The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] Living Lightly on the Earth,[Chalice]
and Living Well

Presented April 19, 2009, by Paul Miller

Listen to a recording of "Living Lightly on the Earth, and Living Well"
37:03 minutes - 14.8 MB - Living Lightly on the Earth, and Living Well .mp3 file.

Happy Earth Sunday! Actually Wednesday is Earth Day. Earth Day was founded on April 22, 1970 as a national day of protest against despoiling the Earth. I spent the first Earth Day picking up trash with the rest of the kids in my school in the freezing spring mud of Milton, New Hampshire. It was a good day.

I think most of us agree that saving the Earth is a good idea. Who knows? We might need it later. For Pagans, caring for the earth is also a religious duty. Every act of ecological conservation is a prayer in action. Some Christians have noticed that the Bible instructs us to care for the Earth, too. Genesis says Man was put in the Garden to dress it and keep it, (not to slash and burn it), and Revelation mentions punishment for those who despoil the Earth. If Pagans could add an 11th commandment, it would likely be "Thou shalt care for the Earth and preserve its natural bounty, for thou art neither above or below it, but a part of it."

There is a conservative movement called "People First" that says environmental conservation should be secondary to providing the material needs of people. I would ask how we can provide for people if we destroy the environment that sustains us in the process. When one's house is cold, one does not stay warm by tearing down the house for firewood.

With 6 Billion humans on the planet, we have exceeded the ecosystem's capacity to sustain us if we continue business as usual. Supply-siders tell us that the Earth is a long way from being filled up. They argue that if you put everyone on earth in a city with a population density similar to New York City, it would fit in an area the size of Texas. True enough, but it would take the whole rest of the Earth to provide food, fuel, water, and raw materials for this Texas-sized city, and maybe a moon or two for a place to dump their garbage.

You and I live well on this overpopulated world because we had the good sense to be born in America. The average American uses 30 times more natural resources than, for instance, the average Nigerian. For our Texas-size city to enjoy a New York standard of living would require several Earth-size planets.

There is a looming environmental crisis caused by living beyond our ecological means. We are facing peak oil. Peak water, peak fish, peak copper, peak lots of things; that is we are extracting them as fast as we can. Demand is increasing, but supply is decreasing. There will be a global crash within the next few decades if we don't start living within our means; that is, within the means of our planet. I call it living lightly on the Earth so we can continue living on Earth.

Living lightly on the Earth does not mean freezing in the dark. One can live better by living lightly, and one can live well for less. Prosperity and conservation are synergistic.

There are lots of government policies that need to change for the health of our economy and environment, but if we wait for the government to lead us, it will take more time than we have. This talk is about individual effort; specifically, how we live lightly on the Earth at Lumbar Achers, also known as Sam and Paul's house. You may want to do some of the things we do, but not all of them. You don't have to quit your job and live on a dirt farm in a solar house to have a positive impact. Real progress comes a little at a time.

I'll try not to dwell on the stuff you already know: use compact florescent lights and low flow shower heads, turn down thermostats, drive less, drive slower, blow your tires up round and hard, and so on. You're probably already doing that stuff. Some aspects of Sam and Paul's lifestyle would seem over the top to normal people, but it's really not all that radical. If you want to see radically ecological living, tour Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Rutledge, Mo. Those guys go all the way eco. They make Lumbar Achers look almost status-quo by comparison.

How green are we? There are internet sites that calculate your ecological footprint, and they are fun to use. I tried, which compares your footprint to the average for households in your area. 100 is average. A low score is better for the Earth. A high score is better for Exxon-Mobil. My score was 52. It would have been lower, but I didn't get credit for turning my thermostat down, because I don't have a thermostat to turn down. I was feeling pretty smug.

Then I tried They calculated my footprint as 59% of the national average. Not bad, I thought, but they also calculated that if everyone on Earth lived my lifestyle, we would need 3.77 Earths. Yikes! My eco-angel wings tore off, and I crashed in the cesspool of American excess.

I admit, our lifestyle could be greener, but we are moving in the right direction, I think. Let's take an imaginary tour of the Miller house to see how we live well by living lightly. Maybe you'll get some ideas for greening your own lifestyle. Maybe you'll just think we're nuts.

