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ELCA World Hunger

Underdeveloped or cutting edge?

A few weeks ago I wondered whether the yellow water bucket that we associate with poverty might actually symbolize respect for a limited resource.

Today I’m wondering whether places that lack “conveniences” are actually better off than we are. What begins as convenience ends up as infrastructure, like the one that locks us into using too much water every single day. So many interests are invested in this system that changing it is very, very difficult.

In the yellow bucket world, infrastructure is scarce and innovation is abundant. Greenfield is an emerging term for a place with little infrastructure. Says Wikipedia, “the analogy is to that of construction on greenfield land where there is no need to remodel or demolish an existing structure.”

In mobile technology, the African continent was a greenfield.  With few telephone poles and landlines, African countries quickly adapted cell phone technology, and today lead the world in mobile commerce. In places like Uganda, you can do all kinds of cool things on a phone—transfer cash, check the market price for your fish, text money to your family—without signing up for a pricey two-year contract!

In mobile commerce, African countries have leapfrogged many developed nations.

Leapfrogging is the process through which developing countries can actually develop faster, notes Wikipedia, “by skipping inferior, less efficient, more expensive or more polluting technologies and industries and move directly to more advanced ones… avoid environmentally harmful stages of development and [without needing to] follow the polluting development trajectory of industrialized countries.”

In other words, our “less developed” companions in ministry are poised to leapfrog, from their greenfields, right over us and our well-entrenched, wasteful, polluting ways!

So, who advises whom? Do we go on raising money to “fix problems” in other places, or do we start confessing that we’re stuck in a system that consumes too much of absolutely everything, and open ourselves to learning from—and celebrating—the leapfroggers? I’ve been feeling pretty pleased about the new, high-tech solartube in my roof, designed to brighten a dark hallway with daylight instead of a lightbulb. Looking around for examples for this post, I discovered that a plastic water bottle would have been just as effective, and cheaper. Wow!

Wouldn’t it be nice if, every time we launched a faith-based “development project,” we started by searching for leapfrog technologies to see what we could learn? Instead of raising money for 100 wells in African countries by actually wasting water (dunk tanks, throwing water balloons), could our next campaign give equal time to–or even showcase–the wisdom of companions on how to replace systems and habits that waste water  with something more efficient and respectful?

Yesterday, the New York Times posted a blog post called “What We Can Learn from Third World Healthcare.”  The theme is the same. We spend billions on medical bells and whistles, yet our health metrics are simply terrible. Concludes the blog’s author: “In other words, we have yet to deploy what could prove to be the most powerful weapon in the fight to contain costs and improve the quality of health care: our own humility.”

The world is telling us we’re not so very wise. Instead of being defensive about our way of life, shall we smile and join the leapfrog game?


Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

From simple to sustainable on the homefront

Like typewriter or answering machine, the phrase simple living sounds a little quaint. Have you noticed how many faith-based and secular organizations devoted to scaling back lifestyles have called it quits? And how energy and attention have been gradually shifting from frugality towards creating sustainable lifestyles?

My life has been following this path, too. The Tightwad Gazette and Your Money or Your Life launched me along the journey described in Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal.  Those years of simple living culminated in the great paring down of 2009 described here and here.

Capturing rainwater for gardens is part of a sustainable NW home. The ReStore in Bellingham uses containers from a food processing plant to catch and store 800 gallons of water.

My early simple life unfolded in a city—a complex system with an infrastructure and buildings shaped around assumptions from a hundred years ago. There wasn’t much I could change about my urban environment (or so I thought), so I focused on decluttering my home and calendar; lowering my expenses; seeing what, personally, my son and I could live without; and organizing our lives around people and personal interests rather than mass market dictates.

All that changed when I moved closer to family in the northwest. Surrounded by fields, hills and rivers instead of brick and mortar, I wondered about the systems around me.  Where did my water, electricity, and propane come from? Where did my garbage go? How did my septic system work? What were my farmer neighbors growing, and who ate it? How could I ride a bicycle in the rain?

