myth busting: three perceived barriers to sustainable living
When making changes in order to lead a more sustainable, environmentally friendly lifestyle, there are many challenges that can crop up.
This article focuses on the three main challenges that are referred to again and again: not enough time, not enough money and a lack of skills. I argue that these perceived barriers aren’t really barriers at all – once we shift our mindset.
Changing any lifestyle habit, be it about sustainable living or something entirely different, starts with your thoughts and the way you perceive reality. Many of our conceptions stem from the dominant culture of the day. We are, in some ways, a construct and a reflection of our times.
Sustainable living is, in part, a counter-culture. Often however, we might change our habits while maintaining our original mindsets. This can be a recipe for dissatisfaction and a reason to give up.
Once we change the following three patterns of thinking that are adopted from the culture of the day, the three barriers to sustainable living are no longer barriers.
Time as a barrier to sustainable living
Life is busy and most of us have competing demands on our time, despite all sorts of conveniences that are supposed to save us time. After the work and the childcare and the housework and the extra-curricular activates are done, who has the time, let alone the energy, to make soap, grow food or sew some clothes, right?
I’m going to argue here that you do have time. It’s not how much time you have each day that counts, but what you do with the time you have.
Our perception of time has been warped by the ‘now or never’, instant gratification mindset, encouraged by easy credit, ‘buy now, pay later’, ‘instant download’. It’s easy to hang onto that mindset and believe that a change in lifestyle should also be instant.
Instead of instant, embrace time passing. Suddenly time expands. We have our whole lives. We realise just how much we can do in the time we have.
Give yourself time
“How can I say I live ethically if I’m not living according to my standards RIGHT NOW?”
Because you are living as ethically as you can at this time, in the moment you are in right now. You’re doing your best at the present time – you can’t give better than your best.
You have your whole life to live. That’s worth repeating. You live your whole life. Living, be it sustainably or otherwise, is a journey. You will never reach ‘perfection’, it doesn’t exist; there’s no end except THE END.
So give yourself time. Take each step of the journey day by day. You can’t skip steps, nor can you run a marathon as if it’s a sprint. At some point, tomorrow will become today and you will be able to look back and see how far you’ve come, how much closer you are towards your goals. Thinking ‘all or nothing now’ may lead you to do nothing.
So you want a veggie garden that supplies the bulk of your food? Give yourself a year. Or two. Or four. Write out the steps you need to take. Now focus on getting from A to B not from A to Z. And take the first step today. And the next step next weekend.
Learn, make plans and dream in the meantime.
You’re on your sustainable living journey. And you have plenty of time.
If you’ve already made the decision to live more sustainably, the next step is to prioritise your time. To make time in your week to do the things that resonate with your values.
How do you do this? By skipping those things that don’t resonate.
The truth is that we all have the same 24 hours in a day and a choice as to how we want to spend those hours. We can’t have it all, at some point there will be an opportunity cost – the choice to give up one thing in order to do another. But when you have firm values, the ‘other stuff’ you’re missing out on won’t seem important or worth the trouble after all.
“When things aren’t adding up in your life, start subtracting.” Anon [source]
Even the most busy of us have spare time or time that can be better utilised. As I write this, it’s 4:30am on a Saturday morning. Pregnancy insomnia pulled me out of bed, so I’m writing these thoughts in the morning’s stillness on the lounge, alone, with a notepad and a cup of tea. It really is a beautiful and peaceful time of the day.
Sometimes we just need to take time. To take the opportunities as they arise during the day. And the best way to take time is to know what things you want to do (I keep lists – many lists), know the baby steps you need to take to achieve your goals and get one of those baby steps done when time presents itself. Even if that baby step is just taking the tools and materials you need to do a project out of the cupboard or just looking up a recipe to make your own soap, that’s one step closer to your goal.
Money as a barrier to sustainable living
Money comes up as a limit to sustainable living due to the perception that to live sustainably you have to ‘buy eco-products’, ‘buy organic’, ‘buy local’ or ‘buy fair-trade’…
Do you see the problem here? It’s another case of changing habits while keeping the old mindset, in this case, the consumer mindset.
