Adventures in Sustainability on a Budget

I began to eat organic after witnessing first-hand the effects of pesticides on migrant farm workers. I tried to stop using electricity from coal-fired power plants after I watched my students in Washington, DC struggle to breathe on “red-alert” air quality days. I read about the permanently disabling effects that some glues have on workers who make conventional upholstered furniture in the US, and about the dangerous conditions in overseas garment factories. Someone is always paying the price for the cheap things I buy, and that didn’t feel right to me. Thus I embarked on an adventure of living frugally and more sustainably.

I spent five months living in an eco-village in rural Missouri. Dancing Rabbit has no joining fee and a very affordable dues structure (about $10/month). My rent for one room in a lovely straw-bale house, with a shared kitchen and bathroom, was $220/month (including rainwater pumped from our cistern, shared high-speed internet, heat from our wood-fired rocket stove, and solar electricity). I was part of an eating group where we pooled our money and kept our vegan, primarily locally-sourced and organic pantry stocked for $7/day per person. My entertainment was nearly always free– swimming in our pond in the summer, or playing broomball in winter. I had the freedom to relocate because I telecommute, but many residents there make their living entirely on-farm, finding a niche in natural building, baking, midwifery, tutoring, or caring for children.

When I moved back to Massachusetts, I was curious how far I could sustain that lifestyle. I decided to prioritize low-impact transportation. Instead of buying a car, I ordered a velomobile, a tricycle with a solar-powered battery assist and an enclosed body to protect me and my cargo from the elements. This was quite a stretch for my budget at $5,000, but I won’t need to pay auto insurance, fuel, or maintenance costs, (and will be getting plenty of free exercise).

I also want to do things by hand to minimize my use of fossil-fuel derived electricity. My favorite discovery in this regard was a “manual washing machine.” It cost about $26 online and looks something like a toilet plunger. I throw all my laundry and some soap into a metal tub ($25 from the hardware store) to soak. Then I pump the device up and down for several minutes to imitate the agitation cycle, rinse, and hang things out on a rack to dry. It seems to do a fine job of getting my clothes clean, and I don’t have to invest tedious hours and rolls of quarters in a laundromat.

Borrowing or buying things second-hand, using reusables instead of disposables, and eating a simple, fresh vegetarian diet help both my budget and the environment. What are your tips?