It took me many years to develop a good vision for my life. Now, what is important for me is to live by example. Indeed, so many people run their mouth about living more sustainably but, when you look at the way they live, it's clear that they're all talk and no action. I think that many people do not change their lifestyle mainly because they're afraid of the unknown; they'd rather have a fairly poor life rather than risk a terrible one. Therefore, what I want is to provide a real-life working model of what it means to be part of the community of life, so that others may be inspired by it. Over the past year or so I've been attached to a few principles to guide me on my path to living sustainably. These principles are: Responsibility, Respect, Reciprocity, Honor, and Happiness. I will elaborate a bit on each one to give you an idea of how I came to adopt them as guides and why.
This concept is probably the most important in guiding me in the way I live my life. It really hit home with me when I read something Tom Elpel wrote in his book Participating in Nature. He was saying that many people ask him what they should bring with them on their primitive camping trip in one of his classes. His answer was simple but powerful: Bring whatever you feel comfortable with; the only thing is: what you bring YOU carry. For years I had heard people debating over what was ethical or sustainable for the Earth; Should we have showers? Should we give up telephones? Should we go back to riding horses? Is solar energy the answer to the energy crisis? These debates went on and on, without getting anywhere. But what Tom Elpel made me realize is that this issue is not to be solved by abstract philosophisms; rather, it is simply a matter of personal responsibility. What it means is that if you want a shower, you just need to build one yourself with materials from your own immediate environment; if you want a way to communicate with others, you just need to build one yourself with materials from your immediate environment; if you want a means of transportation, guess what?... you just need to build one yourself with materials from your immediate environment. Indeed, I feel extremely uneasy that everything I can buy in a store has been made by unknowable people in unknowable conditions in unknowable places. Why is everything so hidden? Because everything is made right and people are happy? Or because we're destroying somebody else's environment, making them sick, even killing them? Knowing the way corporations run the world these days, I think the answer is obvious. But I don't want to be responsible for all these tragedies anymore; I want to take full responsibilities for my actions. Thus, I am taking steps to gather/kill my own food, build my own housing, etc, so that I can have a first hand experience with the consequences of my actions. And, as everything happens in my immediate environment, I can adjust my behavior to bring it in balance with the place where I live so that the generations that will follow me can enjoy at least the same level of livelihood as I do. No boring philosophical argument needed; it's just a matter of taking responsibility for our actions.
This should be self-explanatory if we take full responsibility for our actions. Respect for the people, respect for the earth, respect for the waters, respect for the plants, respect for the animals, respect for the trees, respect for the birds, respect for the teachings of the past, respect for the future generations, respect for all things that touch our lives directly or indirectly, respect for ourselves. Derrick Jensen explains that the reason we destroy the world is because we're scared of it, and we're scared of it because we don't understand it. I think that if we respect all things in and around us -- that is, if we value their lives and freedom to be who/what they are -- we strive to understand them, and if we understand them we appreciate them, and if we appreciate them we let them be. Thus, respect is about letting all people (animal, vegetal, and mineral) live their life, walk their path, follow their vision, as well as striving to understand how we all live together, impacting each other's lives in the sacred hoop of life.
Some people have claimed that the problem with western civilization is that it uses too many resources from the earth; that it takes too much. Daniel Quinn in Ishmael even dubbed us "Takers" and dubbed tribal societies "Leavers." He's never been happy with these terms, however, and neither have I. I think that the problem is not necessarily one of taking, but one of not giving back. Some tribal societies took a lot from the earth, but everything was always returned to where it came from in a relatively short period of time. Western civilization, on the other hand, is obsessed with keeping things for itself; not only does it produce more and more but it also does its best to keep things around for as long as possible. A lot of things made today will still be around in thousands of years, thus impacting the welfare of future generations. In my opinion, more durable is just not the answer; rapid return of the gifts we were given is. The earth gives us food and vitality; we can return the favor by doing the same: instead of sending everything away in plastic bags that will preserve it all for a long time, let's return our biodegradable wastes directly to the earth.
