Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Six months of living sustainably

To practice what you preach is not always easy when you teach environmental studies. I’m teaching a 2nd-year Introduction to Sustainability course this semester, the first time I’ve taught this one, and preparing for it has reminded me how environmentally unsustainable my lifestyle is. For many years I kidded myself that I wasn’t so bad, and that compared with other Canadians my levels of consumption and energy use were relatively low. If my lifestyle wasn’t environmentally sustainable in the long term, I deluded myself into thinking I was at least on the right path, and I was at least living an economically and socially sustainable lifestyle.
Sun rising over the rails and electric power lines of Dublin's DART urban railway.

Then last year, during my sabbatical, my family and I moved to Dublin for six months, where I was a visiting scholar at the Department of Geography at Trinity. We each of us took a single large suitcase of possessions, plus a carry-on bag. We rented a 2 bedroom apartment, from which we were evicted 2 months later when the bank repossessed it from the landlord. Although we had accumulated a few more things, we moved our belongings to our new flat in Sandycove in a taxi. Both apartments had the most basic of furnishings and appliances. The second one had a clothes washing machine but no dryer, which in such a damp climate meant draping wet clothes on chairs and radiators for 2-3 days at a time to dry.

We had no car, but walked, took double-decker buses, or rode the DART (Dublin’s tremendously efficient urban rail line). An average day according to my spouse’s Fitbit consisted of between 15,000 and 20,000 footsteps. The saying that ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad choices in clothing’ described our lives perfectly; we were outside every day, rain or shine, and couldn’t have been healthier. The only casualty in six months was an iPhone 6 that couldn’t handle an especially rainy day.

We had an internet connection but no TV. Our evening entertainment was a walk along the strand to get 99s from Teddy’s ice cream shop (a south Dublin tradition) and read books purchased from and resold to the used bookstore across the street. If we wanted a movie, we borrowed a DVD from the public library.

Our biggest single expenditure apart from rent (which is horrendous in Dublin) was food. We were fortunate to live in a neighbourhood with three green grocers, two butchers, a proper fish shop, and a small supermarket. The ability to buy food from a knowledgeable local food vendor any day of the week is a treat that most Canadians have no experience with (I get by with a Saturday farmers market now, but Sunday to Friday the supermarket is the only option). The guy who ran our local organic green grocer in Sandycove would tell you things like, ‘don’t buy those strawberries, I’ll have better ones from Wexford later in the week’. Whenever I went into the butcher’s I’d simply ask, ‘what’s good today, Tom?’. A lengthy discussion would ensue about what we’d already been eating that week, what he had that was freshest, and his thoughts on how best to cook it. His product was always sourced from local farms and raised without antibiotics, GMOs, cruel conditions, etc. 

I could go on, but you get the picture – we shopped, ate and lived locally. According to online ‘ecological footprint’ calculators, we were living sustainably; that is, we were not consuming more resources than the planet can provide on a per capita basis. The only place we fell down was on travel; I took a couple work-related trips, and as a family we visited France, Italy, and Switzerland. And there was, of course, our return flights to Dublin from Toronto. Air travel unavoidably generates significant greenhouse gas emissions, but our modest day-to-day living and consumption choices offset these to a reasonable extent.

Now that we are back in Canada, with our dependence on automobiles, our detached home, our dog, and rooms full of stuff, our ecological footprint (especially the carbon footprint) has shot way up, by 150%. I’m presently consuming more resources than the planet can provide per capita – in other words, if everyone lived the way I do right now, we would need more than an extra half-planet’s worth of resources. Obviously that’s not sustainable. We’re already doing a lot to mitigate our consumption – walking and cycling when possible, buying 100% offsets for our electricity use, using LED light bulbs, and so forth – but we’ve made most of the incremental changes possible, picked all the low-hanging fruit.

To get back to living sustainably requires my family and I to follow one of two paths – invest in big-ticket measures like an electric car and solar panels on the roof, or go back to living out of a single suitcase in a small flat, walking or taking public transit everywhere. The first option will require some saving and likely won’t get my ecological footprint so low as it was in Dublin, but it won’t be as socially and economically disruptive as the latter option. Unlike Dublin, it is physically impossible for all members of my family to get to their respective schools and workplaces on the inadequate public transportation options in Waterloo Region. Changing the size of our house would make a modest improvement in our ecological footprint, but the transportation portion of our footprint is the one that needs the most attention. So, as my class and I explore the options for living sustainably this semester, it won’t be simply an academic exercise from my perspective, I’ll be looking for specific ways I can better practice what I’ll be preaching.

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