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Does sustainable have to be dirty?

I get some variation of this question, or find it lurking between the lines, every time I speak with someone just beginning to explore permaculture and sustainable lifestyle practices.

You want us to go back to living on dirt floors and in rags? You want to bring back the hippie movement? You want us to live in dusty, creaky cabins filled to the ceiling with scraps and trinkets?

There are both misconceptions of and differences of opinion within the permaculture community about how one should design their lives and homes to truly be sustainable, but we can all agree that these questions have to be addressed in order to bring others along for the fun.

My husband challenges me with these questions regularly. Particularly in urban environments and close communities (we are not yet the 100 acre homestead types) there is indeed a real need for keeping systems tidy as much as sustainable. Space is found at a premium in most cities, with small gardens, balconies, and roofs serving as extensions of our living spaces. Anything added to these spaces must not only be productive, but also attractive to meet city ordinances and encourage community members to join in. This is where design, not just a back-to-the-wilds attitude, is beginning to make our sustainable systems both more efficient and more attractive. It can be easy to forget that permaculture is not just about food production, but also about making people’s lives better. Designs do not focus alone on crop rotation and water conservation. They look at how to make day to day living healthier, more efficient, and beneficial to the entire community. Because societies are not held together solely by common nutritional resources, but also by aesthetics and shared activities, systems like permaculture embrace and even benefit from the necessity of attractive designs.

While some in the community do truly live on dirt floors, we find that most of them are actually rammed earth, so compacted and smooth they shine like polished cement and last nearly as long in the appropriate climates. Their adobe walls have been perfected through time and abundant historical examples from which to learn, with no cracking or leaks but beautifully dressed with natural lime washes. Their energy efficiency is also far greater than cement block or wood and dry-wall construction.

For others, their lifestyle changes within a permaculture frame might indeed be a counter-culture response, but they are neither haphazard nor merely a bunch of dirty hippies. A discussion on intentional communities can become a very charged debate, but for those to whom it appeals, the design of the system is taken very seriously. Long before anyone buys a share in the land. And if cleanliness is your concern, a fly ridden outhouse is not what you will find in their camps but instead quite sophisticated designs for composting toilets and solar-heated showers. Many of these communities even grow their own fibers and make beautiful hand-loom clothing – far from the tie-dye and ripped jeans you might imagine.

As for my approach, I both live in a densely built city and have a lean toward minimalist design. While nature and sustainable food systems do not embrace minimalism, I find a clean home and a lush garden are the perfect compliments.

Inspired by permaculture, efficiency and waste reduction have become key considerations in any changes I make to our system, and this has actually led to a far less cluttered lifestyle and the clean home one does not immediately picture in relation to sustainability. Though I make more moves every year toward becoming a kind of urban homesteader, my home is hardly the picture of a shed with just-in-case parts and tools laying around the yard. That kind of system lacks design and thought to efficiency; the junk is left to waste in the weather and be tripped over. Instead, applying permaculture design principles to my home and garden is helping me to create a very abundant and aesthetically pleasing environment for my family and visitors.

Because our outdoor space is very small and our climate often extreme, any element added to our system has to be carefully designed for fit and function. In many cases, having less options forces me to seek better designs making the whole system more productive, sustainable, and attractive.

So no, building a more sustainable lifestyle is not about going back to living in squalor or letting your garden and home be overrun by weeds. Any system that suggests so or leads to outright chaos is in an imbalance and needs to be re-assessed for design flaws.

Margie is the founder of IG and is passionate about the therapeutic benefits of working with nature in the garden. She enjoys mangosteen, the rainy season, hammocks, and wild visitors in the garden.

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