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All articles here are written by Melinda Briana Epler (that's me!) unless otherwise noted. I'm a documentary filmmaker, writer, and brand experience designer - I've dedicated my life to living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others do the same. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts for articles. Welcome!

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Does Living Sustainably Have To Take More Time?

Our Geyserville Garden

The Simple Life

About two years ago, Matt and I were living in Geyserville, CA, population 1,600.  He was working full time, and I was basically taking some time off from a taxing several years working long hours in the LA film industry.

When we moved there, we planned to stick around for the rest of our lives, living the simple life:  growing and preparing our own food, using very little electricity and water, learning to live as self-sufficiently as possible.  I eventually planned to learn to knit, sew clothing, can and preserve all the food we’d need for the winter, build a root cellar, and even install a micro-hydro-electric power unit and a composting toilet.

I learned a LOT.  I had a crash course in gardening with our 2,000+ square foot garden.  I almost became a master gardener (before I became fed up with the pro-pesticide stance they take), I preserved, Matt taught me how to bake bread using our own homemade Geyserville starter (and I did it every day), I was thinking about making my own soap and making my own just about everything else.

Worried Raisin

But then it hit me like a ton of bricks.  Right around the time I rushed Raisin to the animal hospital as she sat in my lap dying from pesticides, Matt became fed up with his life of driving long distances to a low-wage job that required significant manual labor.  And quite honestly, I realized I wasn’t cut out for the full-time job of homemaking.  I had so many ambitions for my life that I no longer had time for.  I wanted to make big positive change in the world, and working an 18-hour job at home, I didn’t have time for much else.

For several important reasons, our lifestyle was not sustainable.  It was wonderfully fulfilling in some ways – both Matt and I were much healthier, we had time to re-think our life directions, I took up writing and found I loved it, and the flavors of home-grown, home-made cooking were out of this world.

But we were dependent on driving long distances, we were unable to economically make ends meet due to low-wage jobs in the country and the rising price of gas, and we weren’t happy with the long-term trajectory of living a lifestyle that focuses solely on living simply.  (Those of us who have tried it know that living simply is not so simple!)

Our City Rooftop

The Sustainable Life

So we took the amazing things we learned, and we moved to the most sustainable neighborhood in the most sustainably-minded city we could find (we did a lot of research).  And over the past year and a half since we moved here, I can tell you that one major, major thing that is left out of much sustainable or simple living books and blogs and ideas is this:  COMMUNITY.

What can community do for you?  Well, cities and towns were built for a reason: to exchange goods and services.  Why make and do EVERYTHING yourself, when you can focus on what you’re good at, and trade what you’re good at for other things you’re not so good at?  Why spend hours and hours making my own clothes when someone who does it for a living can do it much more efficiently in both time and money?  Or soap, or jam, or many, many things?

Pike Place Market

Using Community To Find Your Balance

I’m not saying cease simple living altogether.  It depends on your motivation.  My motivation is living as sustainably as I can, and getting others to do the same.  Well, sustainable living and simple living are not necessarily the same thing!

So that means I let other people make my food for me sometimes.  I don’t let just anyone make and grow my food – I am careful about who I pick, where they source their food, how they treat their employees, what their values are, etc.

But not all the time – I still grow some of our own food.  Why?  Because I like it, because there are more flavors and nutrients in the food I grow myself, because it is more sustainable than trucking in produce, and because gardening makes me happy and brings me a sense of peace.  I also like writing about gardening, and enjoy talking and writing with other gardeners.

So somewhere in there, my family is learning how to balance simple living with an overall sustainable lifestyle where we can still have ambitions to do stuff beyond our home life.

We’re still working on finding ways to be more sustainable with less time.  In some ways that is the antithesis of the simple living movement.  But it’s important for us to live our lives as we want to live them, and live them sustainably.

What does that mean?  I live about a mile and a half from work, and I walk to and from work every day.  That takes about an hour round-trip.  I save money on gas and parking (or public transit), I have a zero-carbon footprint commute, and I don’t need to go to the gym.  All in all, it takes me less time and money to walk than it would take me to use the car or the bus, and go work out in a gym.