To create a life that complemented or enhanced those natural systems, I would need to learn a whole new set of skills around gardening, composting, and reducing and generating energy. That’s why this spring my simple life is way, way over budget. I’m rehabbing a 40-year old, single-story family home into a green, energy-efficient dwelling with the tiniest possible footprint. Everything I’ve read about green building is turning into practice as the rehab team tightens the building envelope, increases ventilation, and adds high-efficiency heating, a 50-year roof, low-flow everything, compact fluorescent and LED lighting and low-VOC or recycled paint. All while reusing, recycling or composting as much construction debris as possible.

In Chicago I did the laundry in a corner of the basement under a single 60-watt light bulb. Now I have daily discussions about ambient versus task lighting for a dedicated bathroom/utility room, dual- versus single-flush toilets, and radiant heat versus heat pumps. A basement washing machine under a dim light feels pretty Lutheran and pretty simple. It’s modest, straightforward, and leaves lots of time for loving your neighbor. Sifting through lighting choices feels scandalously self-centered, self-indulgent, and not Lutheran at all! Is this really me???

Decisions, decisions, decisions!

When pesky building specs overwhelm me, I remember: Changing any life habit takes time and attention. Someday, all of us will live in homes that consume few resources and even produce their own power—in the country and the city. We’ll have made our existing homes greener, and green building practices will be standard. But we’re not there yet. Contractors and customers still face a steep learning curve. Dissecting lighting (xenon, LED, solar tubes?), I hope, speeds it up a little.

Eventually, my house will stop being a full-time project and just be my home. Insides its sustainable envelope I can resume my regular simple life. I can get back to being Lutheran and loving neighbors I don’t know. But for the next nine weeks, the carpenters, the plumber, the electrician, the heating contractor, the roofer, and the insulation/air sealing guy are the neighbors I’m called to respect and listen to with patience as we tackle a million details and create a green home.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Solving the last-mile challenge

After 10 car-free years, I am a car owner once again.

Shedding my car meant mastering new ways of moving around the world. The alternatives come naturally now, which is why so many of my posts try to encourage—hector, even—readers to take up their carbon-dependent, gas-guzzling beds and walk, ride a bike, or take the bus.

But for a year now I have suffered from what transportation planners call the “last mile” problem. My wonderful local transit hub can get me around and between towns from Canada to Portland, Oregon. But only a handful of buses can get me the three miles to the Skagit Station—all before 6 pm, and never on Sundays. Bicycling is a great option for good weather and daylight savings time, but from November to April my biking day ends by 5 pm—and snow, ice, showers, or 40-mile-per-hour gusts can keep it from starting at all.

My new challenge is to own a car without lapsing back into blind dependence on it. To stay committed to biking, walking, and taking buses FIRST instead of lazily letting the convenience of my car gradually eclipse the other options. To continue to SEE the options and to start figuring out how to overcome that last-mile—or last-three-mile—problem.

Fortunately, trends are going my way. Google Transit is taking the mystery out of planning a public transit trip. Cities like New York and Mexico City declare some areas car-free on weekends. More than half a million members share almost 8000 cars in car-sharing programs across the U.S. (Find the closest to you here) General Motors itself is a partner in the new RelayRides program in San Francisco, a system through which private car owners profit by sharing (for a fee) their cars with neighbors who have been vetted and screened.

I see my car ownership as temporary, a sort of bridge to the world I have been trying to create by not owning one. Perhaps I’ll persuade more people to take my country bus line so we can extend its hours. Perhaps I’ll organize a small car-sharing group among my country neighbors. I have lots of allies, especially among the young.  A recent New York Times article noted that 46 percent of people 18 to 24 would choose access to the Internet over access to their own car. Only 15 percent of their baby-boom parents felt that way. “The iphone is the Ford Mustang of today,” quipped an automotive analyst.

Even more exciting, car ownership is declining among the young. In 1978, 50 percent of 16-year-old Americans obtained their first driver’s license. In 2008, only 30 percent did. My son was over 18 when he got his first license, and at 24, he still has no car. Those with licenses drive less, said the Times:  21- to 30-year-olds now drive eight percent fewer miles than they did in 1995.

