Hard Lessons in Sustainable Living: The Tent Trauma

“F*** sustainability. I just want a bed.”

Dear Readers,

The Mili-Tent is a bust.

On May 1, 2008, I moved into a tent in the woods within Pittsburgh, PA. It was in my mind an easy solution to a complicated problem: that of how to dwell sustainably.

Without the time nor interest in building a more permanent shelter, I figured a reused item (like a good old tent) would do the trick. A tent fulfills several principles of sustainable living:

  • Reduce the size you take up. A 6′ x 7′ tent is the perfect example of how humans can downsize, leaving more space for other living creatures and ecosystems.
  • Get outside more. Living in such a small space, that can truly only accommodate sleeping, requires that I step outside more, and consider the outside world and my community interactions more like “home” than my own four walls.
  • Use sustainable materials. Naturally, a synthetic, petroleum based tent is NOT sustainably produced… but working with what you have on hand, and bringing no new materials into the world is a good option.

In retrospect, my ideal dwelling would be a small den, similar in size to a tent, constructed out of cob or another type of sustainable building material. This would have prevented the issues that proved fatal to the tent as a home alternative… but it would have meant a greater time and financial commitment.

In my early drafts of scripts for Sust Enable episodes, I was all set to trumpet the virtues and benefits of living in a tent. It’s not so hard!, my scripts said. I’m living an optimal, comfortable life! …The words ended up being far too ironic to even be funny. I suppose that’s what happens when you translate vision into reality sometimes. My lesson, however unflattering to me, is an important one to share.

Let’s look at what went wrong in my tent.

I had the misfortune of undertaking tent-dwelling during a particularly wet spring and summer. Unlike memorable years of drought, Pittsburgh has experienced rainshowers and thunderstorms once every 36 hours on average, it seems. Purely dry, sunny days arrive only once or twice a week! Thus, any little hole or weakness in my tent seams spells water pools. And water pools–next to bedding, fabric, and clothing–spells a mold invasion.

A mold invasion is an appropriate term for what happened in my tent. Mold spores travel through the air, andΒ when you inhale that distinctly musty smell, you are inhaling some of those spores. If something becomes moldy, you must immediately increase the area’s ventilation, remove the item, or lay it out in the sun. Failure to do so will mean mold will quickly appear on all of your belongings.

Proper ventilation, in a basic tent with a rain cover, is laughable. So is laying clothes out to dry in the sun (sun? What sun?! That was the rainiest May I can remember!) My situation wasn’t helped by living in a forest. Forest’s canopies are known for keeping in cool temperatures and moist air. Not to mention… my morning and nightly ritual of returning to my tent involved, in the more recent months, running full speed into and out of the forest, in an attempt to avoid the vicious descent of mosquito hordes. No time for dilly-dallying, or laying one’s clothes out for hours. This is a matter of survival!

As you can see, many conditions conspired to make the tent less and less of a home to me. Dampness within my tent, moldy air, mosquitoes, cramped quarters, encroaching poison ivy… one day, I simply hit the natural breaking point. Just like many other times during the Sust Enable experiment, I tested a hypothesis and it was proven wrong.

It’s difficult to remind myself that successfully testing a hypothesis is a victory. I cannot help by feel that I failed sometimes. I cried last night, fed up with playing “musical couches” and tired and frustrated, I chided myself for being “so stupid” about making choices like living in a tent, which ended up turning out so badly. Β 

Eventually I relented, but not before I uttered the famously succinct phrase that leads this blog post. Now, I am satisfied that my rough experience will provide other people guidance and insight into how they can improve their own double-bottom-line (personal and environmental) sustainability. In this way, a patent failure of theory can indeed be a success.

In some ways, trying to live sustainably for three months is too short. In other ways, it is too long. No matter what, I decided I should either have tried to live 100% sustainably OR take on the total production of the Sust Enable episode series. The two are, to some extent, mutually exclusive. They are both full time jobs.

That does NOT mean it’s a full time job to become 100% sustainable! How you can do it–and please learn from my mistakes–is to take your time with it. Make a commitment to do it, but slowly incorporate it into your life. It may take two years… five years… twenty years! But one day you will have the answers, with the information that is available to you over time. And you can teach your children how to live with the utmost in environmental, self and community stewardship.

This is the outcome that matters. Our society encourages competition–don’t compete with your green-minded neighbor for who can achieve self-sustaining systems first. Slow is beautiful. Slow is accurate. Slow is sustainable.

Written by carolinesavery

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