Perpetual Poverty and the Privilege of Sustainability

During our walk yesterday Travis and I talked about perpetual poverty – the unfortunate cycle of how those living in poverty have such a difficult time planning for the future, saving, and growing their money.

I grew up in just such a situation.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m awaiting the arrival of Hillbilly Elegy from the library. I’m very curious to read about another person’s “escape” and their background – and what it’s like to go back to visit. I’m currently reading my way back through the Little House on the Prairie books and enjoying the stories of a simpler life when, for the most part, you built, hunted, gathered, made, or traded for what you needed – or you went without.

I thought of today’s fast world: fast cars, fast planes, fast food, fast money, fast fashion. So much of everything is “disposable” – but where does it all end up? What’s the quality of life like for someone making a product you use once or twice and discard? Why do we eat vegetables that have been trucked or flown halfway around the world, just so we can enjoy the taste of a watermelon in winter?

Then I considered whether the ability to choose a sustainable life is borne out of privilege, or whether it can be done on a budget.

You see, perpetual poverty and sustainability are connected. The people who are living paycheck to paycheck, or maybe not even able to make the paycheck last until the next one, are the ones who could truly benefit from a more sustainable life. For example, the rain boots I mentioned in the post about need versus want are an example of me living a fast life. I chose to purchase inexpensive rain boots because, when I first purchased a pair a few years back, I didn’t have enough extra money for a higher-quality pair. This inexpensive pair of rain boots lasted me maybe two years. Then I had to purchase another $30 pair, lasting me another two years. Last year, another $30 pair and they’ve already sprung a leak. That’s $90 I spent on rain boots – when I could have spent perhaps $80 on one good pair that would have lasted me these five years and probably another five years.

Often, it’s nearly impossible for someone struggling financially to consider the actual value versus the cost of something they need and/or want. It can be extremely difficult to put money aside when it feels like the bills keep coming in and money keeps pouring out. I know – I’ve been there. I’ve had to go without plenty of times, and I was unable to put enough aside to purchase a sustainable, quality option.

Looking at sustainability, I want to treat the planet with kindness. I don’t want to contribute to the standard THREE POUNDS A DAY of garbage the average American produces. All those leaky rain boots? Trash – whereas one quality pair would have generated zero garbage.

And then it hit me: is living a sustainable lifestyle a choice only the privileged can make?

As I pare down and build up my minimalist wardrobe, I’ve been replacing ill-fitting or worn-out garments with higher-quality alternatives. For the first time in my adult life I’ve paid full price for quality items with a lifetime guarantee and made with sustainable business practices. I’m actively seeking out long-term options for typical “throwaway” items like shower caps and cotton balls (yes, they do make a machine-washable, waterproof shower cap, and organic cotton reusable cosmetic rounds). I’m looking at what happens to my clothing when I no longer need it. I’m choosing slow clothing over fast fashion, and quality over quantity. I really don’t need a wardrobe full of dress pants when I have a pair that truly fits well and will last for years. A solid blue sweater is timeless and it’s got a lifetime guarantee from LL Bean.

Then I think back to Little House on the Prairie. Pioneers lived a sustainable life because they had to. There was no choice. There was no garbage dump to which you could haul your trash, no store to go purchase a new dress, no Amazon to deliver the next gadget to your door. You used what you had. Granted, they maybe could have planted a few (LOT!) more trees to help replace the ones they cut down, but overall, pioneer life was considerably more sustainable than modern life. Pioneers didn’t need wealth to choose sustainability – only a strong sense of adventure and the willingness to work. Today, though, most of us don’t have the ability to grow our own food, sew our own clothing, or build our own homes. We exchange our time for money to pay someone else to do it all for us.

It’s time to cut out the middle man and get back to doing things for ourselves. I believe the best way to live more sustainably is by doing more yourself and relying less on others. The more I can do myself, the less I need financial means to live in a way that respects the planets and those living on it: less fuel burned bringing my food to me if I can grow it myself, less waste from packaging from purchased products, less money spent purchasing a finished good when I can locally-source materials and make it myself.

Stay tuned as we continue on our journey to sustainability. It’s not an easy choice – I know it’s hard work to do things yourself – but I believe it’s rewarding to see the (occasionally literal) fruits of your labor.

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