Living a sustainable lifestyle

I have to admit I’m struggling. Life here in the U.K. is relatively easy compared to Hawaii but it’s so far from sustainable, it’s scary! Most of the population continue living like the party will never end. They listen to the government rhetoric about climate change trusting everything will be taken care of while being amused to death.

I’m living in the quaint port town of Rye where our local authority talks about the future implementation of a sustainability program. They talk about climate change action requiring large scale mobilisation and behavioural change but, as the breakdown of the fragile supply chain inches closer, I don’t see much really changing here. Aware citizens know that the technology exists to resolve problems but the political will is failing us. It appears that only when the supermarket shelves are bare of food and there’s no fuel for transport or heating that the general population will wake up and, by that time, in desperation, the rebellion could easily get really frustrated with the political system. But what does it take for the flow of dissent to turn into a flood? The future with climate change does not look good anywhere here in the U.K. without some major systemic adjustments.

In the State of Hawaii, where I lived for thirty six years, there’s also been a lot of talking. The government has introduced policies to reduce it’s almost total dependance upon imported foods and to attain 100% of it’s energy from renewables by 2030 – but only time will tell if these ambitious goals will be achieved. Meanwhile, I’m comforted knowing that a multitude of grassroots individuals on the islands have been experimenting for decades with sustainable lifestyles and are doing the real work. I was one of those pioneers pursuing a sustainable lifestyle in the belief that it was the only way for our world’s population to thrive and survive.

Almost everyone has their own idea of what sustainability means. For some people, living more sustainably can simply mean turning off unnecessary lights, growing a bunch of kale, or recycling a bit more. For others, it can be a whole lifestyle paradigm shift.

I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to experiment and practise some fairly radical changes in lifestyle. In 1987, when we started our ecovillage in a tropical rain forest, we had no potable water, no grid power, no telephone service, lots of rocks, and very little soil. We had to learn how build structures, grow food, and produce power all off-grid and all with very little capital. Idealism and necessity were our motivators to pursue sustainability.

Our core values were based around the pursuit of an organic and renewable energy lifestyle using permaculture principles but there was a whole lot more. We constructed family homes, cabins, and community buildings, featuring natural ventilation and natural light. They were all off-grid and solar-powered and whenever possible we used local building materials harvested from our land. We planted construction grade bamboo for future building projects. We dug latrines, then added composting toilets and later flush toilets after digging a few cesspools. A simple life is not a sacrifice.

We installed rainwater catchment systems and once our water was safely secured in the tanks we installed, it had to be pumped out to service our plumbing systems. Pumps are big power users and have to be used consciously. Rainwater requires water filters which have to be changed regularly. We used double sediment filters for our basic water supply, plus carbon and ultraviolet filters for our drinking water. To conserve water, we shared washing machines and used greywater for irrigation, when possible. Flush toilets typically use lots of water so we practiced “if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” 

We used locally-appropriate sustainable farming practices—mostly agroforestry—harvesting food from over 100 diversified fruit trees and also added bee hives, chickens, goats, and eventually horses. I experimented with vermiculture and drought-resistant landscaping and learned how to build soil and maintain organic permaculture gardens. 

We had a fully self-sustainable chicken program, with about 80 fertilized-egg-laying hens. We bred our own chicks by brooding hen or incubation, which produced roosters for chicken broth—as a medicine and health booster—as well as egg-laying hens. The chickens also helped by eating grass, keeping weeds and bugs at bay, plus scratching and pooping around the fruit trees as they hunted for worms and other critters growing under the composting green manure that we placed there.

Our two horses provided considerable support for our sustainable systems. They gave us a constant, daily source of top quality manure, and replaced gas-guzzling lawn mowers and weed-whackers by attentively munching on the assortment of grasses and vines growing in our jungle. We subsequently sold our fossil-fuel-powered mower and our weed-whackers as we didn’t need them at all during the seven years we had horses. Daily, we collected almost all the horse poop, which either fed the worms or the fruit trees, or was placed in large compost piles and mixed with weeds and other green waste. The horse poop enabled me to develop my vermiculture experiment by providing a daily source of nutrient-rich, partially-digested food source for the worms.

