The Path to Sustainability: What Does It Mean to You?

Path to Sustainability: Have you ever noticed how words in the English language get hijacked and take on new lives with different definitions? It’s like the game of Gossip or Telephone where a whispered message goes around a large circle of people and ends up way off from how it originated. Passing time has the same effect, gradually altering the use of words and even their meaning. Think back to your childhood…weren’t there a few words that had different meanings then? Radical once meant ‘really out there’ rather than ‘amazing.’ Money used to be green bills and coins; now it can mean something is really awesome. And don’t get me started about innocently-used words that draw giggles and looks of shock from the younger crowd. Many a plain old word of my youth has now taken on a new connotation. I can’t even play a game of Scrabble without using a word that means something entirely different to my kids in their 20s.

broody April

Defining sustainability

Here in our world of homesteading and self-sufficient living, we’ve seen a few words fall victim to the buzzword syndrome. Some examples are organic and natural. Those words can’t be taken at face value anymore. Another hijacked word is sustainable. We sometimes see it used very loosely to describe ways of saving money, time, or energy–even using prepackaged ingredients and other items purchased at stores. While we do buy manufactured and prepared products, we don’t consider using them to be sustainable. A big question is: if shipping, processing, or manufacturing suddenly stopped, would we be able to provide for ourselves? Several years ago our family established a goal of becoming more self-sufficient and living a more sustainable lifestyle. Our plans were based on the old standard definition of sustainability, like what we find at Dictionary. com:




1. capable of being supported or upheld, as by having its weight borne from below.

2. pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse: sustainable agriculture. Aquaculture is a sustainable alternative to overfishing.

3. able to be maintained or kept going, as an action or process: a sustainable negotiation between the two countries.

4. able to be confirmed or upheld: a sustainable decision.

5. able to be supported as with the basic necessities or sufficient funds: a sustainable life.

Sustainability, RLT style

public domain the farm girl

In the box above, we’ve boldfaced some words that exemplify the heart of sustainability in our minds. To us, sustainable living involves developing systems that can be upheld…kept going…maintained…supported…and continued year after year. Systems that endure. We could add these words to our description: perpetual…cycling…reproducing…refreshing…reinvigorating…restoring.

Many key concepts of sustainability work in partnership.

  • Some involve being wise stewards of the earth and its natural resources.
  • Others focus on the health, care, and feeding of our human bodies and those of our pets and livestock.
  • Raising plants and animals, procuring fresh locally-produced food, preserving it for long-term storage, and cooking with nutrition in mind are all part of the equation.
  • Then there are the sensible use of fossil fuels and non-renewable resources–and for many people, the downsizing of dependency or weaning from heavy use.

A gift that keeps on giving

As an extended family, our personal sustainability goal is to create a lifestyle of systems that would allow us to thrive year after year without relying on outside sources that may become unavailable or unreachable due to financial or logistical restraints. So now you know what we mean at Rural Living Today when we talk about sustainability. And we’ll be talking about it a bit more in future posts. A few things we’re working on at our farm:

  • not just using purchased products, but replacing some with reusables and homemade
  • not just growing veggies, but saving seeds and making compost
  • not just raising livestock, but reproducing some and having sources for others
  • not just owning equipment and machinery, but being able to repair it

Because ultimately, we would like to be able to live our life without depending on any source beyond walking distance for

  • groceries, household supplies
  • garden seeds, planting supplies, soil amendments
  • replacement livestock, livestock feed

That doesn’t mean we won’t purchase these things when they’re readily available and affordable. Today that may be the best use of our time and money. Right now we’re still building up our sustainability level, and we still do need to rely on outside sources. And frankly, there are a few manufactured products–toilet paper comes to mind–that will be the last outside conveniences we give up.

Always a work in progress

The fact is, we’re not yet where we ultimately want to end up on the sustainability scale. But if the world came crashing down on us tomorrow–if transportation of goods ceased, or prices became exorbitant, or we were suddenly unable to procure goods and services for any reason–we would be able to move forward. We couldn’t have said that five years ago, but since then we’ve been steadily developing and fortifying our lifestyle of sustainability. Some time ago we borrowed a mantra from an episode of the TV show “Doomsday Preppers.” While most of the households featured on that show do not have full-scope long-term sustainability covered, a few do. One man at an operating farm said something like this:

“If the world falls apart, I’ll just go out in the morning and feed my chickens like I always do.”

