Monthly Archives: July 2014

The rules of the ethically sustainable house

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In our bid to live more sustainably, we have a few things working for us.
One of the things we have to help us is our tiny urban farm, otherwise known as the backyard. An edible organic garden designed on permaculture principles, it has fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, native bees and hens. Even during winter we have root crops (Jerusalem artichokes, yukons and sweet potatoes) and bananas, as well as various leafy green things such as lettuce and kale. It incorporates native species to attract birds, bees and beneficial insects. We also have hens, worms and native bees, a pond which grows edible aquatic plants, and beneficial insect and bird attracting plants. We have a backyard compost bin to break down organic waste.

We have two water tanks, one for the garden and one part of a plumbed in systems for the washing machine and toilets. Eight solar panels sit on the roof, with solar hot water.

The other thing to help us is our retrofitted Federation house, which was purchased as an existing house (it was marked for demolition by the RTA) and physically moved here – the ultimate recycled house. It has been retrofitted with insulation, a solar-powered heat extractor fan in the roof, ceiling fans. The house is designed to allow for natural cooling and windows offer cross ventilation. In winter, hot water from our wood-fired stove heats water-filled radiators in each room. We also have strategically placed awnings, solar curtains, water conserving shower heads, and SmartGlass glazing in the western and northern windows.

At the moment, according to our suppliers, we are apparently consuming water equal to one third of one average person. Power-wise, our consumption is slightly less than half of what one typical person in our area uses.

As one of our aims is to demonstrate that it is possible to reduce reliance on commercial electricity and mains water, this is a good thing.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned greywater. I am still arguing with the Council about this, and what treatment and storage they find acceptable. At the moment, the greywater recycling system is me with a bucket carting water from the shower and laundry.

The second part of the project is about food, household waste, and ethical purchasing.
We aim to reduce our consumption of new goods, to reuse, recycle, repair and shop locally. As much as possible, we aim to avoid disposable items and excess packaging. When we need supplies that our garden doesn’t produce, we can shop at the local Farmers’ Markets and we already participate in a local food swap. Transport wise, we have bicycles boosted with electric motors for local use, and for longer distances we plan to use public transport wherever possible.

We really want to encourage people to start an edible a garden or buy local produce or shop at farmers’ markets. What we choose to eat is a very basic decision, yet it has huge implications – for the sustainability of species, for the quality of the environment, for both human and animal rights and for the world’s climate. If we take the time to scrutinise what we put on our table and where it comes from, it becomes clear that not all food is equal.

Our food choices all have ethical and environmental dimensions. Modern-day farming methods, highly processed ‘foods’, the rise of large monolithic and monopolising corporations, and the growing of foods in endangered environments surely demand that we consider alternatives that use fairer, more sustainable and humane systems of food production.

We also want to support the efforts of Port Macquarie Hastings Council to encourage people to cut down their waste, to compost organic waste, and to recycle more. There is no ‘away’ that we throw things out to, and plastic in particular does not decompose in the environment. We aim to reduce our garbage by refusing all plastic packaging wherever possible, and to use reusable products over disposable as much as possible, especially one-use plastic objects such as bags and straws. We will repair, reuse and buy secondhand rather than purchase new goods. By sharing this journey with others, we hope to inspire them to do likewise.

Lastly, we hope to influence Council policy on regards to the disposal and use of grey water and black water. We hope to get their permission to install a composting toilet in one of our bathrooms, and to have a reed bed for disposing of black and grey water from the rest of the house. We are currently in discussion with Council staff in regard to these matters.

In summary, we plan to stick to a strict, ethical and low carbon lifestyle for 6 months.
One of the things we have had to negotiate, then, for our Living Sustainably Project were the rules of the house during this six month experiment.

This is what we came up with re the rules of the household
Aim for 80% self sustainability in fruit and vegetables grown in the garden
Purchase food grown within 3 hours of where we live (for exceptions see Fairtrade)
from local farmers via monthly markets & other local outlets
No packaged food or highly processed food
Buy in bulk in our own containers to avoid packaging
Support Fairtrade aims to raise poor communities out of poverty by limited purchases of coffee, coconut products, chocolate and tea.

Walk locally and use public transport wherever possible
Ride bicycle instead of using the car for longer local trips
If using the car is necessary for work (we cover a large region where buses and trains don’t always access) then we will use the skills of hypermiling (see

Energy consumption
Use high energy appliances when solar panels are working at their highest level
Solar hot water only – no electric booster
Wood-fired central heating and cooking on cooler days
Electronic devices charged during day when PV panels operational and run on batteries at night.
Deep Freezer put on timer and turned off between 1 and 7am.

Refuse all plastic bags, disposable cups, plastic straws, cutlery and crockery
Refuse packaging wherever possible. Sadly, unsolicited plastic still turns up in the mail.
Recycle, upcycle, repair and reuse wherever possible
Keep, note and weigh all the recyclable and the non-compostable, non-recyclable waste that enters the household
Buy second hand if something is really needed
Replace commercial cleaning products with homemade or environmentally friendly ones bought in bulk in refillable containers
Using ‘family cloth’. You can view what is and why we should use it at and

Prescription medications (Elizabeth has a number of interesting medical conditions), medical aids eg. eyeglasses (if we break or lose them)
Elizabeth’s special face cream to minimise her lupus.

