Living Lightly on the Land

A few readers have questioned how I can claim to be an environmentalist when I live in a large house with a pool on a large lot. Surely, they say, this is about as far from radical simplicity as you can get?

I would certainly agree that building such a large house, even one as well insulated as ours, would be environmentally irresponsible. When we bought it 13 years ago, however, our two kids and their SO’s, two potential grandchildren and three dogs were in the picture. And although they’ve moved out, the fact is that the house is nearly 30 years old and if we weren’t living in it (responsibly), someone else would be living in it (probably less responsibly).

When I think about it, I realize that we’ve made much greater strides towards radical simplicity than even I would have dared to think:

  • We had an energy audit done indicating the house is exceptionally well insulated and energy-efficient (it’s built into the side of a hill). There was almost no opportunities for improvement, but we did what they suggested to make it even more efficient.
  • Our greatest expenses each year are property taxes and insurance (hardly ecologically harmful).
  • We rarely eat in restaurants anymore (when we do, they’re locally-owned and locally-sourced, certified healthy), and eat mostly vegetarian, uncooked, unprocessed, unpackaged foods.
  • We avoid Chinese and other imported products as much as possible, and invest in durable, well-made products; we buy sparingly, not frivolously, and >90% of our purchases are Canadian made goods.
  • We have virtually no garbage; everything at the curb is in the blue (recycled) or green (compost) boxes.
  • We never use the air-conditioner, despite our record hot summer (dress light, jump in the pool to stay cool).
  • We never set the thermostat above 60F in winter, and use our high-efficiency, low-emission fireplace insert burning windfall wood from our own property.
  • We rarely watch TV and subscribe to no newspapers and very few magazines; in our extraordinary neighbourhood, we make our own entertainment and get our information electronically.
  • We have done and will do no ‘cosmetic’ renovations, no matter how ‘unfashionable’ that may make us.
  • We use no fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides and the new trees we plant are native, self-sustaining species.
  • We never water the lawn (nor do our neighbours); we don’t care if it’s brown in the summer.
  • We don’t drive to buy anything until we have at least three places in the same area to go (no impulse shopping).
  • I fly only for work (as rarely as possible) and personal visits are squeezed in around work trips as much as possible.
  • We use compact fluorescents (and only when and where we need them), solar lights and candles for light.
  • We drink tap water from the community well.
  • The pool does not need heating because it’s out in open sun and covered with a solar blanket.

Our total expenses, excluding property taxes and insurance, are a third what they were a decade ago. We’ve made a lot of progress, and are still working on areas where our footprint can be further reduced:

  • We need to further reduce gasoline by telecommuting more and mowing the lawn less often.
  • We need to reduce water consumption by catching rainwater to water the gardens.
  • We need to eliminate pool chemicals by switching to salt water.
  • My laptop remains an indulgence that uses too much energy and toxic chemicals.
  • We need a better way to dispose of compact fluorescent bulbs.

But while we’ve made some important and conscientious choices to conserve, to consume less, the changes to our lifestyle have been more radical than just what we don’t buy and don’t use. Radical simplicity is about simple pleasures. Nothing gives me more joy than sitting out in the yard, at sunrise or sunset or after dark, and just listening to and watching, paying attention to things I never used to notice. Chelsea our wonderful pound rescue taught me that. I would sooner walk in the forest, in the moonlight, in the rain, than subject myself to any ‘commercial’ entertainment.

I find small-talk a waste of time, and I’ve learned to excuse myself from it politely. I’d much sooner read, or talk about something important. I have no desire to travel, even to Toronto. I’ve found my place, right here, and I never get tired of it, or bored with it. There is always more to learn from it, and from the wild creatures who, like me, belong to it.

When I buy a book that isn’t made from unbleached, recycled paper I complain to the publisher.

There is no sacrifice here. The reductions in our footprint have been completely painless. I am happier than I have ever been, and healthier. With less noise and less unneeded light I notice things I never used to. I find more joy in lamplight, kittens, working together, bubble baths, dew, quiet conversation, sparrows, caresses, homemade music, fireflies, poetry, children’s laughter, stories, thunderstorms, self-organized community activities, wildflowers, helping people, learning how to do things and fix things, silence, wild hares and foxes and deer, scented candles, fruits and vegetables from the garden, love — all these things right here that cost nothing — than I ever found in costly, faraway entertainments.

I wish you could all be here, to share these things with me. So I could show you. Radical simplicity is not just about what you consume. I just can’t believe it took me so long to learn, to understand. Not so simpleafter all.

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9 Responses to Living Lightly on the Land

  1. I really enjoyed this one, Dave. It is not just the things you do not do that make radical simplicity worth it. It is also taking pleasures in the things that cannot have a price on them, like the things you mentioned in your post. Lately you’ve written some real amazing articles and you keep bringing me back for more. Keep it up. The more I read, the better I become at this whole radical simplicity paradigm.

