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The Reality and Limits of Green Living in the Modern World: A Personal Account

“Green” is such a trendy word that everything and anything today is described as such or as “eco-friendly”. So what does being “green” actually mean? Is it possible to lead a green life in the 21st century, or does it virtually mean being an outcast, living in a kind of parallel world, ignoring the modern world of technology and consumption where the rest of the world lives (or aspires to live)?

Partly by choice, partly by necessity, I have come to live a rather green life with my family. Following is a very personal account of what living green means for me, the joys associated to it, but the difficulties and questioning too.

I guess I’ve been green at heart a long time before it was trendy. It was part of my upbringing, I suppose, and part my own personality.

As far as upbringing goes we always were a family living below our means, never overspending and which tended to keep and reuse things until they could really not be used again. Clothes, notably, were handed down between siblings and sometimes cousins and worn in the private sphere well beyond the stage most people would have gotten rid of them. Furniture was also virtually never changed, paper was always used on both sides before being thrown away, wrapping paper was largely reused from one Christmas or birthday to the next, and sometimes for many years…

To this family trait, I added my first personal stone when at age five I decided I would never eat any animal again. Of course, I was not aware then of the lower ecological impact of vegetarians, but I was very much aware of the right of other creatures to live alongside humans on our common planet.
As the years passed we became increasingly green as a family, wedging a war against plastic bags – well before they were banned from many stores – , stubbornly refusing to accept them when they were almost constantly forced on us at the tills. We banned any kind of herbicide or non ecological products from our garden, walked to the village centre to buy our bread when most of our neighbors always drive the same distance, and as soon as recycling became possible, we became avid recyclers.
Later, in my young adult life, while studying or working in Paris, I travelled almost exclusively by foot, bicycle or roller skates.

All this to explain that I had quite a green mind and a green past when my life took a most unexpected turn which pushed me much further in the green direction.

Six years ago, I decided to volunteer for a couple of months to work in a forest sanctuary in South Africa where privately captive primates are rehabilitated. I had lived in South Africa as a child and learnt to love this country and its amazing wildlife and I had previously done a training course (in South Africa as well) to learn to become a game ranger.
I was not surprised, then to rediscover how much I loved this country and how much I loved working in nature in direct contact with wild animals. What I had not planned, though, was that I would also fall in love with a South African colleague, and that what was supposed to be a two month break from a city life and administrative work I didn’t enjoy, would become a life changing experience and a very long commitment.

With my new job as a nature guide I came to spend most of my days outdoors in a natural forest environment, surrounded by animals, educating visitors to green issues such as the plight of primates in the wild, deforestation, the pet trade or the bush meat crisis.

But my life also took a shift in its private sphere as I settled down with my husband on his “farm”, a small one bedroom house he had built himself on a remote piece of land in the middle of the beautiful fynbos vegetation.

Combination of lack of financial means, the desire to remain independent and in control of our expenses and the distance separating us from the closest neighbor, combined with our green aspirations, means that our house works in an unconventional way.

We are self-sufficient with our sewage system (septic tank), but also with our water supply: we get it all from rain water and tanks and heat it up with a solar heater. Furthermore, we are not connected to the telephone line, nor to the conventional electricity supply. We do have electricity, though, but with produce all of it with our own solar panels and a small wind generator.

We live in an area where there is no real dry season, so we have always been o.k. with our water supply, though we must be careful all the time, and extra careful at times. We shower with 10 litre drums, for instance, recycle most of our water for toilets, handwash in cold water…
Whereas for electricity, it works fine…on sunny days, or when the wind blows hard. If it is cloudy and rainy for a few consecutive days, well, we use candles and paraffin lamps.

Another problem is that our system is not strong enough to run a fridge, for instance, which most people are horrified to hear. Well, must I remind you that humans lived without fridges until barely more than half a century ago, and many of them did survive. I’m sure some of them even lived quite happily. It’s mostly a question of being organized, not buying too many fresh products ahead, cooking mean as soon as you buy it (for my husband, I’m a vegetarian!) or salting it and sun drying it (the South Africans call it “biltong”), buying powder milk rather than liquid one, etc. We also try to grow as many things as we can, so we have a constant supply of fresh products at hand.

We even raised a baby without a fridge (and without a problem) and without a washing machine, even though she wore home made cloth diapers: here again, it’s mainly a question of organization.

All this to say that I’ve been very happy living this simple life close to nature, not requiring much, with very little money coming in, but very little money coming out as well. It’s been very satisfactory, especially to put one foot out of the consumption society and the race to always buy more and more, bigger and better, and throw away, throw away, throw away. It is an extremely pleasant feeling too to feel almost at peace with your planet and decrease your personal pressure on it.

But all this comes with a price which at times can become almost unbearable. Sometimes I feel very disconnected from the world around me. I worry especially for my young child: no matter how great it is for a child to grow up playing outdoors in nature most of the time, how will she blend in with the other kids with a more normal upbringing? What will happen when she is a teenager and asks us for technology items we can neither afford nor operate from lack of electricity? Aren’t we forcing our life style on her? Hasn’t she got a right to lead a “normal” life in the modern world of her time?

Whereas for myself, I don’t mind roughing it up a bit on a daily basis, but there are days when I have a headache or a backache and I would love just to open a tap (instead of carrying buckets of water around!) and indulge in a hot soothing hot bath… I don’t mind not having enough electricity for TV some nights, but I would read more readily with a real light than with candles… And most of all, I have become addicted to some degree to my laptop (and I need it professionally to write and translate articles!). I have solved the absence of a phoneline by investing in my own plug-in G3 modem and can access the Internet, but my computer battery can only take me that far…

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