Creating a sustainable lifestyle takes a lifelong commitment – to learning, experimenting, exploring, committing to increasingly sustainable practices and, above all, loving. Because beyond all of the frightening news; beyond the frustrating politics; beyond the failed international agreements, there is one question – how do you want to live your life? With fear – or with love? The fear route feels defeated and helpless and frustrating. The love route, on the other hand, feels grounded, purposeful and hopeful.
At its essence, it is the route of living by the Golden Rule, a central tenet across all major religions:
In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
~ Christianity (Matthew 1452)
What is hurtful to yourself do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary.
~ Judaism (Moses 6)
Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.
~ Islam (Moses 6)
Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.
~ Buddhism (Moses 7)
Tzu-Kung asked: "Is there one principle upon which one's whole life may proceed?" the Master replied, "Is not Reciprocity such a principle? – what you do not yourself desire, do not put before others."
~ Confucianism (Moses 7)
This is the sum of all true righteousness – Treat others, as though wouldst thyself be treated. Do nothing to they neighbor, which hereafter thou wouldst not have they neighbor do to thee.
~ Hinduism (Moses 7)
It is such a simple principle – and yet if it is extended to include all living beings (an essential component of sustainability), it requires a complete shift in how we live our lives. Because we do unto others all day long – through the clothes we buy, the energy we use, the food we eat, even the toothpaste we brush our teeth with. Every choice we make impacts others – through its creation, its distribution, its use and its disposal. And most likely we'll never know – or even see – who we are impacting. But they are out there, nonetheless, suffering – or thriving - based on our choices.
Because we live in such a global, profit-at-all-costs world, the number impacted is astounding – hard to grasp really. One detailed life cycle analysis of aluminum cans, for example, documents the steps required to manufacture, sell and dispose of an aluminum can and the resulting impacts:
At every stage in the life cycle of this product, humans and other animals and plants are negatively impacted – through destruction of habitat; exposure to land, air and water pollutants and, for humans, potentially low wages and unsafe working conditions.
In all, the production of an aluminum can requires over 60 different types of raw or processed materials and creates over 75 different types of pollutants. The material inputs and manufacturing equipment also have their own life cycle impacts.
Manufacturing an aluminum can causes increased global warming, acidification, eutrophication, low level smog, and ozone layer depletion.
Story of Stuff author, Annie Leonard adds:
["A single-use, single-serving aluminum can"] is one of the most energy-intensive, CO2-producing, waste-generating products on the planet. . .Aluminum smelting requires more energy than any other metal processing on earth. . .[and produces] perfluorocarbons (PFCs) – these are the most noxious of greenhouse gases, trapping thousands of times more heat than carbon dioxide. . .It's estimated that more than a trillion aluminum cans have been trashed in landfills since 1972." (Leonard 64-67)
And that's just an aluminum can.
So choosing a life of love requires a lot of work – a lot of rethinking – a lot of soul searching. The question we have to answer in every choice we make is: how loving do we really want to be? And how inclusive do we want to be in our love? Living, of course, involves impacting others – all of life impacts others. But is our impact unnecessarily harmful – or is it based on a conscious choice which minimizes harm done and maximizes benefits?
Looking back at the Golden Rule, we all want our homes protected, our neighborhoods unpolluted, a plentiful supply of safe drinking water and food – and knowing that our future is secure. And we want others to make choices that ensure we have these things. The loving approach to life, then, is to offer that same level of care back to others.