That’s just one example of several.  I don’t grow all of our own food anymore – I buy food from local growers and vendors whom I trust; I buy soap from a local organic soap company; I buy used clothing from local thrift stores; I live in an energy-efficient apartment so I am warmer but still don’t need to turn on the heat much (increased quality of life!).  I do make my own shampoo and household cleaners, because it’s cheaper and easier than looking for a local green brand that works.

And I suppose that is the question Matt and I ask ourselves now:  can we do it ourselves cheaper, more easily, and more sustainably (in terms of the planet)?  If the answer is yes, we welcome it with open arms.  If the answer is no, we generally find a sustainable local source and pay that person to do it.

This is one of the main ways that our community helps us live sustainably.

So back to our question…

Does Living Sustainably Have To Take More Time?

No.  I believe it’s possible to find a balance between simple and sustainable, where you can simplify your life as much as you enjoy doing so, and utilize your community to help continue on your path to sustainability.

What Do You Think?

I’m not alone in thinking about these things today.  Green Bean got me thinking about this this morning, and Ruchi wrote quite a thought-provoking post called “Is Living Sustainably Unsustainable.”  What do you think?  Have you been able to find a balance between living sustainably and living the life you want to live?

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26 comments to Does Living Sustainably Have To Take More Time?

  • Just this week I wrote a post about whether we should adapt in the city or in the country. In the next couple of years we get to make the decision about where we want to be long term. It’s a tough decision. The country has it’s positives but I wonder if it’s for me. It’s a shame that I don’t know of any cities in Australia which have really embraced sustainability like Seattle has. The Sunshine Coast is probably the closest, but it has it’s own set of problems as retirees move there in droves and drive the price of property through the roof.

    • Mia, we are lucky that Seattle has embraced sustainability so well, no question. I’m also proud to say it’s my home town! However, there are lots of things inherent in cities around the world that Seattle and other US cities don’t have. Reliable public transportation (Seattle is a model for the US but certainly not the world), and farmer’s markets (very new to Seattle) for example…

      So I’d say look for a place that has a lot of the elements you’re looking for. Public transportation, local fresh food sources, local shops that provide what you need (and want) for daily living, people you can identify with and with whom you’ll be able to get together with to build your community, etc.

  • I think that I, perhaps, take community for granted. My whole family lives within the surrounding three towns, and both my mom’s family’s farm and my dad’s family’s farm (where I grew up) are minutes from our house. I see my grandparents, parents, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins on a regular basis. My husband’s family all lives one town over, and he sees his parents and siblings almost every day because they work together. So for us, living in this town was a no-brainer. We’re willing to put up with the sustainable challenges that it poses to us because of our community.

    However, I should also point out that we have only a few close friends here in town, people that I went to school with. As for the rest of the community, we pretty much know everybody, but don’t have a real working together type feeling, because my husband and I don’t really participate, we’re more likely to keep to ourselves. However, I think that will change when our baby arrives and our family grows. I’ve just recently started getting involved in our town, helping the agricultural committee look into getting a greenhouse at the high school (I teach in the next town over and have a greenhouse attached to my classroom).

    For us, community came first and sustainability is something we’re working towards together. I can see how your situation in California would leave you lonely at home all day. I’m worried about myself staying home for the first 6 months with our baby, I’ve never stayed home. I figure I’ll be too busy to notice at the beginning!

    • Abbie, such a lovely thing that community came first for you! What size of a town do you live in? I wonder if it is a small town culture? It sounds like you’ll be surrounded by family and friends for those first 6 months – my guess is that you won’t be alone at all. :)

  • This is a great post and I love the practicality of the place you have arrived. Everyone’s choice will be different, of course, but you’ve wrestled with things I’m still working on and you’ve found the happy medium for yourself — it’s encouraging! We’re currently moving and so I am thinking about all these issues as we look for our new home. So glad you found yours.

