21 Jun A Deeper Look at Personal Ecology
Regardless of the type of publication I get hold of, I enjoy reading practical tips on
how to live a more eco-friendly life. Just like any other individual on planet Earth, I need to
do better to make sure that I do not turn into a mindless daily polluter. I do, however,
approach the subject with some caution, especially when revolutionary projects are being
proposed. It is because I believe that we can learn much more from a reflection on the lives of
our ancestors (by drawing a comparison between our daily life and theirs) than from hosts of
panicked climate alarmists of this day. Let me explain.
Last semester, my students and I discussed an environment-related segment in our
classroom. The students were moderately interested. Most of them were willing to talk about
recycling and saving water, but since they are not frequent flyers or urban hippies, they did
not get worked up about either excessive use of airfare or plastic straws. To launch the
discussion, I asked them, “Do you think you are more eco-friendly than your grandparents?”
The first response I received from a young woman in the front row revealed something
intriguing. “No…..”- she responded pensively, “we are not. Our grandparents were more
thrifty than we are, so they used and wasted fewer things. They did not waste resources
because they needed the money.”
The amount of money to spend, although the first on the list of major differences
between the past and the present, is just one factor. There are a few other secret forces that
make us buy more, consume more and produce more waste throughout our lives. I have
chosen to focus on our time investments, everyday company and the individual concept of
Compared to distant generations, you have more money and you itch to spend it.
Of course, this statement may not ring true in individual families whose income pattern is one
of decline, but if we look at more general trends and the number of things we pick up when
we go shopping with little or no reflection involved, there is a noticeable difference between
our spending habits and those of our grandparents. Buying things, bulky or small, has
become our second nature. We treat ourselves to objects because it feels good and it does not
ruin us. We itch to buy; even a moderate spender can find it hard to say “no” to an appealing
item if there’s enough money in the wallet to take advantage of the proposed bargain. The
marketers of convenience products have also been working hard on getting our attention when
we are at a shop. The truth is that we are there regularly and we do not come out empty-
handed. We can afford pleasure shopping.
Not so much in the past. Most working people had no comparable ritual of big weekend
shopping covering multiple floors of a mall because the most basic things to eat came from
their own farm or local stores. Besides, there was less money to spend on pleasure shopping
anyway. Moreover, an average person had little unstructured time because there was always
something useful to do to make sure the pantry was stocked for the coming winter and
everyday chores were more time-consuming. Which confirms, once again, that the
relationship between time and money is not accidental, no matter how we examine it.
While managing your food may be a part-time job, you have to work overtime to do it well.
We sure are busy these days. Most of us, however, get to choose the types of things we
want to do. We get to choose our job, hobby, the level of community involvement and the
pace of social life, shaping our schedules. On the other hand, we are not required to do a
whole bunch of other tasks, previously essential for survival. Most of us do not have to grow
or produce our own food. Instead, we focus on other ways of sustaining ourselves and
meeting our needs by working a job. Taking care of our food seems like it should be an
undemanding part-time job compared to the drudgery of past farmers. Still, it requires us to be
generous of our time if we want to do it right.
There’s no getting around the fact that a considerable amount of time is needed to
maintain control over your groceries to avoid having to throw them away. If we are in charge
of family cooking and refuse to devote enough time to a fair amount of tedious work behind
the scenes, the chances of living a fully eco-friendly life are slim. We end up wasting loads of
food or settling for processed goodies to avoid the trouble. I have learnt it the hard way: when
I was on bed rest in the final trimester of my first two pregnancies, I was unable to check on
the fridge produce regularly and I ended up with rotten vegetables or old meat that I could no
longer use. Fridge-management and cooking from scratch are not easy when you lead a busy
life. Besides, sometimes you have to make the time for extra cooking when it needs to get
done so that soon-to-be-expired products or products that you’ve just been delivered get used
up. Similarly, if you’ve committed to seasonality, you need time to hunt for the food when it’s
there. Chances are you will be inconvenienced: all of a sudden, there’s an endless supply of
strawberries you need to do something with. Two weeks later, they are all gone.
Of course, time is also needed for other eco-friendly lifestyle choices. Take hormone-
free natural family planning: you need a few minutes every single day to observe your
symptoms and temperature and thus figure out in which phase you’re in. Consider cloth
diapers: you wash them, dry them, put the pieces back together before your kid can wear them
again. Several times a week, no excuse. Your willingness to give of your precious time is key.
