Too Much Sustainability Isn't Sustainable

| 8/25/2012 10:14:00 AM

Tags: sustainability, resources, challenges, homesteading, Steve Maxwell,

Are you feeling guilty about the environmental impact of your life? Are you having trouble reconciling your ideals for sustainability and the realities of making it happen around you? I have a personal story that might bring wisdom, perspective and relief to your plight.

I was 7 years old when I first became aware of pollution and I found it an ugly, evil and horrifying thing. The specter of environmental degradation was never far from my concerns as I grew up, either. So much so, that when I was 12 years old, I remember thinking to myself that I would gladly give up my life and die as a sacrifice, if such a thing would rid the world of the ugliness of pollution.  When I chose to build a life of rural self-reliance and sustainability on my property on Manitoulin Island in 1985, I was 22 years old, and my plan was to build a home and life that would never contribute one iota to the degradation of the earth that I loved so much. This was my ideal coming into the venture, but something unexpected always kept getting in the way.

Whenever I tried to make something completely pure and clean and unpolluting happen on my land, various realities would always drive me towards some technology or material or method that was below my ideals. It was really quite debilitating. For example, my original plan was to build only with wood sustainably harvested from my property. But how do I turn poplar trees into useful building materials when they're round, upright and standing half a mile from my building site? I had no tractor, no sawmill and no wagon to move the wood. I struggled with the logs by hand, dragged them to my building site with my 18-year-old pickup truck, then sawed them into beams with the tiny, homeowner-grade chainsaw I owned at the time. Slow, inefficient, tiring, not particularly sustainable and poplar beams aren’t much good anyway. As soon as I broke down and started buying building materials, my plans and progress took off.

Another one of my original visions was to have no electricity and pump all water by hand. Weeks of wrestling with a salvaged, antique, deep-well hand pump led to nothing but frustration and a lot of expensive steel pipe that I still have laying around today. Things worked so much better almost immediately when I wired my shed for electricity and got an electric pump connected to the well with plastic pipe. Not nearly as sustainable, nor as beautiful, but it sure works.

My plan was to dig my basement by hand – avoiding the cost, pollution and ugliness of having a backhoe come in and do the work. After two weeks of digging with a shovel for 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, I'd penetrated my hard clay soil about enough to accommodate a phone booth. $300, a hired backhoe and a small contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and I had the entire basement hole dug in about 4 hours.

There are many more examples of my ideals clashing with reality as I did my thing out here on Manitoulin, but regardless of the details they all pointed in the same direction.

Having my ideals shot down slowly like this, one by one, over a period of 4 years, was painful. That said, I also received instant philosophical relief in a flash as I lay on my bed at the end of one day in the winter of 1989. Before I explain how it all happened, let me warn you about something. This is the point in my story where we might part ways in our perspectives on life and the realities beyond. Bear with me. And if you can’t do that, then at least treat me kindly, as you would any poor, deluded soul.

The instant and permanent alignment of my ideals with the realities of the natural world was an enormous relief. It happened at 9:20 pm, and I consider it to be one of half a dozen tangible interventions from God that I've experienced in my life so far. In an instant, I understood three vital things with complete clarity:

1. The human heart pines for the Garden of Eden. We were made for it.

2. Humanity is no longer allowed to live in the Garden of Eden because we all carry the taint of sin.

3. No amount of invention or creativity or environmental sensitivity or technology can get us completely back into the Garden. We can try, and we can certainly be more in harmony or less, but we’ll never, ever be perfectly in tune this side of eternity.

One day God promises to bring all those who choose to follow Him in truth and love and submission into a perfect place, and when this happens our hearts will be completely satisfied as we live in the "greenest and most sustainable" of all worlds. This is the kind of world that many readers of Mother Earth grope towards now, however imperfectly and however divorced from any ideas of God you may hold. This pining is admirable and good and completely understandable. That said, it can also lead us to ideals that are difficult or technically impossible to fulfill outside a perfected world. 

I'm definitely not saying that environmental technologies and approaches are silly. They're certainly not. I use them whenever I can. What I have found to be true is that it's easy to let our Garden-pining enthusiasm get the better of us sometimes. This is especially true if we're a sensitive person with a strong imprint of a perfect world on our hearts, as I am.  Here's how all this boils down for me as far as technology is concerned:

1. I always choose the most efficient, least fossil-fuel dependent technology I can. 

2. I always expend the greatest part of my environmental efforts towards those areas that give the most environmental benefit without necessarily expecting to reach "Garden of Eden" standards. For me and my situation, this means heating with wood as much as possible. It means driving as little as possible each year (I generally clock on only 4,000 to 5,000 miles per year), while also avoiding consumer toys. 

