HOW TO PREVENT ENVIRONMENTAL PERFECTIONISM: Too Much “Sustainability” Isn’t Sustainable

Do you feel 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 hope it does, anyway.

A Long-Time Burden

I was 7 years old when I first became aware of pollution and I found it an ugly, evil and horrifying thing. That was back in 1970. The spectre 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, Canada beginning 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. I see now that it was reality.

My log splitter burns gasoline and makes noise, so no one would consider it an “implement of environmentalism”. Yet a tool like this helps me make use of sustainably harvested firewood that so local it’s only a 1/4-mile from the house.

Sustainability & the Real World

Whenever I tried to make something completely pure, clean and unpolluting happen on my land, various realities would always drive me towards some technology or material or method that was way 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 a quarter-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, the only one 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 at least some building materials delivered by a diesel-powered truck, my plans and progress took off.

Click here to read a detailed account of our 30+ years homesteading on Manitoulin Island, Canada, and how the environmental perfectionism thing played out.

Another one of my original visions was to have no electricity and to pump all water only by hand. After all, electricity is more polluting than muscle power, right? 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 unused. 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 worked.

My plan was to dig my entire 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 nothing bigger than a phone booth. $300 later, 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 Island in the early days, but regardless of the details they all pointed in the same direction. Thinking about living in a 100% completely and absolutely sustainable way is much different than trying to do it. You’ve probably noticed, as I have, how often high profile people talk about sustainability when a closer examination of their lives exposes that they’re no more sustainable than the rest of us. Sometimes even much less sustainable. I’ve also noticed that most people who speak loudest about sustainability have never actually tried to live it out in a serious and total way for any length of time. Reality makes it stunningly difficult to even approach anything like complete environmental sustainability. Try it in earnest and you’ll see what I mean.

Surprised By Relief

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 internal relief in a flash as I lay on my bed at the end of one day in January 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 (or lack of realities) beyond. Bear with me. And if you can’t do that, then at least treat me kindly, as I hope 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 in January, 1989, 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 a moment, with no outside input from anyone, I immediately realized the absolute truth of three vital things:

1. The human heart pines for the “Garden of Eden”. Some hearts more than others, but we were all made for a different world than we find ourselves in now.
2. Humanity is no longer allowed to live in the Garden of Eden because we all carry the taint of sin. Even if humanity did find itself in an environmentally perfect world, the fallen nature of our hearts would soon have us ruin the place again in short order. In fact, the biggest impediment to sustainability of the world is not environmental at all, but rather the broken, selfish nature of the human heart.
3. No amount of invention or creativity or environmental sensitivity or technology can get us completely back into the Garden again. We can try, and we can certainly be more in harmony with nature or less, but we’ll never, ever be perfectly in tune with the natural world 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 healed and satisfied as we live in the “greenest and most sustainable” of all worlds. This is the kind of world that many people grope towards now, however imperfectly and however divorced from any ideas of God they may hold. This pining is completely understandable. That said, this ideal can also lead us to expectations that are  impossible to fulfill outside a perfected world. And if we expect to reach them without compromise, we go crazy. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I used to be under the delusion that environmental perfection was possible (and even required). I now know differently on both counts.

Real-World Realities

I’m definitely not saying that environmentally sound technologies and approaches are useless. They’re certainly not. I use them whenever I can, to the full extent I can given my situation. What I have found to be true is that it’s easy to let our Garden-pining enthusiasms 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.  Perhaps you are, too. Here’s how all this boils down for me as far as technology is concerned:

1. I always choose the most efficient, least energy dependent technology I can. That said, fossil fuels are amazing substances and I still use them and really like them. I  used to hate fossil fuels.

2. I always expend the greatest part of my environmental efforts towards those areas that give the most environmental benefit, but without necessarily expecting them 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 5,000 to 10,000 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 local appliance outlet 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 with the lawn mower 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 engines, grid electricity, etc) 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, right? Besides, buying high quality items and maintaining those items is the most sustainable way to live anyway. My professional-grade brush cutter, for instance, was new in 1990 and it still starts and runs better than all the cheap machines I would have worn out  if I had bought low-priced junk along the way.

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 out of the blue back in 1989, I doubt I would have been able to stay on my land as long as I have. The tug of war between my ideals and the realities of life outside the Garden would simply have been far too tiring and painful.

Let me know if these ideas help you.  I hope they do. Besides being useful to us individually, the wisdoms of life are bestowed on us so we can pass them on. And if you think I’m a crackpot, at least be gentle and tolerant with a deluded and flaky guy like me. Kindness and true tolerance seem to be in short supply these days, but that’s another story.

– Steve Maxwell