Lesson One: Living Sustainably is Not Automatically Possible

Five months ago, from the comfort of my warm Pittsburgh apartment, and with all the cozy feelings accompanying a lovely Christmas vacation, I decided that it would be a great idea if I tried to live 100% environmentally sustainably for three months, from May to July. Plus, I could document the experience through an online webcast video series about living sustainably! I would call it, (drum roll please)… Sust Enable. It was too good to be true!

Vivid fantasies of learning new skills, while growing as a person and simultaneously being useful to humanity were extraordinarily titillating. How could I resist an idea like that? I got started on the planning right away. This was to be my opus.

Life is very different now.

screen shot from β€œSust Enable”

I am two weeks in to the experimental adventure that I have been anticipating for many months. Fresh off of a grueling final semester of college, plus a stressful move, I also launched headfirst into a lifestyle transformation that I am still trembling from. Compound that adjustment period with a chaotic graduation day and a brutal poison ivy rash, and you have a pretty clear-cut recipe for a breakdown.

Many months of excited expectation crumbled quickly in the first few days of the sustainable experiment. The “culture shock” of trying to live sustainably, instead of traditionally, in the same physical environment to which I was accustomed resulted in overpowering emotions. I felt like a patent failure because it was incredibly difficult to live sustainably each day. I wept often. It is thanks to the encouragement of others who believed in the project that I got out of that depression and into the tent, into the dumpsters, into the great unknown!

Today is the 19th day I have tried to live sustainably. My attitude is positive. I admit, however, that I have succeeded, at least to my knowledge, on just a couple of those days.

Yet it has been healthy for me to realize that the blame falls not with me for the vast majority of “unsustainable” decisions I made. Our society, system-wide and even legally, undercuts and in some cases, downright prevents sustainable options from being implemented right now in the lives of Americans. This becomes more and more evident to me daily. And while it once nearly derailed me from my dreams of living a sustainable life in urban America, it now inspires me to look deeper for answers.

Since, for myriad stupid reasons, the U.S. is essentially opposed to its people living in a voluntarily simplistic and environmentally-conscious way, the onus of responsibility falls on me to innovate creative ways to live sustainably within their constraints. For example, it may be considered illegal to have “urban chickens” in some city districts. How, then, might someone in that situation satisfy their poultry-related nutritional needs in an environmentally responsible way? I am now focused more on researching and designing alternatives that will make living sustainably possible for me, because…

Lesson One: Unlike my expectation, to instantly live sustainably on May 1st was never a real option.

  1. Tamara Griesel

    just thought I’d let you know that your link on the oil drum website goes to your old site…they’ll update if you drop them a line.

    I hae learned that trying to make any major change all at once isusually counterproductive. I’m trying to change one habit at a time in moving toward sustainability.

  2. Nick Hein

    I admire you for taking on this challenge. I just found out about your blog from the Green Options site. In addition to legal constraints that bind us to destructive lifestyles, my family doesn’t support sustainability to the extent that I do. This used to cause me distress and I didn’t understand why I got so emotional about it. I’ve since changed to a raw food diet and discovered that much of my anxiety was coming from food chemicals. You have some wonderful raw food resources in Pittsburgh, let me know if you’re interested in finding out more about them.

    About the same time I also gave up driving and have started a local non-profit to support other citizens who choose to do the same. There was a lot of stress and guilt in the motor-vehicle world too that I’ve since left behind.

    Nick Hein
    Morgantown, WV

  3. David Zetland


    Please define what you mean by “live sustainably”. May people think that buying carbon offsets can take care of their “footprint”.

    Second, I disagree with this statement “the U.S. is essentially opposed to its people living in a voluntarily simplistic and environmentally-conscious way” because the US is a place and it’s full of people. Perhaps you mean laws? People around you? Corporate advertising? Prices in the market?

    It is, in fact, easy to live in the way you aspire — but not in a city. If you want to grow food, drink water from a stream, etc., you need to move into the country. The problem with this, of course, is a lack of Wi-Fi πŸ™‚ so perhaps you need to clarify the tradeoffs you are prepared to make to get closer to your goal.

    Your self-experimentation sounds like a good learning experience for you — please continue to share it with us.

  4. Hyla Waldron

    Awesome! Good Luck! We are a family of five and are currently doing the same just not as extreme and not as quickly. Every time we run out of a store bought product, I look up how to make it and then refill the bottle myself! I love feeling like an Alchemist for my family, especially seeing my children learning from me!

