by Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko
For many Americans, living more sustainably has become a natural part of their daily routine as they consistently recycle, eat healthy and use energy more efficiently. It’s just what they normally do every day.
Each one of these people had to start somewhere, growing their efforts over time to the point that nearly every activity yields better results for themselves, their family, their community and the planet. It might begin with the way we eat and eventually expand to encompass the way we work.
New American Way
“The sustainability movement is large and growing in the U.S.,” says Todd Larsen, with Green America, a grassroots nonprofit organization harnessing economic forces to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society. “Half a million people turned out in New York City to march for action on climate change. People also are working in their local communities to oppose fracking and pollution, and to support green building and clean energy. Many businesses now include sustainability as a core business practice, including the 3,000 certified members of Green America’s Green Business Network.”
This month, Natural Awakenings profiles the experiences of representative individuals from around the country who are helping to both make the world more sustainable and their own lives richer and more meaningful. From growing and cooking family food and line-drying laundry to powering their business with renewable energy, their approaches are as varied as the places they call home.
“Many people start with something small at home, particularly if they’re concerned about the impacts on their family’s health,” says Larsen. “More Americans are approaching sustainability first through food. It’s relatively easy to change spending habits to incorporate more organic, fair trade and non-GMO [genetically modified] foods, and with the growth of farmers’ markets nationwide, people are able to buy local more easily.”
A focus on food quality is how Wendy Brown and her husband and five children launched their eco-journey just outside of Portland, Maine. “We started thinking about where our food came from, how it was grown and raised and what we could do to ensure that it was better,” says Brown. “What we don’t grow or forage ourselves, we try to purchase from local farmers.” Living more simply during the past decade has helped the family cut debt and become more financially stable.
“Our entry point to sustainable living was to grow tomatoes on the steps of an apartment that Kelly and I once called home years ago,” echoes Erik Knutzen, who, with his wife Kelly Coyne, have transformed their 960-square-foot Los Angeles bungalow into an oasis where they grow food, keep chickens and bees, brew, bake and house their bikes.
Gabriele Marewski’s journey also started with what she ate. “I became a vegetarian at 14, after reading Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé,” says Marewski, who in 1999 turned an avocado orchard in Homestead, Florida, into Paradise Farms. “Forty-seven years later, I’m still a strict vegetarian. I believe it’s the single most important statement we can make about saving the planet.”
Marewski’s five-acre farm showcases certified organic micro greens, edible flowers, oyster mushrooms and a variety of tropical fruits marketed to Miami-area chefs. Her farm also offers Dinner in Paradise farm-to-table experiences to raise funds for local nonprofits providing food for underprivileged city residents, and bed-and-breakfast lodging.
Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology offers a free online course, Sustainability in Everyday Life, based on five themes: energy, climate change, food, chemicals and globalization. “People can make a difference by making responsible choices in their everyday life,” says Anna Nyström Claesson, one of the three original teachers.
“Every step toward sustainability is important and in the right direction,” says Gina Miresse, with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), which will again host the world’s largest energy fair in June in Custer, Wisconsin. “It’s easy to start at home by adopting one new practice and sticking with it until it becomes a habit; then add a second practice and so on. This keeps people from getting overwhelmed.”
We might, for example, switch to non-toxic home cleaning products when current products are used up. “There’s no need to throw everything in the trash and replace it all immediately—that would partially defeat the purpose of sustainability,” says Miresse. Green America, which suggests green alternatives to many products in online publications at GreenAmerica.org, recommends a congruent strategy. “We see people first change the way they purchase their food, move to reduce their purchases overall and green those they make, and then make their home more energy-efficient,” says Larsen. “Next, they consider walking and biking more.”
Pamela Dixon agrees. “On a day-to-day basis, it’s really about the products we use, like transferring to ecofriendly cleaners and yard maintenance, recycling electronic devices, paying bills electronically and receiving statements via email.” She and her husband, David Anderson, own Dave’s BrewFarm, in rural Wilson, Wisconsin, where they grow herbs, hops, raspberries and apples on 35 acres.
“A 20-kilowatt wind generator supplies our electricity, and we use geothermal for heating and cooling,” says Dixon. Due to career opportunities involving teaching principles of sustainability, the Wisconsin couple is in the process of selling the BrewFarm to move to La Crosse. “At our new home, we’re replacing the windows and appliances with more energy-efficient ones. We also chose our neighborhood so we can walk or bike to local grocery coops. We prefer to repair things when they break rather than buying something new, recycle everything the city will accept, compost food scraps and buy clothes at secondhand stores.”
When the MREA Energy Fair began 27 years ago, the majority of attendees were interested in learning about first steps, such as recycling, says Miresse. Today, sustainability basics ranging from fuel savings to water conservation are familiar, and they’re focused on revitalizing local economies. “Folks are now considering more ambitious practices such as sourcing food directly from local farmers, producing their own solar energy and incorporating energy storage, driving an electric vehicle or switching to more socially responsible investing.” The fair’s 250 workshops provide tools to help in taking their next steps on the journey to sustainability.
Knutzen and Coyne’s passion has evolved from growing food into a larger DIY mode. “Cooking from scratch is something I prefer to do,” says Knutzen. “I even grind my own flour.” Library books provide his primary source of inspiration.
The Brown family likely echoes the thoughts of many American families. “We have many dreams, but the stark reality is that we live in a world that requires money,” says Wendy Brown. An electric car or solar electric system, for example, is a large investment.
“The biggest barriers were mental blocks because we ‘gave up’ previous lifestyle norms,” she says. “Most people we know have a clothes dryer and can’t imagine living without one. Linedrying is just part of the bigger issue of time management for us, because living sustainably and doing things by hand takes longer.”
Each Day Counts
“The biggest and most positive impact I have comes from my general nonwaste philosophy,” says Brown. “I try to reuse something rather than throwing it away. I’ve made underwear out of old camisoles and pajama pants from old flannel sheets. I reuse elastic from wornout clothing. My travel beverage cup is a sauce jar with a reusable canning lid drilled with a hole for a reusable straw. Such examples show how we live every day.”
Marewski’s love of travel doesn’t interfere with her sustainability quest. “When I travel, I like to walk or bicycle across countries,” she says. “It gives me a closer connection to the land and spontaneous contact with interesting wheels that’ll be completely self-sufficient, with solar, composting toilet and water catchment to reduce my footprint even further.”
“Last August, I started a tenuretrack position in the school of business at Viterbo University,” says Dixon, who emphasizes how students can pursue sustainability in business and life. “I teach systems thinking, complex systems change and globally responsible leadership, all of which have a sustainability component.” She’s also faculty advisor to Enactus, a student organization focused on social entrepreneurship and making a positive impact on the community.
“The best part of how we live is when my daughters make everyday ecominded choices without even realizing it,” says Brown. “I can see how remarkable it is, because I have the perspective of having lived differently. But for them, it’s just the way things are done. I think in that way, I’ve succeeded.”
Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko’s ecojourney is captured in their books, ECOpreneuring, Farmstead Chef, Homemade for Sale, Rural Renaissance and Soil Sisters. Every day, they eat from their organic gardens surrounding their farm powered by the wind and sun.