Earthworms became a huge part of my horticulture regime. Aristotle called them “the intestines of the earth”; Charles Darwin wrote a whole book about them; and I believe they are a gardener’s best friends. For the organic gardener, they are the single most important element in the program of building rich, healthy soil. Our worm bins produced large quantities of red wriggly worms, worm tea, and also worm castings. The breakdown of organic matter is critical for the creation of healthy soil and best accomplished by indigenous microorganisms so I regularly sprayed worm tea around the land and buried colonies of worms and worm castings and spread pondweed around the drip line of plants.

Our days of buying expensive organic fertiliser imported from far away factories ended after I researched and implemented sustainable local alternatives. In addition to our worm products we used aged chicken compost, washed up coral from beaches, and crushed oyster shell from a local oyster farm, spreading them all around our trees for nitrogen and calcium. We also made a habit of taking the wood ashes from our fire pits and our sauna and utilising them to provide micronutrients, phosphorus, and potassium.

For fifteen hundred years before colonisation, native Hawaiians produced all the food they needed. Their diet was mainly agroforestry foods and rootcrops supplemented with fish. Eating sustainably requires loving the food that loves to grow where you live. Food is a deeply-rooted cultural practice and people today tend to eat foods from many different climates as a result of globalisation. That trend caused Hawaii to go from being fully self-sufficient in food production to importing 92 percent of its food by 2008. Climate change requires us to see the folly of these ways and understand the wisdom of indigenous people and modern sustainable food practices. Eat Locally!

In Hawaii, the locally-appropriate food production methods for our particular climatic zone are all agroforestry-based. Tall canopies of breadfruit, mango, and avocados; lower canopies of papaya, banana, and diverse exotic fruits; with a ground cover of ginger, turmeric, peppers, taro, cassava, and pumpkin. These are perennial crops—requiring little maintenance, drought-resistant, and very sustainable. Temperate crops are annuals requiring much higher maintenance; in fact, they need daily (sometime twice daily) watering, and are not nearly as sustainable in this location. I learned that it’s important to adopt a diet that suits your environment and your philosophy in order to truly be a practitioner of sustainable food production.

At our ecovillage we constantly researched and utilised new technology as it became accessible and affordable. We replaced incandescent bulbs with fluorescent tubes, then compact fluorescent bulbs, and eventually the long-awaited LEDs. We replaced oil lamps with solar-charged LED lamps and trips to the nearest laundromat 14 miles away with energy-efficient washing machines. We respected traditional sustainable practises, erected clothes lines and learned the ancient art of pinning clothes out to dry in the wind and the sun.

We originally heated shower water with black bags hanging in the sun; then came the on-demand propane heaters; and eventually we installed solar water-heating systems, saving us and the planet from the consumption of huge amounts of propane gas. Originally all our kitchens had propane-burning gas refrigerators, but as our solar installations improved in capacity we were able to replace them with modern energy efficient fridges.

Our energy systems developed slowly over the years as we added more solar panels, expanded our battery banks, replaced old charge controllers with more efficient models, and upgraded our inverters to 24V. Our seven separate stand-alone solar systems varied in size from a small 700-watt 12V system to a 2.2-kW 24V system powering three homes to the 5.6kW system installed on our community pavilion. At that point, we were able to run larger power tools, blenders, cordless phones, bread makers, bigger sound systems, and even electric kettles; but never microwave ovens or dishwashers! Who needs them?

Presently, we have solar panels purchased from 1987 still in use in our hybrid systems, which speaks a lot to the efficacy and practicality of solar power. Being solar energy pioneers we paid a high price because equipment is now much cheaper and more available. Fortunately, newcomers to the solar power world have benefited from the innovations made possible by the commitment of original buyers who supported the early suppliers of renewable energy. It’s important to support sustainable innovations, even if they are more expensive, until the economies of scale kick in. It’s a price worth paying.

