Towards Sustainability

I am ever more struck by the fragility of modern American life.  There is no denying that by and large we enjoy a higher quality of life than any other society in history.  But that quality of life is predicated on dozens of factors remaining constant.  One slip, and the whole thing can fall apart.

A divorce can leave a formerly well-off single mother trapped in the welfare cycle, never quite breaking free, too drained by child care to put her full energy into a career, and too drained by fighting for work and resources to give her children the attention they crave.

A layoff leaves a family suddenly pinching every penny and going further and further into debt.  Unused to being unable to give their children the things they considered "necessities" until recently, they descend into bitter bickering and wounded self-confidence.  Their worsening credit rating means they are denied the loans they need now more than ever.  Unable to pay for a trivial car repair, the parents find themselves dependent on friends and neighbors for transportation – making it even harder to look for work.  Self-esteem plummets, and crippling depression sets in.  Even if and when work is found, it takes months or years to crawl out of the crippling debt load and poor credit rating incurred by a few months of unemployment. 

The bounty of international foodstuffs available at any suburban supermarket relies on a massive and intricate supply chain infrastructure.  Stores only stock a few days’ worth of goods at most.  A fuel shortage or other disaster affecting interstate logistics, and famine is short weeks away.

A family finds they can have the American dream, with all the little luxuries they desire, and send the kids to college – so long as both parents work full-time, fifty weeks a year, until they are sixty-five, and neither one ever contracts a debilitating illness, opts to pursue creative dreams, or decides to stay home with the children.

The older I get, the less I am OK with this state of being.  This is absurd.  It’s irresponsible.  It’s unsustainable.

Now, I am not one of those who believes sustainable living can come only at the expense of reverting to a semi-primitive lifestyle.  I believe that kind of life just opts for a different sort of fragility, a different set of dangers.

But as a society we are like a man who must run 24/7 in order to stay alive.  If he slows or stops for a moment, he will die. I don’t want to force everyone to slow down to a uniform walking pace.  I want to make the running optional.

It is increasingly clear to me that a good portion of my life’s effort moving forward will be to create a place, a set of values, a whole mode of living which will allow myself, my family, and anyone who chooses to join us to live robustly.  A place and a lifestyle which will accommodate setbacks as a normal part of the rhythm of life rather than as life-changing events which trigger a destructive spiral.  A community dedicated to the idea that bountiful resources can be experienced as true abundance, with all the leeway that abundance implies, rather than as only ever just enough.

View All


  1. Yes.

    That word was my first reaction.


    I also believe that the current system is a bit out of whack, but that the ability to lead a life filled with bounty is possible (and even necessary) if we only make some changes..

    Part of the realignment is going to be physical and material… and I also believe that, at the core, these changes need to be about increasing transparency and altering incentives… allow energy costs to be what they really are (here–I’m thinking about removing all the tax breaks for oil..) while also using limited incentives (either carbon taxes or some other tool) to help encourage investments in forms of energy that are renewable and stustainable.. realigning our economy in this way would do a bunch..

    The second part of this realignment is going to have to be intimate and personal… People’s attitudes and knowledge and interests are going to become sustainable… This is not about becoming eco-hippie-tree-loving liberals or anything like that.. it is going to be about recognizing something deeper… that material things don’t==happiness–although they are often very cool and can help us find joy.. it is about focussing on the people around us figuring out what really brings you together…

    This is starting to sound like pseudo-philosophical tripe.. so I’ll stop here.. because I’m not capturing what I want to say well.. but perhaps I know a better way to describe it.

    Let me speak of our family’s holiday tradition.. Although Jai and I both came from christian backgrounds (me liberal Catholic, her conservative southern baptist), neither of us remain very religious at all or really feel an attachment to the x-mas tradition as it currently is… Yes.. I do like x-mas trees and candles–but not so much that I feel compelled to have one..

    Many years ago (8, to be exact, I believe), Jai came up with an idea so that we could do something fun with her kids for x-mas…so instead of spending money on lots and lots of physical objects that usually quickly go by the wayside in life–we now always go up to the Wisconsin Dells and spend 3 days at an indoor water park. We bring our own food and drink, and we spend the time eating, drinking, running around the waterpark, going down waterslides, hanging out in hot tubs and wavepools, and having an all around memorable and fun experience. We have also expanded this tradition by telling our friends, and now we have a group of people who come up with us.. (Jules’ family is a fairly consistent addition.. for example..)

    We have created a new tradition.. and I believe it is a good one.. Rather than having holidays be about spending as much money as you can on things.. it is about creating an experience and a tradition where we can relate to each other….

    Does this cost money? Of course.. but instead of spending multiple hundreds of dollars on things that don’t connect us–we spend about 50% less on an experience that does… (I think we will end up spending around $500 total on room and food for three days of pure awesomness..for the 5 of us..)

    Thus.. it isn’t about giving up or slamming our society–but about realigning it along paths that create greater meaning in our lives…

    Do I think my example would work for everyone? Hell no. Diversity rules our world.. but getting people to actually think about these things and figuring out how to start changing their lives to create more meaningful and sustainable paths would be a crucial first step…

    And now.. I need more coffee..

    Happy Holidays for you! Happy first day of the rebirth of the Sun!

    1. Re: Yes.

      Thanks for the comment. For me, I think, the focus will be more personal and close to home. The biggest problem I see at that level is the nuclear family – 1-2 parents plus a couple of children just has no redundancy to speak of, and therefore low sustainability. Our goal is to move towards a situation where we are living with a small group of like-minded individuals or families, to try and re-create the kind of extended-family living arrangements still practiced in much of the developing world. Other initiatives will include cutting costs wherever possible, and pursuing some of the cooperative/DIY/agrarian practices more traditionally associated with “sustainable” living.

      1. Re: Yes.

        The redundancy thing reminds me of how often I think about this or that and how much easier it would be if i/we lived near the ones we loved. So many things it’s be easier to share to do to make our lives more functional and less stressful. But sadly people are scattered and spread all about. In America we aren’t very likely to live near our relatives and we’re not likely to have many close friends either and i think it’s really damaging for our society. We don’t work together enough because we have no one to work with.

  2. Oh also I think the idea of sending your kids to college on your dollar is kind of a silly idea in the first place but I understand the idea of what you mean separate from that.

Comments are closed.