This may be the least tangible of all the concepts I outline here, but I think it's nonetheless very important. I probably started thinking about honor when I watched the movie The Last Samurai. It became clear to me that there was no honor in western civilization: lying, cheating, stealing, backstabbing, bullshitting is all fair game to get what you want; the end justifies the means. Just take a look at how civilized countries broke treaty after treaty with the natives and how appalled the natives were that the white men didn't keep their words; it just speaks for itself. On the other hand, many tribal groups had Warrior Societies whose duties were not to wage war blindly but to protect their people at all costs. There was great honor in putting your own life on the line to make sure that everybody was healthy and happy. Similarly, it was a great honor in some tribal groups to be chosen as a Chief, to be recognized as a good role model, to be trusted to make good decisions for all people seven generations into the future. A Chief had to be responsible and make great personal sacrifices for their people, so much so that many didn't want to hold this position. In contrast, the leaders of civilized nations do not hesitate to spend millions of dollars on their campaigns, making deals with the corporations that sponsor them. They're shamelessly power hungry and it shows. How concerned can they be with the welfare of all people? Last year I made a vow to protect "all my relations" in the living landscape I am a part of. I sit down with them and get to know them as individuals who want to live and enjoy life. When everything around you becomes your family you want to defend them at all costs. I think there is great honor in that.
Sadly enough, many people have been so abused by civilizing forces that they don't even believe that happiness is a reality. To them, happiness is just an old dream, something they experienced a few times as kids running freely on a playground but that is inaccessible to them as adults who have to work 40 hours a week. To them, the best they can hope for are the legal opiates: drinking a beer in front of some mindless tv show, trying to forget their lifeless, joyless, meaningless existence, barely hoping that they find the strength to do it all over again the next day. 'Suffer and forget' is the motto of all people socialized for many years by school and the media. Fortunately, we can put this nightmare well behind us by removing ourselves from these civilizing forces and participating in a healthy, lively, beautiful world. Take a walk in the forest, sit by the pond, lie down in the grass, just take the time to breathe slowly and you will feel life rushing through your body. Happiness is all around, it is life itself, and it is our gift as beings on this planet. Don't let it slip away; embrace it. Yes, I know it can be depressing to start looking at how society works, how we are destroying the planet, what we're doing to our children, and what we have to face in order to live a fully responsible, respectful, reciprocal, honorable, happy life. But it's just a phase; true happiness is right on the other side of it. During these hard times think of the buffalo. When a storm is approaching the buffalo walks toward and through it in order to minimize the time spent in it. If we run away from the storm it always catches up with us and, even if we can see blue skies far ahead of us, we are suffering the storm over our head for a really long time. It takes courage to walk through the storm but happiness is reached much faster this way.
Walking the talk:
At this point, you may be thinking "yeah, it's all nice and good buddy but I've read this kind of things a hundred billion times before and it's all blah blah idealistic BS. How are you actually living your life?" I'm so glad you asked.
The first step in living a good life as defined by the vision statement above is to take time doing so. Unless you're super (wo)man it's not really feasible to make good changes in your life when you're working full time. For the past five years I only worked part-time (well ok, I worked full time one year thinking that the money I would make would open doors for me. But it turns out that money doesn't do much for you; time does.). With the weight of timely obligations lifted off your chest you then have the energy to shape your life vision and take steps toward fulfilling it. Use your time to educate yourself about issues important to you and learn the skills you need. Oh, and unplug from as many civilizing forces as you can! Right now I don't have a job at all and I'm not planning on getting one ever again. This serves the double purpose of giving me even more time to take even bigger steps toward fulfilling my vision, and to motivate me to get my act together so that I don't starve instead of just being lazy.
The second step is to find a shelter that meets your needs. If you live in the city you may have to spend a lot on rent plus you'll be exposed to more civilizing forces. I moved to a quiet place at the end of a gravel road, where rent is not outrageous and I am exposed to a lively world instead of a concrete one. I live in a yurt right now but am planning on building a shelter out of natural materials soon. That will decrease my living expenses dramatically.
The most important thing, in my opinion, is then to take charge of your own food. Again, if you live in the city this may be more of a challenge; living in natural areas makes this much easier. I'm learning about as many edible and medicinal plants as I can and you'd be surprised how easy it is to collect a huge amount of food when you know what's freely available to you. I go gather plants as often as I can and thus form strong relationships with them. As Derrick Jensen says, if you use something you then become responsible for its continued life and prosperity. That's applied sustainability at its best. You can then learn about hunting and fishing to have more food, especially for the winter months. I haven't played with that much yet but I'll be learning.
Once you get to the point where you can take care of the basic necessities on your own, there are countless useful skills that you can learn to better your life. I went through the Wilderness Awareness Residential Program and Earthwalk Northwest's Apprenticeship Program. There, I've learned many skills that are bringing me closer to living the life I want to live. Yes, these schools cost a lot of money and I was fortunate to be able to afford them (life savings from not spending money on crap I don't need). You don't need to attend these schools to learn the skills though. If you're really motivated there are plenty of books on the subject; otherwise, just hang out with people who know these skills already. Being in a supportive community of people who share your enthusiasm for life and who have visions aligned with yours is an incredible gift so it may be worth your time finding such a community, although it shouldn't slow down your own progress.
