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Do We Have to Live Like Peasants to Be Truly Sustainable?

There has to be a happy medium between living as a poor peasant in an adobe hut and living in a McMansion while driving a Hummer. But how do we find it?

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Agriculture is often organic simply because peasants cannot afford store-bought seeds, fertilizer and pesticides. Attitudes in Latin America toward organic food production range; some feel their own saved seeds and traditional farming methods yield healthier, tastier and more natural food, whereas others think their traditional ways make them backwards and they can become modern by using store-bought inputs. What might look to an untrained eye as a field of weeds may actually be a field of drying corn amidst various wild edible and medicinal plants. Herbal medicine is often the norm, not because the peasants are into "alternative medicine," but because it is all they can afford or access. While I met young women who felt that herbal medicine is less risky than pharmaceuticals, I also came across a man dying of cancer who was terrified that he only had a three-day supply of morphine and could not afford more.

This way of life brings extreme joy as well as extreme hardship. No swimming pool in the U.S. can ever equal bathing in a river in the Mexican jungle amidst waterfalls and butterflies, with the sound of howler monkeys in the background. Nor is there any brand of beverage for sale that can equal the fresh-pressed sugarcane juice with a squeeze of lemon I drank in the Amazon. And I thought it was hilarious and delightful to find a Muscovy duck sitting on her eggs in the room where I stayed in Chiapas. But as a creature of 21st-century America, committed to sustainability as I am, the prospect of living entirely like a peasant is not at all appealing. Along with waterfalls and sugarcane, there is also hard work, uncomfortable weather, and lack of potable water, modern bathroom facilities, and much more.

Now, there's a happy medium somewhere between living as a poor peasant in an adobe hut and living in a McMansion while driving a Hummer. But where is that happy medium? Is my "sustainable" life in the U.S. just an illusion? Am I merely a Whole Foods-shopping, yoga mat-toting, latte-drinking, Prius-driving yuppie? I want to be sustainable, but I also don't want to give up my car, laptop or the pharmaceuticals I take daily to prevent debilitating migraines. Is that possible?

To answer these questions, one must be careful not to conflate poverty with sustainability. That is, the peasant lifestyle is certainly sustainable, but it is also shaped by extreme poverty. How would an equally sustainable life look if one had the budget of a middle-class American? Currently the answer is a life that is more difficult than it need be because our society imposes many easily solved problems on those seeking sustainability. For example, in many places in the U.S. it's difficult to give up one's car and to rely on public transportation, biking and walking. And a robust rail system (including high-speed rail) could easily reduce Americans' reliance on air travel, which is perhaps the single most unsustainable way to travel. While we know that it's possible to build up our public transportation infrastructure and make more walkable and bikeable cities, we're a long way from achieving that where most Americans live. In other words, asking what's possible is not the same as asking what's possible now.

For anyone who takes sustainability seriously, the manmade roadblocks to sustainable living in the U.S. are quite clear. The treehugger in you might know a small home is more sustainable, but the smart investor in you knows that buying a small house (or one lacking "necessities" like air conditioning if you live in a hot climate) might make it harder to sell in the future. Conventional cleaning products, building supplies, furniture, paints, food, clothing, bath products, etc., might be unsustainable, but their sustainable counterparts might be unaffordable. And while you might be able to spring for small luxuries like a $5 bar of organic bath soap (or make your own), you can't do the same for big-ticket items such as solar panels or the new electric cars coming out.

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