    Hyla Waldron

  5. Maria

    What a neat idea. Best of luck to you. I’ll be interested to learn what practices you carry on, even after the experiment in over. I can’t wait to learn from you some tips to help in my lifestyle. You can do it!

  6. Caroline Savery

    David, in response to your questions:

    “living sustainably” is indeed an always difficult thing to define. I define it, for the purposes of my project, as taking actions and providing for myself in a way that contributes no waste factor whatsoever. So, for instance, I take advantage of electricity that would be wasted anyway, when I use the computers at my university’s library. The computers are always on, as they are in countless other libraries across the world. Getting Point Park University to change their policies on leaving computers constantly running might be possible, but they’d be doing something that is currently out of the ordinary, and thus, they’d be likely to automatically and unreasonably resist such change.

    This relates to the issue, too, of what I meant when I said the “U.S. opposes sustainability.” I mean it in all of the ways you mentioned: certainly laws, the mental and social environment created by agressive advertising in the U.S., cultural attitudes perpetuated by the majority of Americans who are affected by that advertising and many other social factors, etc. Just like with any obsolete paradigm for thinking or behavior, this attitudinal environment will stagnate and deteriorate, but there must also be something new to replace it that is an obvious improvement to all.

    Now is the time for people like you, and like me, who will take that risk of stepping forward and innovating a new way. My approach is very focused on what the individual American can do, which as Tamara noted, may sometimes feel counterproductive when operating within the current social context. However, what I am working on in no way diminishes the work others are doing in different realms, to help bring about a sustainable planet. In fact, it is essential to the success of my project that there are others doing other things in just such a symbiotic way.

  7. kim

    It’s great to come across this posting…now I don’t feel so bad. I made the choice to start using public transportation instead of driving and in a city that really isn’t set up for public transportation not like New York or Chicago and I can tell you that it is almost impossible to do without a car. You can perhaps take public transportation depending on where you work….some are biking part way then take their bikes on the trains or on buses when it’s not feasible to bike the rest of the way; but it’s pretty much not doable. You have to have a car. If for no other reason to drive it to the train station, then park and ride the rest of the way to work. Then you look at how empty the public transportation is and you think about how wasteful it is to even run that bus or train period. So, so much for my trying to make a sizeable dent in my carbon footprint. Frankly I think I am just better off buying a car that gets that 40-50 mpg…it’s a more sensible way to manage this city; then I need to move to an apartment complex that recycles…that’s the other killer. I was driving to a place to take my plastic to be recycled because the apt complex does not recycle; how much sense does that make in the long run? And the trash getting thrown out here, it’s a huge apt complex that isn’t recycling; it makes me lose sleep at night. You are correct that we are not set up for living sustainably. Europe is much further ahead than we are in the U.S. So, it needs to be state mandated or even federally mandated. That’s what it took for the Europeans to make change. Because it will take more than just me giving up driving to improve what is going on in our loser city/country; if anything I stick out like a sore thumb and am a vote against people considering trying to do the same thing. Not to mention there comes a time when you have to put a value on your own time. What it takes for me to run errands all by public transportation in time makes me want to cry. I have made no major purchases in a year now, I’ve sold much of what I owned that I didn’t absolutely have to have…I am living very frugally and it makes me see how our culture does not support that type of living….the advertising for the latest it bags, or our celebrity worship; even movies, and yes, WI-Fi, it’s my biggest luxury right now, and I don’t consider it a luxury it’s a way of life that makes living simply much easier. After all, I can go without a land line due to skype, I can talk to people through email instead of wasting paper. My life can be stored on a flash drive instead of in file cabinets. No the computer or a laptop is a necessity as I see it. In fact, soon we will probably be able to be without television because we can catch it on our computer…I too am in the middle of this process and seeing just what one can live without or what one needs. I will also say that I happen to be going through a particular phase that allows for this type of experimentation to go on. It won’t last. It can’t. It’s not feasible. No I am a believer in technological advances reducing our carbon footprints and cleaning up supply chains for product, plus using proper packaging, degradable plastics (which will take time to convert to). Going back to pioneer days is just that and I don’t think translates to the proper definition of sustainability because sustainability is improving the future without jeopardizing it which means we must experience progress…that doesn’t really support going off the grid.

  8. Liz

    Hi Carrie,
    Way to go and keep up this important work. I’m so glad to see you have a growing group of folks reading your blog!

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