The truth is that sustainable living isn’t about buying ‘eco’, it’s about buying less.
REDUCE, reuse, recycle.
Sustainable living actually goes hand in hand with frugality. The first step isn’t to consume better products, it’s to consume less products in the first place. And this saves you money.
Of course, at some point we have to buy stuff. Buying less stuff in the first place helps free up funds in our budget and enables us to make better choices when it comes to the things we do buy.
But before going out and purchasing that eco-organic-fair-trade-good-for-the-environment product, consider this: buying a second-hand item is better for the environment than buying a brand new ‘eco’ product. The resources have already been ‘spent’ producing the item, there’s less waste, and producing a new ‘eco’ product expends further (unnecessary) resources. And it’s usually cheaper to purchase second-hand items.
Then ask yourself this: can I make what I need myself? Can I make soap rather than buy expensive organic body wash? Can I recycle what I have on hand to meet my needs rather than buy a specialty product? Can I mend, reuse, reinvent? Again, these options not only save you money, they are usually more environmentally friendly than buying ‘eco’ (after all, an ‘eco’ body wash still comes in a plastic container that needed to be manufactured and eventually recycled, a process that also consumes resources).
The other thing about money and living sustainably are the investments considered necessary to meet the ‘sustainable ideal’. You may not feel you’re living up to standard if you haven’t got solar panels, drive a hybrid car, live in a solar passive house, raise your own goats and banana trees on a small acreage…
Still trying to keep up with the Joneses?
When it comes to expensive investments, the first step is to set realistic standards according to your personal circumstances. If it’s not in the budget, it’s not in the budget. Feeling guilty about it isn’t productive.
The next step is to focus on what you can do and to do that.
Let’s take solar power as an example. Solar panels are not effective if you haven’t first taken steps to reduce your energy consumption. Reducing energy consumption is something you can do. Focus on that.
And of course, reducing energy usage will save you money, not cost you money.
If you do want solar panels, you can put your savings aside to invest in panels and then give yourself time to accumulate the funds needed.
Learn, make plans and dream in the meantime.
Skills and Knowledge as a barrier to sustainable living
A lack of skills and knowledge is the third main barrier to sustainable living.
‘DIY is all well and good but I don’t know how to… and I don’t want to waste time and money making mistakes learning.’
Here’s the secret to learning a new skill: you have to do it to learn it.
Theory is helpful, but it’s not until you put theory into practice and embrace your mistakes that you learn. Actually, fixing mistakes is often the quickest and best way to learn something.
Want to learn to sew? Sew something. Invest in a quick unpick (my most used tool) and make something from recycled materials.
Want to learn to grow herbs? Plant some. Take a cutting from the rosemary you bought for the roast lamb. Stick it in a yoghurt container of soil. Keep a gardening journal and note down your successes, failures, research and theories.
Want to learn how to change a tap washer? Change one. Check out YouTube for how to videos then give it a go.
You never know what you can achieve until you give something a go.
But there’s another way to look at DIY. You don’t need to learn to do everything yourself. This is where the third mainstream mindset comes into play: individualism.
You are not an island. ‘Self-sufficient’ living is a myth that has never existed. Humans have always worked together in some kind of community. Community is just as important to the concept of sustainable living as is ‘self-sufficiency’.
So when it comes to changing that tap washer, you could learn to do it yourself (and there are benefits in that) or you could barter some zucchinis (which you may be very good at growing) with your neighbour, who changes tap washes very well.
Incidentally, this also addresses the issue of not having enough time. Community allows us to trade skills – you don’t need to do everything all by yourself.
Limits and barriers are actually good things. They challenge us to be more creative and to seek better alternatives to easy-fix solutions. They help us to grow, to learn, to invent.
They also help us to question, and if necessary, let go of some unhelpful mindsets that can hinder a thriving lifestyle: an emphasis on instant gratification, an emphasis on consumption and consumerism and an emphasis on the individual versus the community. At the end of the day, the way we think lays the foundation for the way we act.