Living More-with-Less


Solar power in Nicaragua.

Entire communities in rural Nicaragua are entering an age of electricity without relying on the fossil fuels that most Canadian and U.S. residents take for granted. Through the work of Mennonite Central Committee partner Asociación Fenix (Asofenix for short), communities that previously had no electricity are now producing it, as well as pumping water for home and irrigation use, through solar power and other renewable energy projects such as biodigestors, microhydroturbines, and wind turbines.

"Environmentally friendly energy sources will allow rural Nicaraguans to develop and improve their livelihood for many years to come in a manner that will not be threatened by international markets and trends," says Mennonite Central Committee worker Seth Hays of Lakewood, Colo.

Nicaragua now ranks as the western hemisphere's second poorest nation. And, as in Haiti, the hemisphere's most impoverished country, deforestation is creating conditions in which erosion, nutrient runoff, and the drying of water sources combine into a downward spiral of failing crops, barren land, and worsening poverty. Asofenix director Jaime Muñoz chooses to hone in on what rural Nicaragua does have—plentiful sunshine that can be tapped for renewable energy and the people themselves, driven by a fierce desire to do whatever it takes to get their children out of poverty.

Emily Will, Adapted from MCC's A Common Place, May/June 2009

The old cistern.

Twenty-three years ago, when I married my husband, I moved into an old family farmhouse. There it stood down in the cellar: an old cistern. It looked imposing: eight feet square and six feet high (two and a half meters square and almost two meters high), its rectangular whitewashed cement walls encased the rain water that came in from the eave troughs on the house. When it rained, the trickling sound of water flowing into the cistern could be heard through the house. I wasn't exactly sure what to make of it and was not exactly enamored with this thing; after all, "modern" homes didn't have these.

But I have come to appreciate my cistern. It is the source of all our hot water in this home. And if we have enough rain and use our water sparingly, we have nice soft rain water for everything except drinking water. No need for a water softener with the use of water softener salts. Here's to the old-fashioned cistern!

Mary Frey-Martin, Wallenstein, Ontario

Cob house life.

"False prophets…by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you" (2 Peter 2:1–3 KJV). "Less" for us means less money, less shopping, less distraction—and more time, more hospitality, more freedom, more real nourishment (both physical and spiritual), and more strength and courage to refuse the false prophets who would make merchandise of us.

Four of us share a one-room cob cottage, a little cabin, and a cob greenhouse with composting toilet (the food we can't use returns to the garden): about 600 square feet (about 56 square meters) enclosed under a roof. The garden extends out all around, making a larger "living space" that also shelters us without need of roof or walls. It all makes our life deliciously complex and interesting: we have to fit our lives into small spaces. We have to fit into a culture that mostly denies the legitimacy of our concerns.

We struggle with a moral debt to our landlords, who pay taxes and bend to unjust rules—yet who by renting to us grant us freedom from those burdens. When our lives and principles conflict with the lives and principles of our neighbors, we have to welcome the challenge as we welcome the rest of beauty and life.

Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field, Blodgett, Oregon

Cool landscaping.

Plant trees or shrubs to shade air conditioning units (but don't block the airflow.) A unit operating in the shade uses less electricity. Grown on trellises, vines such as ivy or grapevines can shade windows or the whole side of a house. Avoid landscaping with lots of unshaded rock, cement, or asphalt on the south or west sides because it increases the temperature around the house and radiates heat to the house after the sun has set. Deciduous trees planted on the south and west sides will keep your house cool in the summer.

Mary Waltner, Chicago, Illinois

Turn it down.

Eight years ago, when we moved from Kansas back to Manitoba, we decided to keep our thermostat set at 15.5°C (60°F)—the lowest our thermostat goes—day and night during winter. We discovered that by putting on extra clothes (especially wool), we could easily get used to the cooler temperature. A cool house, we learned, does not breed flu germs as easily and makes us feel healthier. For a cozy place, we installed a gas fireplace in the living room. This brings our family together on winter evenings for visiting and games. We also bought electric bed warmers for our beds.

Byron and Melita Rempel-Burkholder, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Fans and swamp coolers.

Consider installing a whole-house fan or evaporative cooler (a "swamp cooler") if appropriate for your climate. Attics trap fierce amounts of heat; a well-placed whole-house fan pulls air through open windows on the bottom floors and exhausts it through the roof, lowering the inside temperature and reducing energy use by as much as a third compared with an air conditioner. An evaporative cooler pulls air over pads soaked in cold water and uses a quarter the energy of refrigerated air (they are useful only in low-humidity areas).

Mary Waltner, Chicago, Illinois

For more information

ReStores: Resale outlets that sell reusable and surplus building materials. Run by Habitat for Humanity.

Canada Green Building Council: A nonprofit that provides education, resources, and LEED certification for green buildings.

U.S. Green Building Council: A nonprofit that provides education, resources, and LEED certification for green buildings.

Green Home Building: A site with resources for sustainable building.

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