  • Melinda, thanks for this post! I do think that there is a balance out there and that it does involve on working together. I used to feel that I had to do it all myself. I’d throw a birthday party at home, create the decorations from recycled materials, bake the cake from scratch, make the goodie bags myself, and so on. This past year, I decided to let some of that go and hire a good friend who has started a local baking business. The cake is beautiful and delicious and, better yet, I’m not stressing over it the night before. Still, its hard. Thrift store shopping – which I do do – takes more time than shopping at a regular store. I’d love to see more consignment stores with more specialized second hand goods and so on. I still think there needs to be development in the marketplace/community to help keep the green road an easier one.

    • GB, thank you so much for your post that really sparked my wanted to write about it!!

      I guess it is true that some things take longer, like thrift store shopping. Though I end up finding my favorite clothing in thrift stores – little gems that cost a fraction of the prices…

      Definitely continuing to increase demand for more and better choices in the marketplace will help us push businesses to fill our needs (sort of a chicken and egg type of thing).

  • Thanks for this post. This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, and I agree it’s all about community. I don’t think it is possible to live completely self-sufficient, and what is wrong with relying on your local community when you haven’t got time to make your own soap. x isis

  • Rose

    To be honest, I’ve done both; I lived in Seattle and loved it, and I lived on a mountain in a converted bus and also loved it. I don’t necessarily think one way is better than the other – it just depends on the person. Living self-sufficient wasn’t your way. And that’s fine, I was at just such a stage in my life at one point. I love hot water, I love my dryer, but there are things I feel I no longer need, such as the higher wage job, or the trendy apartment in an urban environment. I think I’ve come full circle as I approach my middle-years; I no longer have the drive for the big wages, I’ve never owned a car, and I’m just not into city living anymore. I don’t necessarily think any way is “better” for the world as a whole, but I do know which one is better for ME.

    Community is indeed important, and having connections throughout the community equally so. I do however, think it’s a bit easier to do here in the UK than in the US, as that sort of village-thinking has never entirely disappeared; it’s been around for hundreds of years, and it’s still quite possible to buy milk over-the-gate, or pick up eggs and leave some change in the cash box in some ruralish areas. In the UK, the country is never further than a few miles no matter how urban one is, so with a bit of networking, you can find quite a few local delicacies and resources.

    I think the internet is very helpful with finding the local stuff more quickly, but the UK hasn’t quite caught up with technology; there are butchers and providers of find foods, meats, and dairy products but they haven’t a website anywhere, and knowing about them is primarily through word of mouth and going round to have a chat.

    • Rose, great comment. For me, it wasn’t so much that it was city life versus country life, but it was finding the right balance between sustainability and simplicity. Quite honestly, we realized self-sufficiency was not economically nor environmentally *possible* for us. Because plain and simple we were not making enough money to support ourselves – we ate through years worth of savings in one year, as we tried to make it work. Also, there was literally no way to commute to work without driving – no public transportation, and the 30-mile commute via bicycle would have been extremely unsafe on the 1- and 2-lane roads. And finally, plain and simple we picked the wrong town – we thought we were moving into a town full of like-minded people, but found that we were much more different than we thought.

      I do think that once we retire and no longer need to work for a living, we could live self-sufficiently in the country, in the right small town. I imagine that someday we will do that.

      So this is to say that I agree completely that each person needs to find what fits their needs and desires best. It isn’t always going back to the land that is the most sustainable option.

      And LOL, just to clear the air on this one point: while we enjoy our trendy urban apartment, we moved there because it was so much more energy efficient, environmentally sound, and cheaper than we could find anywhere else. That it was trendy was just an added bonus. :)

  • i love this post. i think the eco-sphere needs to read and hear this right now. I’ve been feeling like we’re in some kind of downward-burnt out slump. And this post was a ray of HOPE and balance.

    perfect.