It quickly becomes clear then that choosing a life of love requires us to change just about every aspect of our lives – to change how we spend our days. It involves shifting our lifestyle away from consumption and toward more sustainable activities such as:
The inevitable question arises then – 'but will I be happy living this new way?' Fortunately, the answer is a resounding yes! Happiness studies have exploded over the last decade and have found a great deal of evidence linking altruistic and sustainable behavior to happiness:
At least two studies of groups that chose to change their lifestyle to achieve personal values such as "environmental friendliness" and "voluntary simplicity" found that both experienced higher levels of well-being. (Bok 22)
"I live in a tight community…it’s really just a bunch of friends who chose to live near one another – really near, like next door… We share a big yard; we often eat meals together…we share Stuff all the time…Once, after my daughter begged me to let her try skiing, I sent an email out to my community members asking for advice...when I got home from work the next day, there were three bags full of children’s ski equipment and clothes waiting for me on the front step….Because we share and borrow many of the things we need, we are able to consume less Stuff. Because we provide one another with services like baby-sitting, repairing and listening, we pay less for services than others do." (Leonard 237-238)
~ Story of Stuff movie producer and author Annie Leonard
In a 2004 study by The Center for New American Dream, 90% of people who said they had downshifted their lives were happy with their decision (even though 60% said they missed the extra income). ("New American" 11)
Volunteering or performing acts of kindness contributes significantly to happiness. (Bok 22)
The experiences and conditions associated with people's happiness are…strong marriages, close friendships, acts of charity and community service, feelings of good health, religious faith, and a stable democracy with a responsive, effective, accountable government. (Bok 30)
Practicing acts of kindness is not only good for the recipient but also good for the doer. It may be ironic, but being kind and good, even when it's unpleasant or when one expects or receives nothing in return, may also be in the doer's self-interest. This is because being generous and willing to share makes people happy. (Lyubomerisky 126)
Human beings have a strong "need to belong" and participating in relationships, social groups, and networks not only makes us happy but contributes to our continued thriving and survival. (Lyubomerisky 208)
People whose primary life goals are intrinsically rewarding obtain more satisfaction and pleasure from their pursuits. Intrinsic goals are those that you pursue because they are inherently satisfying and meaningful to you, which allow you to grow as a person, to develop emotional maturity, and to contribute to your community. . . Personal goals that we intrinsically value directly satisfy our most basic psychological needs in life…our need for autonomy, for a sense of competence, and for relatedness. (Lyubomerisky 208-209)
Sustained pursuit of activities that you value is more happiness-inducing, with its ability to deliver a stream of positive events and regular boosts in happy mood. . . . [vs.] when people strive to change their circumstances (e.g., buy high-definition televisions…). [By] defining and then achieving their goals, they certainly feel happier, but they risk experiencing hedonic adaptation. In other words, you are likely to adapt quickly to your new situation and begin to desire ever-higher levels of pleasure (e.g., an ever-bigger HDTV…) simply in order to recapture your previous level of happiness. (Lyubomerisky 214, 213)
A sustainable, nature- and community-based lifestyle is also healthier and more secure:
Over the past decades, an increasing number of studies have documented that experiences in, or of, Nature can be beneficial for human health and well-being…More specifically, contact with Nature has been reported to have psychological benefits by reducing stress, improving attention, by having a positive effect on mental restoration, and by coping with attention deficits. In addition to mental advantages, there appear to be direct physical health benefits, such as increased longevity, and self-reported health. As might be expected, the availability of Nature correlates positively with health. Benefits have been associated with various types of Nature experiences, including true wilderness, neighbourhood parks, gardens, and natural features around residences. (Grinde)
There is solid evidence to support the perennial hypothesis that benevolent emotions, attitudes, and actions centered on the good of others contribute to the giver's happiness, health, and even longevity. Although genuine benevolence must be chiefly motivated by concern for others, it has the side effect of nourishing the giver. Researchers in the social sciences and health outcomes look for a convergence of results across a variety of methods in order to determine the truth of any hypothesis. The evidence that "doing unto others" is good for the giver has reached a high threshold with regard to everyday kindness and good deeds that bestow upon the giver a feeling of meaning, buoyancy, and warmth, and deflect attention away from the self and its problems. (Post 37)
The "helper's high" [a pleasurable and euphoric emotional sensation of energy and warmth] was first carefully described by Allen Luks (1988). Luks surveyed thousands of volunteers across the United States, and found that people who helped other people consistently reported better health than peers in their age group. Many stated that this health improvement began when they started to volunteer. (Post 13)
The researchers [Larry Scherwitz and his researchers at the University of California]…recommend that a healthier heart can result when a person is more giving, listens attentively when others talk, and does things that are unselfish. (Post 19)
Renowned Harvard behavioral psychologist David McClelland discovered that…"dwelling on love" strengthened the immune system. (Post 24)
Altruism is associated with substantial reduction in mortality rates, even after differences in socioeconomic status, prior health status, smoking, social support, and physical activity are accounted for. (Post 27)
Anthropologists point out that early egalitarian societies practiced institutionalized or "ecological altruism," where helping others was a social norm, and not an act of volunteerism. There appears to be a fundamental human drive toward other-regarding actions. When this drive is inhibited, the human being does not thrive. (Post 34)
So it's a lot of work and it will bring many positive benefits: increased joy and satisfaction and a sense of purpose and improved health. It will also bring a greater sense of community – a much wider community than we normally identify with.
