My random Wikipedia page today was the Renewable Fuels Agency. This is a government agency that regulated biofuels in the UK. It was dissolved in 2011.
This prompt was easy to write about because I, too, was once involved in a sustainable project that eventually dissolved…
Confessions of a Sustainable Real World
“This is the true story… of seven strangers… picked to live in a house…work together and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real…The Real World.”
–MTV’s The Real World opening narration
I was glad I wasn’t there when everyone moved out. Kelsey told me that on the last day when they cleaned, Cade just started throwing everybody’s old shit out, and AJ owed her two months worth of bills. She also told me the spiders had come back. Only now they were bigger, and brown.
Confession: If I had been there for those spiders, I would have used the nastiest pesticide ridden chemical out there and lived with a hacking cough for the rest of my life. Or I would have just moved back to my mom’s house for the rest of the summer like Kelsey did.
Sustainahouse didn’t start out that way—not really. The six of us did things, we made efforts. When we moved in we carried the blue piano from the dining room into the living and all cheered when it was done. We each had an assigned bowl, cup and plate to conserve water on dishes and I chose my mug with the snowflake my neighbor brought me from the Sundance Film Festival. Everyone approved of my choice. We vacuumed together; we bonded.
I think the sweat bonded us, too. Missouri summers extend into September, and when you arrive in August, you get pretty intimate with the smell of your own sweat. It didn’t help that I stopped wearing antiperspirant. It didn’t help that Enrique ran everyday. We didn’t use the air conditioning in Sustainahouse. We also didn’t use the dishwasher, or the dryer. We usually didn’t flush after peeing, we showered infrequently, we bought all our food together and a lot of it in bulk. We fed our chickens, composted in the backyard, disallowed individually wrapped things, ate a lot of beans, and had potlucks twice a month. Did I mention that we didn’t really use the heat? Yeah, 56 degrees all winter. Winter is December to March. Have you ever tried to type while wearing mittens?
Confession: AJ had an electric blanket. I didn’t know about it until February. By that time I was so annoyed with him I didn’t even bring it up at the meeting. I don’t know if I was angry that he used it, or angry that I hadn’t thought of it myself.
Sustainahouse started as a project the year before I moved there. It was cool. It was six people living together making intentional decisions. It was an attempt at changing behavior, at addressing the wasteful lifestyle of college students. The house was rented from a shitty landlord, who didn’t really care what they did. So they bought two chickens, gave them hipster old lady names, and started making meals together. They had meetings and made rules, they began the potlucks.
I went to the potlucks, I liked them. I went early and made food for them there because I didn’t have a kitchen in my dorm. I got to know the bizarrely designed kitchen of Sustainahouse sin cabinets, and even though the floors were repulsively dirty, I felt comfortable there. So in December when they started talking about the next generation, I got excited. I wanted to be part of it. I wanted my picture in the paper holding Gertrude while she pecked in the sky. I wanted my laundry to have that crinkled stiffness of the backyard air. I wanted to eat tempeh and tofu and chickpeas.
And I did. I ate all those things. I ate Enrique’s sweet potato and local goat meat hash that he crafted from our weekly box of local fare. I ate Grace’s baked granola, made for us out of the kindness of her sweet, motherly heart. I ate carrot coconut curry soup. We made over a gallon of it because we bought 20lbs of local carrots and didn’t know what to do with them. I ate beer can chicken (the chicken was local, and oh-so-juicy). It was AJ’s specialty, which tells you a little something about AJ.
I thought there would be food like this, and meals shared among the six of us. I thought we’d use our giant dining room table as a catalyst for getting to know one another. We were strangers when we moved in and I imagined talks and arguments and late nights spent over bowls of delicious brown rice with chard from across the street, discussing the problems of our times and brainstorming creative solutions. But my imagination has been known to get carried away with itself.
