition of thought, from long before Thoreau all the way down to Michael Pollan and after, of thinking about one's own meal as a way of contemplating what life really costs. Our dinner cost us less than a dollar per person, and there were leftovers. We served 50 for less than the price of a nice restaurant meal for 2. We showed the guests the one pile of organic material from food preparation that would be composted, and the smaller pile of trash for the landfill. The trash was minimal (tomato cans and a few plastic bags), because the ingredients were all real food in their original form. People often say that it is the time cost that prevents them from cooking at home. Eating with friends is the remedy. Our 3 and a half hours of work to make the meal came out to less than 8 minutes of preparation time per person who enjoyed the meal.

The after-dinner discussion was exciting. We hired one of the church youth to babysit the younger children in a play room nearby so the adults could really spend some time concentrating on what big thing we can undertake together. Another meal is planned. I will post updates to the blog from time to time.


Sarah-the-Yente said...

Great post!

usfoodpolicy said...

An occasional reader who I won't mention (okay, yes, it's my mother) sends along a link to the relevant reflection on the economic crises from theologian Walter Brueggemann in the magazine Sojourners (the link is a little glitchy and works about every other time I follow it).

Here is a passage:

"The current crisis among us is a moment ripe for an exodus departure from a system of anxious acquisitiveness that is rooted in autonomy. This departure constitutes a radical break that is offered to us in a narrative mode. The reality on the ground is of course more complex and more difficult than the narrative—but no less urgent.

"Biblical faith requires that we look our greedy system of economics in the face, and that we linger before God’s offer of “a more excellent way.” And comes then the risk and the deep reliance upon manna given in the wilderness, en route to a better land, a good city, milk and honey (Hebrews 11:16)."