Simple ways to go green

Presented at Childbirth Kingston’s “Green It Up” AGM, May 2009. At the time of this presentation Calvin and his wife were living in their off-grid country home.

It’s nice to have been invited to speak as a representative of people who go green. People think of me as being green because I live like an old-order Mennonite in a one-room plumbing-free house with an outhouse. With a couple of small solar panels I have lights but that’s about it. I have holes in all my socks and do laundry at mom and dad's like anyone else of my generation. I chop all the wood I need for heat, I draw well-water with a hand pump, I've perfected Coleman stove cuisine, and I succeed a little less miserably each year to grow vegetables. So people tend to think of me as “green.”

But the truth is, that was just a fluke, a byproduct. I wasn't green when I started living like this, I was cheap. Three years ago I decided I was young and naive enough to experiment with financial independence. The plan: find a job, save money, buy land, build a house, grow food, self-sustain, quit job and savour the freedom. And it worked. Well, except for those last two.

But I have my quiet home in the country. That's all I really wanted but for financial reasons I had to get creative to make it possible. It was incidental that it took the shape of being green.

Even so, there were times when it had me convinced too. I had joined the ranks of the environmentally-friendly and found myself with something to contribute to those intelligent conversations. And with time, I started listening.

And then I started thinking. And reading books. And watching documentaries, and turning on the news. I began to understand the purpose of being green and the urgency. I also realized that you don't have to live like the Flintstones to be green. Being green is in the little things; being green is simple.

So now when I go to a hotel I don't have six baths in 48 hours just because I can. I don't need them. I can enjoy one shower just as much if I understand why it is better, however entitled I might feel at times.

Water is scarce. So scarce you'd hardly know it when you turn any one of billions of faucets. It is scarce. Even if we are the ones least affected by its scarcity. It's an intimidating problem but you don't have to resort to snow-water bathing to use only as much water as you need to use. That's being green.

And however hard it is for me to read at night (or even at afternoon) I can't seem to convince myself to invest in more solar power. I’m still preoccupied with the enjoyment of having lights, insufficient as they may be. I lived without lights for a year and I’m still appreciating the luxury of having them now. Certainly there are days and seasons when I would love a TV or a mini-fridge for our soy cheese and soy milk and tofu everything. But I've resisted (so far) because I’m convinced that if I have more I will use more.

There is an energy crisis. There isn't enough of it to meet our demand. And the world is at war for more.

But you don't have to resort to battery banks and solar cells to use only as much electricity as you need to use. Or to choose less, when less is enough for you. Being green is simple.

And these days the labour pains of gardening feel a little more virtuous than they did when all I wanted was a lower grocery bill. Now I want it for its own sake and because the more food I produce for myself the less I consume of the store-bought variety of lesser quality and questionable ethics and thousands of food miles most months of the year. If local foods cost more, it may be an indication that fewer people were exploited in its production. When I spend $0.99 on a package of blueberries from Chile, who gets paid? And how much? And by whom? There are ethics in food. Complex ethics and simple solutions.

For one thing I'm eating whole foods now. Real food, the kind that looks like something my great-grandmother would have recognized. Food that comes out of the ground begging to be eaten and tasting like it was born with just that purpose, like fruits and vegetables and grains and chocolate. I'm trying to quit the chocolate though. I've been hearing funny things about that.

Food is what comes out of the earth not out of Walmart or out of a box. Food doesn't need to be genetically engineered or smothered in pesticides to grow. Just ask the person who gives you six jars of something or other each summer from their garden. Food grows, and lots of it.

And food doesn't need to have 25 additional ingredients to taste good. Food doesn’t need industrial processing and packaging to look good. Food doesn't need to come from a third world country to sell cheap. Food isn't capable of suffering. Food doesn't love his or her mother and food doesn't want you to not eat it.

Food is simple and it is abundant and it comes out of the ground, even in Canada.

Meanwhile, I've been reading books and watching documentaries and, now, food is the last thing I see on the shelves at the grocery store. I see the preservatives, I see the sugar, I see the pollution and the profits and the exploitation. I see the manipulation. And I feel its effect.

But you don't have to resort to the backbreaking labour of homesteading to refuse to participate in all that. Even if it's on sale. Industry bows to demand. Demand better. That's being green.

And then there's veganism. I’ve been vegan for a few years now but it's only recently that I've stopped supplementing my diet with junk foods and large quantities of anything remotely edible so long as it has no animal bits in it.

Veganism is green, but it's about more than the compassion that started it all for me, compassion for the billions of cows and pigs and chickens and others who suffer, sometimes for years, and are slaughtered so that we can enjoy our favourite foods and our comfy car seats. Compassion will always be my reason for being vegan but I've been reading books and watching documentaries and now my veganism is about more than the lives and wellbeing of non-human animals. It's about my life and my wellbeing. It's about human lives and human wellbeing. It's about the wellbeing of the earth and its ability to sustain life.

But this isn't the part where I say that you don't have to resort to going vegan to be green. You do.

Because, to say the least, all those cows giving us our milk and our meat are, as the United Nations puts it, “one of the top two or three most significant factors to the most serious environmental problems... problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity... on a massive scale.”

The report adds that the impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency. And it proceeds to recommend improvements to our standards of sanitation, our use of land and resources, all kinds of effective ways to – as they put it – “cut by half the environmental impact per unit of livestock production just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its present level.”

While they're looking at ways to reduce or eliminate the impact of our eating habits on the environment, wouldn't it be nice if we could reduce or eliminate our demand for the foods responsible for the problem?

Because we don't need meat and we don't need cheese and we don't need milk or leather or wool. And the price we've been paying to have all these things is too high; compromised ethics, compromised health, compromised planet. Choosing otherwise is both simple and good and you'll stand a much better chance of babysitting your great-grandchildren one day.

There are so many simple ways to go green. Use only what you need even when more is available. Be content with enough, when enough is enough. Eat well, eat right, and enjoy a clean green conscience. These are just a few ways to go green for the sake of everything that we value. Small sacrifices that are quickly forgotten in the distraction of a better life.