The Universal Notebook: Burning questions about the bare necessities

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If folks in China and India and, heaven forbid, equatorial Africa, ever manage to achieve the American standard of living, the level of global pollution and depleted natural resources will be such that we all may have to don survival suits to enjoy the comforts of home.

I foresee self-contained jumpsuits in which we are kept warm by our own composted feces and hydrated by drinking our own purified urine.

Of course I see a bleak, post-digital future because I am a card-carrying liberal who feels guilty about his unsustainable lifestyle and who worries about climate change, while doing precious little about it other than fretting in print.

These unsettling thoughts are prompted by the fact that daughter Nora, an ardent environmentalist, is about to return from a year working as a naturalist on Washington’s Olympic peninsula in order to take a job with a conservation center in New Hampshire, where she will be living this winter in a cabin heated only by a wood stove. I might, just might, have been able to survive a New England winter in a wood-heated cabin when I was 27, but at 60 I’d freeze to death even before the pipes froze.

Here in my modest little suburban Cape, I am completely out of touch with the elements (until the snow pack builds up on the sun-porch roof and my ceiling starts to leak) and constantly at war with the technologies that make my life so comfortable and convenient. Are all these damn things really necessary? Couldn’t I live a simpler, more productive life without them?

It wasn’t all that long ago (late 1970s, early 1980s) that I somehow managed to live quite nicely, thank you, without a cell phone, computer, Internet access, e-mail, cable television and two cars. All these things cost money and use energy. Imagine how wonderful (and affordable) life would be without them.

When I think about getting rid of some of these modern conveniences (which is often), I find myself questioning what the bare necessities of life really are. Food, water, shelter, heat (unless we move to the Florida Keys or the subtropical zone shifts northwards as the polar ices melts). That’s about it. Oh yes, and clothing, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got enough clothes to last me the rest of my unnatural life, so we can scratch that off the list.

Twenty-some years ago, when I first met the late, great artist Carlo Pittore, he was living in a wood-heated yurt in Bowdoinham and I admired him mightily for it. I envied him trooping down through the snowfield and into the woods each night, bundling up and stoking the fire, a sophisticated primitive squirreled away in the woods of Maine. But then I envy squirrels as well, swaying away in their lofty nests with only their bushy tails to keep them warm. That’s the way I’d live if I could.

As I sit here waiting for the snow to fall and the roof to leak, it is a pleasant 65 degrees on the third day of December. So maybe my imagination has just overheated. Last year at this time, I was shivering silently with the thermostat set at a cool 60 degrees, adding layers of wool and fleece as necessary, taking hot baths when the circulation in my extremities ceased. Surely, there’s got to be a better way to live. I’m just not sure what it is.

Some years ago, a magazine editor asked me to research an article about the most environmentally sensitive way to live in Maine. He was imagining, I imagine, an elegant passive solar, super-insulated cottage on the coast with a rain-water harvesting system and a self-composting toilet. Instead, I proposed profiling a large Somali family living in a tenement at the foot of Munjoy Hill, sharing a heating system with several other families and walking or taking public transportation everywhere.

“Very funny,” the editor replied, “but I have to sell magazines.”

Only I wasn’t kidding. Most of us in southern Maine live lives of affluence and excess compared to the rest of the world. And no one seems to have the political courage to ask us to sacrifice some of our gas-guzzling, oil-fired, electrified comforts and conveniences for the sake of the greater good and the survival of the species. And something tells me a CFL in every lamp and a Prius in every driveway is not the answer.

Welcome home, Nora. Bundle up.

The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.