  • You know, I stayed away from “green” blogs lately because I’ve been a bit irritated with the argument that one must live a “simpler” lifestyle in order to be sustainable, and I have no idea how one makes life “simple”. It seems to make life more COMPLICATED, what with having to do everything yourself! I do not have that kind of time at all! So I’m glad to see a post like this where you re-establish the term “sustainable” in place of “simple”, because, while I still don’t yet live wholly “sustainably”, it seems like a goal that is possible to reach for me, rather than “simple”. Nothing seems more complicated than simple.

    • I have come to agree with you quite a bit, Stephanie. I think the 2 are often equated, and they are quite different. There are many people who are interested in living a simple life, which is fine. But when you’re younger it is really difficult to do that – there just isn’t enough time in the day! – so focusing on sustainability really is the key for me, too.

  • I think your comment about community is right on the target. I’m pretty sure this has come up before, but I don’t think that self-sufficiency is the same thing as sustainable. And sustainable isn’t simple. Making sustainable choices does take more time for me (getting food, shopping for second hand clothes/making versus buying, getting to work and back), but it seems worth it. Time well spent… :)

    It’s funny, but lately I’ve been feeling that simplifying life hasn’t been about sustainable/unsustainable but rather about the speed that our culture moves at. I haven’t listened to commercial radio for several years because I couldn’t find a local radio station that I really liked. Recently I’ve discovered that my former favorite is live streaming. I don’t like it anymore…there is kind of a frantic quality to it.

    • As is often the case, Deb G, I wholeheartedly agree with you!

      I cut out radio in my life quite a while ago – around the same time I cut out tv. It was interesting, around the holidays my parents were driving us to Christmas breakfast, and I asked my father to turn off the radio. He asked “Why?” I tried to explain that the radio has such a frenetic energy, that it throws me off-kilter and is such a different force and tempo than my brain can handle. It was so interesting – I tried for several minutes to get this point across, but to no avail. I believe my father just thinks I’m crazy. :)

  • Christina

    I think it’s a bit disingenuous to claim that sustainable living doesn’t take any more time than mainstream living. Yes, if one is at the start of the sustainability journey, there will be many simple changes that have no time-impact – buying recycled toilet paper instead of conventional, for example, since you have to buy toilet paper anyway, or filling up a reusable water bottle at your sink every day rather than buying a case of disposable water bottles at the store once a week.

    At some point, however, you’re far enough along the sustainability spectrum that new choices take time. I’m doing laundry for six, and I can tell you it takes me about fifteen minutes extra each load to hang and unhang that laundry outdoors, as opposed to the one minute it would take me to load and unload it from the dryer. Making almost every meal from whole foods in my own kitchen takes additional time in the cooking and in the extra cleaning of pots and pans. Using as much local food as I can means extra time getting to the farmers’ market and the CSA pickup, as well as all the time in the garden.

    I don’t disagree with the premise that one can benefit from a healthy dose of community in one’s sustainability efforts (I share CSA pickups, for example, am looking for another family to partner in our very large garden, and convinced my daughter’s harp teacher to do her lesson at our house on her university days nearby). Nor do I quibble with the premise that we should choose the flavor of sustainability that matches us as individuals (my flavor as a parent to a preschooler, middle schooler and high schooler must by necessity be different from Melinda’s!). But the truth of sustainability is that it runs counter to our modern industrial-convenience society at almost every turn, and swimming upstream will cost either time or money (I bet the local artisan soap costs more than Ivory or even Dr. Bronners, the stuff at my market does) in almost every case.

    I hope I’m finished – gotta head out :-)

    • Christina, interesting point. I wholeheartedly do think that you can live the life you enjoy living, and tweak it to become sustainable. Sometimes that takes a lot of time and money. But I disagree with you that it has to.

      But I think the disagreement between us is really in what we consider sustainable. What I mean by finding balance is that you have to choose what will work with your life. With a family of 6, I probably would not choose to hang and unhang laundry. I would make sure I had an energy-efficient dryer and spend the time on other things that made an impact. I also don’t make all of my own meals, because I have come to believe that it’s ok to have my community cook my meals for me sometimes.

