A Culture of Less

This post, borrowed from our daughter’s blog, explains why we should even be interested in Permaculture, let alone adopt it as a lifestyle.

http://bluebirdmama.com/2010/03/a-culture-of-less/ - by Alison, “Bluebirdmama”

Today is my birthday.

Thirty-two years ago my mom started having contractions while she was grocery shopping. She went about her day, took care of my older siblings, visited with my grandmother. After my dad got home from work, grandma left and around supper time, I was born at home.

Grandma called to say she’d thought of a name if the baby was a boy and dad informed her, “Too late; It’s a girl!” Grandma came back, made everyone dinner and they had leftover birthday cake from mom’s birthday on the 7th.

And so it is that I grew up thinking that homebirth was special, not dangerous. And so it is that twenty-seven years later, I had my first homebirth.

In some ways, I think that this is as vintage green as it gets. The oldest thing in the book: having babies the way our bodies were designed to, without a lot of wasted resources and unnecessary technology. There are plenty of instances where the resources and technology are useful, life-saving but increasingly, birth, like our culture as a whole, is characterized by excess and waste, with damaging consequences.

Homebirth is only one of the green values I picked up from my parents without even realising until I was older that it was green. My parents moved a lot while I was growing up, from the Yukon to the Canadian prairies to BC, but I think at heart they always think of themselves as Northerners. The term encompasses everyone up north and a Yukoner probably has more in common with an Alaskan than they would with anyone in the rest of Canada. A northerner is a crazy mélange of hippie and redneck: 4x4s and guns mixed with folk music and a back to the land mentality. My dad subscribed to Mother Earth News and the Canadian counterpart, Harrowsmith. They had good friends who lived year round in a Tipi. It was there in the North that they decided to have me at home.

At the time, in the 70s and 80s, it was just how we lived. A kind of quiet environmentalism that was born of Depression era great-grandparents, exalted by our Mennonite heritage (world-renowned cheapskates) and idealized by the Northerners and hippies. They were a product of their location but also of their generation. Now, I wouldn’t really classify my parents as environmentalists at all. But when I think back to the green actions of my parents, what comes to mind is this:

Before recycling, there was reduce and re-use.

Our family with our $375 1967 Beaumont station wagon: Bluebirdmama on the left.

My parents reduced and re-used like nobody’s business. We wore hand-me-downs. We never had new furniture; it was always used or antique. We didn’t buy fancy toys. My dad fixed things when they broke: from electronics to the car to the plumbing. My mom had a garden and she canned. My mouth waters when I think of her pickled beets and carrots, her canned pears and peaches. She sewed dresses for my sister and me for special occasions. We were a single car family and we drove used cars. My parents only bought one new vehicle ever: a 1974 International Scout. They still have it. We shared bedrooms. We lived within our means, never on credit. Even when my dad went back to Universitywith three kids in tow.

They did not over-consume. They did not throw things away. They reduced. They re-used.

Tonight I look around my house and see the same lifestyle. Fifteen year old minivan, used or antique furniture, a house smaller than we might like, a garden. A willingness to build things, grow things, borrow things, make things or do without things rather than buy things. I hear myself saying, “Don’t stand with the fridge open,” “Turn off the water tap,” and “Turn out the lights,” and recognize my mother in my words. We are not the greenest family out there. We could do more, but right now, I’m proud of the legacy that I’m passing on to my kids.

My parents weren’t special. I mean, they are special, but this lifestyle—I don’t mean to make them out to be saints. They were just living. They made some choices based on beliefs and some on financial necessity. It wasn’t uncommon.

This lifestyle is increasingly uncommon nowadays and I am so grateful that my parents somehow managed to instill the less-is-more ideal into their parenting.

In this time of excess, I sometimes feel that the over-emphasis on the 3rd R, Recycling, actually allows for more consumption than there once was. We live in a more, more, more culture (listen to radio and tv jingles and see how many times you hear that word). Recycling lets us assuage our consciences when we buy something we don’t need. “Oh, it’s recyclable.”

It seems like maybe the triangle is out of whack—more Empire State building than equilateral triangle. Reduce Reuse Recycle are no longer in equal parts.

Maybe it’s time to recycle less? Putting something in the blue bin doesn’t keep it out of the landfill; it just delays it. Just as technology and medical intervention are useful in birth when used responsibly and appropriately, recycling has an important role to play, when used responsibly and appropriately. Between media, marketing and recycling, it’s too easy to keep wanting more. It seems high time that we shift the focus back to the first two Rs.

