We each seek what, for us, is “the good life.” Because that’s so personal, “the good life” is almost undefinable.
In The Good Life: How to Create a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle author Sherry Ackerman describes her “good life”, and, while she gave me practical ideas to make my life better, she didn’t make a believer out of me.
Farming in Vermont
Ackerman’s story is compelling. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy, she moved to the mountains of Vermont to a farm, determined to live in a sustainable manner. She married a local, had two children, taught at a nearby college, and attained the sustainable lifestyle she sought.
The first place where I begged to differ was comparing sustainable living then (1970s) to subsistence farming in the Great Depression. Ackerman had income from teaching college, from boarding horses, and from teaching dressage — very different from the Great Depression. That lifestyle was subsistence because that was the only option.
Ackerman’s description of Vermont farm life is idyllic but isn’t honest about the tremendous physical toll. There’s satisfaction in growing something yourself and feeding your family that way, in giving back to the planet instead of taking from it. But some of Ackerman’s practices take you back to a time most don’t want to experience. For example, if “the good life” means squatting over a bucket on your back porch so you can use your own urine to keep scavenging animals from your garden, I have to say, for me, that’s not the good life.
However, this is the life she thrives in. But the lifestyle is rigid: You either go all in or not. I wonder if this extreme (and she fully admits her choices are extreme from what the rest of us consider the norm) lifestyle can fit everyone. It is individualistic and insular, and my concern is a mini-balkanization of local communities.
A dozen things you can do
The best parts of her book are addenda to each chapter titled, “A Dozen Things You Can Do.” The lists relate to the chapter topic and are practical and definitely doable. If the whole book had been “how-to” applications of these lists, I would have enjoyed the entirety of it.
A simpler life or else?
Philosophically, Ackerman makes a strong, positive case for a paradigm shift in how we live our lives, but she doesn’t explain what happens with those who don’t or won’t shift paradigms.
In her simpler, more sustainable life, what happens to those who don’t want to live merely by subsistence? What would happen if a majority followed Ackerman’s example? Do we drag the remaining minority into that simpler life? Ackerman doesn’t address this. She doesn’t go as far as “my way or the highway,” but she doesn’t account for dissenters to her lifestyle.
Ackerman’s consistency is admirable. When she became vegan, she realized she couldn’t grow specific vegetables in Vermont. She moved to California and continued her sustainable lifestyle there.
The Good Life is, overall, a good read and provides deep insight into why someone chooses a sustainable lifestyle. If that’s your inclination, it will tell you how to go about it. It may even convince you to adopt it.
If that’s not your inclination, but you want to be a more responsible citizen of Planet Earth, it will show you how to be that, as well.
–Phyllis Anne “Maggie” Duncan, Transition Voice