Do We Have to Live Like Peasants to Be Truly Sustainable?
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One of the most famous examples of modern sustainable living is the Dervaes family and their urban homestead in Pasadena, CA. The family of four, Jules and his three grown children, Anais, Jordanne and Justin, grow over 6,000 pounds of produce annually in their tenth of an acre garden (enough to provide for their own needs and sell to local consumers and restaurants). They make their own cleaning products, bath products, candles, and biodiesel, and they conserve energy and water using a number of methods, from line-drying clothes to using a pedal-powered grain mill. And while they use many "old" skills (like sewing and gardening), they don't give up their connection to 21st-century technology (like solar panels and the Internet).
While the list of hand-powered devices on the Dervaes' family Web site looks daunting, Jules feels it is worth it. He calls for a change in perspective, saying, "Doing things manually almost always is slower than employing machines. However, there are many factors to consider, including the hidden and long-term costs, quality and durability." And even as a leader in sustainability, he can point to places where he and his family are not perfect. For example, they buy the most basic models of electronic gadgets like cell phones and computers, using them when needed for business and outreach, and going as long as possible between upgrades. However, they cannot escape the trap of "planned obsolescence," in which cell phones and computers are made -- and priced -- to be replaced by newer models in a few years. Dervaes hopes to one day live in a community of like-minded people where these electronic technologies are not needed.
Sustainability, at its core, means living in a way that can continue into perpetuity, without exhausting natural resources like air, water, soil, and biodiversity. And it seems inevitable that living a truly sustainable life is not possible without giving up some conveniences, as the Dervaes family has done. And, if we had to, most of us probably would not mind expending some extra effort to go about our days -- putting on a sweater instead of flipping on the heat, or buying secondhand clothes instead of new. A friend who bikes several miles to work instead of driving tells me his bike rides are actually the highlights of his day!
But in the long term, we might also find we have to give up things we do not want to live without. What seems clear is that we need a societal effort to work toward sustainability together, via more available public transportation and bike trails, stricter regulation of the numerous toxic substances we interact with daily (pesticides, flame retardants, phthalates, and more), and policies to move us toward renewable sources of energy like solar and wind. We can also encourage companies to make products that are intended to be upgraded instead of discarded when newer technology is available. These efforts will make sustainable living easier for all of us.
Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. .