Sustainable Living Rule #1: Be Gentle To Yourself

My friend Nick listens thoughtfully as I tell my sob story.

“The film is too stressful,” I say. “I am always running around. I am never able to be where I want to be.”

He shakes his head. “That’s not very sustainable, Caroline.”

I look at him, puzzled. “What do you mean?” I say.

“I mean, for you.”

I gazed at him. How irrelevant!, I thought, but the thought quickly passed. He’s right. How can I expect others to join me in an environmentally-sustainable revolution… if even I’m not having any fun doing it?

This is the story I want to pass along. This is what I want people to learn from my three-month sustainable living experiment. I’m more at peace now, knowing that teaching others exactly how to live more sustainably themselves is a secondary goal. Rather, I’m interested in conveying even more valuable knowledge than that: what I went through while trying to maintain this lifestyle.

I learned that I need to be gentle to myself. I learned that in order to love Mother Nature, you must love the most intimate manifestation of her you will ever know: yourself.

Since that conversation with Nick, I have learned to ask myself “is this sustainable for me to be doing?” A great example of when my so-called “sustainable lifestyle” is not personally sustainable comes in the form of my living quarters.

The Mili-tent. I love it and I hate it, but I mostly hate it. I hate it because I get inadequate sleep each night I sleep there, due to insufficient bedding and padding. This causes me, about twice a week, to crash on the couches of study lounges and my boyfriend’s house, desperate for rest.

But I had good reasons for choosing a tent, initially. I figured that removing myself from a common situation–living in an apartment–would help me to feel removed from using electricity and using municipal water. If I constantly had those temptations around me, what are the odds that I’d make much progress at all in learning how to innovate sustainable ways? It would also cost me too much money, and the mission of the Sust Enable series is to explore exceedingly affordable options. In order to do this film, I couldn’t work, and if I couldn’t work, I couldn’t pay for the apartment. But that’s another implicit mission–to reorganize my life around what is truly important.

Others who have walked down my path share this attitude: they start fresh with a new house, a new cabin, or any other manifestation of a brand-new living space. It is essential to help break old thought-patterns and seed new ones.

Another major personally-unsustainable aspect of my life is: what do I eat when I’m downtown?

There are no affordable sustainable food venues in downtown Pittsburgh. Moreover, there isn’t a single grocery store. Everything available is either pre-packaged or prepared, with nary a whisper about the source of the food. Thus, I must either go hungry or buy unsustainable food… that is, when I don’t remember to prepare dumpstered/forest edible food the night before.

One challenge has been establishing new routines to replace my old, environmentally unsustainable ones. A routine I haven’t quite gotten yet is when to set aside time to cook for the next full day that I’ll be downtown. Starting a fire is an art I still struggle with, plus it can take up to an hour to prepare and cook that much food! (I’ll be better off once I build my solar cooker.)

On the other hand, if it’s important to me, then I will make time in my life for such alterations in routine. I will allow myself the time to cook and enjoy it. I won’t bemoan the fact that a microwave could do it in 90 seconds.

There are many great examples of what is easily adopted into my lifestyle, and indeed enhances my quality of life: bike-riding is tops on that list! Also, urban foraging, dumpster diving and water collection have all improved my sense of a relationship with nature.

I feel like I’m acclimating more and more to the change within myself, too, and not just the alterations I’m imposing on my life. I am confident that many of the lifestyle modifications I will explore in the Sust Enable series will carry over into my life after the project. Indeed, I wouldn’t want to let them go: they have shown me how to be gentle to myself… how to respect my creativity, relaxation time, and truest desires, instead of merely brushing them aside in the rushing, bustling, competitive mindset that most of my fellow countrypeople suffer from today. If we want Earth to thrive, it is essential that each one of us–internally, emotionally, and physically–learn how to thrive too.

  1. Kendra Holliday

    I am online every day, all day. I think one of the most sustainable things I could do for myself is to give myself a Tech Sabbath Day once a week like I read in NYTimes. We all need balance and I am addicted to the internet!

  2. Nick Hein

    I might be able to connect you with some good sustainable food sources in downtown Pittsburgh. I’m from Morgantown, WV but I go there occaisionally. I’m a virtual member of the Pittsburgh Raw Food group. Raw and foraged food is a great, fun way to be more sustainable. In fact sustainability is not (or should not be) our end goal. When we reach sustainability it just means we’ve stopped killing ourselves (which we never should have started doing). In the end we want to restore our environment to as good a state as it would have been without us, and then optimize it to support (ALL) life in the best way BECAUSE of us. Anyway I’ll be biking through Pittsburgh July 7. Contact me at nick.hein at verizon.net if you’d like to talk more.


  3. Justin Van Kleeck

    This is all entirely true, Caroline. One of the things that bothers me most about environmentalism is the sort of expectation or belief that in order to do anything really valuable for the environment, you have to do extreme things. Your experiment is pretty “extreme” in a lot of ways, and it seems you are discovering how parts of it are counterproductive rather than fruitful. And those things that prohibit growth, that squash the energy of life, indeed are NOT sustainable. I have pushed myself in ways, too, that were counterproductive and harmful; I still do, and I am always struggling to find the balance between idealism and pragmatism.

    One lesson I have learned, though, is that the fantastic living body/community that is life on Earth also includes ME. I am a member of that body, no less important than any other. So when I am not well, the planet is not well…indeed life itself is not well. I hope you find a supportive, sustainable life, Caroline. Blessings.

  4. Eileen Jerrett

    I understand what you are saying 100%. And you bring up a great point. I also make documentaries about issues I believe in but my friends/family know me as a ghost, b/c there is always something I need to do for the film.
    Sustainable life. Sustainable happiness. Keeping our lively hood alive far too often has taken the back burner.
    So there is a chance of not working hard enough and your hard work and all the work of those that believed in your vision not seeing it’s true potential. That is a possibility. It is also a possibility that we will burn out far too early and never get to really get into the “meat and potatoes” of your mission.


  5. Terra McBride

    What an incredibly journey you are on. Kudos.

    You mention Downtown and your frustration with finding good food options there. There is in fact a grocery store Downtown now, called Rosebud. It is on the first floor of The Encore on 7th Street. I’d be interested to hear what you think of it. There is also a Farmer’s Market in Market Square on Thursdays.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

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