Three years ago, as my family readied itself to leave Colombia for a new life in Washington, DC, one of the things I worried about was losing the relatively sustainable, reponsible lifestyle we'd built for ourselves in our mountain home.
As I have noted in a prior blog post, moving itself is inherently unsustainable, entailing lots of waste and consumption and expenditure and emissions. But once we got to Washington, DC, I was pleasantly surprised at some of the opportunities afforded us for living sustainably, though as we'll see below, on balance our living in DC was much less sustainable than what we'd known in Colombia.
I was proud that we were able to find a place in the DC area and get settled in barely a week. The $2000 price tag for a two-bedroom apartment gave me a shock, but I later learned that this was actually a pretty good price for the DC metropolitan area. That said, high prices for rent, childcare, and everything else certainly speak against the sustainability of living in Washingon, DC. Even though I was earning more money in the States, we probably had less disposable income after accounting for all of our basic costs. Often I asked myself how people managed to life in DC, since our own accounts just didn't cut it. We were steadily slipping into debt, and only escaped when we were sent abroad for my job. How can anything be considered sustainable when it entails sinking ever-deeper into debt?
I also didn't like the fact that we were living in the suburbs. I grew up in the center of a big city, and I have always regarded suburbs as inherently iniquitous and unsustainable. I mean, if you want to live near a given place, but for some reason refuse to live in that place, then there's something weird going on. In the case of the US, it's usually fueled by racism and a perverse model of exclusionary consumerism that gives people an urge to distinguish themselves as being better than others. In the DC area high rents are often used as an excuse for flight to the suburbs; people insist that DC proper is just too expensive for a family to live in. While we found this to be partially true, we gradually learned that apartments out in the mainly-white boondocks of northern Virginia cost almost the same as places in the supposedly high-priced inner-city. There are a few pockets in inner-ring suburbs like ours where you can in fact save money while still living close to the city center, but living in these mixed-race, mixed-income areas demands that people accept that they're no better than others, and I guess only a certain demographic is willing to do this.
In any case, we ended up in Crystal City, Arlington, after our first two choices, both in urban rowhouses, fell through when landlords flaked out at the last minute. Our apartment in Arlington was in a neighborhood without much charm at first glance, but the building had a quick turnaround to accept our application, and we were later pleasantly surprised to see that the area had plenty of grocery stores, park space, and other walking-distance amenities. So we really lucked out.
I was also a bit dismayed initially to live in the old Confederacy. Streets and landmarks were named after figures that, by my Northern reckoning, committed the utmost treason to the Republic by seceding in their implacable desire to keep other human beings as chattel. Obviously Arlington's sympathies and probably most of its residents tend more northern these days, but I wasn't thrilled to be part of the 21st-century wave of northerners flowing to the New South and to some extent validating the rancors and hatred that still simmered beneath the surface.
But let's get to the real issues of environmental and social responsibility, beyond my own idiosyncratic preferences and prejudices. I took one of those ecological footprint calculators shortly before we left Colombia. When I entered in our lifestyle in Colombia, it said that, if everyone in the world lived my lifestyle, we would need 0.8 planets, which is to say that my lifestyle was wthin the limits of the Earth's natural regeneration capacity. But our lifestyle in the US, frugal as it was, would require 3.08 planets to sustain it for everyone. Some of the difference was due to the fact that we ate more meat in the States (even on top of what we gleaned from the trash, which really shouldn't count as an extra burden on the Earth), but I think the main difference was that the economic system in the US just uses more fossil fuels and other resources to do everything. You can eat or use or do similar stuff in the US and in Colombia, but it will often have a larger ecological impact in the US, since we rely on industrial processes (and lots of waste generation) for so much of what we do. More food is packaged in the US than what you would eat elsewhere, more is flown in from afar, distances are greater so you have to use more motorized transport. And then of course there's heating and cooling, which you just don't have to do in highland Colombia.
I mentioned above that we ate a lot more meat while living in the US. Some of this was from my dumpster diving, which allowed us to eat meat without incurring the cash cost, but some was just a result of being around a lot of meat in the stores, and feeling like meat was a more normal part of most meals. Having meat in the freezer means you can always grab some to add some zip and heft to whatever you're cooking. We ate more sweets too, just because they were plentiful and cheap.
And the sitting. I began working my first ever steady office job in DC, and it took a toll on my body. I'd been accustomed to walking miles every day just to get to and from my work, to and from grocery stores, to and from our city center in Colombia. In DC I would walk just a few blocks to and from the Metro, and then sit at work all day. When I started biking to work, I thankfully noticed my waistline getting slimmer and my legs getting bigger again, but life in the US still just didn't afford the constant opportunity (necessity, really) of being mobile in our small town in Colombia.
Disposable diapers were another blip on the way to our sustainable lifestyle in DC. We'd always used cloth diapers for our older child, so when little Paulo came along it was natural to use them with him, too. But initially we didn't have our full diaper supply with us, and newborn babies soil a lot of diapers, so we used disposables for a few days before remembering that they really weren't any easier to use than our own well-engineered cloth diapers. We had store-bought handy-wipes on hand, which are easy and cheap to get in the US, but again we only used them a few days before remembering that it's just easier to sit your baby over the sink and wash his bottom with water.