Life without a car takes ingenuity, creativity, and commitment. It also costs a lot less. (Buying, registering, insuring, fixing, and fueling a 14-year-old-car in the last six weeks of the year boosted my 2011 expenses by 11 percent.) And it’s getting easier.

My 2012 resolution is to own a car that stays off the road as much as possible. Here’s where I get back to hectoring. Won’t you join me? Get to know your local bus system. Walk to the store. Set up a carpool. Urge your mayor to declare a popular part of town car-free for an afternoon. Dust off your bike. Keep your car, but drive it less. Broaden your transportation strategy to include some more active choices. Together we can figure out the last-mile problem.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Mennonite wisdom for Advent

In October a friend from Holden Village spent a few days with me on her way to Alaska. It was like having a prophet visit. To my dinner table she brought her life as a worker for the Mennonite Central Committee in El Salvador, as a resident of a Catholic Worker house in Portland, Oregon, and as a peace activist who—like her fellow Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren—earns only enough to support herself but not so much that she has to pay the ‘war tax.’

Because she doesn’t own a car, she didn’t find my carless life strange. She was fine riding the bus and bikes everywhere and sleeping on the floor of my teeny little house. Many details of my existence that strike people as odd were completely familiar to her. But watching her move through life with such principle sent me back to my Bible of simple living, Doris Janzen Longacre’s 1980 book, Living More with Less.

This classic taps the wisdom of Mennonite missionaries who refined their simple living skills on international assignments and kept living that way when they came home. Like my Alaska-bound friend Lisa, they always, always walked their talk.

Rejecting the term lifestyle, Doris proposed that Christians should seek to live by five Life Standards. Her book offers wise suggestions for implementing each one of these standards:

  1. Do justice. Living by this standard will always draw us more deeply into economics and politics. It’s up to us to draw the lines that link our consumer ways with environmental and justice consequences around the world.
  2. Learn from the world community. Our global partners have a lot to share, if we would only listen instead of continually insisting we know it all! Longacre’s book lifts up “overdevelopment” projects proposed by global Mennonites who would like to minister to North Americans drowning in materialism and “maldevelopment.”
  3. Nurture people. What could happen if we cared more about other people than we cared about price, convenience, or comfort?
  4. Cherish the natural order. What could happen if we remembered that we are stewards, not owners—that God’s world demands our respect, not our thoughtless consumption?
  5. Nonconform freely. What could happen if we were more like my friend Lisa and the Mennonites, and a little less worried about what other people think?

Longacre’s gospel-based Life Standards offer a path out of the lifestyle that is choking us. They are also a tool we can us to “occupy ourselves,” as David Creech suggested (quoting David Brooks) in this post. Occupying ourselves can mean recognizing the consequences of our own habits, actions and purchases instead of reflexively seeking to blame scapegoats.

Mikka said the other day that, from a global perspective, almost all of us reading this blog are the One Percent. Instead of insisting we’re not privileged, asking “who, me?” and pointing fingers, let’s start Advent by following what Longacre calls “the path of health outlined by faith: Repent by recognizing and accepting our guilt, be forgiven, and change!”

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity


The Disappearance of Garbage

Never mind “City of the big shoulders.” Chicago is the City of the Big Garbage Cans. Behind my old four-occupant, two-unit apartment building stood four 96-gallon supercart containers: two black ones for garbage, and two blue ones for recycling. Together, these monstrosities could have held 384 gallons of garbage and recycling, and the City of Chicago was prepared to empty all of them every single week!

In spite of our big garbage cans, I’m starting to see a shift in the way the world thinks about garbage. Outside of Chicago, garbage can sizes are shrinking as cities offer larger containers for recycling and yard waste/compost material. Collection calendars are shrinking, too. Skagit County tackles the waste-generating, big-container-frequent-pickup mindset by offering weekly, twice-monthly, or monthly collection. Every two weeks I set out a few ounces of plastic packaging and bottle caps in a 32-gallon can. Monthly pickup—or no pickup at all—is in my future.