Shifting to a sustainable lifestyle may involve making radical shifts in how we spend our days. Integrating these changes into our lives involves first shifting toward wanting to make each change:
As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired. Mahatma Gandhi ("Vishnu-Bharati" 242)
Reading sustainable blogs and books and watching videos (see RESOURCES sections below), taking classes on sustainability and joining local sustainable communities are all effective ways to shift mindset. Also making smaller shifts leads to larger shifts as the benefits of each shift becomes clear. What follows is an effective path for shifting into a sustainable lifestyle.
There are three essential steps for living sustainably:
"Downsizing can be stressful, but the benefits are tremendous…we had the time, money and energy to prioritize our health, happiness and life goals. For instance, I quit my day job in early 2010, started my own small business and moved to Portland, Oregon. Without simplicity, I would still be stuck in my cubicle." (Strobel)
~ Tiny home owner, RowdyKittens blogger and author Tammy Strobel
Only keep in your life things and activities that you find useful and/or you love. The rest is cluttering your space and time. Donate unneeded goods to charity or a freecycle program. Getting rid of everything you don't need – and cutting out any activities that don't add value to your life – is one of the most effective ways to kick start a sustainable life. Your surroundings impact what your mind focuses on.
By creating a de-cluttered home, you are declaring your intention every day to live sustainably. Simplifying gets rid of a lot of garbage (including mental) that you no longer need. It is a way to let go of the past and become focused on how you want to live your life going forward.
Simplifying also leaves you committed to not re-clutter your life. You end up buying much less at stores – which makes it easier to buy sustainably.
Once you have cleared out as much clutter as possible, try out the great recommendation by the Joy of Less author Francine Jay. She recommends separating items in each room into three categories:
If you still find that you're buying too much, try the 30-day challenge (if you want to purchase something unessential, wait 30 days to see if you still need to buy it – and in the meantime see if you can make do with what you already have, borrow, or buy used). The free, downloadable Wallet Buddy from The Center for a New American Dream is a great constant reminder to make loving choices.