3. There's also something to be said for tried, true and locally serviceable technologies. Buying a new fridge from the Sears counter in town, for instance, might not make me feel particularly green, but fridges these days are pretty efficient, and there's always someone local to service them. Our septic system and flush toilets are just ordinary, but with proper maintenance they purify waste water quite well. And the extra-lush lawn clippings I harvest from the septic bed does let us close the nutrient cycle to an extent. Letting the chickens graze the septic bed helps here, too.

4. If I am going to use technologies that I consider "part of the problem" (i.e. power tools, internal combustion devices, grid electricity) I'm going to get the best, most efficient, longest-lasting versions that are made. Might as well at least enjoy the benefits of durability and performance. 

Does any of this make sense? My Garden of Eden insight has certainly helped me. In fact, if I hadn't been blessed with that momentary insight 23 years ago, I doubt I would have been able to stay on my land. The tug of war between my ideals and the realities of life outside the Garden would simply have been far too tiring.

Let me know if this resonates with you. I hope it does. Besides being helpful, the wisdom of life is bestowed on us so we can pass it on. 

 Bye for now,


Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build and maintain their homes for more than two decades. “Canada’s Handiest Man” is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on . 

jan hearthstone
1/12/2013 6:56:38 AM

Although it still might not look too desperate to us in the USA, we know that the overall situation in the world is quite grave--the extent of environmental and societal destruction is extensive. Only true sustainability could save the Earth. Yet this would mean a profound shift in values--in true sustainability the only profit is the profit of the whole; individual profit can lie only in benefiting the whole better than others! One cannot be only a little bit sustainable--either one is in "sync" with all other life there is on Earth, or one is not, I feel. As long as we continue to create imbalance with the Earth, with other humans, and with other life on Earth, no matter how little an imbalance, that long we all will see the undesirable effects--pollution, social problems, wars, etc.--compounding speedily. We can hardly go back to the Garden of Eden, but we can start striving towards a balanced coexistence with all other life on Earth (with other humans and with non-humans alike) by trying to imagine what the ideal coexistence of us all on one Earth could/should look like. (I am touching on that at "Universal Platform for Developing Sustainable Earth Vision/Model Cooperatively" - www.ModelEarth.Org/seed.html .) The better we know what we all want, the faster we can start striving for this ideal state of things on Earth. The idea is to reconcile all of our differences, controversies, conflicts, and all our complaints *before* those reconcile in real life, accompanied by real damages--wars, social ills, pollution, etc., as the practice has been hitherto. There is no room for any complacence at all. Thank you, Hearthstone - www.ModelEarth.Org .

steve maxwell
11/15/2012 4:07:36 PM

Thanks everyone! I appreciate reading all your comments and I'm delighted that I brought some fresh air and relief to some of you. I've got more big things I've learned here out on the land and I'll share them as I get them written down. Take care. Steve

robert keast
10/28/2012 5:19:20 PM

Awesome atricle man! I never thought about sustainability like that, we live in such a confusing time, its nice to hear some good insight! Thank you and god bless you!

randy jones
10/25/2012 10:18:44 PM


delphine kensley
10/19/2012 2:08:43 AM

TOTALLY!! Resonated with me. Thank-you for the insight that what I am currently able to do IS acceptable ( I do it in thanks-giving) and that I will never achieve what I truely pine for because its not here. I really needed some help to put that into perspective.

shaun loop
10/14/2012 3:05:39 PM

That was an encouraging article. I do need to learn patience and know that things take time. I also would like to get as close as I can to self-sustainability, for I know this is better. But you are right, IF I expect some form of Garden of Eden this side of Heaven I am deluded. God is and should be my sufficiency. What ever I eat or whatever I drink or whatever it is I do, Do all to the Glory of God. 1 Cor. 10:31.

doug pitcher
10/5/2012 3:51:40 AM

My wife wouldn't even let me attempt to dig our basement by hand but I really wanted to give it a try. I just broke down and put drywall in the log house I'm building and it was everything I could do to not feel like I was sinning. This article made me feel a lot better about my compromise of generally high sustainable standards. Thanks.

mark eaves
9/25/2012 1:40:30 PM

Great, now what is your part in what you described?

mark eaves
9/25/2012 1:35:51 PM

Barbara Pleasant and Jack McCornack could use some exposure to Steve. Kimmel said it best in jest; godless liberal homosexuals. Thanks for the real reality Steve.

robert lacoe
9/16/2012 9:45:39 PM

What a breath of fresh air to see sensible sustainability information here. It is nothing like the radical UN agenda 21 where they, government, will control all land, water, food, living accomidations, ETC. Go to to see how radical they are in destroying our freedoms.