Garbage is disappearing. It’s becoming a resource. “There is no garbage, only fuel we haven’t converted yet,” says one energy expert. In Denmark, garbage burned in very clean incinerators is an alternative energy source. In Washington and other states, methane from landfills is captured and converted into electricity.

“Urban mining” is gaining traction. Mining companies in Japan and China (and soon, the U.S.) are extracting rare-earth elements and minerals from cellphones, computers, and other electronics in landfills. Peninsula Plastics & Recycling in Turlock, California is remolding millions of pounds of plastic bottles into packaging for fruit, cookies, and cupcakes. Oft-cited on the internet is this nugget: Americans throw away enough aluminum every three months to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet.  If that’s true (I can’t find the source of that statement), mining landfilled aluminum can’t be far behind.

Then there’s my favorite: the Zero Waste trend. It’s partly an industry push to redesign products to eliminate wasteful packaging like plastic clamshells, and partly an individual quest to keep garbage at bay by buying in bulk, reusing containers, and otherwise avoiding packaging. The Zero Waste mantra? “Refuse, refuse, refuse” and “Don’t buy it!”  These folks are upgrading the old three Rs into five—Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Rot (compost) and then Recycle—and launching a great new word: minsumerism.

Here are two Zero Waste slide shows to watch: this one about a California family that produces almost no garbage, and this one about the village of Kamikatsu, Japan, on track to become first place in the world to produce Zero Waste.

This is one race to the bottom—the bottom of my garbage can—that I’m really going to enjoy!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity



Loving the small stuff

Yadda yadda yadda: after dozens of posts on stuff and how to get rid of it, how to move it crosscountry in a UHaul, how to store it and ignore it, and how to live without it, I’ve unpacked it all, in a new home.

Making my coffee in my little white Melita pot, dressing from a closet instead of a suitcase, settling down to books and papers united, finally, at one desk—my stuff surrounds me again. Now I can create the comforting routines I was longing for towards the end of my 17-month sabbatical road trip.

Perhaps rejoicing in my belongings—seeing them as new all over again—will help me avoid hedonic adaptation. In this phenomenon, says the New York Times in this article on what makes us happy, “people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness. Over time, that means the buzz from a new purchase is pushed toward the emotional norm.” And that means we stop getting pleasure from that new dress, new house, new car, new whatever. Which makes us go out and buy more new things!

Hedonic adaptation is one reason researchers who study happiness recommend investing in leisure activities and services that build relationships instead of spending money on more stuff. One Illinois expert used his field’s research to buy a house close to hiking trails. The novelty of floor plans and amenities would wear out quickly, he reasoned; the ability to walk four or five days a week would make a longer-lasting contribution to his family’s happiness.

What better reason to get over our foolishly conspicuous consumption and embrace, instead, calculated consumption—buying only what we need and investing everything else in relationships, experiences, learning, giving. If only we could recognize that our material needs were met long ago, and seek new, nonmaterial sources of contentment instead.

Nice idea, isn’t it? And worth contemplating as I put down my backpack and become a householder once more. There are some things I need to buy—a broom, a rug, some weather stripping—but mostly I’m sitting around appreciating what I just unpacked. To quote from Frederic and MaryAnn Brussat’s wonderful book, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life,

How different we might feel about our world after making a practice of saying hello and thank you to the refrigerator that hums while it keeps our food cool, to the slippers that warm our feet on cold winter nights, and to the pen that expends all its ink so that we can express ourselves…when we cherish our things, they reciprocate; when we ignore them, they can turn toxic.

No more ignoring. I’m back to cherishing, and it’s a relief!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Resolved: to Celebrate Sabbath Every Sabbath

Did you take a few days off during the holidays, or fill every “free” moment with something to do?

Could you use a few more vacation days, or are you under the gun to use them up because you have “too many”?

Whenever I facilitate sessions around time, people get emotional right away. Crazy schedules; expectations that can’t be met at home or at work; fears of being fired for refusing overtime; pressures imposed by software that tracks when you arrive, when you leave, how long your phone calls last, and how long you took for lunch—intense stuff gets shared. These stories reveal a political and cultural system of time that is getting steadily more oppressive.