The first thing you may notice about our house is that you can't find it. It is hidden behind pine and cedar trees. Our house is the second ugliest one in the neighborhood, so hiding it is a courtesy to the neighbors. If you got it hide it; keep America beautiful. The evergreens provide a windbreak for us and nesting cover and food for native birds so they can live well, too.

Our house is a big tin shack; a pole barn remodeled in the semblance of a house. Now that I've done it, I know this is a dumb way to do it. As architectural disasters go; our tin shack suits us pretty well.

We are still addicted to certain creature comforts. Our house is connected to the electric grid. There are no solar panels, at least not yet. Someday electric rates will go up enough and photovoltaic panels will get cheap enough that we, too, can afford solar electricity, but not now. If you want to power your house with solar electricity, either you have to be a millionaire, or you have to be really stingy with your power consumption. One dollar spent on electric energy conservation saves $5 on a solar electric system. I spent the $1 on conservation, and saved the $5 that I didn't spend on solar panels. We are still on the grid, but we use so little electricity that the electric co-op hates us. We live lightly on the grid, and we live well.

The front of the house is all windows. The whole house is a passive solar collector. It heats up nicely on a sunny winter day, and it cools down fast on a winter night. I'm not sure we gain more heat than we loose through the windows, but we like having the windows. We enjoy the outdoors, even when we're indoors.

I now know that if one has a dollar to spend on solar features, one should spent 90 cents of that dollar on insulation, thermal mass, and weatherproofing, then spend the remaining 10 cents on solar collection. Collecting solar heat does little good if you can't hold on to it. So, if you don't have a place for solar windows, don't fret. Add insulation and weatherproofing, and you get 90% of the benefit. After adding an r-50 insulated ceiling and insulating curtains for the windows. The house stays almost warm at night. When I roll up the curtains in the morning and see a sheet of ice on the window, I know the curtains are working.

Let's get on with our house tour. Come on inside

If it's cold outside, you can get comfy by our woodstove. No ugly, soulless outdoor wood furnace at our house. We like our fire inside where we can see it. There is a primal satisfaction in poking a wood fire. I suspect that an instinctive fascination with fire gave our Paleolithic ancestors an advantage over the competition. We still have that instinct, even people who don't have a fireplace. For millennia, the hearth has been the center and focal point of the home. In our house, it still is. Wood heat is carbon-neutral if you do it right. If you get a good modern woodstove, and run it hot, it won't stink, and the neighbors won't complain, and you can live well.

Wood heat isn't for everybody. Getting firewood is a lot of work. If you don't like it, you'll hate it. I like it. People pay a lot of money to go to a gym, where they pick up heavy things and walk miles without going anywhere. When they're done, all they have for their effort is a puddle of sweat. I do the same thing for free, and when I'm done, I have a pile of firewood. By cutting unhealthy or otherwise less desirable trees, I leave the forest better than I found it, with brush piles for critters, more room for the best trees to grow, and wood for me. The wild critters live well, the trees live well, and we live well.

The urban wood burner can do well scrounging construction waste, broken pallets, fallen limbs, and whatever you find. Think of it as your wood recycling program if that makes you feel better. Or think of scrounging wood like shopping for bargains at the mall. Be forewarned that you might like it. It can become an obsession. You may find yourself ogling unattended woodpiles like teenage boys look at girls; "wow, I wonder if I can get some of that." After a good day of woodmongering, you can sit by your woodpile in the shade of the tree you planted a few Earth Days ago, and wave at the neighbors when they drag home from the health club. They are probably wondering how you live so well.

If it's hot outside our house, it's cooler inside, even though we don't have air conditioning. Who needs it? I suspect that air conditioning contributes to the deterioration of society because it encourages us to hide in our houses instead of going outside and visiting with the neighbors. Our solar heated house does not become a solar cooker in summer because the windows are shaded by roof overhang and peach trees. Having grown up in the forests of New England, I am amazed that Midwesterners are terrified of trees. Maybe it's because they plant the wrong trees, or in the wrong place, or they don't know how to take care of them, or they underestimate the benefits. Deciduous trees shade the windows in summer, admit solar heat in the winter, and in July, I can lean over the porch railing and pick peaches. That is living well.

