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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?

In the San Diego suburb where I live, I don't quite fit in. I drive a Prius, grow some of my own food and buy the rest at the farmers' market or the co-op, and I don't own a TV. I can my own jams, pickles and tomato sauce, make my own sauerkraut and yogurt, and collect what little rainfall we get in a rain barrel. I am a vegetarian. I have four pet chickens who provide eggs and fertilizer for my garden. If I could afford it, I would certainly install solar panels on my house. Some call me a hippie or a treehugger. But several recent trips to visit and live with families who are really sustainable have given me pause. Can I live a sustainable life without giving up all of my modern conveniences? Can any of us?

In Mexico's southernmost state, Chiapas, the students of the secondary school of Roberto Barrios live in a way that is much closer to true sustainability. (This school is run by the Zapatista rebels who proclaimed their autonomy from Mexico in 1994.) Each morning, a team of students wakes up at 4:30am to make breakfast from scratch: tortillas and beans from crops they grew themselves, plus sweetened herbal tea and store-bought pasta. The students cook over a fire built with firewood they chopped themselves. By 6:30am, the other students wake up, ready to start their day. They get dressed, eat breakfast, wash their dishes, and then start class at 7:30am. They are lucky to have running water, but they do not have hot water. Nor do they have flush toilets; instead, they have latrines with no seats. Fortunately, they have electricity, but they have few electronic appliances beyond light bulbs, and the electricity is not always reliable.

Midday, they break. Some students begin preparing the evening meal (more beans and tortillas, with rice instead of pasta), and others sweep their classroom. At 2pm, they migrate en masse to a river nearby, to swim, bathe and do their laundry. This is one of the few moments in their day when they inflict any harm on their environment, as their laundry detergent and bath products likely contain surfactants, preservatives and fragrances that are harmful to the environment. Along with a little bit of processed food and soda, their detergent is one of the few store-bought products in their lives. Here, there is no trash service, and anything that does not break down is destined to remain as a pollutant indefinitely. Signs all over Chiapas warn people not to litter, but really, there is nowhere for plastic to go. You can burn it, releasing pollutants into the atmosphere, but there's really no way to throw it "away."

The students live in dorms because they live too far away to commute home every day. The roads in this part of Mexico range from poor to non-existent (although the government has built many new roads since the Zapatista insurrection in 1994), and most, if not all, of the students come from families without cars. To go anywhere that is too far to walk, they must pay for a bus or hitchhike.

The students' way of life, while remarkable particularly because they are as young as 11 and so capable of taking care of themselves, is not terribly unusual in Latin America. Peasants all over live in homes they or previous generations built with wood or adobe and tin or thatched roofs, often with dirt floors. Furniture is often homemade, and sometimes one sees homes that are in disrepair. Adobe is environmentally friendly and a wonderful insulator, but there are downsides to having a biodegradable home.

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