What have you done today to lower your impact?

We are washing away the foundations of our existence on every front. It is high time we move from crashing about on the planet like a bull in china shop and find a way to go forward with intent. We must find systems of living based on sustainability. The systems and tools exist, it is up to each of us to adopt them.

Blog Archive

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Personal Health and Basic Needs - by Robb

Many who seem to be struggling with adversity are happy; many, amid great affluence, are utterly miserable. - Tacitus

Sustainable living is after all about “living” first and foremost. Quality of life issues must enter into the discussion. In order to get the most out of life careful attention must be paid to health of body, mind, and spirit. A healthy body facilitates a healthy mind and the two together allow a state of being in which one can appropriately deal with matters of spirit.

First and foremost in any style of life, basic needs must be met; food, clothing, shelter, hygiene. There are many issues within these that will warrant detailed discussion but for now let’s consider just the basics. What does each require? This is about the basics, what is required, not what would be nice. What do we need, not what do we want. In order for the typical affluent lifestyle to become sustainable we need to personally redefine the word “need”. We should also consider what is meant by "affluent". By affluent I don’t mean the typical idea of some financial threshold in the west. My concept of affluent would include almost every citizen of the developed world. A person who owns a television is affluent compared to one who does not, or more importantly cannot. Moreover a person living check to check in America but who does not want for the basics and can afford a computer or television is affluent compared to a Bangladeshi whose primary concerns center around providing the basics. If you can regularly afford material possessions, consumer goods, above and beyond basic needs you are affluent compared to the rest of the world. For many of us living in affluence, rich or poor, our relationship with our possessions has become the central relationship of our lives. We think we are dependent upon consumer goods for our happiness. It is that very dependence which makes us unhappy and insecure, not to mention presenting an unsustainable load on the ecosystem. Close investigation of this will bring us to a clearer understanding of what is truly needed.
This process does not preclude luxury, convenience, or material goods. We don’t need to become ascetics. Sustainable living develops out of a thorough examination of what is needed and determining what is not which enables us to make very conscious decisions about what “extras” to bring into our lives.

For example, consider the clothes dryer, necessity or luxury? I currently live in northern England, a damp generally cold place. Many people in this part of the world don’t own, or if they do, don’t often use, a clothes dryer. We dry our clothes on a line when the weather permits, on racks in the house when it doesn’t. When I visit my family in southeastern America, I see very few clotheslines. The weather is much more conducive to solar drying but people choose to spend the energy, the money, and the climate on fossil fuel powered clothes dryers. This is surely not a necessity, at times it may be a convenience, often I think it has to do with image. Clotheslines are seen as being for the poor and unsightly, they are even banned in many subdivisions, as is becoming more common in England as well. Somehow the clothes upon which we place so much importance to make us appear “properly” fashionable become less than aesthetically pleasing when off the body. Just so many rags that spoil the view of the house. This need to impress with an impressive looking house gets into the discussion on shelter which will come later.

So somehow owning a clothes dryer has become a “necessity” for most. It is obviously not. This is about convenience and ego gratification, about image relative to your neighbor, never mind that you may not know your neighbors very well because one of the activities that might bring you into interaction with them, hanging out clothes in the lovely sunshine, has been replaced by stuffing clothes into a machine indoors. Much could be also be said about the “need” for convenience here. Many feel they just couldn’t give up the ability to dry clothes at all hours and quickly. They just wouldn’t have time for the finer things in life if they had to tend laundry on a line. Personally, I find great satisfaction from hanging out laundry. One of the finer things in life is a of feeling self sufficiency, of relying on natures gifts, smelling the breeze, feeling the sun on my shoulders. It also puts me in touch with the ownership and condition of my clothes as well my use of them, a topic for the discussion on clothing. Surely there will be times when the clothes dryer will be useful, it's rained for 2 weeks and your house is full of half dry clothing and your stash of dry work clothes has run out. Does that mean you have to use it the other 50 weeks of the year? Is that problem insurmountable any other way. Most folks in America will own a clothes dryer. Using it less will make it last longer, drastically cut down on utility bills, and ultimately reduce GHG emissions through the combined efforts of conservation.

Being realistic about what is truly needed and what is just needless convenience or ego gratification allows us to make conscious choices about what we do with personal and common resources. Ego gratification is a factor to be considered when looking at the basics as I believe it is largely responsible for many of the excesses of our personal lives and society at large. I’m sure it will come up time after time in this discussion of sustainable living.

Getting back to considerations of basic needs.

Food - The body requires proper nutrition based on level of activity, climate, body type. Food must provide enough energy to sustain necessary activity while supporting the immune system, the brain, growth into adulthood, healthy organs and bones. Food needn’t provide excess calories, ego gratification, or comfort above and beyond physical requirements.

Clothing - must provide protection from the elements and allow for comfort while addressing modesty within societal norms. It needn’t provide ego gratification, or a sense of superiority or conformity.

Shelter - must provide protection from the elements and safety enough to allow food storage and preparation, secure and comfortable sleeping arrangements, healthy family interactions, areas for proper practice of hygiene and storage of tools. It needn’t provide entertainment, ego gratification, or storage of unnecessary accumulation of material goods.

Hygiene - must provide sanitary removal of bodily waste from the living space, water enough to maintain reasonable bodily cleanliness, systems for cleaning of food, cooking areas, clothing, and shelter to keep sickness and vermin at bay. It needn’t mean excessive washing or disinfecting of the body, clothing or shelter, nor need it involve personal adornment or ego gratification.

Again, this isn’t about asceticism, merely a change in perspective. Poverty is not required or desirable. As Duane Elgin has said in his book “Voluntary Simplicity”

“Poverty is involuntary and debilitating, whereas simplicity is voluntary and enabling. Poverty is mean and degrading to the human spirit, whereas a life of conscious simplicity can have both a beauty and functional integrity that elevates the human spirit.”

The first step towards sustainable living involves coming to a deep and thorough understanding of what is truly needed.


davemaynard said...

Sustainable living isn't just a moral imperative in a world of shrinking resources...it's more fulfilling than the illusory ideal presented by Madison Avenue...of getting something for nothing...of even wanting something for nothing.

C Robb said...

Well said Dave. There is no free ride, something for nothing is an oxymoron. There is a powerful satisfaction in leading the proverbial examined life, in finding our true needs. It places real value on the "finer" things in life.
Keep it coming my friend.