This is a crosspost from Chez Skud. You can comment here or there.
Over the next couple of days I’m really truly moving to Ballarat. Since at least the mid 1990s, I’ve been saying that I’d move to the country when they have good enough Internet to do my work from there; Ballarat’s not quite “country” but it’s definitely a step closer, and it feels good to have such a long-standing plan/intention start to come together.
Every house-move throws me into a nesting frenzy, but this time it feels more serious, and it’s leading me to be a bit more introspective about what I want from a home, and how I want to live in it. I thought I’d write some of my thoughts down to give them a bit more shape.
The first question is why I care about living a certain way. What are my values, and how do they affect my home life?
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had this post sitting in draft form and right at the top of it I’ve had the words, “Sustainability? — not really.” Sustainability’s a hot topic and I’ll admit I toss the word around quite a bit myself, but when I think about it realistically, it just doesn’t grab me as a goal.
For one thing, I don’t think it’s really feasible for me, as a participant in Western culture, a renter, and a small business operator, to live entirely sustainably — zero carbon emissions, recycling water, self-sufficient or 100% renewable in food and the other necessities of life, and all that. I could make an attempt, but it’ll be a very long-term goal at best, and pale in comparison to the effort that’s needed on larger scale. Shorter showers won’t help if we don’t see massive industrial and political change worldwide.
Of course I’ll be taking shorter showers. Reducing, re-using, recycling. Using energy-efficient lightbulbs, buying stuff secondhand, and choosing more sustainable food options. But I’m doing a lot of those things already, and I don’t particularly expect a cookie for it.
So no, sustainability on a day-to-day level is not a “why” for me — it’s the least I can do. If I want to actually make an impact, I’m going to have to do more: be more vocal, engage in politics, and take it beyond the four walls of my own home. That feels scary, because I don’t feel all that confident on the subject, but I think it’s worth doing.
Meanwhile: a couple of years ago I came across the term “resilience” via the Transition movement and this has more resonance for me. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to bring ourselves into a state of sustainability in time to deal with the crises barrelling toward us. When those crises arrive, we’ll have to deal with them somehow. Resilience looks a lot like sustainability on the surface, but it feels different to me. Maybe sustainability is aspirational, whereas resilience is practical? Whatever it is, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot.
If fuel became unbearably expensive, how would I stay warm, cook, travel? If the industrial food supply collapsed, what would I eat? How would I survive if I lost my source of income, if the telecommunications infrastructure stopped working, if there was a natural disaster or pandemic? It starts to sound a bit like the zombie apocalypse, which Milkwood Permaculture have justly criticised, but as my friend Emilly said the other day, the people she knows who are preparing for the zombie apocalypse and those who are preparing for peak oil and climate collapse are all doing the same things on a day to day level.
For me, resilience has meaning on a number of levels, from the everyday (always being able to make a meal from the pantry) to the long-term (choosing a lifestyle that is more affordable on less money, meaning I’m less financially fragile). In the past, I’ve often thought of resilience in terms of independence and being able to look after myself, but these days I’m starting to come around to the idea of resilience in community. Just as a computer network is more resilient with redundant topology, a community gains resilience the more connections there are between its members. So this is something I want to work on more in future.
Apart from that, another big motivator for me is knowledge. Skills. Being able to do stuff. I’m fascinated with traditional, human-scale, everyday stuff that people would have known a hundred or a thousand years ago. Baking, spinning, growing food, building a house, dealing with minor illnesses, anything like that. I’m a history nerd, but I’m especially a social history nerd. I want to know how people lived, and when I find out, I want to try it for myself.
So far, I’ve found that I tend to prefer a lot of the old ways of doing things to the modern ones, even if they take some learning and practice. There’s a sense of accomplishment in preserving the harvest or making a pair of shoes or mixing up a cleaning concoction that’s better and cheaper than the packaged kind, and I want to experience that as often as I can.
Next, I want to maximise my quality of life. That’s a broad term, but for me it includes health (both physical and mental), leisure, and feeling good about the physical things that surround me.
On health: I’m lucky to be in generally good health, my only notable issue being a long-standing eating disorder, for which I’m finally seeking help. I won’t go on about that in detail (if I ever do, I’ll place a warning at the top of the post for those who might be triggered by it), but my slow recovery and my changing relationship with food is a big part of my life these days. It’s important to my physical and mental health that I eat regularly and mindfully, so that ties in closely with how I arrange my domestic life.
When it comes to leisure, the core of it is about choosing a lifestyle that lets me have enough time to enjoy it. Moving to Ballarat’s part of that: I can afford the sort of living arrangements I want, without having to work for so many hours that I’m too exhausted to enjoy them, or on projects that suck more goodness out of my life than my leisure time can put back in. (The book Your Money or Your Life was pretty influential in my thinking around this — and I see there’s a new edition ca. 2008, which saves me having to warn you about how dated it was.)