Transportation based on fossil fuels has been a huge contributor to climate change. I collected vegetable oil from restaurants and made biodiesel to run three of our vehicles. We also bought used electric golf carts to replace our farm vehicles and charged the batteries with our solar systems. Apart from being work vehicles, they were great for rounding up runaway horses or missing kids or just for going on joy rides – all “guilt-free” with a zero carbon footprint.

We also expanded our ecovillage bike fleet to about a dozen working bikes. It was fairly easy to get donations of old bikes—and even purchase a few cheap deals. They invariably came with maintenance needs so we would regularly assign our most mechanically-minded resident to do thorough overalls. The bike program was a huge success and became an important and very sustainable transportation option. We also organized a neighborhood carpool, shopped for one another on a daily basis and always picked up hitchhikers to better utilise our transportation impacts.

Sustainable lifestyles need to serve people – with the primary objective of improving quality of life – not just physically but also socially, economically, psychologically, and spiritually. At Bellyacres, we built the Seaview Performing Arts Centre for Education (S.P.A.C.E.), pioneering a model with a highly developed volunteer support system utilising networks of people and collaborating organizations working towards a shared vision for social change. We hosted a public charter school, a twice-weekly farmers’ market, arts workshops and classes, plus a variety of community events and performances. Our S.P.A.C.E. became a perfect incubator for the growth of new local businesses that supported a healthy and sustainable community.

Our ability to run S.P.A.C.E. on a tiny budget was due to the extremely low financial overhead resulting from our sustainability practises. We had no electric, water, or sewage bills. We had no need for air conditioning or heating. We were conscious consumers and became serious adherents to practicing the six R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose, Repair, and Refuse. Our recycling program was highly evolved and had nine separate sorting bins.

At S.P.A.C.E., we used linen hand towels and tablecloths with reusable plates, cups, and cutlery. We incorporated recycled building materials into our structures, always bought recycled tools and equipment, and even recycled performance costumes, some for over thirty years. Before buying anything new, we always checked to see if we already had something that could be used or repurposed, and often modified our plans accordingly. We learned that sustainability starts with using the resources that you already have to their fullest capacity.

An excellent example of how our style of sustainable development worked was our kids’ playground—which we built for a meagre $1,200 with recycled materials, community donations and volunteer labor—while a similar sized playground installed by the county cost taxpayers $150,000. According to the kids our community-built alternative was far superior in style and creativity demonstrating the power of people committed to living sustainably.

In the uncertain economic times ahead, many rural communities may not be able to rely on governments to provide anything beyond basic facilities and services. Ecovillages and small-scale communities through their own radical sustainable experimentation can provide a huge source of guidance and support. The Big Island and especially the district of Puna has the people and the resources to be resilient and sustain through climate change and that is why I’m hoping to return to live in Hawaii before the impending crash occurs. It’s also my hope that everyone can find their own haven in the coming storms.

Bellyacres Sustainability Project 2010  

 (9:28 minutes).

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

2 thoughts on “Living a sustainable lifestyle

  1. Aloha Graham and thank you for sharing this very vital key to the Puna history, visions, expectations, and realities. Your efforts have launched many ongoing community projects and models of creating infrastructure. Sadly there were personalities, corruption and other obstacles which overwhelmed the momentum and  created a huge loss to our community. Without SPACE, the Wed night Kalapana events, warm ponds, more pleasant Makuu market, etc., depth has been lost but the seeds of recovery are slowly being cultivated in other fresh branches of growth.

    All things considered, we are doing fine. Stephanie and I had a short bout of covid but with Ivermectin, herbs and rest, we managed to recover within two weeks.At this point of life being now over 70, we had expected to have the freedom to travel, but the mandates are still too challenging to even consider. The “family farm” is now just Stephanie and I as our kids are living in other parts of the island. The land maintenance is a full time involvement but at least we are enjoying lots of healthy food from our gardens. Pohoiki road still remains closed but once it ever opens, we might be able to do some rebuilding and seek work traders to help us out. Even though Stephanie’s birthday was last month, we are having the party this weekend with lots of familiar musicians. Of course you and your family are going to be there in spirit. Much love forever Baba George

    Liked by 1 person

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