CHAPTER 2. MY BACKGROUND & HOW I GOT STARTED
My “extremely low-footprint lifestyle journey” started about 20 years ago. It began as a quest to demonstrate that it was possible for a person, living in the United States, to maintain a high standard of living while having a low enough footprint that her energy needs could feasibly be met by renewables. I’d become involved in the environmental movement, and I was seeing a major problem with our approach. We were waving signs and circulating petitions, trying to get the government and corporations to change their behavior, but we as individuals (consumers) weren’t giving them any incentive to change.
We wanted to shut down coal mines, but very few of us were willing to boycott electricity or even cut our usage significantly. We opposed oil drilling, but very few of us were willing to boycott gasoline or even significantly reduce our driving. It seemed the environmental movement was looking to the government to just snap its fingers and mandate a switch to renewables—and looking to corporations to stop producing fossil fuels, even though we were continuing to create the demand for them.
Granted, we had a lot working against us if we wanted to effect change via our daily habits and choices. But someone had to get the ball of change rolling, and I thought we were crazy to expect that “someone” to be the government or corporations. I was convinced it had to be us, the consumers. Millions and millions of us, with our millions and millions of wallets.
Besides the wish to prove that a renewable-powered life was feasible, I was also motivated by concern about climate change and Peak Oil. Note, I wasn’t actually using renewable energy (other than my solar oven and twig-fired Rocket Stove); I was simply shrinking my footprint to an extent that it would be feasible to run my life on renewables alone. I didn’t actually have any metrics for this; I was simply going by gut feeling and common sense.
My low-consumption lifestyle paid great dividends. I was deriving satisfaction from doing my part to help address a global problem. I was feeling an enhanced sense of security from reducing my dependence on entities and factors beyond my control.
I was saving a great deal of time and money, which I channeled into creative projects, education, and volunteer work. I experienced, much of the time, the deep-seated inner peace that comes from living in accordance with one’s highest principles.
I had created a home environment of great beauty (to my tastes), where every object was loved and regularly used; where the unadorned walls served as a projection screen for the dancing shadows of the tree branches stirred by the night breeze; where the line between indoors and outdoors was blurred; where I could always hear the crickets and the train whistle and the laughter of neighbors.
I also realized, over time, that my low-footprint practices had, for me, the calming and restorative effect of a spiritual practice. In short, I was discovering how deep the personal, purely “selfish” benefits of this lifestyle were, and how strongly they kept me motivated.
The drawback of my approach was that, since I didn’t have any metrics to go by, I never knew for sure whether or not I was reducing my footprint enough. I couldn’t even allow myself a can of beer or an ice-cream cone without thinking, “There’s another nail in the coffin of the planet. There’s another tree felled in the rain forest!” and so on. I even worried about using toilet paper—how could it be sustainable?
Another drawback was that I was doing this alone. I found myself wishing that the government would impose a mass green mobilization, along similar lines to the rationing of World War II, except in this case the war would be on climate change and environmental degradation. We could have a modern version of those old glory days and redeem our nation’s post–World War II excesses. Oops, there I was, falling into the fallacy I’d criticized before: looking to the government to make change happen! But I yearned for camaraderie and community, and felt that a green mobilization would solve most, if not all, of our problems.
Speak of the Angel
Little did I know that I was about to have my wish granted, though not quite in the way I envisioned. While I was living my best guess of an extreme-low-footprint lifestyle that would turn the tide of climate change and enable a switch to renewables, other people had actually developed detailed metrics for such a lifestyle. And their metrics were derived from the work of reputable climate scientists. Plus, the people who had developed these metrics were practicing this lifestyle and blogging about their experiences. This, in turn, inspired many other people to jump on the bandwagon. A grassroots self-mobilization movement, aimed at saving the environment and averting the extinction of humankind, was already under way! You’ll meet these eco-angels in the next chapter.