Rethinking sustainability…leaving the farm

Early this year, I sold a small organic farm on the outskirts of our city, and moved back into the suburbs.

Our farmhouse in the morning. It was idyllic, beautiful…and not sustainable.

I didn’t really have a choice, to be honest. I was divorcing, and the place needed to be sold for financial reasons anyway.

But prior to that, being on the farm for nearly a decade had made me rethink what sustainability means, and how we can move forward in a world that seems intent on, well, not moving forward much at all.

Petrol…the fly in the ointment

We were extremely car-dependent at the farm. There was no public transport. The nearest supermarket, bank, school – all of it was a drive away. There were no buses or trains. This was a huge hurdle to sustainability.

I was routinely spending $100 a week on petrol, and my partner was spending the same. Getting around drained our energy, our time, and our finances.

It was lovely living on the farm and having heaps of space – and animals! – but there was a lot of work behind the scenes that I didn’t expect and that cost a lot as well.

Did I make a mistake moving to a farm? No. But I don’t think that type of lifestyle is the way forward for humanity, as a whole.

It’s appealing, and it stirs in us a vision of an idyllic past, but it’s not practical for a sustainable future.

The present…around the corner to everything

When my new partner and I bought a home this year for our four kids (two of his, two of mine), we bought a very, very walkable home.

Our new house and garden from the rear. It’s in a lovely sunny spot, central and walkable to everything.

The bank is a two minute walk around the corner. There’s a park just across the road. The supermarket is five minutes’ walk, with shops and cafes and restaurants in-between.

Our Walkscore at our new home is 74. That translates as “Very Walkable. Most errands can be accomplished on foot.”

Our new home is very walkable, with a great “walkscore”. See to find your own walkscore!

By comparison, our Walkscore at the farm was 0. “Car-Dependent. Almost all errands require a car.”

The difference is striking. Our kids walk to school, unless the weather is bad. My partner can walk to work – and does. I can walk into the city, or a bus runs right past our door every few minutes.

Most days I don’t use the car much, if at all.

I’d been wondering how I’d possibly be able to stay at the farm should I ever stop driving. Living here, that’s never an issue, because I simply don’t need to be able to drive.

What does sustainable really mean?

There’s no point in running an organic farm if you’re using three tanks of petrol every week to get anywhere.

You’re trashing the planet, no matter how organic your veggies are!

By comparison, the suburbs can be more sustainable if you live with a large group of people together, share your energy costs, walk for a lot of your journeys, and the journeys you do need a car for are short.

Plus, from a purely financial point of view, I’m not spending massive amounts of money on petrol every month. I don’t particular want to make oil companies richer. Does anyone?

Of course there’s more to being sustainable than petrol and cars. Suburban chickens, worm farms, backyard fruit trees, and an unpackaged, locally-produced diet can all play a part.

home made chicken tractor

Suburban chickens can play a role in sustainability.

So can handing-down clothes, buying locally-manufactured clothing or secondhand, using a capsule wardrobe, and limiting imports.

A capsule wardrobe can be a part of modern sustainability.

Finally, reducing family size through access to contraception, ease of access to abortion, education, and solid welfare support all play a role, as can voting on environmental lines and social welfare concerns.

Moving forwards to a new sustainability

I’m not sure what genuine sustainability will look like in the future. But, looking back, I know what it isn’t.

I know we need to reduce car usage, and we need to make our cities more walkable, and lobby to make public transport better and easier to use.

Perhaps we need to open our minds to new ideas, and discard old dreams that don’t fit with a modern reality.

My farm was lovely, and it was organic but sustainable?

No. I can’t say that.

However, I hope our new home in the suburbs might be…one day.

Houses now, houses then: the disposable home

“We’ve invented a new disposable – the throw-away home.”

My mother grew up in a cottage that was over six hundred years old, in the south of England.

It’s gone now – demolished in a rash of new building that occurred in the 1960s, when the British Government thought it wise to get rid of as much “outdated” housing as it could, replacing it with rows and rows of tract housing made of brick.

You might be familiar with the type I’m talking about – you see British row housing in practically every episode of Doctor Who or Coronation Street.

You can just about smell the coal fires in this picture...

You can just about smell the coal fires in this picture…

The cottage Mum lived in had two rooms – a living room and a sleeping area. There was a lean-to kitchen -laundry area at the back, added roughly a hundred years ago.

Mum tells me stories of how she used to pump water from the well, and how she remembers when the electricity was added in. She talks about how a slab of ice was delivered weekly for the ice chest, and how her Dad used to poach pheasants from the nearby’s Lord’s estate.

It was a different life. And you know what – I never asked about the toilet! But I imagine it was something like this:

It might have even had an ogre! ;)

It might have even had an ogre! 😉

What I’m saying is, most of the world’s population used to live like this. A lot still do. When I visited China in 1983, before the great modernisation that happened since, I saw how families were living on the communes there.

It was pretty similar to how Mum told me she’d grown up. Most homes had one room, one big bed for the whole family (might explain that single child policy!) and a cooking area in the centre to keep the whole place warm. And the whole place wasn’t big.

Thing is, while I do agree that improving living standards for everyone has been a good thing on the whole, housing has not become more durable. Six hundred years ago in England, cottages were built to last for hundreds of years, and they did. These days, a builder’s guarantee lasts seven years, and most fittings are designed to last twenty years maximum.

Along with our throw-away lifestyles, we’ve invented a new disposable – the throw-away home.

I don’t have answers to any of this. I think tiny houses are part of the solution, and downsizing a whole lot is another part of the answer. Because one thing is certain: our homes are too big to be sustainable.

And I’ll say something else: We don’t need ensuites and guest bedrooms and studies (mostly for people who never study!) and billiard rooms for bad billiard players and family rooms for dysfunctional families.

We don’t need walk-in-robes and butler’s pantries and fish burners on our stovetops and pizza ovens in our back yards. We don’t need any of this, especially when we’re putting the whole damned lot on debt.

Yes, I think it’s time we returned to smaller homes. But we also need to think about building homes that will last a lifetime. Maybe for even six hundred years.

And yes, I think it is a damned shame that cottage was destroyed. But sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.