When diving into any new subject, be it minimalism or environmentalism or healthy eating or a new religion or spirituality, you will always find extremists. In fact you will most likely encounter them first. They are the ones who garner the most attention for better or for worse, bumping them up on our search engines and social media feeds. They are also often seen as the best representatives of the movement in some respects because they are the movement in its purest form. If you want to learn about zero-waste, you’ll want to start by looking at the purists of the movement. They are the best examples of a pure zero-waste lifestyle. If you were to embrace that lifestyle to its fullest extent, these extremists provide an example of what your life would look like.
This can be enlightening and inspiring. It can also be overwhelming and defeating. It quickly becomes less of a question about what we want to do and what we believe is right, and more a question of what we’re capable of both physically and mentally. Of course I want to live a life that produces the smallest amount of waste possible. But how much am I willing to do to make that happen? How many dirty looks am I willing to endure at the grocery store for bringing my own bags and jars?
So does it make me a bad person to even ask that question? Shouldn’t I be willing to do absolutely anything to preserve our planet? To reduce pollution and waste? To rid my home of harmful toxins and chemicals? Yes, I’d like to think so. But at the same time, I am living a life. A life that I only get to live once. So it becomes a matter of how much am I willing to sacrifice.
One of the first things I often read about waste reduction and minimalism is that we don’t have to sacrifice anything. Or that’s the wrong way to look at it because look at all that we’re gaining. But that’s not entirely true, in all fairness. Maybe once a routine is established it feels like less of a sacrifice because you’re used to it. But the process of trial and error, plus the time and money invested while establishing that routine is not something to simply shrug off entirely.
It has been over a year since I first started trying to live a more conscious lifestyle. I became interested in withdrawing from a life of consumerism and waste and superficiality. I wanted to live a more self-sustainable lifestyle. I wanted to save money and depend less on big corporations. The impact on my health and the environment were a bonus as well. I learned a lot from that initial departure from societal norms. And there was a definite shift in my perspective and core values. I quickly learned not to worry about what others thought, or to even concern myself with what I had thought for so long. Because most of us can agree that the societal norm in America is unhealthy, unnecessary, and bad for everyone and the planet we live on. And the funny part about it all is that it’s not even a life most of us truly want to live. It’s a life that is sold to us endlessly throughout our daily routines. On the internet, on our phones, on our televisions. By our parents, by our bosses, by our government. We are all sold the American dream of getting a good job, making lots of money, buying a nice house, and spending most of our time spending that money to buy things to put into the house. But most of this doesn’t have many benefits for our well-being at all. We’re told to want these things because it makes the people at the top money.
The first step to self-sustainability is a lot of research. The next step, for me, was to begin making things that I would normally buy. I now know the smartest way to do this is to start slow. When you run out of something, instead of going out and buying a replacement, try making your own instead. One thing at a time. But when you first start reading about how much you can save, how much better it is for the environment, and how much healthier it is for you and your family….it’s easy to get over-zealous and want to dive right in head first. Before I knew it I was dumping products I had already spent money on down the drain and spending every spare penny and entire weekends on making complicated recipes. Recipes that only had about a fifty percent success rate, if I’m being generous with myself. After a while I seemed to be spending more on ingredients than I would have buying the product off the shelf. I was spending every spare second making things, emptying this, refilling that, mixing this up, attempting to grow this. Following my husband around the house like a crazy person reminding him we didn’t need dish soap because I had made some. It didn’t quite squirt out of the bottle the right way, but I had invested so much into it – he had better use it.
I know there are families who have it down to a science. They know the recipes by heart. They’re growing the herbs and have all the ingredients they’ve bought in bulk from the best place at the cheapest price. But when you’re trying to reach that place it is easy to become consumed by it. Soon your life and your wallet are all sucked up into it. Your brain and emotions are fried because you’re completely overwhelmed with information and suggestions. And you’re left with a dead herb garden hanging over your sink and empty bottles of cleaning products you’d much rather go to the store and buy than to start boiling concoctions on your stove again.
