September 30, 2009

My Mom Would Think You're Lazy

Anyone seriously considering downsizing, or living with less, is going to be up against formidable opposition. Courage, perseverance, and a tough leathery hide are required to venture into the Simple Zone. When troubled times call for us to go shopping in order to do our part, not doing so is risking being unpatriotic. Being seen as a penny-pinching tight-wad pales in comparison.

When I first decided that I wanted to delve deeper into simple living, some thought I was making a colossal mistake, or worse. I could have stayed in my teaching position until I was 65, rather than retire at age 40.

Thing is, over the course of my career I heard of many colleagues that passed away shortly before, or just after retiring. All that financial planning is rendered ineffective if you die before the first pension check hits your mailbox. I had to change my life before it happened to me.

I took a two year sabbatical first, wanting to ease into a life with less. After the freedom of these two years I couldn't go back. I quit.

"If you don't teach what will you do?" I was asked. My mind was reeling thinking of the infinite possibilities. Don't get me wrong, teaching was one of the most incredible and satisfying things I have ever done. But it has a way of consuming your time; it takes over your life, becomes your life. It is 'right livelihood' but at what cost?

Someone else asked, "What about retirement?" Since I try to live in the moment, considering this was not at the top of my list. Sixty-five felt like a long way away, and I wanted to retire to a simpler life immediately.

My favorite reaction, though, came from two individuals I didn't even know. I explained to these friends of friends, that I had quit teaching to live a slower-paced, environmentally responsible, low-income life.

The young couple were silent as they shook their heads in response to my words. Finally the woman looked at me, and proclaimed, "My mom would think you are lazy."

Ouch. Move over Big Brother, Big Mother is here.

Call me a slacker, call me a hippie, a radical even, but don't tell me your Mom thinks I'm lazy. That's just mean. I guess what she was saying was she thought that my work ethic sucked.

This is what 20th-century French philosopher André Gorz wrote about the work ethic:

The work ethic has become obsolete. It is no longer true that producing more means working more, or that producing more will lead to a better way of life. 
The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet-unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. 
This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact. Neither is it true any longer that the more each individual works, the better off everyone will be.

- Critique of Economic Reason, 1989

Go tell your momma that.

We have to become smarter about work and consumption and quality of life. We have to lift our foot off the gas pedal as we speed toward the precipice. If that means affecting the 72% of the economy that consumer spending accounts for, then so be it.

It has to happen or we are going over the cliff. I do not intend to do a Thelma and Louise thing. I am getting out of the car before it takes the plunge, even if your mom thinks I'm lazy, and wants to see me disappear over the horizon.

Oh, and by the way? Your mom is wrong.

September 26, 2009

Old Skills For A New World: Canning, Baking, Gardening on The Upswing

Modern society moves at a bewildering pace. Hardly able to keep up we succumb to the enticements of technology, entertainment, and the fast life. We are busy having fun, but along the way we have forgotten how to take care of ourselves. Basic skills of self sufficiency are dying with our elders. Increasingly, people are looking to low tech 'heritage' methods of living.

Progress and prosperity have made us into the largest collection of humanity in history incapable of taking care of ourselves. Houses and cars have become wombs, government and big business the umbilical cord. What will we do as we are born into a new world of expensive energy and deteriorating environment?

Our fault is to feel safe and secure in our habits, as if the way things are now is the way they will always be. Recent global economic turmoil has shown us the precariousness of this illusion. Things can, and will change, and we best be ready.

Heritage skills, as we refer to them today, are tried and tested instructions for taking care of ourselves. Activities like sewing, canning, and kneading bread seem like quaint pastimes from ancient history. Victory Gardens are making a comeback, as are food preservation workshops.

VicinSea, commenting on a previous post here, let me know she is a 20 year simple liver and part-time heritage skills teacher teaching food preservation, basketry, sewing/repairs and other self-sufficiency workshops in the Seattle area. It looks like she is keeping busy.

We are dependent on technology and low cost fossil energy to provide us with what we need. What happens when cheap energy is gone? Will you reach for the power can opener, or its hand-powered equivalent? What happens if trucks stop delivering food to our supermarkets, or the food they deliver is so expensive we can't afford it? We can learn skills to take care of our needs within our communities. Victoria, B.C. has a variety of options for learning.

Who has time to bake bread, let alone can your own produce? Make your own clothing? Right. But when cheap energy is gone, or we have lost or quit our job, we will need to look for healthier, less expensive alternatives. Life skills from days gone by will serve us well in the future.

Choosing a less complicated lifestyle is about freeing up time so I can live in ways that are beneficial to myself, others, and the environment. You either spend time in the blackberry bramble and the canning corner, or you spend time at work so you can pay someone to pick the berries, process them, and ship them to your local store.

I would rather harvest the berries and risk the bramble thorns. I would rather tend a bubbling cauldron of blackberry jamiliciousness. I would rather live a slower, less money-oriented, independent existence.

I love having the time to choose to pick berries and get scratched... in the rain. An added benefit is that I know what is in my food. I am in complete control of ingredients. No MSG, no high-sucrose corn syrup. And it saves me money.

