By Donella Meadows
–April 19, 1999–
I’m one of those tedious people who try to “live green.”
I’m no beginner. I’ve been at it 30 years, since I lived in the toxic air of northeast New Jersey, watched suburbs munch up farmland, traveled to India where eroded soil blew against my skin and hunger looked me in the face.
When I see change is needed, I move forward into the change. I can’t help it. Duty comes easier to me than denial.
I’m not as bad as I used to be. For awhile I was a self-righteous eco-snob, the kind that gives rise to the stereotype. I banished synthetics and went around in wrinkled cotton clothes. I pointedly passed up the meat at dinner parties. I wasn’t kind to people with more than two children.
If you know folks like that, have patience with them. They won’t be able to keep it up very long.
Their problem — my problem — our problem — is, there’s no way to live an ecologically pure life in an industrial society. Compromises are inevitable. My own contradictions were blatant. I bought a farm to grow organic food and an old farmhouse that was a bottomless energy sink. I drove an efficient car and jetted off to environmental meetings. I had no children but four cats and two dogs, all of which declined to be vegetarian.
First I tried to cover over these inconsistencies. Finally I admitted them. Then I found them hilarious. Once I forgave myself, I could forgive the rest of the human race. I could redefine my mission from holy war to honest experiment, with room for mistakes and half-measures and learning. I could expand my focus from the details of my little life to the driving forces that keep all of us from living according to our heartfelt values.
I find those driving forces in two places. One is inside us, our human lacks and longings, our restlessness, our insecurity, our need to be admired and to belong. The other is the consumer culture around us, so skilled at hooking into those lacks and longings. It offers us material pacifiers for real and deep nonmaterial needs. It sells gas and oil cheap but makes solar power expensive. It snags us with ways to use money to save time, thereby keeping us permanent slaves to money.
Well, to make a 30-year-long story short, my life is still full of contradictions. I’m far from living in a way that would, if everyone lived that way, stop the degradation of our planetary life-support systems. But you know what? I keep moving in green directions, and as I do, life becomes richer. Conspicuous sainthood is no longer my motivator. Good living is.
Take food, for example. Without taking vows or twisting into costly contortions, my household has gone almost entirely organic. What we don’t grow, we buy from a local coop or farmers market. I haven’t had to enter a supermarket for years. Our food is garden-fresh, pesticide-free, spectacularly, crunchingly tasteful.
Our vegetarianism has softened, because animals fit into the cycles of an organic farm. The chickens eat the kitchen scraps, the sheep and cows digest and fertilize the clovers and grasses. We love our animals and take good care of them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t eat them. If we didn’t, we would be overrun with their progeny. We eat them rarely, on special occasions, with gratitude. Once you know what “real” chicken tastes like, you will never eat “factory” chicken again.
We’ve sealed the cracks, insulated the house, installed a wood-gasifying furnace with an oil backup. Our fuel comes mostly from nearby forests. But if we go away for the weekend, the oil clicks on and the pipes don’t freeze.
I’ve cut way back on jetting, but I still do it when I feel it can make a difference or take me to someone I love. I don’t have to jet to beautiful places, because I’ve made the place I live beautiful. There’s no place I’d rather be.
I still drive too much. I’m waiting eagerly either for a bus system that connects to my rural town or for a hypercar, which, I’m told, will get 120 miles to the gallon and be as crashworthy as a Volvo and as capacious and peppy as I want. Transport is one of many aspects of green living an individual can’t pull off alone. We need industry and government to help. So I spend time putting pressure on industry and government.
Now I’m working with friends to build 22 small, clustered, passive-solar homes, where we can share washing machines, rototillers, baby-sitting. Together we bought a larger farm than any of us could afford alone, enough land to provide our food and fuel, plus a living for a full-time farming family or two. We’re discovering green architecture and green engineering. We’re going to “consensus school” to learn how to make decisions together.
Most of us were raised in the belief that people can’t make decisions together constructively. We certainly weren’t taught how. But it’s something we can learn. We’re discovering that skilled consensus-seeking is faster, sweeter, more fun, and more creative than taking cheap shots, not listening, getting entrenched in our positions, considering only our own short-term good, and all the other counterproductive behaviors our leaders demonstrate every day.
Living green is not a matter of doctrine, it’s a matter of learning. It’s sweeter, more fun, more creative, way more satisfying than living in a way that impoverishes people and nature. We’ll make mistakes. We’ll live with contradictions along the way. But it’s a way of adventure, not a way of sacrifice.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999