One very important thing to consider when you're doing all these things is that you have to take it one step at a time. You cannot be a civilized person one day and living a wonderful life the next day. It takes time to learn everything and it is often essential to take a shortcut with one thing in order to learn something else better. For instance, I use steel knives for everything I do even though the use of steel doesn't really fit my life vision. But they allow me to learn a lot of very important things rapidly instead of trying to make everything with a stone knife, which would turn many things into a huge headache. When I have everything down to an art, I'll probably move to making my own knives (heck with all the rubbish civilization leaves behind it shouldn't even be difficult), but for the moment steel knives increase my rate of learning and are therefore a good thing for me to use. Don't let people bog you down with their stupid comments that you're a hypocrite if you use things that don't fit your life vision. It's a long road to reclaim all the ancestral knowledge we need in order to live good lives so it's okay to get some help on the way as long as we don't lose sight of our vision.
The (hopefully near) future:
So what will it look like when I fully embody my vision?
I get up in the morning and give my thanksgiving for the wonderful life I have, and I acknowledge all my relations. I get out of the shelter made of the local grandfather cedars. With other people of the community we dig up the food that cooked all night in the steam pit. Hmm, the meat is so tender and juicy! After breakfast we all attend to various tasks. Some people make some cordage with dry nettles, others make baskets or clothes with cedar bark, others fix the net that got torn the previous day... The kids help us for a little bit but they quickly run off to play in the forest. They already know much about the world around them and one of them comes back shouting "Daddy, daddy, there are fresh deer tracks just outside the village!" So I take my bow and arrows and we both start trailing the deer in silence until we get close enough to take it down. We make the death as painless as possible and we spend some time in thanksgiving for the gift we've just been given. On the way back to the village we gather a few plants: bitter cress, doc leaves, salmonberries, fireweed. Then we cut up the deer in thin slices and we smoke-dry it for the winter months. The afternoon is spent lazily watching wildlife move about; they have many lessons to teach us so we're always watching them. As the sun is falling in the west several of us go and get some firewood. We then assemble around the central fire of the shelter and we eat some delicious foods gathered earlier in the day. Stories are being told and we all laugh. As the meal is over we clean up camp so that bears and raccoons don't visit us during the night. A few songs are sung and everyone drifts asleep with a smile on their face; it was another day full of life. What will tomorrow bring?
I think it's important to replace the destructive myths of the present mainstream culture with myths that represent the values we want to see in a new culture.
Stories may also help us to make the transition between being civilized and living in a sustainable manner. Here are some stories I wrote for that purpose.
We wish to live our lives in a completely sustainable manner. This means that we want to pass on our knowledge, wisdom, skills, and way of life so that the seventh generation into the future can still live as well as, if not better than, we do now, and still benefit from the teachings passed down to them. Moreover, we want to be proud to have a beautiful and bountiful place to offer to our grandchildren.
We wish to be intimately tied to the rhythms of the place that nourishes us, and to the direct consequences of our actions. Therefore, we want to live at a level of technology that is immediately and completely tied to our bioregion. Until proven otherwise, the so-called “Stone Age” level of technology seems to be the only level of technology that allows us to do so.
In order to live this way, we need to relearn the ancestral skills that were once known by all, and renew our relationships with the other beings who live on this Earth with us.
We wish to honor all of creation and follow ancestral wisdom by humbly accepting the gifts given to us by Mother Earth without asking for more. Additionally, we want to nourish our relationship with the world by making offerings back to the Earth, in a timely and direct fashion.
We wish to be healthy, happy, joyous, and have fulfilling lives. We wish to laugh, dance, sing, and celebrate our lives. And we wish to welcome others who are committed to living in this sacred manner to join us.
What we need:
We are the land. We are the Earth and the plants who spring from it; we are the animals who thrive on the land and who feed and clothe us; we are the air that we breathe; we are the waters that we drink. This means that without land we are nothing. And so we are looking for a place that will sustain us and allow us to live completely sustainably; we are looking for a place we can bond with; we are looking for a place we can vow to protect, honor, and respect.
What we have to offer:
Anybody who is seriously committed to living the life described above is welcome to live and learn with us. We will never charge anything for the teachings we have been blessed with. They are our human heritage and they belong to us all. May they remain so.