This system is not outside of but within us. As we live and breathe it, we internalize and try to meet its expectations. Our expectations as consumers, for 2:00 am pizza and round-the-clock customer service, also feed its demands.

Trying to use our time more effectively is a fruitless adaptation. To really free ourselves, we have to ask basic questions, like why?  Lucky for us, we have Sabbath on our side.

God commands us to rest, yes. But not many people are listening. In part that’s due to  Sabbath’s gloomy reputation after long centuries of legalistic, government or church-body enforcement. Few want to embrace rules that keep us from doing what we want to do.

Our incessant busyness is also to blame. Author Wayne Muller says we Americans have no thermostat – no ability to know when to stop. Even worse, says Muller, “In spite of any compelling physical or spiritual benefits, we fear we have no authentic, trustworthy permission to stop. If we do stop to rest without some very good reason or some verifiable catastrophe, we feel guilty, we worry about getting in trouble, we feel we are just lazy, not carrying our weight, not a team player, or will be left behind. If we just put our nose to the grindstone, give it our all, do our best, give 110 percent, really put our mind to it, never give up, and work more efficiently, then we can, and should, be able to get absolutely everything on our desk, on our to-do list, on our calendars, finished, on deadline, without any mistakes, perfectly, every time. Then, we can rest.”

What a fix: no permission to rest, and a Sabbath that sounds boring and restrictive! That’s why I’m resolving to become, in 2011, a radical Sabbatarian, and try to relearn how to accept God’s permission to rest, and rest creatively.

Today, I almost succeeded. After church, I dawdled for several hours with family and friends over coffee, tea, soup, and leftover Christmas cookies. But now I’m sitting at my computer writing this post. So ends the first Sunday of the year; come Sunday two, I’ll try again. My sitting-around skills could use the practice.

In our rest-averse society, this kind of Sabbath is counter-cultural. To me, it has three radical aspects.

First,  “look Ma, no hands”: when we take our hands off the handlebars, the bike keeps going. While we rest, rain falls. Seeds sprout. The world turns, thanks to God. Sabbath can lessen our illusions of self-importance by reminding us who’s really in charge.

Second, by interrupting the “gotta do gotta do gotta do” tape that pounds inside our heads, Sabbath reminds us we are living things who need rest. We don’t have to keep going. We DO have permission to rest. Permission from God.

Third, it affirms our value as human beings. Says Barbara Brown Taylor, about Sabbath: “Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce—that even if you spent one whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight.”

Could anything more strongly contradict an economy that confines our meaning to a long dance of producing and procuring?

If we truly devoted Sundays to enjoying our doing-nothing selves, whose interests would be threatened? If we truly stopped, and didn’t spend our time “off” shopping or running from place to place, filling up calendars because being busy means being important, what would happen? How might our economy change? How might we change?

Viewed this way, Sabbath is not a bunch of rules that restrict activity but a powerful, radical tool for combating systems, powers and principalities that damage humans – that refuse to respect humans unless they are working, earning, and spending. And for combating the point of view that the world is ours to exploit, all the time. Sabbath means rest for the earth!

I try to define myself as for things instead of against things. I’m for active transportation rather than against cars, for example. In this post I’ve framed Sabbath as against the extreme demands of our system of time and our economy. But Sabbath is also for something. By asking us to rest, what is God trying to create more of? As a radical Sabbatarian, I hope to find out.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

God, the market, and me

Do we really worship the Market and not God, as I asked in last week’s post?

After rereading Harvey Cox’s seminal essay, “The Market as God,” I thought I’d watch my own actions this week and see. Is my life all about the Market, with a little lip service given to God, or is God at the center, and the Market at the fringes?

Because it was the end of the month, I spent last weekend checking my balances on various accounts. I updated my Quicken records with recent interest and expenses. I paid my VISA bill and thought about end-of-year donations – how much, to whom?  I wrote an offering check for the church where I would worship Sunday evening. Reading the Sunday New York Times business section reminded me that Cox calls the market omniscient, a source of “comprehensive wisdom that in the past only the gods have known.” And there I was seeking, through reports from Times business writers, to know the Market’s mood and direction. Poor God! There is no religion page anymore—not in the Times, not in my hometown newspaper.

