Too Much Sustainability Isn’t Sustainable

Reader Contribution by Staff
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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. 

Steve Maxwell is a DIY expert and longtime contributor to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. He and his family homestead on Manitoulin Island, Canada, cultivating a little patch of  farmland surrounded by a sea of forest. Connect with Steve at, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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