Becoming a Do-Nothing: The Lazy Woman's Path to Sustainability

Sharon November 2nd, 2009

One thing I often mention in my talks that usually gets a laugh is that it is hard to find visual illustrations of the most central points of my way of life, because most of the ways I save energy involve not doing things, which doesn’t make for much in the way of pictures.

I’m quite serious about this - the most important (and least photogenic) thing that we do to fulfill our goal of using vastly less energy than most Americans is to choose not to do things that most people do.  It isn’t sexy.  It doesn’t look good in pictures.  But it is a tool available to all of us, and it is often overlooked in our race for substitutions and replacements.  In fact, I think a lot of us, caught up in a culture where everyone spends their time racing around doing things. are suspicious of things we don’t do. 

And yet, that’s where the real returns are - not in finding a better way to do things as we have been, but in doing them less, or not at all.  In many cases, it is extremely unlikely that most of us are going to be able to replicate our present way of doing things with a renewable or low-energy substitute.  So it makes sense to get into practice now at not doing things.

If you could take pictures of my do-nothingness for powerpoint, here’s what it would look like:

  Here is a picture of our family not going anywhere - we try to make sure we have two days a week minimum in which we don’t drive at all (more in the summer and during other periods), as well as minimizing other trips.  Here’s me on the phone telling someone that no, I can’t stop by until I happen to be in that general direction next week.  Here’s Eric carefully planning what we need to pick up at the farmer’s market and the library, because if he forgets something, we won’t be going back to pick it up - we’ll work around it.  Here are the kids climbing trees in the yard, rather than going to the playground. 

Here’s me passing my permanently disconnected dryer (which I haven’t yet moved) and not putting laundry in it.  Here’s me not turning on the light if I don’t absolutely need it.  Here’s me telling the kids they can’t watch a DVD because we have found a used replacement for our broken one yet.    Here’s me deciding that my hair can go another day without a shampoo.  Here’s me deciding that the kids’ shirts can go another day without washing. 

Here’s Eric not vacuuming, but running the carpet sweeper (or just as likely, not doing either and letting the crud accumulate).  Here’s me eating leftovers for lunch, rather than making something new, since otherwise, they’ll spoil.  Here’s me not mowing the grass and hoping the goats will eat it down.  Here’s me not buying materials for a new project, but trying to scavenge them instead.  Here’s me not wasting things, so that I have enough without buying more. 

Here’s me not buying the boys stuff out of the toy catalog.  Here’s Eric not buying me anything for Chanukah (ok, he’s not good at presents anyway ;-)).  Here’s me deciding that my ratty old jeans can too be patched one more time.  Here’s us not having whiter whites, the newest gadgets or a nice car.  Here’s us not caring.  Here’s us picking family time over more activities for the kids that involve driving somewhere.

Here’s me saying no to the talk in Australia (damn - it sucks sometimes to live up to your principles) because there are Aussies who can do what I do.  Here’s me turning off the computer instead of posting one more blog post.  Here’s me living so far from a Krispy Kreme, a Mall or a movie theater that I’m not even tempted to join mainstream culture.

Here’s me not getting an electronic reader of any kind.  Here’s me not having a cell phone or a digital camera or a pickup truck, and having to borrow them if we really, really need one.  Here’s me not turning up the heat.  Here’s me not eating CAFO meat, even if it sounds tasty.  Here’s me  not taking the job that comes with a lot more money - and travel time and fancier clothes and airplanes.   Here’s us mostly not worrying about what other people think.

That’s what it looks like, folks - not doing stuff.  Now I fear that often, not doing things is also accompanied by a whole host of things *to* do - if you were worried that my ecological consciousness has sent me into a spiral of endless sloth, rest assured that I do occasionally get up off my behind, and I fear that you will have to as well, if you follow my example.  But if you want to know the secret weapon in the world of low-energy use it is simple: Just don’t do it.


20 Responses to “Becoming a Do-Nothing: The Lazy Woman's Path to Sustainability”

  1. Alan says:

    Here’s me not spending a lot of time thinking up a clever addition to your power point presentation.

  2. Fern says:

    On the flip side - today here’s me drying apples, here’s me hanging laundry on the line (not that I bleached the now off-whites), here’s me simmering carrot scrapings and chicken bones into soup stock, here’s me raking the yard by hand because the silly city won’t let us have goats and I’m not about to use a leaf blower that I don’t even own …

    You’re not missing anything by not being anywhere close to a Krispy Kreme place - their donuts have no personality.

    Frondly, Fern

  3. P.J. Grath says:

    Love it! Thanks, Sharon.

  4. Shamba says:

    There is the argument that we are human beings not human doings!

    Yes, yes, more of us need to do less or better yet nothing at all!

    You’re doing an excellent job and are an inspiring example for the rest of us, Sharon! ;) (insert a smile and a layer of sarcasm here …)

    I like it …. :)

    peace, shamba

  5. risa stephanie bear says:

    Yuppers, people just don’t get that it’s ok to just sit and watch a tree drop a leaf.