Cox says that the Market is also omnipresent, making decisions that used to be private. I like to think that trying to live simply shelters me from this aspect of the Market, but  the certified letter I received from a lawyer on Friday had a different message. It informed me that in mid-2011, after the estate is settled, I will receive a few thousand dollars from an elderly friend who recently died.

This made me uncomfortable. I was a friend, not a paid attendant!  With no spouse or children, he wanted to distribute his estate among a dozen friends and cousins whose company he enjoyed. But does this legacy somehow commodify our long friendship, assigning it a price tag, as Cox might say?

The commodification of labor turned up Wednesday night, when an midweek Advent event tackled the subject of time—what it means to us, how we use it, how we feel about our schedules. The last time I punched a time card, I was 20 and weighing asparagus in a freezer plant. In the 90s, a company I wrote for made a big deal of removing its punch clocks to demonstrate its confidence in its employees. It was news to me that the new incarnation of the punch clock is the “electronic time card.” At this Advent supper, folks complained about having every moment of their work day  monitored virtually: start time, end time, break time, break length, even the length of customer service phone calls, all measured by software lurking on their computers.

One woman worked for a prominent shipping company. Guess who is demanding the World On Time, as the slogan says? Not some murky “they.” We’re the ones insisting on those electronic time cards, every time we check the status of a package or the value of its company’s stock.

While there has always been a place to trade, says Cox, today we elevate the Market above everything else. We abide by the Market’s rules, not God’s, and our whole system—like those electronic time cards—is designed to enforce them. A short week’s worth of observation confirmed that I am completely tangled up in that system.

What to do? Perhaps revisit the powerful tools God has given us to keep the Market—previously called Mammon—from consuming us. Tools like Sabbath, a radical practice most of us have abandoned. Suppose tired Christians decided to observe an economic Sabbath and not purchase anything on Sunday, so as not to stoke consumer expectations that trap folks into Sunday work shifts. Could we let the World On Time be the World As Is, the World As Appreciated, instead?

Watching myself interact with the Market is a tentative first step in a different economic direction. In coming weeks, the Advent gathering I’m part of will explore Christian practices of Sabbath and jubilee. Harvey Cox wants the Church to recognize the Market for the idol it is so it can provide some serious alternatives. Fair trade, socially responsible investing—these are nice places to start, but how can Christians go deeper? Sabbath may hold a powerful key. Stay tuned.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal

Carless and driving

Wednesday, September 22 was World CarFree Day.  It was a big yawn.

Besides a bike ride in Chicago, not much happened. It never made the news. NPR paid it no attention. Since nothing really happened, commentary in the blogosphere debated the premise: the idea of being carfree.

As someone who hasn’t owned a car in nine years, I read with great interest why cars are so popular. Cars, says Loren Lomasky of Competitive Enterprise Institute: Free Markets and Limited Government, help us learn, travel, earn money, and enjoy privacy. They give us control over immediate environment, unlike buses (very true, I found myself nodding.)  They promote autonomy. They let us choose where we will live and where we will work, and they let these two be separate.

People want cars, says—but small cars like the Tata Nono, because in places like Lagos and Mumbai, American-style cars like Camrys (much less SUVs and trucks) won’t do.

World Carfree Day images showed healthy young people walking and biking in perfect weather. What about rain and snow?, the CEI asked. What about lugging groceries and children? (For the answer to that one, check out BusChick’s NPR essay, which aired last Saturday) What about folks with disabilities? Instead, the CEI recommended, protest World CarFree Day by taking a drive!

I did drive on September 22. Instead of being car free, I’ve been enjoying a free car as I house and dog sit for friends in Seattle. Last Wednesday I drove an elderly cousin up to Skagit County to see my visiting parents, and then drove all the 80-somethings to a restaurant for lunch. Had we done this by public transportation, it would have taken all day, and my elders and their aging joints would have had to walk miles and miles. Not possible.