If you have room, plant deciduous trees on the south side of your house, and evergreens on the north side. The best time to plant a tree is a hundred years ago. The second best time is now, so this Earth Day, go out and plant a tree.

Before we continue our house tour, would you like some tea? First, we'll heat some water from the tap. You will note that we have 3 water faucets; hot, cold, and rain. We have redundant plumbing. One system is connected to the Ralls County water main, and the other to the skywater main. Hannibal gets 3 inches of rain a month, so the rain gutters on our tin shack collect 4500 gallons of skywater in an average month; 3 times what our household needs.

Governments have encouraged us to depend on the water systems that they control, and city planners have designed systems to get rid of rain water by dumping it into the river as directly as possible. In recent years, with municipal water supplies running low, and storm water fouling waterways, municipalities are learning that collecting rainwater is a good idea. Cities like Hannibal and Quincy could meet all their residential water needs with the rain falling on the rooftops in town. Groundwater would be conserved, and there would be less runoff flooding streets and basements during downpours.

I paid $500 for a big plastic water tank and the plumbing connected to it. By using Rain water for cleaning and cooking, we save $5 a month on the water bill. $5 isn't much, but the payback is better than the stock market. Skywater is softer than Culligan, so it is great for washing. If you subtract the cost of the water softener we didn't buy, the skywater system is free, so why wouldn't you want one in your house? When it rains, it's fun to watch the tank fill, sort of like watching a piggy bank fill up with pennies. Also, it's satisfying to know that they can't turn off my rainfall. This is living well.

Now where were we? Oh yes, we were making tea. While the bootleg rain water is heating, let's go to the garden and get some catnip or mint to liven up our tea.

As we cross the lawn you will note that it is not the sort of manicured monocultural turf that graces home and garden magazines. No doubt, the cult of lawn worship has a temple in your neighborhood. You can see the priest kneeling in his green shrine, anointing the turf idol with pesticides, and casting out weeds. "Out, dandelion, out!" Our lawn is a paradigm of biodiversity, featuring native grasses and forbs collectively known to responsible homeowners and landscaping professionals as weeds. I never have to water it because the roots go deep. The roots go deep because I never water it. Sometimes living lightly on the Earth is not only cheaper; it's less work. It is living well.

Actually, I do water the lawn when I wash my truck. If you wash your vehicle in the driveway, the dirty water probably runs into the street and down the storm sewer. When I wash my truck, the dirty water irrigates the lawn.

Pay for the water once and use it twice. Live well.

No chemical pesticides or fertilizers on our lawn. Bug control and fertilization are provided by free range chickens and peafowl, so watch your step. Why is it that everybody in town has dogs and cats, but nobody has chickens? Maybe it's because chickens don't take well to a litter box. Other than that, chickens are easy to keep in a fenced yard, they don't bark all night, and if you get a really obnoxious one, unlike dogs and cats, chickens taste like chicken. Another reason we have chickens is so we don't support the inhumane egg factories. We live well, and our chickens live well.

Come into the garden, and shut the gate behind you, please, to keep the chickens out. Chickens love to help with gardening. They are little rototillers with feathers.

Of course, the garden is bigger than the lawn. If I had limited space, I would give up the lawn, but I would still have a garden. Do you really need a lawn? Usually, when I see someone out on his lawn, he's mowing. Not playing croquet or kickball, not picnicking, just mowing. Recreational mowing is like playing video games, I guess, but noisier and smellier. After he finishes mowing, he retreats to his air-conditioned house, and I won't see him on the lawn again until the next time he mows. Did you know that 47% of suburban automobiles are parked in the driveway because the garage is full of lawn mowers? I don't know if that's true. I just made it up. 65% of all statistics are made up. However I do know that everybody needs a garden, even if it's just one potted tomato plant. Money can't buy true love or home-grown tomatoes.

