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.

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.

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.

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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..