It hasn’t escaped my notice that today is November 1, and I’m supposed to be starting the Whole-Life Redesign Project. In fact, I am starting it – I’m taking the opportunity created by my kids being out of the house to move all the food storage around and clean under things and get rid of things (hmmm…should there still be baby cereal in the back of my food storage, given that the baby turned 5 on Friday…ummm….) and otherwise make a giant mess in my house in the general hope of making it better afterwards.
What I haven’t done is sit down and write out the parameters of how this project is supposed to work as a group effort – and that’s not for lack of trying. Despite a number of drafts on this subject, I find myself uncharacteristically at a loss for words – or at least a good way of framing this.
The part that seemed hard is the way of making this seem as fully relevant to a single mother in a Budapest apartment as to me in a rural New York farmhouse, to an elderly couple and a single college senior as to a big family like mine. I know from the response i got that people felt that there was something there that connected to them – even given our differences, but what parameters to set on things for everyone, I couldn’t find.
It was different in my two other year-long projects. The first one, the “Buy Nothing Project” was very clear – for a year we tried to buy nothing but fuel and food (and spend less on both of those). And for the most part, we were successful – there were some failures, but we cut our expenses and the folks that did this with us mostly found that the parameters were clear. Don’t buy stuff. Ok, got it.
The second project, The Riot for Austerity, was harder, and required more figuring things out. The goal was to cut our use of energy by 90% over the American average. This did require figuring out what counted and what didn’t (how, for example, we counted technically carbon-neutral wood heat, how, for example, we calculated local food…) but eventually those details were worked out, and again, it was pretty simple. Don’t use much energy. Again we weren’t perfect, but we made deep and long term changes in our lives from the project.
The Independence Days Project has been ongoing and focuses on integrating basic food and subsistenct activities into daily life – that too has been a success and a pleasure, and that one seemed perhaps closest to what I was getting at – but there were so many pieces. Not for nothing was I using the uneuphonious “whole life redesign” name to describe this project of sorting out my life – and inviting other people to share in the project. So how to narrow it – and to narrow it in ways that were open to people with different needs and realities – but the same desire to have a working whole.
Framing this seems harder to me, maybe because it overlaps with so many things. There are a lot of people out there with a program or an idea that covers a portion of this. They’ll help you get out of debt and cut your expenses. They’ll help you declutter. They’ll help you organize your time. And all of those things are part of this – but they aren’t the whole.
When I sat down to think about what this project actually *is* as a whole I found myself struggling to articulate what this was about, and why it felt so important to me, and I found myself back at my favorite thing that I’ve ever written, the riff I wrote on Pat Meadows’ wonder idea, “The Theory of Anyway”.
My friend Pat Meadows, a very, very smart woman, has a wonderful idea she calls “The Theory of Anyway.” What it entails is this – she argues that 95% of what is needed to resolve the coming crises in energy depletion, or climate change, or most other global crises are the same sort of efforts. When in doubt about how to change, we should change our lives to reflect what we should be doing “Anyway.” Living more simply, more frugally, using less, leaving reserves for others, reconnecting with our food and our community, these are things we should be doing because they are the right thing to do on many levels. That they also have the potential to save our lives is merely a side benefit (a big one, though).
This is, I think, a deeply powerful way of thinking because it is a deeply moral way of thinking – we would like to think of ourselves as moral people, but we tend to think of moral questions as the obvious ones “should I steal or pay?” “Should I hit or talk?” But the real and most essential moral questions of our lives are the questions we rarely ask of the things we do every day, “Should I eat this?” “Where should I live and how?” “What should I wear?” “How should I keep warm/cool?” We think of these questions as foregone conclusions – I should keep warm X way because that’s the kind of furnace I have, or I should eat this because that’s what’s in the grocery store. Pat’s Theory of Anyway turns this around, and points out that what we do, the way we live, must pass ethical muster first – we must always ask the question “Is this contributing to the repair of the world, or its destruction.”
Here I found something of the central organizing principle for my project. Because what I want is to have a life that works – one that works whether the money is coming in or not, one that operates whether the lights are on or off, one that works and gives us what we need and doesn’t use what we don’t need. That’s what has been missing – in the rush to get things done, the rush to go forward, I’d stopped asking quite so often what was right, and was making do with what is.
And because figuring out what you should be doing “anyway” means going against the natural grain of our lives – it means stopping and taking apart the things that are givens and reconsidering them, that takes time. And finding ways to make those things economically viable, finding the time to do them and building the skills to integrate the right things into your life in such a way that they become natural and a part of you, well, that’s a project. Because it isn’t something our society makes easy or cheap, or accessible.
That said, I have perfect faith that most of them are achievable. After all, when I started the Riot for Austerity with Miranda Edel, what everyone told us was that we had to wait – that cutting your energy consumption as dramatically as that would require government programs and subsidies and a whole host of things that we had to wait for. But those things were not forthcoming – they are still not forthcoming, and we found – and hundreds and hundreds of other people in cities and country and suburb, in 20 nations, and all over the world found, that it was in fact possible to do most of this now, with what you had, cheaply in the life you lived. That we didn’t have to wait. But it took a lot of time and thought and talk and support and figuring.
So I feel I can trust that all these things – that a life lived as rightly as possible is achievable. Moreover, I feel that I can trust that it is better achievable in a group – with all of you filling in ideas and arguments.