I'm not sure we save money by gardening, but I am sure we eat better. It distracts us from the television, too. My wife is in the horticulture biz, and she gets two colors of customers in the garden center; brown people and white people. She and I are brown people, because we have sunburned noses and dirty hands. White people are white because they stay indoors and they never touch dirt. Brown people tend to be thinner and live longer than white people. Brown people's plants tend to be thicker and live longer than white people's plants. This is not to criticize white people, of course. They have adapted perfectly to their chosen lifestyle. A healthy layer of fat keeps them warm in their air-conditioned homes, and they develop large stable bottoms to support them on the couch. I am sure they live well, but I think we live better.

As for living lightly on the Earth, gardening has a huge positive effect. Supermarket food travels over 1000 miles on average from farm to table. It takes half a gallon of oil to produce a bushel of corn. What the Department of Agriculture promotes as a farm is more like an outdoor factory that converts fossil fuel to biomass. The food from my garden travels an average of 50 feet, and requires no fossil fuel.

See that pipe in the corner of the garden? That is the grey water drain. Dirty water from the sinks, shower, and laundry come out that pipe into an old bathtub, and thence through drain tile under the garden beds. We use our water twice; once for cleaning, and once for irrigation. We live well, and so do our tomato plants.

Now let's go inside and have our tea.

After a tall drink, you may wish to visit the bathroom. Here sits what guests may consider to be the most interesting or the most unsavory feature of our Earth-friendly home; the infamous composting toilet. I confess to having had second thoughts about it myself during my initial adventures in humanure management, but after correcting some of its over-engineered features, I have found it to be a pleasant amenity. It is simply a plastic bucket in a wooden box with a toilet seat. After making a deposit, one covers it with sawdust and closes the lid. When the bucket is full enough, your gracious host empties it into a compost bin outdoors. After decomposing for a year or two, the finished compost is spread under trees, not in the vegetable garden, so not to worry about what's in your tea.

The sawdust toilet isn't for everyone. If you are squirming and wrinkling your nose right now, it is not for you. One could list many objections to composting toilets, all of which would be valid if a conventional flushie never needed cleaning, never leaked, never plugged, never overflowed, never stank, and never splashed you in the butt. The primary difficulty with composting toilets is not convenience, comfort, or sanitation, but mindset. If going in a bucket of sawdust seems absurd, consider the absurdity of pumping water from the river, purifying it, defecating in it, and flushing it to a treatment plant where it is re-purified so it can be dumped back in the river. Someday our grandkids may not believe us when we tell them that we used to keep a bowl full of drinking water in the house just so we could poop in it.

Enough scatological musings. That concludes our house tour. Now that we are refreshed, and have washed our healthy brown hands in soft, free rainwater, let's uncork some homemade peach wine, and ponder the good life in harmony with nature.

We live close to the Earth, and lightly on the Earth to the extent that we find practical and pleasant. We don't go all the way, like the noble savages at Dancing Rabbit Eco-village. We don't give up much, and we get more back. By consuming less, we spend less, and we become more self sufficient. This helps us prosper in hard times. In good times or bad, we have more control over our own lives, which is more important to us than having more stuff in our lives. We become more aware of the cycles of nature. One need not be Pagan to get a spiritual lift by re-connecting with nature.

There isn't time in this talk to give a whole lot of engineering details, but maybe I have planted some ideas that you will want to use to live a little lighter and better. If you want more nuts-and-bolts details, feel free to ask me later. I'm not an expert on anything, but I'm full of ideas.

Not everyone can heat the house with solar collectors, but most of us can harvest a little sun through a south-facing window. Most of us can plant a tree to shade that window in the summer. Not everybody will junk the lawn mower, till up all their grass, and plant veggies, but anyone can grow a potted tomato plant. Not everyone wants a whole house skywater system, but anyone with a roof can have a rain barrel to water the potted tomato plant. Not everybody will convert the flush toilet to a planter and go in a sawdust bucket, but if you want to, you can have a bucket and a flushie, too. Anyone who prefers green living to brown living can do a little. Try what's easy and appealing first. Maybe you'll like it, and you'll want to do a little more, and next thing you know, you may be picking peaches off the porch of your solar home with no heating or cooling bills, or heating rain water for catnip tea on the woodstove. The utility companies will hate you, and the neighbors will think you're crazy. You will be living well.

©2009 Paul Miller

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Miller, Paul. 2009. Living Lightly on the Earth, and Living Well, /talks/20090419.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.