When it comes to using my leisure time, it seems that over the past couple of years two of my biggest interests are learning and practicing traditional skills (as above), and hospitality. Okay, well, that and hanging around on Twitter and watching otter videos. But really — I get a lot of pleasure from domesticity at present, and I want to continue with that. But I’d also like to broaden my horizons a little, and find some more leisure activities outside the home and outside the Internet. So that’ll be something to keep in mind.
As for the physical stuff of life: stuff isn’t happiness, but in my experience, if you have the opportunity to carefully choose things that you love, and use them in your daily life, they can be a small but constant source of pleasure. It might be something you bought — I have a fabulous jar-opener that makes me happy every time I use it and it just works — or something you made or something that was given as a gift. Everyone’s has their own stuff that they love; I’m really only interested in optimising my own stuff, so I’m not trying to be prescriptive here. But I always thought William Morris was being a bit half-assed when he said:
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
Embrace the power of “and”, William! I’d like to have both, where possible. My ideal house would be furnished by things that are both useful and beautiful, and nothing else. That means not just careful selection, but also carefully weeding out the things that don’t make me happy, until I reach some kind of state of having just what I need and every single thing delighting me. Now there’s a stretch goal!
Finally, there’s a principle that seems to crop up over and over again for me: polyculture. The opposite of monoculture, polyculture is what you get when you have a variety of different things all growing together, as in a natural ecosystem, or in a permaculture garden. Polyculture is more resilient than monoculture, and — many people would say — more beautiful.
I keep coming back to the idea of polyculture when I think about my goals. Do I want to make everything myself? No! But I want to be able to make things myself, or to purchase them from local artisans, independent retailers, or larger corporations if necessary. I’m pretty unhappy about the excesses of 21st century capitalism, but I don’t think opting out of it has to be an all-or-nothing proposition. If we can have a healthy polyculture in everything we do and buy and consume — whether it’s groceries or gadgets or media — then we claw some of the riches and power away from the 1% and spread them around to all kinds of people, fostering diversity and redundancy and those strong webs of interconnection that will help us survive whatever is thrown our way.
What and how
In practical terms, what does this mean for me? I made a lot of notes but they’re just bullet points for now, and I expect I’ll flesh them out over time.
DIY where possible:
- Live well:
- Regularly eat delicious food and eat it mindfully.
- Spend time outdoors: walk, ride, explore.
- Spend time in my body, doing physical things for pleasure.
- Keep my house nice, so I enjoy being in it, and others enjoy it too.
- Be hospitable (but balance it with meeting people on their own ground as well).
- Get to know my neighbourhood and environment (history, nature, etc).
Trade locally and ethically:
- Grow my own food — attempt to become semi-self-sufficient in fruit/veg.
- Make food and household supplies from basic ingredients, depend less on packaged products.
- Make my own clothes and textile goods as much as possible.
- Learn more hardware skills (home repairs etc).
- Get to know my neighbours and others nearby: share, swap, collaborate.
- Be active in community groups that support this way of life (eg. permaculture, CWA).
- Shop local where possible: farmers markets, local producers, small and independent vendors.
- Modify consumption to prefer local or at least Australian goods (eg. grains, dried fruits, nuts, oils, etc).
- Prefer fair-trade and ethical goods where available. Where not available, buy simpler items (eg. cloth instead of garments, basic ingredients instead of packaged food) and less of them to reduce my spending on unethical products.
- Get my First Aid certificate back up to date.
- Make sure my home has a good emergency kit and realistic supplies.
- Look into local disaster volunteering (CFA? SES?)
Re-use, repair, and repurpose things when they are old or damaged.
Throw out waste (incl. municipal recycling) as a last resort. If I can’t use it, I should donate or freecycle it, or recycle onsite (eg. compost, mulch) before putting it in the bin.
Save money — put something away each month if I possibly can.
Get more politically active:
- Buy less — do I really need it? Can I use something I already have?
- Avoid food waste: plan, preserve, etc.
- Choose high quality, long-lasting, repairable goods.
- Choose things that delight me, so I don’t want to replace them.
- Buy/acquire secondhand where possible.
- Minimise packaging, especially plastic.
- Be more mindful of energy and water use.
- Get involved with the local Greens party.
- Take part in campaigns: write letters, protest, etc (but be smart about what’s effective).
- Donate to causes/charity in accordance with my values. Actually plan this, don’t just pick things at random.
- Learn more: economics, politics, ecology, agriculture, sociology, history, whatever will give me a framework to understand this stuff.
- Share: write, teach, talk about what I learn and what I’m doing. Not just to like-minded friends, but outside my bubble as well.
- Consciously extend this to my work/business as well as my personal/domestic life.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Whether I’ll be able to do many of these, who knows? It’s a lot, but it’s something to aim for.
Tomorrow a friend and I are taking a van-load of plants, and my worm farm, up to Ballarat, then on Tuesday the truck comes for my furniture. So much to do! I’ll have limited Internet for my first few weeks, until the NBN is connected (fingers crossed!), but I hope that’ll give me more time, not less, to blog more about my new house as I settle.