People Around Us
If you have your loved ones around, the chances of you craving a new gadget decrease.
The economic argument in favor of living with other people rather than by yourself is
common knowledge. It is always cheaper to live in a pack than to run a one-person household,
considering the amount of money spent on food, electricity and water. I would venture to say
that living alone also shapes our shopping habits and often makes them less eco-friendly.
Why? When alone, we tend to focus more on ourselves and treat ourselves to all kinds of
merchandise either to feel less lonely or simply because we have more free time to consume
both goods and services.
I spent a few years of my life as a single woman in a big city. I was never particularly
materialistic – besides, my moderate income would not have allowed a lavish lifestyle – but I
did go to shopping centers on Saturdays or Sundays just to be around people and I sometimes
ended up buying clothes or books or other accessories for pleasure. I definitely generated
more waste as a single person compared to the average per capita figure at my home now.
I spent more on books and entertainment. Last but not least, when a person lives
alone in a city, he/she tends to go out more to socialize with other people outside of the home.
When people socialize, they often meet in town where plastic straws and cups abound and it
is easy to grab takeaway food or convenience products on the way. Do not get me wrong:
seeing people is great. But if a similar pattern of consumption is repeated every day, it is far
By comparison, an average working person two generations ago lived in a
multigenerational home and was not as starved for human contact as the single city dwellers
of today. There was much less need for entertainment after work or coffee in town.
Done? Well, enough.
Is it time to talk yourself out of the ‘perpetual upgrade’ urge?
Some readers might not be particularly fond of reading about tedious routines and small
decisions that make a big difference in the long run, so here comes a more bulky section. On
the one hand, it does concern bulky items, such as furniture or houses. On the other, it is also
weighty because I intend to show you that many of our material choices stem from the natural
human strife for self-improvement and, as such, are not so easy to forgo.
People often give in to the internal or external pressures of perpetual upgrade and extension,
out of fear of being stuck in a status quo. This strife for improvement of one’s surroundings
seems to be built into human nature: we modify, we improve, we invent. While doing so, we
can lose the ability to tell the necessary from the superfluous. We have a hard time settling for
something and forgoing things that promise to take us further.
Can you draw a line between the actual functionality of an item we buy and the sheer desire to
own a better version of something or more of something?
You could probably manage with no more than three pairs of shoes. One for winter, one for
dry seasons and perhaps a pair of sandals or smart shoes for special occasions. For some
reason, however, you want to have more. Same thing with furniture. We have had a sofa for
ten years and there’s nothing wrong with it. But we have grown bored of it and we are more
than happy to buy a new model. We love home remodels, too. Ask your grandparents, if they
are still alive: you are likely to discover that remodeling was hardly on anyone’s mind. Once a
thing had been bought or built, it went off their to-do-list. Done. Enough.
While delving deeper into the problem of perpetual upgrades, I discovered a whole mindset
underneath: we have learnt that it is really important to continue to improve ourselves and our
surroundings. We have become insatiable both with regards to material things and to what we
consider ‘intellectual gains’. If we do not treat ourselves to new experiences or introduce
changes to the old ways of doing things, we hear a voice telling us “you’re not making
progress in life.” The problem is that the progress in question entails miscellaneous things we
need to pay for, among them loads of paper (new laws or instructions), new equipment, plane
rides, books or furnishings, not to mention new buildings or massive remodels. It is really
hard to say “enough.” A well-rounded life or an innovative society like this are inevitably
Even a perfunctory retrospective reflection on the simpler ways of our grandparents
might be revealing. Who would have thought that our modern strife for self- realization,
considered a privilege, and the busyness that we all boast about so much could actually
directly contribute to our environmental challenges?
Having said this, I am convinced that it is not a good idea to wallow in eco-guilt: it is
a sorry mode of existence. We have inherited the Earth and we can enjoy its beauty mindfully
and pass it on to our descendants with care. In order to do so, we have to turn to some version
of voluntary simplicity. Putting a cap on our desire to live a fast life and have it all in the
materialistic sense, investing more time in mindful work and sustaining relationships are all
great places to start.