Posted by: brian | February 8, 2009

Self sufficiency

To hear pretentious urban hipsters in Priuses go on about sustainability, you’d think they invented the concept. I was raised in rural North Dakota, and my carbon footprint growing up would shame them. My folks’ still would. Sadly, I’ve now acquired a much larger footprint, in large part because I live in a suburb now, which is arguably worse than an inner city in terms of carbon footprints. I daresay, the suburbanite is the carbon-sasquatch of the world.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how my family did things when I was growing up. We grew most our own vegetables for the entire year in a garden that was about a quarter of an acre in size. Peas, beans, corn, carrots, beets, tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers were stored or preserved in some way and eaten all year. Other produce was eaten fresh from the garden when available, and purchased from the local grocery during the remainder of the year. I grew up never knowing the taste of canned peas. It wasn’t just vegetables. My grandparents kept one or two cows for milk, and others for meat. Chickens provided eggs most of the year, and meat. Every couple of years they’d get a few pigs. We had chickens once ourselves. My grandmother had a separator to take the cream off the top of the milk, and made butter once in a while too.

When something broke, it wasn’t tossed in the bin & replaced unless it was beyond repair. My grandfather worked with leather to make a variety of things, including belts and mittens. His work with wood to make stools and cabinets. My uncle worked with metal, building and repairing things for others in the area.

My mother made jeans for us until it was cheaper to buy jeans then to make them; she made my shirts through high school. They were never the height of fashion, but I remember going with her to pick out which fabrics I wanted for the new school year.

All of this was done not out of a sense of saving the planet, but rather out of necessity. It wasn’t pretentious idealism, but pragmatism. I rather doubt a typical urban environmentalist would put up with the rather sparse lifestyle my family lived, and largely still does. They don’t travel much, they don’t dine out much (there aren’t that many options), they don’t buy the latest electronics and fashions. They live much more simply. Whether “better” or “worse,” I can’t say. Personally, I appreciate the cultural perks of an urbanized setting, but I understand that those things come at a cost. I think the key is not just reducing the cost, but also finding a different currency with which to pay it.

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