      As a trade-off for not doing all of these simple living elements, I’m able to spend more time writing on this blog – which reaches thousands of people a day – and make changes happen by doing that.

      And I would argue that sure, my local artisan soap costs a bit more than ivory. BUT I have clean, healthy skin so I don’t need to cover up blemishes with makeup, nor go to a dermatologist, nor buy moisturizers… So it all adds up in a non-sustainable lifestyle, too.

      • Christina

        Isn’t there a difference, though, between doing things that happen to be sustainable, and “living sustainably”? Every life could be “tweaked” to become more sustainable without disrupting the essential fabric of it – I gave my inlaws canvas shopping bags for Christmas – but I don’t think minor tweaks put a person on a level with you or Sharon Astyk or Crunchy Chicken.

        I guess what I’m trying to say, is that a person living life in the societal mainstream is not going to be able to switch to a sustainable life without a commitment of time. Time is zero-sum, we all get 24 hours a day, so of course the sustainable life can’t possibly take *more* time :-) But a person will not be able to continue doing everything they already do, and add sustainable living on top of it, without blowing the safety. One can’t live a sustainable life, and also live unchanged the modern industrial life. One can’t watch the requisite 3+ hours of television daily and also live a sustainable life (unless you’re getting paid to watch that much!). (I think that’s where most of us “greenies” or whatever we’re called get the time we need to walk/bike, garden, clean without chemicals, etc.)

        I’m all for helping people to make the tweaks though!

  • I think this is a wonderful thought provoking post. I definitely agree with the need for more community and recognizing that many others have gifts that can be utilized to help us in that balancing cycle.

    Since getting married and moving from Portland, OR to a very non-sustainable focused area of the south….my own journey and possibilities of the eco-simple life have changed. I recently wrote a post about how the person I am now is no longer who I was when I started out on this journey three years ago. However I don’t know that sustainability and simplicity don’t go hand in hand. Another blogger, Rhonda over at Down to Earth, continuously talks about how “simplicity” looks differently to different people. I don’t know that I believe that to truly be engaging in the simplicity lifestyle one has to live in the country and grow their own food, etc. Simplicity, at least to me, is more a state of mind that outwardly gets transmitted via personal actions. Those “simple” actions may look very different based on who is doing them however. Not everyone may agree with this….but for example: my recent use of a crock pot and bread maker allows me to make food “from scratch” much more easily but I’m not actually cooking my stew on the stove or baking my bread by hand. It’s still home-made, much healthier, and so much more simple however.

    It’s a very good post….definitely makes me think….

    • Simply Authentic, you are so right. I did not mean to equate simple living necessarily with living in the country. But the simple living movement to me sort of started with the “back to landers”, so I do think that idea of going back to the land is still seen in the eyes of many as the ideal simple life. That many people are doing it within their urban and suburban homes is often because they can’t (for economic, social, and personal reasons) move to the country so they make their home as simple as they can.

      And the crock pot – TOTALLY agree. You put it very well – that is a perfect example of what I was trying to say. :)

      Maybe a follow-up post would be called “redefining simplicity” – thanks for your thought provoking comment!

  • I agree totally Melinda! After creating far too much work for myself baking, growing and mending etc…It didn’t take me long to realise that I had to make MY life sustainable…not try and squeeze the sustainable living tools of others into my life.

    I realised that I didn’t have time to do all of what I had envisaged – without eating into the time I spend doing what makes my life worthwhile.

    I believe the only way I can make my life sustainable is by being a contributing member of my community. The importance of community really hit home with me a few months ago. I believe that no matter what befalls our family, we will be OK as long as we are an active member of a connected supportive local community. The more resilient our community is to peak oil and climate change, the more resilient we will be.

    Consequently, recently I have been focusing more on making change outside our home, rather than within.
    Putting effort into building my community saves me time and if far more fun than doing it alone.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your post motivated me to try and put into words this change in my approach towards living sustainably.

  • [...] you feel as though you should be much further along – you can see what I mean here, here and here. Oh and here too. And I thought “you know what, it’s all about balance.” And it [...]

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