9/15/2012 5:48:11 PM

Wow. What a great article. Not what I'd expect from a magazine called Mother Earth News.

loretta beavis
9/4/2012 5:11:06 PM

Hi Steve! Well, everyone has a starting point...I've learned to live conservatively. A lot of the sustainability stuff is unaffordable or I don't have the skills (yet) do to that. I have experienced that God just wants us to love our neighbors and treat what we have as if it IS Paradise. It seems to me that we all live toooooooo close together, causing the stress and strain on the environment. This year I raised livestock for meat even though I don't eat much myself-I shared it with neighbors. I let my garden go "all volunteer" and retired my tiller. Being a plant geek, I ID'd the plants and used them for me and livestock food and in different ways. I share what I learned with two communities on my facebk college application. I'd like an earth home, but can't do that yet. I garden "in season" and eat likewise. I don't buy store fruit much-a peach that came from S. America? Jet fuel, the aircraft, the transportation after it got here, the labeling, the slave-wage labor who produced it? I don't get it. I don't get having to have "certified" organic produce. Consumers need local producers, like backyard growers in the neighborhood. I ride my bike a lot, I've learned to ride the bus (even if gettin' somewhere takes most of the day!) I'm with you on durability and perforamce of equipment-I'd like to know how many weed-eaters the American family consumes in a year... I joined a local, leaderless group that meets monthly to discuss and try out self-reliance and emergency prep ideas-its really fun to see if the theories work! Really enjoyed this article. I'll be back! And hey-the bill for all sin has been paid by the One who is Perfect so we are free to love one another.

nancy smith
9/3/2012 4:10:18 PM

It's always difficult when your ideals crash head-on with reality. Like you, I confront this every day, but am trying to be the best steward of God's creation that I can. Thank you for sharing your struggle with us! Nancy

gerald naughton
8/29/2012 3:02:09 AM

I think reaching adulthood at 26 and realizing that the world and life are about balance put you way ahead of the pack of adolescents of varying ages, many quite gray, who mistake their whiny immaturity for moral purity. Thanks for a refreshing read. --gen

mara lambert
8/27/2012 6:34:24 PM

After living without electricity or running water (with a partner) for a number of years, I left that lifestyle. First 'survival' tools I bought were a chain saw and a pressure canner. I realized my ideals would be dropped, one at a time, but I'm still hanging on to a few. Thanks, Steve.

gabriel pawloski
8/27/2012 3:41:43 PM

garden of eden or not... digging a basement wouldnt have been practical 200 years ago or then would have taken some serious time, but now are trying to acomidate 21 century desires and time schedules with 18th century accomidations... ive been struggling and planning on what can be cut and what must be delt with to continue to live 20th century comfortably

debra weiss
8/26/2012 8:45:17 PM

Well, belief is everything. You believe you are a flawed life form who is forever suffering for something that may or may not have been done 6000 years ago (according to the bible), you will forever be that flawed life form that is forever suffering. News flash, the vulgate, which is what every single version of the bibles book of genesis is based off of, is based off the septuigent (may have butchered the spelling) which is a watered down version of the torah. Why was it watered down? The sept. wasrequested by Ptolemy, of greek ruler of egypt fame, who wanted to better understand the jews living under his jurisdiction. The only greek and hebrew speaking folks at the time were the Essenes, who did not take kindly to a decadent pagan foriegn emperor being let in on the inner most secrets of their faith, so they watered it down. The first three lines of genesis, if translated properly read as such:“The spirit of God brought into continuous expression the dual principle of life and death by “containing” it in an infinite array of cosmic manifestations. This creation is a perpetual process by means of which the Cosmic principle is eternally brought into realization. Through this initial manifestation the first nine archetypes of existence came into being. The creation was dual, for in the process of creating the external universe, the Cosmic principle brought Itself into manifestation. The Divine fertilizing agent projected in continuity the dual principle of life and death into the cosmic womb, and started the gestation process which brought forth the spiritual essence of the created universe. The Manifested Cosmic principle was then surrounded by continuous existence. The essence of spirit was fertilized and expressed in universal manifestation through the cosmic copulation between the male and female Cosmic principles. This brought forth the Creation of the Physical Universe in the form of a vast explosion of light” Now all that being said, your not flawed, your not being punished by God, you are a perfect manifestation of His/Her creative force, and when you learn to accept that, you will realize the Garden of Eden is indeed possible (hint, it would have helped if you had someone to help you, and you dont need a basement)

larry sullivan
8/26/2012 1:13:02 AM

Steve, I believe you finally got it! Thanks for the encouraging article. Talk about being right on target. I have reached the same conclusions myself, you just aren't going to take an imperfect life on an imperfect earth and make it perfect. But, the news of comfort is that you can approach it. You can constantly move in that direction (generally). Knowing that you are living in this manner brings enormous satisfaction in an otherwise imperfect environment. Again, thanks for taking a moment to share.

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