If you are a life-long student, creating a simpler, slower-paced lifestyle could be for you. My household has already had Blackberry JamFest 2009, and a case of the freshest Blackberry jam available awaits the whole wheat, home-baked bread. We have had time to learn about a whole food, vegetarian diet. It has not been a burden, this change to simpler, lower-tech living. It is an interesting, thrilling, and tasty adventure.

Now my partner and I are learning how to cut each others hair. This is a money saving idea that is sure to be popular with the women, most of whom would rather go out in public without makeup than let their partner anywhere near their hair with scissors. Go slowly - you can always cut it shorter, you can't cut it longer. What could be next? Rock wall building? Hide tanning? Flint knapping?

What will you do when the power goes out? How about setting your songbook up on your inert laptop, take out your acoustic guitar, and, using your old-style ipod shuffle as a slide, sing the power's-out blues. Then have some home-baked bread with your own canned jam, followed by canned peaches by candle light. When it is time to turn in you can crawl under the bed cover you quilted with scrap pieces of fabric from your electric blanket. Heritage skills, not just for your grandparents any more.

September 19, 2009

Do I Really Need A Car?

My partner and I still own a vehicle. And it is no micro, go-cart that I need to watch lest a rogue pack of Girl Guides tip it over. Neither is it a hybrid. It is a small North American truck with four wheel drive. It is thousands of pounds of glass, rubber, steel, and old pollution-reduction technology. But it is black and shiny, and I knew when I first laid eyes on it that we were destined to travel the open and rough road together.

I agreed to feed it regular fuel, oil, and other mechanical fluids, as well as lavish it with a large portion of my monthly income in order to keep it in top shape. It, in turn, promised to free me from the drudgery of the every day, and propel me and my stuff to any exciting destination of my choice. And return me home safely. All the while making me look like a rugged and able individual (ick, how North American).

It was a useful and completely justified purchase, I told myself. I had visions of stream crossings, water fans spraying up from gnarly tires. Steep hills, washboard logging roads, and deep snow were now nothing against the four clawing wheels of my uber-mobility device. It would be worth it. If you live in North America you need a car, right? And if a two wheeler is good, a four wheeler is better.

We haunted the backroads and logging roads of British Columbia for a couple of months each year after we bought the truck. This was not so long ago when the Provincial Forestry Service maintained hundreds of back country camp grounds, most of them free. Only a few are free now, and many others have been decommissioned due to funding cuts of years gone by.
While it lasted, though, it was a great way to spend a few weeks of rustic camping for low cost. However, most of the time our truck, which was "built tough", was handling the hazards of a modern city: construction zones, potholes, terribly rough pavement, the odd foot or two of snow, and appearances at the opera. Of course, my friend Sarah handles all that on her daily mountain bike commute, although I am not sure she can get the valet parking at the opera.

Today, living in our truck and driving crazy roads far from everywhere for weeks at a time seems extravagant, both in the outlay of money for fuel, and the environmental impact. However, it was probably nothing compared to my daily slogging commute to school in the city.
When we were in the city we asked ourselves where we would like to be when fossil fuels ran out. What if we couldn't, or chose not to, drive? We figured we better like where we were if the farthest we could get was under our own power. We decided on the west coast. When we got here we gave ourselves a limit for driving: an area 50 kms (31 miles) from home. After a while we reduced that to 40 kms (24 miles), then 30 (18 miles). Since then we have discovered more than enough in our immediate neighbourhood and community to keep us busy and adventuring for the foreseeable future.

Currently, we drive just a few times a month. Often that is for work. The rest of the time I have been using my bicycle for errands. We are now to the point where we are wondering why we should keep a private vehicle at all. The shiny truck feels more like an expensive ball and chain than the freedom machine that manufacturers' ads depict.

I am rediscovering cycling, and am having the best year for cycle adventures since I was a 10 year old hippie-in-training living in Eugene, Oregon (while my dad went to school). My bicycle has delivered the freedom that the auto manufactures promise, but can't deliver with their current products. I roll along my local roadways and trails completely carbon-free, feeling fit and completely liberated from the complication, expense, and danger of driving.

Perhaps I can trade the truck for a cycle rickshaw, and transport my partner in style, carbon-free. Better yet, maybe someone will think of a simple, sustainable solution to our personal mobility needs, although it is difficult to improve on tried and true technologies.

Top photo by: ВиКо (modern cycle rickshaw in Moscow)
Bottom photo by: K.C. Wilson (Alternative Transportation In Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada)

September 16, 2009

When Is Your Turn On the Heat Day?

On recent evenings while walking the hood, I see wood smoke emanating from houses snuggling down for the night. Leaves are beginning to fall, and migrating birds are on the move. That can only mean one thing - it will soon be time to turn on the heat in our home.

Forty to fifty percent of global energy demand is used for heating and cooling, and they contribute about the same percentage of greenhouse gases. The WorldWatch Institute reports that worldwide in 2005, half the energy use in buildings went toward space heating. The amount of energy we use to heat our homes is huge. But keeping comfortable has its environmental costs.

