Greening your life can sometimes feel like one more set of activities to add to an already full dance card: Get a more fuel-efficient car, build a sustainable home, buy new and different household goods, learn new ways of doing things. Before you rev up to race around even faster—or just give up in despair—consider this: It’s environmentally sound, healthy, and sane to do less.
During a visit to the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute years ago, one of the gardeners toured me around the lush, productive gardens. In a hillside orchard, she gestured to a pair of hammocks strung between trees and said, “This is where we do our most important work.” I thought she was kidding, but then she explained: “We lie here and watch what’s going on in the gardens—who’s pollinating what, how the sun and shadows fall, where the water soaks into the soil, what critters come to visit. We always learn things we could never have guessed at. And then we work with what we learn to make the gardens more abundant with less effort.”
The same principle applies in your home, yard, and life. If you slow down and pay attention to how the world around you works, including your inner responses to what you notice (“That refrigerator noise is unbearable!” or “Ah, the sun on my skin feels good”), you can make simple shifts in your lifestyle and your surroundings that have big impacts. Think of it as acupuncture for your home and life: one little shift here, a big change in energy flow all over.
How does slowing down and doing less relate to the health of our earth? Jeremy Rifkin, an expert on technology’s impact on the economy, society, and the environment, sums it up well in Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History (Henry Holt, 1987):
“The desire, especially of the Western world, to produce and consume at a frantic pace has led to a depletion of our natural endowment and the pollution of our biosphere. Nature’s own production and recycling rhythms have been so utterly taxed by the twin dictates of economic efficiency and speed that the planetary ecosystems are no longer capable of renewing resources as fast as they are being depleted or recycling waste as fast as we can discard it.”
If you’re thinking about building a new home or adding to the one you’re in, consider the least structure that will meet your needs—or not even building at all. Virtually every act of construction, no matter how green, involves extracting, transporting, and consuming resources; tearing up and covering land; and disrupting lives, human and otherwise. If the structure will be mechanically heated or cooled, the bigger the house, the more fuel it consumes. Being off the power grid is no panacea; a large solar array consumes resources and energy in its creation, and sooner or later it’s likely to need replacement. In short, minimizing your power needs reduces the size of the solar array.
Here’s a vivid illustration of the importance of building less: Despite energy-efficiency regulations and opportunities, homes built in the past decade use more energy than homes built in the previous three decades, according to a report in Environmental Building News (January, 1999). Per capita residential energy consumption has increased dramatically, largely because homes have doubled in size over the last fifty years.
Good design can make small spaces live large. If you’re building a new home, look carefully at your actual needs and values. Learn the principles of effective space design or work with a good designer, and consider garden living and outdoor rooms as ways to use less material and avoid consuming fuel for heating and cooling. You’ll quickly notice that building less means saving money.
If you’re considering a remodel, look at whether redesigning your home’s layout could meet your needs better than an addition. If adding on looks like the best way to go, be creative about ways to keep that addition from getting out of hand. You might add outdoor rooms rather than heated space; they’re a great way to extend living space and enjoy your garden while improving the energy efficiency of your house by shading it or collecting solar warmth.
It’s tempting to shop for the lowest prices so we can afford more stuff, but ecological awareness invites us to do the opposite: Buy the fewest things you need, and buy the highest quality you can. All too often, cheap merchandise is unsatisfying, unattractive, and short-lived, requiring replacement sooner than its high-quality counterpart. That means you’ll probably end up spending as much or more in the long run and sending your rejects to the landfill. Building less and buying well go hand in hand. Building a smaller house or remodeling instead of expanding your home may leave room in your budget for higher-quality materials.
Two friends’ kitchens illustrate this point. One friend remodeled his kitchen several years ago, using the cheapest cabinets, fixtures, and finish materials he could find at the local big-box store. Not only did the cabinets outgas formaldehyde, but they aged quickly; the finishes were easily damaged, and the fixtures wore out too soon. Now he needs to do the job all over again, canceling any “savings” he made the first time around and creating more waste.
Another friend remodeled the kitchen in her fifties-era home. The cabinets were showing their age, but inspection revealed they were made of solid wood. She decided that refinishing the existing cabinets was the greenest and most affordable thing to do—and they have a cool retro look. For a durable countertop, she poured and stained concrete. Then she splurged on beautiful slate tiles for the backsplash. They were expensive per square foot, but she didn’t need many of them, and they have a large visual impact relative to their small area. My friend also sprang for high-quality faucets and appliances, and she can count on them to last a long time and use less water, gas, and electricity. This kitchen will also need less maintenance, which brings us back to the subject of doing less.
Less activity, more satisfaction
The common thread here is quality, whether in things, activities, time, or relationships. Racing around doing more is not conducive to good relationships, good health, good gardening, good nutrition, good design, or good sex. You name it, it’s almost always better done in a relaxed way. When we’re running to keep up with an overwhelming schedule, we tend to narrow our bandwidth; we lose our sense of play, sense of humor, and the ability to notice subtleties or to hear the still, small voice within. We lose our vitality, which is the core of green living. Our most important job as humans on planet Earth is to take care of life, including ourselves.
Although the pressure to do more, work harder, spend more, and consume more is great, you don’t have to be a cog in that machine. Look at your “to do” list; ask yourself if each activity supports the vitality in you, your family, and the living earth. Reclaim your time and money from energy-draining pursuits, then give them to yourself, your loved ones, and the ecosystems that support you. It’s all about priorities.