It’s no surprise to me now as I’m writing this that I latched onto minimalism so strongly soon after that endeavor. It was refreshing to grant myself permission to stop trying to make all of my beauty products from scratch and to instead buy one hair product instead of five. Yes, I was still purchasing something. But the time and energy I saved was priceless.
There are two extremes in this scenario. The first is the extreme of the movement itself. Making your own products is suggested by self-sustainability, homesteading, minimalism, zero-waste, and penny-pinching movements. They all promise so much about how easy it can be. How much time and money you save. How much healthier it is. How great you’ll feel. The second extreme is my reaction to the information. I know now I should have taken things more slowly. I could have gone about everything in a more practical manner. Both are at equal blame quite honestly. The way these movements sell themselves, it’s no wonder people like me get so easily caught up and obsessed. We want to be better people and make better choices. But at the end of the day I sometimes wonder if these movements and their extremists are any better than the corporate consumerism they claim to be against. With their public speaking engagements and book deals. And big promises of how much better our lives can be if only….if only we buy into something that coincidentally puts money into their pockets and out of ours, one way or another.
Now everyone is starting their own business or selling their own products or their own ideas. And if we want to live like them, all we have to do is sign up for their seminar or buy their book or their products. You can’t blame anyone for chasing after money. We need it to survive. But at what point do we stop focusing on all the selling and buying and just live? Do we even know what that means anymore? Most of us don’t even bother devoting time to anything anymore unless there is some hope or promise that somewhere along the line it will make us money.
Look at me right now. I am doing what most environmentally conscious minimalists do. I am blogging about it. I am doing that to inspire others. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think from time to time that maybe someday someone would want to pay me to write these things. In fact, most of the people I follow on social media are making money doing that very thing. So would I still be doing it if I didn’t think it was possible? I would like to think so. But it’s easy sometimes to convince ourselves we’re motivated by one thing when it’s really another.
I know this post has the potential to offend a lot of people doing work that I really admire. And it’s sort of like a feminist rant in that regard, and those men shouting at their screens – not all men! If you’re a zero-waste blogger and you’re thinking – I don’t make any money from this! I just want to help people! I can help you! It really doesn’t have to be so hard! Then guess what – this post isn’t about you.
This post is about the people who have turned these movements into profit. And in the process are selling an idealistic, elitist guilt trip lifestyle to people who can’t really afford to live that way. Financially, physically, or emotionally. That is no better than a corporation in my mind. I shouldn’t have to buy a ticket or a book or a product to have this lifestyle you’re promising is so much cheaper than all the other lifestyles being sold to us. It’s still a product on the shelf. (I guess I’ll edit that out if I ever write my own book)
There is an easier, more realistic way to accomplish these goals that don’t involve sacrificing our time and money. My plastic Tupperware is still serving its purpose in my kitchen, and I’m not ready to replace it with expensive glassware. I may buy a bottle of shampoo when this one runs out if it means I get to read a book to my daughter instead of making another thing in the kitchen. There is ideal and then there is real. I will continue recycling and buy a bamboo toothbrush and a stainless steel straw. I will continue learning and improving and trying to do better. But in the end that’s all that matters – is that we try.
I have been reading a lot this weekend. Observing and thinking. Not just about others motivations and lives, but my own. As always I am having to remind myself over and over again that it’s all about balance. Balance and small, simple steps. We can do better, and it doesn’t have to be extreme. I have so many thoughts on the matter. Especially when it comes to what these extremes can do to our family….particularly family members who are not so passionate about the same issues as us. But this sums up my current Sunday evening thoughts. All of this and….I am very grateful for books like the Imperfect Environmentalist by Sara Gilbert. Summaries and simple steps. This is my new mantra.
Happy Sunday evening, everyone. (Or I guess early Monday morning now….)
Thanks for listening to my ranting.