  6. G says:

    Because we live in a suburb which has a fairly high crime rate we have a simple alarm system ( which to me is a waste of time as we have a dog and me at home who are adequate watch entities). Since we have refinished our basement to give space for caregivers to move into ( we are seniors) we had to extend the alarm system, at my husband’s behest. When the installer came to the house, he found racks of clothes drying in the studio, paintings stacked against every wall in the living room and soup bubbling on the stove and me looking like one of Macbeth’s three witches stirring up th brew. Making desultory conversation, the installer fellow, in his late 50′s, asked what my husband did for a living. i retorted, “lawyer, single practitioner”. He then said “Why are you living in such a simple and tiny house when you can have something more in standing with your husband’s status and work?” I had to restain myself from either laughing, or crying. I said, ” Do I look like someone who cares what other people think of how I live?” He probably would have been horrified that we have a veggie garden on our suburban lot, that I don’t shop for things, but rather make do with what I have and that we feel blessed with our lives, as simple and unadorned as they are.
    I do not travel. Much of what can be experienced in life is within my grasp, here at home. One only needs the eyes of a child to percieve what is strange, novel and wondrous in our surroundings. I have been blessed. I have the heart, soul and eyes of the child I have always been. And I play to my heart’s content within the space granted me. Anything else, I consider a mug’s game. G

  7. Wendy says:

    Yeah, I don’t *do* a lot of stuff, too - in fact, most of what’s on your not *to do* list is on mine as well ;) .

    Except the goats eating the grass part - because my husband won’t let me have goats on our quarter acre (he said the chickens and ducks are enough already!). Mostly, I just let the grass get tall and hope it will be winter soon so that I don’t have to worry about it. That practice works well in October … not so much in July :) .

  8. Brad K. says:


    You make a good point, but . . When you get down to it, you are doing things, not just “not doing”.

    Not using the dryer - but you are hanging the clothes about the house and the yard. Not making extra trips - but you are doing more planning. And the time not taken up with car trips and other energy intensive activities, you are caring for home, family, critters, and getting different life experiences. I just can’t see that “doing nothing” leaves you with hours and hours of staring at the walls, waiting for the next trip to town to roll around.

    The reason I mention this is the phenomena at the grocery store, of the runaround kids. I am sure you have seen them - parent or parents rolling their cart down the aisle, usually not talking to the kid except “No!”, “Put that back”, “I told you no!”, and “Get back here.” Each repeated ad nauseum.

    Contrast that with the parents that tell their kids, “Keep a hand on the cart.” Focus the kid on what is expected of them, not negatives about this is wrong and that is wrong, or “good boy” platitudes. Serious, disciplined tasks - keep a hand on the cart. Then a rover gets corrected with a simple and well understood admonishment, “You aren’t doing what you were told to do.” Of course, the parents I see pulling this little trick are often engaged with their kids in conversation for the whole of the shopping trip. Like the kid is a person, is worth listening to and respects what the parent has to say. But I digress.

    My observation is that focusing on a meaningful task is ever so much more discipline, easy to tell when you are or are not done, and easier to learn well.

    I might organize the non-OpenOffice Imress presentation with targets and responses - extra trips -> planning. Dryer -> laundry line and indoor substitutes. Frequent washing -> Choose whether to wash (second day is max, was Mom’s rule).

    Umm - OpenOffice tools work well, and don’t cost like Microsoft products. Other alternatives are listed at (Open Source Alternatives) - not all are free, some are the goals that MS and other commercial providers are chasing. The cost is download time, as opposed to a trip to the store. Did anyone mention that faster computers use more electricity? LCD or plasma screens use less than CRT type monitors, though, they are a good investment. (Remember, the bigger the screen, the more work you get done, at least, around 19-23 inches.

  9. Mark N says:

    “And yet, that’s where the real returns are – not in finding a better way to do things as we have been, but in doing them less, or not at all.”

    Things such as making babies?

  10. Liz says:

    Thank you for acknowledging that my sloth and filth actually have a higher purpose…HAH! ;)

  11. Shamba says:

    Sharon, I forgot to give you a LOT of credit for not taking the Australia trip although I personally would have given’t you permission to go. :) I had a chance to go many years ago to the Sydney area.

    Peace to YOu and all of US,

  12. ex consumer says:

    I had a woman today look at my hand-made purse and wallet tell me disapprovingly, “It looks like you have way too much time on your hands.”

    Most everybody in my family has been out of work for several years now and we’re getting close to running out of reserves. We’ve never been busier learning and making things ourselves. We’ve also never been accused more of being “do-nothings.”

    Whether this is sustainable or not remains to be seen.

  13. Raya says:

    That reminds me of the best mothering advice I ever got. “Mothers who know do less.”

    less playing taxi
    less buying
    less working out of the home

    very nice. although i do have to admit- I did see a visual in my head of how you were not doing all those things.

    (ie not buying diapers= rinsing them, washing them, hanging them, folding them)

  14. suze_oz says:

    Thanks for making me feel so much better about some of the choices we make on a day to day basis. This Aussie also thanks you for not coming because it spares me the guilt of travelling to learn your wisdom.

  15. Billie says:

    I love your post!

  16. maria says:

    Mark N.,

    Sharon has quite candidly addressed the issue of population and the fact that there are four children in her family on this blog in the past.

    I am someone who, in all likelihood, agrees with the point you’re trying to make. I am often quick to judge someone’s number of children, and I’ve often read rather defensive, essentialist responses by people with more than one or two children that basically amount to, “it’s my personal choice! Children are a blessing, would you force people not to have kids blah blah China/India, forced abortions, eugenics, all the smart people will die out, why don’t you just commit suicide. Did I mention it’s so very personal and therefore exempt from public discussion?”

    This is why I am all the more glad to have read Sharon’s perspective, because yes, she does have four children; no, they’re not going anywhere; and yes, she does still think it’s very important to talk about population. I can’t really do justice to the post I linked to, so I respectfully suggest that you read it yourself :)

  17. Sharon says:

    Actually, Mark, I’m making a lot fewer babies these days ;-) . We could include that in the powerpoint - “See Sharon not being pregnant ;-)


  18. maria says:

    that, too :)

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