Sunday, August 7, 2011

Choosing to live with less?

For the past 10 years --- more if you include summers --- Michael and I have chosen to live what my parents would have called a 'bohemian life' that meant living with limited utilities, limited comfort.

Whether we lived on our boat or in a rural village in Mexico or in our lake cottage in rural upstate New York, we constantly monitored our usage of what most Americans take for granted: water, sewage, gas, electric, garbage.

Know what we had, what we used, what we stored --- it was a lifestyle we had accidentally chosen.

We would carry a couple hundred gallons of fresh water on our 48' Maple Leaf sailboat, Sabbatical. So when I washed the dishes, took a shower, brushed my teeth, I knew I'd better not to let the water run because we would run out. Even after we moved off the boat and on to land when we built our home in Arroyo Seco, Mexico, the village would only turn on the water for an hour every morning so we could fill our water tanks for washing and watering. Drinking water still had come from the 5-gallon jugs purchased from the daily water trucks.

Living in our lake cottage in rural Upstate New York isn't a lot different. We use a beach well for our water, pumping the water into a big cistern located underneath the kitchen floor. So even in the United States, we've still had to be cognizant of how much water we've been using -- especially when we have guests -- or the cistern will go dry, which means the pump goes dry, which means Michael has to go grumbling down to the cellar to re-prime the pump. And then refill the cistern. Otherwise, no dishes, no showers, no flushing the toilets.

Because the 100-year-old cistern is a bit suspect, we haul water in by jugs. Limited water, just like on the boat. And just like Mexico.

Garbage is also an issue everywhere we've been living, which means selecting food and drink products based on the packaging. On the boat, small containers stored well. But then you have more containers to dispose of. We could fill glass bottles and throw them overboard to become crab condos on the bottom of the sea. But not plastic. We 'composted' food over the side because it's pointless to save it in a plastic garbage bag to send it back to a landfill.

In Mexico, if we throw everything into big plastic trash bags, the garbage guys will pick it up and deliver it just up the road from our village where they burn it. All of it --- including all plastics, toxic whatevers, tires, everything.

Really lovely when you live downwind....

So we tended to be careful to sort, compost, recycle, return.

Other utilities were limited as well.

When we ran out of propane on the boat for the stove and barbecue, the propane bottle would have to get to shore, then to a gas company for a refill (usually without a car), then back on the boat and reinstalled. So we were pretty careful with our propane use.

It was a little bit better in Mexico. The propane truck came by twice a week, although propane is pretty pricey there. For the water heater, we opted for a solar heater. Lots of sun in Mexico.

And then there's the head (or the bathroom for you landlubbers). That waste has to go somewhere. And the water that you flush with has to come from somewhere. Always a big issue on a boat. In Mexico and in New York, we built huge septic systems, so we wouldn't have to worry about that for at least a decade.

We hope.

So --- when we bought our 'new' little house in Watkins Glen, it seemed a miracle that the water would continue endlessly (as long as we pay the bill), we could drink the water, flush whenever and whatever, crank up the thermostat on the natural gas heat, put all the garbage out on the curb, throw all the recyclables into one container for someone else to sort.

These are comforts most Americans take for granted.

I could too. But here I am, not even five months into civilization, stunned at how easy it is to slip into a cavalier attitude about these resources. It's so easy to let more water run in the sink, run the dishwasher with only half a load. Same with the washing machine. Forget the clothelines! Just turn on the dryer.

So here's the first part of my epiphany for today: If I'm no longer vigilant about the packaging, the waste, the storage, if I can start to slide backwards after a decade of paying attention, and I multiply my attitude and use by an estimated 6.94 billion people on the planet, well, Houston, I think we've got a problem.

I finally understand the simplicity of the dilemma.

We're waiting and hoping for Americans (and all humans) to choose to turn off their faucets, take their bags to the grocery store, buy merchandise with the least amount of packaging so less is produced and less is taken to the landfill. We are hoping people will choose to use less of everything so we will need fewer energy resources which will then produce less pollution.

In the meanwhile, while we all bask in the ease and comfort of what we believe are unlimited resources, we're fouling our own nest and about to get expelled by Mother Earth. At least that's what it feels like these days as we break all kinds of weather records around the globe.

So the second part of my epiphany? We all need to change our lifestyles, use fewer resources, go without. And that's not going to happen. And it's probably too late.

Since I don't have a solution, all I can conclude is that perhaps my generation should start apologizing to our children right now. And to our grandchildren.

And in the meantime, turn the water faucet off.

An incredible video about the human destruction of our planet


Anonymous said...

great article.....I couldn't agree more with how easy it can be to slip into complacency! I too have been delegent with my conservation efforts (not completely because it's difficult to recognize everything when we have been so blessed) but I can see how easy it can be to take things for granted, especially when everything is available without even giving it a thought.
I pray that our children are being educated and can at least tilt the tide of things that would otherwise be enevitable (our planets demise) I'm doing my best to teach my grandchildren and great grandchildren to be conservative with everything and PLEASE...STOP THE WASTE.

John Adams said...

Yes, indeed. We all need to learn that we are living on a space ship that is finite and, except for sunlight, a closed system that is getting really fouled!

slamont said...

Earth is a big, or little, blue ball, and if we don't change our collective ways, it's going t be an even bigger mess.
Well done, Sylvia.

Pat LaMont said...

As always Sylvia, you say it all so well. I also agree w/you and we are trying to do our part to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Rodrigo Cruz said...

Dear Sylvia,
My name is Rodrigo Cruz, and I work for the law firm of Rincon, Mayorga, Roman, Illanes, Soto. Mr. Carlos Roman asked me to contact you in regards to your grandaughter's custody case. If possible, please provide me with your e-mail address. My e-mail is or alternatively, please contact Carlos Roman at thank you in advance.
Best regards,
Rodrigo Cruz