I was very fortunate that my editor, Ingrid and my publisher, New Society also felt that they wanted to participate in this – one of the big questions was whether this is an entirely separate project from my Adapting-In-Place book or something else, a part of it – the project of integrating my life today with the life I anticipate tomorrow, and making them work together in greater synthesis. Ingrid and New Society, despite the fact that the book has already been delayed once, trusted me and this project, and that including it would make a better book. So this will be a story I tell in the next book – thanks to them and their generous willingness to wait and see and risk something.
So I’m renaming this “The Anyway Project” – because I think that’s what it is. The goal of the project is simple – and huge – to ask how we can live the life we ought to be living anyway now, where we are, with what we have.
I’ve divided up the project into seven categories (somehow I always end up with sevens of things ;-)), and offered suggestions for how other people might do this. In my next post on this subject, I’ll list off my goals and my time frame on each project, and my plan is to do monthly posts, on the first of the month to talk about what progress I’ve made. I hope you’ll do the same! If there’s enough desire, we could certainly set up a discussion group, but I do want a lot of the conversation to take place here and at my other blog, because I think that the conversations here are so good.
Here are the categories and how I’m thinking about them:
- Domestic Economy
This is the territory of home life. Here’s where we start thinking about what we want our home life to actually be like. For me, the critical requirements are less cluttered, less disorganized, a home that functions better in relationship to what I actually do and intend to do at home. I’d like to set up the house in order to be able to bring people here for some of my teaching projects, and also to use some of the space for farm projects.
- Household Economy
This is the territory of making ends meet and meeting financial goals. My goals here are to up the portion of our personal economy that comes from barter and personal exchanges, to drop our expenses by 20% and transfer the money to savings and to infrastructure like insulation that will cut expenses in the longer term. I want to have a plan for dealing with money and benefits cuts that we expect on Eric’s end.
- Resource Consumption
This is the territory of what we use. Our lives are enhanced when we use less, and so are the lives of others and our environment – it is as simple as that. We’ve seen some creep in our energy usage, and we need to get it back down. Right now our family of six is using less than 1/5 the US average (and most of those are based on household numbers with the average US household being 2.6), but I want to get back closer to 1/10th which, while not a fair share, is a lot closer. We need to get back in the habit of accurate bookeeping on our energy usage as well.
- Farm and Subsistence
This category may be more relevant to us than some people, but everyone does some subsistence work. For us, we want the farm to be the center of our lives, and to integrate ourselves more into the farm – that is, we want as much as possible my work and our lives and the farm to be one thing. For a long time we’ve used Eric’s work to subsidize the farm, but now it needs to be self-supporting, and that’s part of that equation, while we also expose what we’re doing in low input agriculture to other people. We’d also like to up the degree to which our subsistence activities teach and help others.
Most of all, I want to do a full evaluation of all our projects, both so that others can begin to understand them, and also to make sure that we are doing everything we do as well as possible.
- Family and Community
This is a big one for us – the reason we considered moving earlier this year was the desire for a closer knit community – we had that but have seen some changes over the years. But the reality is that we’ve been allowing those changes to frustrate us, but haven’t necessarily worked as hard as we could to compensate. So our goal is to spend more time working on our community building, and bringing our far-flung communities and our local ones into a state of connection. It is sometimes hard to be so far from our family, from close friends, but if we can build better on what’s near us, we can reach out through a chain of links, rather than across a wide distance.
- Outside Work
If my children were hungry, I would and could do any work necessary – there is no doubt about that. But while my family lives on comparatively little money (we qualify for food stamps in our state, although we don’t use them), we also have enjoyed the fact that we have the luxury of choosing our work. In many ways, we’ve had an enormous luxury – my writing and teaching and farming didn’t have to pay much, because Eric was subsidizing them. Now my work may have to support us, but I still want, to the extent that’s possible, to make what I do the right thing to do. I am enormously fortunate, in that I can earn money doing what I care about, and that I have had the luxury of giving things – my writing, my farm products, etc… away for free. Indeed, often the return of giving things away has been greater than those I use for money – but I don’t live entirely outside the cash economy, unfortunately. So I need to balance my work – find the ways to make some money doing what I care about, while reducing expenses, so that I have the luxury of keeping giving things away.
- Time and Happiness
In the end, these balance sheets have to be even for me to begin to go forward. The good thing about this is that I know how easy it is to even up this part of the equation. My husband and children and the farm and gardens, friends and family give me a deep, inner core of happiness. Whether we stay or go, whatever changes we make, whatever we do without or give up, if I have some simple things – a little dirt (and I don’t have to own it) and the loves of my lives in place, I am not afraid of the future, and I am happy. The thing that buys me the most happiness is time – but it doesn’t have to be free time. Indeed, the thing that gives me the most comfort in the world is knowing that Eric and I can spend an entire day working in arm’s reach of one another, with the boys helping and playing around our work, and know that at the end of the day, all of us, exhausted, will have found the time well spent. Finding time and finding happiness, are not, for us, a matter of more vacation time or things we want to try – they are simply the by products of trying to bring the pieces of our lives together.
I suspect most these categories will have something people want to address and perhaps change, even if your list doesn’t look exactly like mine. I’ll post in the next day or two a list of specific goals in each category, and how I plan to go through and track these. I hope you’ll offer suggestions and ideas as well!