Living With Less

by Sylvia Fox

For the past 10 years - more if you include summers - Michael and I have chosen to live what my parents would have called a 'bohemian life' that meant living with limited utilities, limited comfort.

In 2000, we impulsively sold our home in Sacramento, California and bought a 48’ cruising sailboat with plans to unplug, untie and live a less traditional lifestyle. The impetus, in hindsight, was having our youngest child move out to go to college. 

As I wiped a tear away while I said goodbye, my other thought was ‘My turn!’

And off we went --- sailing out under the Golden Gate Bridge, turning left and heading south until the butter started to melt.

But over the last decade, whether we were cruising California and Pacific Mexico aboard our 48' Maple Leaf sailboat, Sabbatical, or living in a home we later built in a rural surf village on a Pacific beach in Mexico or spending summers in our 100-year-old lake cottage in rural upstate New York, we found we had to constantly monitored our usage of what most Americans take for granted: water, sewage, gas, and electric. And garbage.

We had to know what we had, what we used, what we stored because of the lifestyle we had accidentally chosen when we stumbled into our grand adventure.

We could only carry a couple hundred gallons of fresh water on our sailboat so when I washed the dishes, took a shower, brushed my teeth, I knew I'd better not to let the water run because we would run out. Even after we moved off the boat and on to land when we built our home in Arroyo Seco, Mexico, in the state of Jalisco,  the village would only turn on the water for an hour every morning so we could fill our water tanks for washing and watering. Drinking water still had come from the 5-gallon jugs purchased from the daily water trucks.

Living in our lake cottage in rural Upstate New York isn't a lot different. We use a beach well for our water, pumping the water into a big cistern located underneath the kitchen floor. So even in the United States, we've still had to be cognizant of how much water we've been using -- especially when we have guests -- or the cistern will go dry, which means the pump goes dry, which means Michael has to go grumbling down to the cellar to re-prime the pump. And then refill the cistern. Otherwise, no dishes, no showers, no flushing the toilets.

Because the 100-year-old cistern is a bit suspect, we haul drinking water in by jugs. Limited water, just like on the boat. And just like Mexico.

Garbage is also an issue everywhere we've been living, which means selecting food and drink products based on the packaging. On the boat, small containers stored well. But then you have more containers to dispose of. We could fill glass bottles and throw them overboard to become crab condos on the bottom of the sea. But not plastic. We 'composted' food over the side because it's pointless to save it in a plastic garbage bag to send it back to a landfill.

In Mexico, if we throw everything into big plastic trash bags, the garbage guys will pick it up and deliver it just up the road from our village where they burn it. All of it --- including all plastics, toxic whatevers, tires, everything.

Really lovely when you live downwind....

So we tended to be careful to sort, compost, recycle, return.

Other utilities were limited as well.

When we ran out of propane on the boat for the stove and barbecue, the propane bottle would have to get to shore, then to a gas company for a refill (usually without a car), then back on the boat and reinstalled. So we were pretty careful with our propane use.

It was a little bit better in Mexico. The propane truck came by twice a week, although propane is pretty pricey there. For the water heater, we opted for a solar heater. Lots of sun in Mexico.

And then there's the head (or the bathroom for you landlubbers). That waste has to go somewhere. And the water that you flush with has to come from somewhere. Always a big issue on a boat. In Mexico and in New York, we built huge septic systems, so we wouldn't have to worry about that for at least a decade.

We hope.

So --- when we bought our 'new' little house in the village of Watkins Glen, New York,  it seemed a miracle that the water would continue endlessly (as long as we pay the bill), we could drink the water, flush whenever and whatever, crank up the thermostat on the natural gas heat, put all the garbage out on the curb, throw all the recyclables into one container for someone else to sort.

These are comforts most Americans take for granted.

I could too. But here I am, not even five months into civilization, stunned at how easy it is to slip into a cavalier attitude about these resources. It's so easy to let more water run in the sink, run the dishwasher with only half a load. Same with the washing machine. Forget the clothelines! Just turn on the dryer.

So here's the first part of my epiphany for today: If I'm no longer vigilant about the packaging, the waste, the storage, if I can start to slide backwards after a decade of paying attention, and I multiply my attitude and use by an estimated 6.94 billion people on the planet, well, Houston, I think we've got a problem.

I finally understand the simplicity of the dilemma.

We're waiting and hoping for all humans --- especially Americans --- to choose to turn off their faucets, take their bags to the grocery store, buy merchandise with the least amount of packaging so less is produced and less is taken to the landfill. We are hoping people will choose to use less of everything so we will need fewer energy resources, which will then produce less pollution.

In the meanwhile, while we all bask in the ease and comfort of what we believe are unlimited resources, we're fouling our own nest and about to get expelled by Mother Earth. At least that's what it feels like these days as we break all kinds of weather records around the globe.

So the second part of my epiphany? We all need to change our lifestyles, use fewer resources, go without. And that's not going to happen by choice. And it's probably too late.

Since I don't have a solution, all I can conclude is that perhaps my generation should start apologizing to our children right now. And to our grandchildren.

And in the meantime, turn off the water faucet.

 

 

Sylvia Fox started traveling around the world at 19 years old and still isn’t tired of it. She is an ‘almost retired’ Professor of Journalism at California State University, does a lot of volunteer work with animals in Mexico and plays her fiddle anywhere she can.

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