We have been going a week and still discovering things we need to plan for, like telling the local organic cafe round the corner not to give as paper napkins routinely. We also need to arrange to get milk from the local organic dairy directly, rather than buying the packaged version in the carton.

Over the coming weeks we will dissect and discuss our efforts in each of the areas mentioned. I hope you will come along for the journey, and also hopefully give us some feedback as we go.


Living the good and sustainable life: how I started my own revolution

Over the past few years I have become more interested in the concept of living sustainably. In a world that is threatened by a shortage of resources, food and water, of degradation of arable land, loss of biodiversity, and the consequences of climate change, sustainable practices seemed to offer an achievable goal for the individual person to contribute positively to the problem. It is unfortunately too easy for people to become overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem, and become anxious, dispirited and disinclined to do anything as a result.

There is just so much to contend with, what with global financial crises, extreme weather, food and water shortages, and escalating oil prices. Scientists, economists, conservationists and activists have all expressed concern at the speed of these changes and the potential consequences. Our current way of living in Western countries is not sustainable, yet we are encouraged to consume more and ‘live the good life’, or ‘the Australian dream’. This ‘good life’ of unfettered consumerism is causing the destruction of the environment, increasing the gap between rich and poor, and leading us down a path where human-induced global warming will ultimately cause the ‘sixth extinction’, a period where a huge loss of different species will occur – and may well include our own.

Recently we watched a documentary called “No Impact Man”, based on a year where writer Colin Beavan and his family tried to live a carbon neutral life (you can see it here at I found it interesting enough to buy the book:  No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process.

Quite a title. For me, it was both compelling and damning reading. Because, I suspect, most of us just tinker around the edges of changing our lifestyles. We recycle, we visit a farmers’ market maybe, we buy fair-trade coffee, tea and chocolate. All of these things are good, but aren’t going to change the way the world works or our individual carbon footprints.

Prior to No Impact Man, we liked to think we live a lifestyle that has less impact than the average Westerner. On examination, our lifestyle was not a patch on Colin Beavan’s year of near carbon neutrality. Not even close. It raised quite starkly the possibility that one can always find a way of living more sustainably. How hard is it to live sustainably in the Western world? Can we reduce our carbon footprint to very low levels? To see what is possible, I decided to experiment on myself (and my husband John is happy to join me) for my research project in the social ecology Masters degree at the University of Western Sydney.

Why bother, I hear you ask? It is clear that something needs to be done. It is too easy to blame governments and renege on our own responsibilities. Whilst a number of us might think it should be the government’s responsibility to do something, there are those who think that each one of us has a personal responsibility.

Secondly, John and I are both ministers in the Uniting Church. Around two years ago, I prepared a number of bible studies that were meant to encourage people of faith to re-examine that faith in the light of environmental concerns. The studies had two central tenets – ‘love your neighbour’ (and this meant all people, even the ones you can’t see overseas and by ‘love’ we mean do them no harm); and secondly, respect and treat well the creation that God saw as integrated and ‘good’.

These studies were run with mixed results. Those who took part agreed in principle to what their scripture was telling them. Yet despite the dire consequences that the biblical book of Deuteronomy promises for disobedience (see Deuteronomy 28:15-68 if you are really interested whether you risk being struck with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, or with blight and mildew, that will plague you until you perish),many saw it as ‘too hard’ or ‘too inconvenient for my lifestyle’ to actually adopt habits that would in effect, not support child labour, sweatshops, over-consumerism, environmental degradation, climate change and unethical food practices. Others attempted to make small but significant changes in their eating and consumer habits.

The Uniting Church in Australia is committed to acting in ways that will build a just and compassionate society. It is dedicated to working for the common good of all humanity. It seeks to transform unjust social structures, and to protect and renew all of creation.  The 1977 Statement to the Nation clearly says that “We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.”

In other words, this church is a political church. It is not afraid to tackle thorny issues as they arise on the political landscape. It lobbies governments, it has helped to create policy (and occasionally history as with the Safe Injecting Room), it pushes issues of justice in the media and it urges its congregations, councils and members to actually live out the faith of a disciple of Jesus. In recent times, this has included more and more environmental issues.

On 1 November 2006, the Uniting Church Assembly voted to adopt the statement “For the Sake of the Planet and all its People: A Uniting Church in Australia Statement on Climate Change” (retrieved from

This document encouraged Uniting Church members, congregations, groups, agencies and councils to:

‘model ways of living and working that minimise the production of greenhouse gas emissions; and advocate for government to implement policies that significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and increase our use of non-nuclear renewable energy sources.’

So the time has come to put our money where our climate strategy mouth is.

For the next 6 months we will be experimenting with sustainable ways of living and blogging about it here.  So stay tuned for the next instalment as we battle with wads of plastic packaging, low food miles, homemade toothpaste and our bicycles.