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On Sustainability: Why I’m not Aiming for 100% Self-Reliance

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I mentioned to my then-18-year-old that I’d written about homemade oatmeal in a jar here on Attainable Sustainable.

“That’s not very sustainable,” he said. “We can’t grow oats here.”

Being reasonable about sustainability

He’s right. My oat habit is not entirely sustainable. I can’t grow oats myself. I can’t get locally grown oats.

But, while I like the idea of utter and complete sustainability, it’s not something I’m aiming for.

Certainly, in a pinch or emergency situation, we’d do without, but I’m just not willing to do that as part of my day-to-day diet.

Instead, my compromise is to buy our oats in 25-pound brown paper sacks.

The same could be said for the flour, the dry beans, and the cornmeal that I buy.

They’re not grown here, but by buying large quantities of real food and cooking from scratch, I’m causing less of an impact on the landfills and our environment than if I were buying, say, ready to eat granola bars and Lunchables.

One food a day seems do-able

Interestingly, just last week, Tamar from Starving off the Land left a comment that I think it’s worth repeating:

We’ve found that the one-food-a-day challenge finds the middle ground between being completely self-sufficient (which we’re not even shooting for) and doing nothing at all (which we could easily backslide into). It means that, every single day, I’m thinking about making sure I’ve foraged, fished, grown, or hunted at least one ingredient in our diet (that, or excavated it from the freezer, where I put it after I foraged, fished, grew, or hunted it last year). It keeps me thinking about what I’m doing out here — trying to eat as much first-hand food as possible — without making me feel like a failure for not doing more.

The key here is the word attainable.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s very, very important to be sourcing as much as we can locally.

Supporting local farmers means that a community will continue to have a source of fresh foods. And it means those foods haven’t been trucked in using precious fossil fuels.

But I also think it’s important to be realistic, too.

What most of us can grow ourselves is limited, but we can learn to make better choices about the ingredients we do buy.

What about you? Are you aiming for complete self-sufficiency? Or are you just working toward improving your footprint on this earth?

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

14 comments… add one
  • Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart Mar 25, 2011, 7:38 am

    Considering the climate and water access issues here in the high Rocky Mountains, total self-sufficiency would be tough. Our growing season is so short, even with a small greenhouse, that I do better in the summer (obviously) than in the winter with having homegrown food.

    In exchange for help / favors, neighbors often pay is in meat, locally hunted meat. So, that helps.

    I too try to buy certain, easy-to-store items in bulk … including oatmeal, rice, etc.

  • Susan Johnston Mar 28, 2011, 11:25 am

    Whole grain oats have some health benefits, so it would be a shame to exclude them from your diet based on the sustainability argument. If you followed that logic, I shouldn’t eat oranges because we don’t have them in the winter here in New England. But woman cannot live on apples and cranberries alone. I think you’re doing your part by buying in bulk.

  • Jane Boursaw Mar 28, 2011, 11:39 am

    I love the “attainable” part of the equation. I think it’d be really tough to be completely sustainable and self-sufficient, but we can keep working towards that as much as humanly possible, while still working it into our daily lives.

  • Christine Mar 28, 2011, 11:59 am

    I’m a big fan of attainable goals and small steps. I feel that there is more impact when a lot of people are aiming for attainable goals than just a few for complete ideological perfection. Because the other thing that happens is that each of those people can influence others in their sphere, and those influence others — and then you have a whole lot of people inspired by the vision of what they can do and larger-scale change comes about as a result. Does that make sense? I wrote a book about infant pottying/diaper-free babies, and found that by writing about doing it to whatever degree possible – a little, or a lot – whatever you are able to do – rather than going completely without diapers, I was able to reach a lot of people who were willing to give it a try who might not otherwise have been so open to the idea, all because I encouraged setting attainable goals.

  • Alisa Bowman Mar 28, 2011, 12:14 pm

    My goal is always to be a little more sustainable than I have been in the past. I have so far to go, that that goal in itself is lofty and worthy.

  • Alexandra Mar 28, 2011, 1:07 pm

    I think everyone can start small with baby steps. I try to drive less to the neighboring town, 20 minutes away, where the health food store is located, and buy more in bulk when I do go.

  • Alexandra Mar 28, 2011, 1:08 pm

    PS. Oats for oatmeal are one staple we cannot live without.

  • Jennifer Margulis Mar 28, 2011, 1:22 pm

    We buy our oats in 25-pound paper bags too. And our spelt flour. And our wheat flour (but right now I only have spelt). Or we bring our own jars/cloth bags and buy in bulk at the Co-op.

    Attainable is a good word. I aspire to do better.

    The worst for us is the PLASTIC PACKAGING. I’m so disgusted by it and I’m trying not to use it. But here’s an example: two weeks ago I traded A GALLON of homemade granola for A GALLON of raw milk (local!) yogurt in glass. My kids ate it up in two days. I’m not joking. Yesterday? I bought some Nancy’s organic yogurt (still local but NOT sustainable) in a plastic container.

    It’s NOT ENOUGH. I NEED TO DO MORE. I’m tired, honestly, of the idea of Baby Steps, and totally drawn to NO IMPACT experiments. But I find it so hard to apply my values to our life every hour of every day. I do live almost sustainably in many ways. But I don’t do enough.

  • MyKidsEatSquid Mar 28, 2011, 5:04 pm

    I’m working on doing better a little bit at a time so I’ll keep the oatmeal.

  • Kerry Dexter Mar 29, 2011, 5:20 am

    thought provoking post —

  • [email protected] Food. Stories. Mar 29, 2011, 8:46 am

    I’m with Jennifer, above – I could EASILY eat a half gallon of yogurt in one sitting. Yes, I make my own, but go through it so quickly. How do we grow additional hours in the day to make all this stuff? I do so much but sometimes convenience is so freaking tempting.

  • Johnna Oct 15, 2013, 5:45 pm

    Where do you get your bulk oats from?

  • Susanne Höglund Feb 24, 2017, 12:11 am

    I am first looking to affect my footprint and that my children have the skills and knowledge to affect theirs. I want to be as self-reliant as I can reasonably be with the resources and conditions available to me. And living this way resonates with my being and makes me happy, I feel I have a valuable purpose as a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.

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