On May 1, Point Park film student Caroline Savery moved into a small tent in some city woods. It was the first day of what she called "Sust-Enable" -- an attempt to live for three months at 100 percent environmental sustainability, or zero impact on the planet, and to document it all on video as her senior project.
Savery, 21, made some exceptions: Her camera's batteries, obviously, needed charging. But her food, water, shelter, transportation and more were all to come by means that didn't further harm the environment, for instance by burning fossil fuel. She'd show what a single committed individual could do, even in a high-tech consumer society.
Family and friends were skeptical. "They think what I'm doing is extreme," said Savery, about a month into the project. "But the situation with our global ecosystem is extreme."
Nine weeks later -- after battling poison ivy, mold, hunger and sleeplessness, complete with an on-camera emotional breakdown -- Savery had learned a lot. Some of it concerned the nuts and bolts of sustainable living. More involved flaws in her original concept, mistakes for others to avoid on the path to sustainability.
A Connecticut native, Savery is a social activist with organizations like the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, who'd grown increasingly passionate about preventing everyday "ecocide." For Sust-Enable, key strategies included bicycling everywhere and shunning electricity. And she counted as "sustainable" any activities that redeemed society's waste -- like Dumpster-diving for bruised supermarket fruit -- or that merely exploited existing resources. So she borrowed streetlights for nighttime reading, and Point Park University computers to blog about her project on www.greenoptions.com.
But soaked by May's relentless rains -- which spawned mold in her tent but still left her short of clean water -- and bedeviled by mosquitoes, Savery quickly exhausted her primitive-living skills. Triumphs like gorging on a wild blueberry bush notwithstanding, she sometimes ate just one meal a day. At one point she sobbed to her camera, "Fuck sustainability, I just want a bed!" Occasionally, she'd sleep at her boyfriend's; later, she resorted to www.couchsurfing.com.
If she had to do it all over, Savery says, for starters she'd build a cob shelter (a sort of mud hut) or maybe squat in an abandoned house. Another problem was the individualism of her quest: It's much easier for individuals to make sustainable choices in a community where others are also battling consumerist habits and the legal obstacles society erects to sustainability. It's no coincidence that most of Savery's "sustainable" days involved Landslide Community Farm, a collective turning a sliver of the Hill District to organic food production. "It's important to have a community of people who can help and support you and help develop your ideas for living sustainably," she says.
But her biggest mistake was that in conceiving Sust-Enable, she'd unwittingly followed the rules of the wasteful, impatient society her project was meant to critique: She expected sustainability to be fast, cheap and easy. Instead, the strain of going off the grid cold turkey broke her.
"I wasn't considering personal sustainability," she says. "It's more important and effective if people grow into solutions and take time with it. ... It's not like a sound-bite kind of thing." Ultimately, she says, the fact that she lived sustainably only "five or six days" out of 93 matters less than that she lived one even after the experiment ended. Her new rules for pursuing sustainability: Be gentle on yourself, have fun, and go slow.
Some of Savery's Sust-Enable episodes are posted on her Web site, www.sust-enable.com; she's submitting versions to film festivals. She'll complete the project when she and her partner return from a month-long camping and couch-surfing trip out West -- burning "all that carbon I didn't use the past three months," she quips. Then she'll join the Pittsburgh Organizing Group in Minneapolis, to protest at the Republican National Convention.
"I believe in direct action," Savery says. "If I believe something, my actions should sustain that belief."