Cade had ideas. And creative solutions. But he also had a knack for procrastination. We’d talk every week at our meeting about those poor, hipster chickens. How would they stay warm over the winter? Who would feed them while we were gone? Did they need more room for protected frolicking in the backyard? Cade said yes. Yes, yes, yes! I’ll buy wood, I’ll buy hay, and I’ll construct a pen worthy of the finest hens. So we bought the two-by-fours, and laid them in the basement for Cade’s earliest convenience. Which did not come until late May, when he dug two holes, filled them with wood, and hastily strung chicken wire around the edge—only to be ripped up two months later when the lease ended.
And he also had the idea for the blender. The boys pretended they wanted to get buff by drinking protein powder smoothies and working out. But I think they just wanted the smoothies. SwollTron, that’s what they called the blender they bought. And each of them had a special cup, which they named things like SwollVerine. Apparently “swoll” means something about buffing up—see, we learned things. Eventually they stopped waking up together and going to the gym. I guess that’s what happens, things that seem engaging and productive reach a point where the benefits are outweighed by waking up at six a.m., or spending too much money on a pound of local bacon, or feeling like no one is really interested in the project that you all signed up for anymore.
Once a journalist came to do a story for the local TV station. She wanted our bills—how little did we pay? I awkwardly explained that our house was old, and so while we made efforts, there were a lot of inefficiencies we couldn’t fix on a rented property. She smiled and waited as I turned on all the lights we had, which still did not produce enough light for her camera. She interviewed us all on our own in the living room and kept prompting us to dish about each other on camera.
“This is like The Real World, huh?” she said. “Six strangers…are there any feuds?”
No! We work things out. We disagree about little things, but we all have the same goal. It’s about making decisions with intention, compromising on what’s best for everyone. Sometimes you don’t get your way, but I’m developing habits that I’ll have with me for the rest of my life. I had rehearsed this, I had been prepared to answer ever since I’d read the story from last year with Gertrude on the front page of the paper.
Confession: I knew that we did not all have the same goal.
AJ’s goal was to live in a house close to downtown with cheap rent and align himself with environmentalism because he smoked a lot of weed. Cade’s goal was to save money, be practical, use logic to tackle the simplest of dishwashing tasks, and never talk about an issue in a meeting for more than 5 minutes. Kelsey’s goal was to live somewhere. She was game, but I knew she had jumped on board the project last minute because her other housing plans fell through. Enrique had a noble goal. I think he cared, wanted to learn—he started a paleo diet in January, after all—he was ready for a challenge. Grace tried. She wanted it to work. She moderated arguments, remembered things no one else thought of. She slept in the tiny closet room that didn’t have a heat vent for god sakes! The woman lived inside a sleeping bag for 3 months.
And me? I don’t know what my goal was. I think it was to make six, cool new sustainable friends. It was be important and make some sort of change like I read about in neat-o magazines with people in Patagonia brand coats smiling over salads of spinach and goat cheese. But I don’t really even like salads.
I discovered one day that AJ had used my mug; my Sundance mug that everyone knew was my assigned dish. He put the butts of his joints in it, and spit the shells of his sunflower seeds on top. I was so angry and I ran up to Kelsey’s room and showed her what I’d found and we ranted about how ignorant this boy was—how selfish and stupid and gross. We patted each other on the back and took solace in the fact that we were not as unenlightened as he. Didn’t he care about this house at all? About our goals listed neatly in recycled paper taped to the wall?
But I’m not angry anymore that AJ took my mug. Or that Cade didn’t build the chicken coop he promised. I’m not even angry that the project ended with us—that we couldn’t find another generation of students superficially interested in environmental living. I think I expected a lot from Sustainahouse. I expected everyone to be exactly where I was, to want the same things, and believe in the same course of action. I imagined a world where solutions to problems as small as leaving lights on and as big global energy conservation are solved by likeminded happy people in Patagonia jackets living in a big old house together. But living in Sustainahouse showed me that I’m not living in that world. I am living in the real world.