  2. Evan says:

    We have discovered many of the same things that you have. As time passes, we learn even more ways to simplify our lives. We are much happier where we are now than when we lived in our two-large house, with two jobs, eating out a lot, etc. The more people who practice this lifestyle, the more people who will be drawn to it. When you make it look easy(and it is)people take notice and want to imitate. I’m glad that you are in a position for lots of people to notice, perhaps you will inspire many people to make a few simple changes. I hope so.Evan

  3. Jon Husband says:

    I find small-talk a waste of time, and I’ve learned to excuse myself from it politely.Small talk is something I have never been good at, but I think it is important to engage in it and be good at it if possible (and it is very hard for me). Yes, it can be a time-waster, but humans are (one of) the most important elements of the ecology of life (from our humans’ point of view only, of course .. but the leverage on our current way(s) of life are mainly to be exercised through what humans do, and that relates to their awarenesses, attitudes, decisions, interactions with others, etc.) … and also because of consciousness probably the most variable variable in the whole thing (I was going to write “equation”, but thought better of it ;-)…. and I think that small talk with people you don’t know but have been introduced to, or are just getting to know, is for many people the initial shot(s) of grease that make interaction, and from there more serious or valuable conversation and relations, begin to unfold.

  4. The heel on one of my gardening shoes fell off the other day and I considered the feasibility of repairing it. As I pondered on how best to do it, I reflected that I had worn these shoes at least once a week for thirty two years. Is this a record for a pair of shoes?They were of course, top quality shoes when I bought them – a testament to quality before quantity – and gradually got demoted to sturdy gardening shoes as time wore on.Perhaps you could ask your readers what items they own that have served them well in their lifetime. I can send you a photo of my scarred old shoes if you wish.

  5. helga says:

    So many environmentalists talk about what we need to give up and what we are doing wrong.What we need are examples like yours about how to live better. When we finally put all those examples together and are able to learn from each other the world will be a very different place.

  6. mattbg says:

    Jon, you can find other people who also consider small talk a waste of time. You can tell them pretty easily because they don’t seem to give off that “you’re not approachable” attitude when you quite quickly jump into a discussion of substance. Looking to find this, in Canada, I’ve had far more luck with immigrants than the established population.

  7. mattbg says:

    helga, I agree. That’s why Dave is always saying that we need more actionable information. There’s very little of it out there, unless it’s commercially-motivated.

  8. You illustrate beautifully in this post that we shouldn’t judge others too readily, especially by appearances alone. Any criticism of practices that aren’t (or don’t seem) environmentally friendly would best also be accompanied by a viable alternative, especially if what is criticized is considered by the person doing it to be a personal or economic necessity. It’s easy to tell people not to drive their cars so much, or to drive more energy efficient cars, but the more efficient new cars are unaffordable to many. I’d love to own one, but tell that to my pocketbook! So I just drive a lot less, which I can do, though it hurts. I’d like to visit my aging dad more often. There are those who tout environmentalism who still do a lot of travel by air themselves, or something else they don’t seem to see, like wearing suits that require dry cleaning. At the same time many cannot change the distance between where they’re able to make a living and where they’re able to afford housing, and so feel forced to drive to work.Other factors come into play, such as childcare. Each person’s situation is different. When I vanpooled I was one of very few women who did, because the mothers who worked wanted to be available if they got a call from the school or daycare to come get a sick child, or had to shuffle kids to doctor appointments or after school activities. (A few good dads shared in this, but mostly it fell to the moms.) There was a program in place for a free ride home, but it was troublesome, usually involving picking up and returning a rental car, and we were allowed one free emergency ride home per year. One a year? For a parent? Absurd! Vanpooling was even a problem for me sometimes, without kids, if I needed to shop or run errands. The answer is of course reasonable housing near jobs, which most of us feel we have no control over, or mass transportation, which is usually much slower over longer distances than driving (at least in the suburban US — a bus ride homewould’ve taken me three to four hours, while driving took about an hour to an hour and a half).The answer isn’t to judge others for not doing what’s less convenient, but to insist on changes (gradual, if necessary, but not infinitesimally slow due to greedy corporatist agendas) that make what’s right also more convenient — for every harried worker, renter, and commuter, as well as those who can afford the conveniences on their own. It’s like a former boss of mine used to always say: “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” (He followed up by faclitating good solutions into practice.)

  9. Carol says:

    Dave, you portray the shift to awareness as both an individual endeavor and collective action with lots of rich detail. Thanks for your candor and commitment. May we all wake up, make positive contact and get the support that we need to do our bit to save the world.

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