Reduce – use less, go without, don’t buy it.

Re-use – shop thrift stores or craigslist or fix the one you’ve already got.

Use less, buy less, eat less, drive less. Maybe it’s time to become a culture of less?

When I was a kid we didn’t eat organic, we didn’t use environmentally friendly cleaners and we didn’t think about where our trash went but we most definitely consumed less. Perhaps the big difference between now and then is that back in the ‘70s we thought about our consumption and now the focus is shifted to the waste we create?

In my municipality, the recycling truck comes every two weeks and the garbage is collected every week. I am proud to say that our family actually needs to have the frequency of pick-up reversed. But more than being proud of my recycling efforts, I am proud of our commitment to use less, to not waste energy or water, to buy less, to take less, to make-do, to reduce and to re-use.




The future, as Gwynn and Bob picture it, will see their urban property in central British Columbia developed as a demonstration of practical small scale permaculture.

Our goal is to harmonize our indoor and outdoor environment to use sun, wind, and water to protect the natural environment, to produce food, and to reduce dependence on public utilities. In the process, we may someday be able to share what we learn in a consulting or teaching role.

Bob’s Bio

With a background in Surveying and Architectural Design, Bob has a well rounded skill set easily applied to the rigours of Permaculture Design.  A longtime interest in energy conservation and alternative energy is easy to incorporate within the focus on renewable resources mandated by the basic ethics of permaculture design.  Bob owes his skills as a communicator to a university education in Religion and Psychology, and years of experience as a church leader. A “jack-of-all-trades,” he is equally at home building cabinets, fabricating metal, wiring a boat, or rebuilding an engine.

 We were conservationists long before anyone began to talk about ecology and before green became a synonym for energy efficient. We read about modern homesteaders in “Mother Earth News” and “Harrowsmith,” and that was the stuff of our dreams. The idea of homemade wind chargers and passive solar homes appealed to my scientific curiosity and the waste not-want not mentality we were raised with. At work, for the Yukon Government, I conducted energy analyses of government buildings, planned energy upgrades forYukon schools, and pushed for heat recovery systems on generating sets at remote highway maintenance camps.

Even in the area of family recreation, there were no snowmobiles, motor boats, or motorhomes.  We tented, canoed, sailed, and cycled, and still do. We have taken our kids on foot over the Chilcoot Pass, and by canoe through the Bowron Lakes, and sailed the Gulf Islands and Strait of Georgia.

When something broke we fixed it. We didn’t throw it away, and most often, we fixed it ourselves rather than pay someone to do it for us.

Gwynn and I are now living in a small bungalow on our 60’ by 130’ city corner lot inCentral British Columbia.  Bit by bit, we intend to turn our property into a permaculture oasis in the city. Come back here for updates on what we are learning, and news of our progress.


Gardening is my therapy.  There is something about digging in the soil, planting seeds, watering them and watching them grow and then harvesting the food that ministers to my soul.  It nourishes my mind as well as my body and keeps me in touch with my roots.

As a young girl, growing up inSaskatchewan, we didn’t have a lot of money.  Gardening was a way of life both at home and on my grandparents’ farm.  We depended on that garden for food.  Most summers, all water had to be carried to the garden, by the bucket from the town well or pulled by horses on the stone boat from the dugout.  Early childhood experience taught me what a precious resource water is.  From my parents and grandparents I learned that wastefulness is wrong.  From them I learned how to take something old and no longer used and make it into something new and beautiful.  From them I learned that whatever we have is a gift from God to be thankful for.  Nothing should be wasted or mistreated but used and cared for, respectfully, to benefit ourselves and others.

Generations before they became the current buzz words, reusing and recycling were a way of life in my family.  Raising our children in the 70’s during the “back to the land movement” was simply a continuation of my childhood.  Part of it is about survival.  We deliberately chose to be a one car family, to have a smaller home and non-motorized sports equipment.  We chose to not have a television.  We chose to use lunch kits rather than paper or plastic bags for school and work lunches.  We chose vacations and other activities that got us in touch with nature.

In choosing this kind of lifestyle, we discovered that when faced with unexpected power outages or being stuck in the woods, our ability to adapt and make do helped us get through situations that others found impossible to cope in.  Choosing to grow your own food, harness other energy sources, make use of rain water are things we can do so we become a little more independent, even within an urban environment.

Permaculture is just a continuation of my heritage, a further expansion of my roots.