I was grateful to get to use a car. I’m glad they exist. But I wish we owned fewer cars and shared them more. I wish we biked and walked more often, especially on trips under a mile. I wish our public transit systems were stronger and more convenient and bike lanes and sidewalks were wider and safer.

Others feel like I do. CityFix includes cars and buses in its vision of sustainable urban mobility. And Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance’s mission statement sounds like mine:

The mission of Active Transportation Alliance is to make bicycling, walking and public transit so safe, convenient and fun that we will achieve a significant shift from environmentally harmful, sedentary travel to clean, active travel. We advocate for transportation that encourages and promotes safety, physical activity, health, recreation, social interaction, equity, environmental stewardship and resource conservation.

“Carfree” isn’t a practical goal for the United States, with zillions of rural communities and only a handful of cities (like Chicago) dense enough for get-anywhere-anytime-you-want public transportation systems. But “car lite” is possible. Instead of railing against cars, the ATA is building a movement around active transportation. Cars will still exist, but the ATA’s goal is for Chicagoans to make half their trips by active transportation. And because they are working to reduce pedestrian and bicycle crashes by 50 percent, those trips will be safer. Think how slim and healthy those Chicagoans will be, and how pleasant and safe walking and bicycling will be.

So I’m glad I skipped Carfree Day. I’m going to celebrate the active transportation movement by walking, biking, taking buses, trains, and ferries, and borrowing or renting a car when I need one. I like strengthening  and expanding alternatives instead of shaming drivers and stoking disagreement. For heaven’s sake, let’s unite around something for once, instead of clashing.

I’m still going to celebrate Buy Nothing Day, but that’s another post.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal

Home is where your heart is, not your stuff

“How was your year?” people at Holden Village ask.

They ask because they know that a year ago this month, I left my job, sold my house, saw my son off to grad school in a new city, and, after a few weeks at Holden, moved what was left of my stuff to a shed on a farm in Washington State.

While my stuff has stayed put, I’ve visited 13 states and 5 countries and stayed in 60 different places (many of them more than once), sometimes for one night, sometimes for a month. I’ve done all of this travel without owning a car and nearly all of it without borrowing one.

Few possessions and no rent or mortgage have made this peripatetic year possible. I’ve traveled unencumbered, and I haven’t missed my stuff. After decades of offering hospitality to others, I’ve enjoyed accepting it from others.

Eventually I will unpack, start a new garden, get a new dog, and be the hostess instead of the wanderer. But first, a few more adventures! And then, where I unpack will look a lot different than the home I packed up. It may be a very tiny home, or a mobile home, or a room in someone else’s place.

A year ago these options were hidden to middle-aged me. Young adults have permission to explore living in groups, teepees, or dorms. The very old are expected to shrink their lives down to a modest apartment or a single room. But the rest of us (in the American middle class, anyway) are stuck. Judged on the size of our house, the exclusivity of our address, our brand of car, we only try to own less or consume less when we “have to”—because the economy has gone south, or our job is toast.

Out here on the house-less, stuff-less fringes, I’m feeling free and having a great time.  Now that the eight place settings of sterling silver that used to whisper “you’re a grownup” are on the farm singing to the alfalfa, I can see lots of perfectly pleasant and responsible ways to be a grownup who owns very little.

How those options are described are critical. If I said, “Come with me to a tiny town in the remote wilderness where you can’t get a cell phone signal, you can’t drive your car, you won’t eat much meat, and you’ll have to share a bathroom,” you might politely refuse. But most people who come to Holden Village are too busy enjoying life in community to miss their car or cell phone.

Likewise, an invitation to downsize dressed up in “have to” language may not be appealing. How I wish we overfed, overweight, overscheduled, overconsuming Americans saw living with less not as deprivation but as freedom. Freedom to consider the question, how else might we live? What might we be able to feel, imagine, or experience if we were not so weighed down by our domiciles and possessions? How might we better love and serve one another?

If there’s a little voice in side you saying “this is too much,” pay attention. Nurture it. Consider it an invitation, and see where it takes you. And send me a postcard when you get there!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal