Living for the Long Haul: How have our lives changed over the last two generations?
This new column will explore with you some basic thoughts about what living with a view to the future means to those of us living in the north woods of Minnesota. We will look at a broad range of topics by asking basic questions and trying to separate reasonable conclusions from propaganda and political jargon. Although we are not experts, we have focused on implementing sustainable living practices in this area for many years. We welcome your comments (firstname.lastname@example.org) and will respond and consider them as we write future columns.
As context of how our use of energy has changed over the last couple of generations, I (Doug) will begin with a few comments about my growing up in rural northern Minnesota.
I grew up on a small dairy farm in Bungo Township, west and south of Pine River. In those early years, we provided almost all of the energy we used on the farm. We burned firewood for heat, used a team of Belgian horses and our own strength as labor and we cooked on a wood-fired stove that also heated our water.
Water was pumped by hand from wells in the house and barn and was used sparingly, candles were lights along with kerosene lamps and lanterns and, as you may suspect, our toilet was an outhouse. We did own a car, though we drove only 20-30 miles per week. “Long trips” to Brainerd and beyond happened only once or twice a year.
We grew much of our own food, including vegetables, fruit, eggs, milk and meat (poultry, pork, beef) that we processed and preserved at home. My mother made all of our meals for scratch three times a day, including making bread, cakes, pies and cookies.
We butchered animals to provide meat for the family, had a smoke house to preserve meat and a root cellar to store vegetables and canned goods. We even made other essentials like clothing, soap, candles and furniture.
During my childhood years, our energy use began to increase quite dramatically and increased progressively thereafter. It started when we got electricity, leading to an electric water pump, indoor plumbing, a water heater, an electric stove and refrigerator.
I vividly recall a commercial message at the local Marlow Theater in Pine River that ran before every film for years. It showed a large house at night with every room brightly lit, with the logo “Electricity is Penny Cheap.” The clear invitation was to indulge ourselves and, despite being very frugal folk, we were enthralled, as many were, with electrical devices, and thus accumulated an assortment of them from kitchen food mixers to cement mixers. Between 1950 and 2010, U.S. residential electrical usage increased ten-fold.
Along with the increase of our electric usage, we dramatically increased our usage of fossil fuels. From the purchase of our first tractor to installing a propane furnace, we became more and more dependent on fossil fuels to supply our basic needs and support our farming practices. We also developed a love affair with our automobiles. Between 1950 and 2016, the number of vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. increased seven-fold.
In the course of my lifetime, we here in rural Minnesota have transitioned from a community of people who were able to provide for most of our basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, transportation and energy to a community that has predominately relegated those responsibilities to large national and multinational corporations, asking only how much these goods and services cost. We ask very few questions about how these essential products are produced, about their quality, their effects on our health, etc.
For us, one of the basic questions of sustainable living becomes: “To what extent do we want to take back control of how our basic needs are met and assure that they are consistent with our values?” As examples: Are we comfortable not knowing where in the world the vegetables we buy are raised or what herbicides have been sprayed on them? Are we comfortable not knowing the cleanliness and quality control of slaughter houses where our meat is processed? Or do we want to reclaim more personal and local control of our resources?
There is no single right answer to this question, but hopefully each of us can find one that works for us.
(References to all factual information quoted provided on request; comments and questions are encouraged to email@example.com)
Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann own Balsam Moon in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.