In my part of the world using electricity for heat is common, as is using wood. Our electricity is largely hydro-powered, but dam and reservoir complexes have their own impacts. Most North Americans rely on coal, gas, or nuclear power plants to maintain indoor comfort. Unless you are generating renewable heat energy, your home heating is adding to the atmosphere's carbon load.
In a recently published study by the C.D. Howe Institute, reviewed by Victoria Hollick,  comparing Canadian  alternative energy programs and sources, the study concludes that "the lowest-cost and highest-value programs are the renewable heat and power technologies, which include solar air heating, solar water heating, solar electricity, wind and biomass." Using solar energy for space and water heating is one of the most efficient and effective ways to reduce our carbon footprint.

Until such a time that our infrastructure changes to accommodate renewable solutions, most of us will be using conventional methods for space heating. One way to reduce the impact of these old technologies is to limit our use of them. My household has started to track "Turn On The Heat Day" as a way to see when our carbon footprint is about to increase. It makes us aware of our personal contributions to a changing biosphere.

When we were in the north Indian town of Mussoorie, nestled in the foothills of the Himalaya, there was no Turn On The Heat Day at the guest house we were staying at. Days were warm, but evenings could see snow and our room was quite cool. Don't take your coat off.

We quickly got the hang of it, though. Stay in the sun until it sets, then don the warm clothing. Keep it on till bedtime, then jump into bed with a couple of large water bottles filled with hot water. It was a minimalist approach to our heating needs and worked rather well. It made us think about our energy use back home in Alberta, also in the foothills of a major mountain range.

Since then we have made Turn On The Heat Day a fun challenge that marks the turning of the seasons (as does Turn Off The Heat Day). When the day comes depends on many variables, location, weather conditions, and personal preferences. I imagine my sister, up on a mountain side in the Kootenays has already had her Turn On The Heat Day. Out here on the coast it might be a few more weeks. We will wait and see. But as we found out during a winter storm and extended power outage, there are things that we can do to keep warm without cranking the thermostat.

In December of 2006 the coast of B.C. was hammered by the worst wind storm since the 1960's. It knocked down thousands of trees and power poles, and we were without power for 4 days. Our unit's temperature sank to single digits, and bed was pretty much the place to be at any time. Out of bed, full outdoor clothing kept us warm, as did our down sleeping bags. We spent time in our bedroom (a smaller space) with a candle burning, and with our body heat, were quite comfortable.

I am not advocating winter house camping for the masses, but point out that small changes adopted collectively make a huge impact. See how long you can delay Turn on the Heat Day. Get out the sweaters and wool blankets. Trust me, it's fun. Once you have had your day, and your heat source is up and running for the season, see if you can get by using it less. If a space heater will suffice, use it. Turn the thermostat down a couple degrees. Throw less wood into the fire. Exercise indoor more often. A warm body is a tremendous furnace.

If possible, work toward the installation of a solar powered unit for your home. This winter I will have a small solar-powered system for our unit on the west coast. It will be useful during storm season, but we intend on using it as often as overcast winter days allow. It could power our computer and lights, as well as a small space heater.

When was your Turn On The Heat Day? Have you had it yet? I would like to hear from you regarding when your day was, and what you might be doing to delay it, shy of indoor camping. Have fun, and stay warm.

September 7, 2009

Simple, Simpler, Simplist

There are infinite ways to live less complicated lives more in tune with our ailing planet. How can you tell when you are doing it?

You could be a Simplist if:

- you collect cardboard boxes. You could be an Uber-Simplist if your furniture is made out of them.

- you go to Mexico instead of Spain for your next vacation. You could be an Uber-Simplist if you set up a tent in the backyard.

- you buy dented cans of food in the markdown cart. You could be an Uber-Simplist if you dig those cans from the dumpster behind the store.

- you homebrew your favorite beverage. You could be an Uber-Simplist if you quit drinking.

- drive your vehicle less. You could be an Uber-Simplist if you donate your vehicle to the local Car Share Cooperative and ride your bike. 

- you know who the Tinkers are. You could be an Uber-Simplist if you live like them.

- you are eating less meat. You could be an Uber-Simplist if you let the animals live and get to know beans as well as Henry David Thoreau.

- you are buying fewer books, magazines, cds, dvds... You could be an Uber-Simplist if your library card gets worked out more than your credit card.

- you recognize the frugal habits of teachers such as Buddha, Jesus, Ghandi, Peace Pilgrim, Socrates, and others. You could be an Uber-Simplist if they are your heroes.

- you admire the frugal habits of your grandparents. You could be an Uber-Simplist if your grandparents come to you for tips.

- your ecological footprint is less than 7.1 hectares/17.75 acres (the Canadian average). You could be an Uber-Simplist if your footprint is less than 1.88 hectares/4.7 acres (hectares per person of productive land on Earth).

- you support farmers markets and local growers. You could be an Uber-Simplist if your garden provides all your food.

- your partner cuts your hair. You could be an Uber-Simplist if you cut your own.

- you consider how your habits and choices affect the world. It does not get more Uber than that.