There are many wonderful resources for simplifying – below are my favorites:
Great books for inspiration and tips
"Doubtful that you can still be happy by minimizing? Of course, you can! You just have to recognize what you have and enjoy it. For example, part of my happiness hinges on the fact that I am blessed with good health. I have good family and friends. This gives me a lot of reasons to be thankful and happy. I don’t have a 42-inch flat panel high-definition TV. However, I take pride in my 120-inch high-definition view from my home on the mountain range. I get to see the sun rise every morning and the moon rise every month…Once in a while, I get treated with a brilliant morning sky that is almost unbelievable. I truly cherish these and get immense joy out of them. They do not cost me a dime. No resources drained from the planet." (Lawrence 73)
~ The Happy Minimalist author Peter Lawrence
Informative and inspiring videos
Popular blogs from some extreme simplifiers for ongoing ideas and inspiration
Green Eco Tips
While simplifying, conduct a thorough inventory of all your purchasing choices. This is the second critical step in creating a sustainable life – and also helps with reducing clutter. By getting a clear picture of how we are living our lives currently – at a detailed level – we can kick start the process of shifting toward loving choices. Below are recommended tools for achieving this. These tools provide a clear picture of what kind of world we are supporting – and creating:
A. Eco Footprint
"The average Indian has a lower footprint now than in 1961, despite a dramatic increase in income. So does the average Brazilian…The average Norwegian has a 19 percent lower footprint today than he or she did almost half a century ago, even with per capita income that is about eight thousand dollars higher than the U.S. level." (Schor 63)
~ Juliet Schor, author and co-founder of the Center for a New American Dream
B. Water Footprint
C. Consumption Inventory
D. Home and Garden Inventory:
"The simplification of life is one of the steps to inner peace. A persistent simplification will create an inner and outer well-being that places harmony in one’s life. For me this began with a discovery of the meaninglessness of possessions beyond my actual and immediate needs. As soon as I had brought myself down to need level, I began to feel a wonderful harmony in my life between inner and outer well-being, between spiritual and material well-being."
~ Peace Pilgrim
E. Transportation Inventory
F. Waste and Recycling Inventory
Getting a clear, detailed picture of the waste we create is a surprisingly effective way for reducing waste and recyclables – and a great help with simplifying our lives. This involves:
"I came definitely to the conclusion that…I must discard…all possession....I cannot tell you with truth that, when this belief came to me, I discarded everything immediately. I must confess to you that progress at first was slow. And now, as I recall those days of struggle, I remember that it was also painful in the beginning. But, as days went by, I saw that I had to throw overboard many other things which I used to consider as mine, and a time came when it became a matter of positive joy to give up those things….a great burden fell off my shoulders…The possession of anything then became a troublesome thing and a burden." (Gandhi 1066-7)
~ Mahatma Gandhi
G. Quarterly Updates
Update your calendar to sign into the Eco Footprint Calculator and update your progress on a quarterly basis. Also retake the Water Footprint Calculator to determine your progress. Revisit your goals for the quarter.
Popular blogs for ongoing ideas and inspiration
The final step is to make a lifelong commitment to making the most loving choice each and every time. It involves re-defining how we want to live our lives. This step is at first the most difficult but, through its practice, we gain a real sense of purpose – we come to know that we really are treating others as we would like to be treated.
In addition to the goals set above, there are many ideas on Global Steward's Eco Tips page. I wish you all the best on your journey!
Bok, Derek Curtis. The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-being. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.
Center for a New American Dream. New American Dream Survey Report. Rep. Center for a New American Dream, Sept. 2004. Web. 10 Sept. 2012.
Gandhi, Mahatma. Speeches and Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Madras: G.A. Natesan & Company, 1933. Print.
Grinde, Bjørn, and Grete Grindal Patil. "Abstract." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 31 Aug. 2009. Web. 19 Sept. 2012.
Lawrence, Peter. The Happy Minimalist: Financial Independence, Good Health, and a Better Planet for Us All. [Bloomington, IN]: Xlibris, 2008. Print.
Leonard, Annie, and Ariane Conrad. The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health--and How We Can Make It Better. New York: Free, 2011. Print.
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Matthew. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1985. Print.
Moses, Jeffrey. Oneness: Great Principles Shared by All Religions. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989. Print.
PE Americas. Life Cycle Impact Assessment of Aluminum Beverage Cans. Rep. Aluminum Association, Inc. Washington, D.C., 21 May 2010. Web. 7 Sept. 2012.
Post, Stephen G., Ph.D. It’s Good to Be Good: 2011 Fifth Annual Scientific Report on Health, Happiness and Helping Others. Rep. Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2012.
Schor, Juliet. True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy. New York, NY: Penguin, 2010. Print.
Strobel, Tammy. "Our Downsizing Story." RowdyKittens. Tammy Strobel, n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2012.
Vishnu-Bharati Quarterly, New Series II, Part II, quoted in Numal Kumar Bose, Studies in Gandhism, Hindi edition