Come what may, life will go on. Sustainably. Need some inspiration as you find your own definition? Check out The Lexicon of Sustainability and see what others have to say! It’s a cool interactive resource, and you can add your own definitions for all sorts of terms related to sustainability.

The Path to Sustainability: Building Community

Have you been thinking that now is a good time to increase the sustainability of your lifestyle? It’s time for all of us to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on outside sources of food, household products, and other goods and services. Why the emphasis on sustainability and self-sufficiency? After all, many of us live where there is still plenty of everything. In previous posts we’ve talked about the meaning of sustainability and why sustainability is important. And recently, some of us have noticed some empty store shelves, had to wait for stores to resupply, or cringed at the price of products we used to buy without blinking an eye. Others are just reading the writing on the wall. Our family is moving forward in preparing ourselves to be less dependent on outside sources. We’re working toward a more sustainable life.

What does that mean?

  • We’re building community.
  • We’re learning to raise our own food, do our own repairs, make more things from scratch.
  • We’re stocking up on some things we’d like to have if they later become unavailable.
  • We’re evaluating our options for nearby sources of other items and services.

Building community

We have written before about how important community is to us. Community is key to our rural living experience. What is community? We see it as a group of people with something in common, whether it’s location, purpose, or ethics. In a sustainable living situation, ideally a community will share goals and values that involve working–sometimes pretty hard–to develop self-sufficiency, decrease dependence on outside sources, and build a system that will perpetuate and reproduce year after year. In our case, our sustainability community includes our extended family of 20-some adults and children, some close neighbors, and some friends living within 20 miles of us. It includes faraway friends we’ve never met in person, available for encouragement as long as the Internet still functions!

community people

We have no formal structure defining us as a community, but we act as one. We collaborate and brainstorm and help each other out. If times got tough, we would share skills and resources. Obviously, parts of this community could become unreachable at some point. Without the Internet or computer power, we wouldn’t be able to connect with people who live far away. Travel challenges like fuel shortages might prevent us from working side by side with people just 20 miles away. But for now, we are able to support each other in our quest for sustainability.

Here is our goal for our community:

Everyone should know something about everything.

Everyone should know everything about something.

That way, everyone can step in to help with any situation, and everyone can take the lead in one or more areas. Our community members contribute an interesting and very useful variety of expertise. We have most everything covered except engine mechanics. Some of us will be learning more about that and hopefully someone will learn all about it.

community sheep

From nearby neighbors to faraway kindred spirits, who’s in your community?

Household, Farm, and Personal Items

The one-year plan to The Path to Sustainability, we suggest that you do some brainstorming using a one-year plan. This will make a potentially overwhelming project much less daunting.

  • As you go through the coming season, make note of everything that you consider necessary or very beneficial. This includes foods (especially those you can’t easily raise), household goods, fuel, spare parts, etc. Find a way to keep your lists in a composition book, binder, file system, or computer spreadsheet.
  • When you buy something, think about possible natural or DIY substitutes. What if you couldn’t buy this product? Look into other solutions. What basic supplies are needed for DIY laundry detergent and household soaps? Couldyou make a wasp trap? How about wool dryer balls for softening laundry?
  • Make an attempt to collect as many of those crucial products and supplies as you can for future use. For some long-lasting things this means one or two, and for others like consumables, it’s good to build up a supply.
  • Repeat this throughout the year. The end of each season is usually a good time to find items on sale in retail stores or used in classified ads.
  • By the end of a year, you will be much further ahead in your planning and will make some progress in your preparations.

Most likely you won’t be able to collect everything you need in one year. But if you consider it an ongoing project that will take some time, each item you add to your stash and supply will represent a step in the right direction.

Please add your ideas for household, farm, and personal sustainability in the comments section.

You’re reading The Path to Sustainability Series:

The Path to Sustainability: Is It Really Important?

The Path to Sustainability: Building Community

The Path to Sustainability: Raising Livestock

The Path to Sustainability: Gardens and Orchards

The Path to Sustainability: Preparing and Preserving Fresh Foods