Washing the cloth diapers did present a new challenge. Contrary to popular belief, you normally don't need to do anything special to wash cloth diapers. Just stick them in a wash machine, do a pre-soak the night before, and then a regular wash the next day, and they're all clean. No hand-scrubbing or ladling out poop with your nails or anything. But in Washington we didn't have our own wash machine. We had to share a laundry room with the entire building, which meant not only that we couldn't leave things soaking overnight, but I also didn't want to be washing chunky shit in machines other people would have to use after us. So in our case we did indeed have to do an elaborate semi-hand-wash for the diapers. I tried lots of tactics, even at one point sticking shitty diapers in the dishwasher we never used and seeing if that would do a decent pre-wash. It didn't. Eventually I settled on soaking a load of diapers in the bathtub with Oxyclean overnight before draining the tub, transferring them to a plastic bucket, and then taking them downstairs to the washing machines for a regular cycle. It was a bit more labor-intensive and sometimes yucky than I'd desire, but as an agronomist, I'm no stranger to poop, chemicals, and dirt, so it wasn't a big deal.
Likewise, line drying our clothes was not impossible, but it was certainly not favored by the infrastructure in our building. In Colombia almost every house, even small apartments, have an extra room where you can hang clothes to dry inside. In Washington, as in most of the US, there is no such arrangement made, since many people prefer to burn a bunch of gas to speed along a process that nature would have accomplished in a few hours anyway. In fact, our building expressly prohibited drying clothes on our balcony, so we had to go to elaborate lengths to hang up everything in the apartment without making it look like a bordello. We always did it, but it wasn't easy. In the same sense, the building management was constantly scolding us about keeping our bikes on the balcony, though we did it anyway. They never got tough with us on the bike issue, since they provided no suitable bike parking space, and were probably wary of being labeled a bike-unfriendly building. The building managers of course didn't think twice about having the majority of their lot occupied by ugly, polluting cars on black asphalt. That didn't offend their aesthetic sense.
The expense and cramped quarters of our life in Washington did push us to simplify certain aspects of our life, which was nice. We lived at high population density in an apartment block, which is one of the most sustainable ways to go in the modern world. We were even able to keep the heat and AC off most of the time, and just mooch off of our neighbors' climate control. This didn't save us any money, since we all just paid the building's total consumption in equal parts, but I guess we were doing our little bit to lower that overall consumption. Or maybe we were actually making it less efficient by serving as a heat or cold sink ourselves! At the same time, I was a bit annoyed at having to pay an equal share of the building's electrical consumption, since I was sure that the apartments with four hyper-connected college students each were consuming more juice than we were, living as we did with no TV or other major always-on electronics.
At least initially, until birthday parties and impulsive purchases replenished their stock, we didn't have as many toys for our kids or books for ourselves in the house. Not having a car obliged us to take advantage of things close by (and usually free) like the library, the playground, parks, and bike trails. Living in Washington also afforded me the opportunity (and the economic necessity) to dumpster dive, both for furniture and groceries, so this was a major victory for our DC life in terms of sustainability vis-a-vis our prior life in Colombia, where most people are living so sustainably that there's little waste for us to repurpose for ourselves. At the same time, and as I've also written about, the wasteful consumerist values of the larger society in the US (and specifically suburban DC) start to infect you if you live there, so we did find ourselves buying junk we didn't need, cluttering our lives and our desires with consumer urges. Even though in our two years in DC we were able to curb these impulses after a brief initial flirtation, I know that it would become increasingly difficult to shun the urge to buy and consume if we lived long-term there, especially as our children became more aware of and indoctrinated in the consumerist values pushed on them by suburban US society.
To conclude, I was pleasantly surprised at the sustainable living options offered in our little slice of northern Virginia, things like bike-friendly infrastructure and high-density settlement, but even these left us consuming a lot more resources than we did in Colombia. I don't know how to get past this--even the greenest lifestyles in the US consume more than just normal middle-class living in most other countries. I think it's a huge challenge to change the infrastructure and pathways that lock everyone in the States into relatively unsustainable patterns of living.
Just after we left our temporary home in DC, Pope Francis came to visit. He passed right in front of my old office. My wife and I are normally not ones to partake in big gatherings to see famous people, and especially not to see the Church hierarchy. But we would have liked to see this Pope. It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime chance that we just barely missed, and it would have been a very special end to our time in DC. Imagine seeing a green Pope to keep us inspired in our quest to live responsibly! The consolation is that we missed him because we'd already returned to more modest surroundings where, even if we're not in the spotlight of a bustling world capital, we can try to live responsibly in our own quiet corner of the planet. Just as in Washington even the frugal are compelled to consume more by the larger structures around them, in many parts of Latin America the scarcity and humble conditions that govern life make it easier for everyone to avoid waste and excess consumption.