The Sustainable Life (with less)

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Hi Rob,

I have been studying permaculture for several years now, but once we get past the basics of gardening we seem to run into the same wall again and again. That wall for us is a balance of time and money, my husband works a ton of hours (all or nothing with his company, can’t reduce) and of course you need money, so many of our projects get shelved because he doesn’t have time to contribute. The only reason I explain this is that I’ve realized that I need to create a people care plan, because realistically, if I know our minimum to live comfortably, I can create a phased approach on how to get there (without Dean’s current income).  The move last year was a big step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. So I’m wondering if you and Michelle have any favourite resources on living a minimalist lifestyle? You have frequently used the term “living a life that does not require credit” is that your term or has it been coined by someone else perhaps?

Thanks,
Tiffany

 

Tiffany,

You have asked the million dollar question, or should I say, the question that can save you having to trade all of your life energy generating the income to pay your million dollar mortgage. How do I reach the sustainability goals that I so desperately want to accomplish without having to spend all of my time at a job I don’t want? The short answer is spend less and find a job that meets your needs for income and freedom of time. There is a quote from a book I just read that says “retirement is the deferred life plan.” I could not agree more. Don’t wait until you are 60 to start doing what you want to do!

To be honest, it has more to do with what is inside than what is outside and there are tons of good resources for this. I have come to believe that it is not the things that I have that make me sustainable, but the things that I don’t have.

It is amazing to me how many people buy homes wanting to make them eco, only to find that they are unable to do what they truly want to the home. Typically this happens for three reasons: 1) they can’t afford to do anything because they are house rich and cash poor; 2) they are so busy working to pay a mortgage that they have no time to invest in their home; and 3) most ironically, they buy their house for the resale value which is counter to one of the main reasons they got into the house in the first place. In other words, they don’t want to get rid of the lawn or retrofit the home in a different way because they are scared they won’t be able to sell the house later. So are you living for resale, or are you living to pursue your dreams and values?

I have installed multiple food forests for home owners who spend $1000 to $2000 on plants, only to find out that they sold their home a year later. For this reason, based on today’s real estate market in Alberta, I think you are not much worse off to install a food forest on your landlord’s property, if they want it, and manage it there. Even though people don’t want to admit it, renting is still cheaper right now. Homes are not appreciating significantly and, according to Maclean’s Magazine, home prices in Canada are majorly inflated, which would make real estate very expensive if your home depreciates substantially. A lot of the time, home ownership is an emotional decision, not solely based in sound economic strategy. Even better than installing a food forest at your landlord’s place is installing it in a community garden so that when you leave, the infrastructure will benefit the whole community. It is a great place to practice and, if there is a community group involved, there is a good chance that it will be maintained if you have to leave.

Creativity is an important part of the answer to your question as well. Because we are all so in debt, stressed out and time poor, we never really have the time to think creatively. Lack of creativity when it comes to permaculture design is paid for in trips to Home Depot to buy new things that you can probably get for free if you have patience, check Kijiji, and do the occasional dumpster dive. The other day I went to an unnamed hardware store with an unnamed friend and extracted $500 worth of 12 ft 2X4’s in 45 minutes from a dumpster. We live in one of the most wasteful countries in the world, which is a boon for a permie who has time and creativity on their side.

Sentiment is another big barrier to sustainability for some folks. We all have preconceived notions about how things have to look or have to be built, but if we can step outside of our heads for a bit, we find all sorts of ways to build things in unique, cost effective ways. For example, cob, a building material that is made with clay and sand, has high compressive strength and is indigenous to the prairies. This material can be used to build benches, counter tops that look like concrete, floors, rocket mass heaters, homes, sheds and so on. If you live on or near clay you can do some magical stuff with this adaptable material.

Freedom of Time is a big one that you have brought up. Ultimately I think that we all work way more than we should. Some of you might think that I am lazy to say this but the people who know me know that this is definitely not the case. I work too much too, partially because of what I do and partially because it is not cheap to live in the city. In order to free up your time, you either have to spend less, or you have to earn more in less time. The second option is illusive and, in my opinion, not many people succeed in getting there. The easiest way to work less is spend less. The book Your Money or Your Life (Robin, Dominguez, Tilford) talks about how a dollar saved is worth more than a dollar earned. This is because every dollar earned is taxed by the government, benefit plans, etc. What it really comes down to is “living below your means”. A lot of people look at this as a sacrifice, but my question to you is, what is more of a sacrifice, living without a few luxuries, or being time poor? For me freedom of time is worth more than anything, as luxuries don’t get me closer to my goals, they don’t allow me to spend more time with my family and they don’t let me work on the projects that I want to work on. CBC interviewed an author recently who wrote a book about the elderly, specifically about advice that the elderly would give to young people based on mistakes they made. Resoundingly, their advice was that time is the ultimate commodity. Sobering advice for our fast paced culture of “got to do everything yesterday”.

There are plenty of resources available out there to help you reduce your cost of living. Kijiji, Freecycle, Freegan websites, Craigslist, Streetbank and even dumpster diving offer access to materials inexpensively or for free. In my opinion, sustainability should not cost an arm and a leg and, if it is done properly, it should save you money. Buying your food (fruit, veg, and meat) when it is seasonally available in bulk quantities and preserving and freezing if for the whole year is a great way to save cash. Participating in the gleaning projects like Calgary Harvest, and OFRE in Edmonton, should provide most of the fruit, juice and preserves you could ever want. Growing food will also save tons, especially as food gets more expensive. Sites like Build It Solar offer tons of advice on how to build your own renewable energy systems on the cheap. Setting up clothing swaps with friends can save hundreds of dollars on clothes for kids and adults, and it builds community.

At the end of the day, time and money are related but when your time is up, you can’t use money to buy more. The only way you can free up your time is by spending less and getting more creative about how you get materials and achieve your goals. My advice to most people is get out of debt, which usually is ignored because home ownership is so deeply engrained in our culture. Always ask yourself, do I own it, or does it own me? Lastly, I would encourage you to read a great article by my good friend, Ashley Lubyk of Dirt Craft Natural Building called “Why Working Less Is Better for the Planet.”

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  • Susan Frank

    I jumped out of the machine 10 years ago. I had a 3 hour commute to a 40 hour a week job that was stressful and didn’t fit my values. We have less money but I am happier and enjoy my freedom. I never shop in retail stores as I find Thrift Stores fill all my needs. I believe there is enough “stuff” in the world that no one has to buy anything new. You can thrift store, trade, or search free web sites. I got married 5 years ago and wrote and had published an article on “Don’t Get Sucked Into The Bridal Vortex”. Did you know some brides spend thousands of dollars on a dress they will only wear once for a maximum of 5 hours…..koo koo for koko puffs! We need to appreciate our limited time on earth. My Dad recently passed away. I asked him what the best gift he ever recieved was…he said TIME spent with people. Thank you, Susan Frank

    • rob avis
      Rob Avis

      Thanks for comment Susan, great points!

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