Two posts from recent months are deserving of some follow up. One post was on the recycling habits and sustainability sensitivities of Christians in the U.S. In the post I suggested that Christians were, for some reason, not as engaged with issues of sustainability as non-Christians and offered up some survey data that indicated as much. I confused things a bit with an ill-conceived title to the post, and set myself up for a blogger comment drubbing by over-generalizing the category “Christian.” Despite myself the post evoked some interesting comments. Here’s a sampling.
…Let’s stop focusing on labels and get back to being responsible for our own behaviors.
….It may be that the care of the soul preempts care of the world.
One observation is that the key in all of this is to focus on individual responsibility, the implication being that if everyone just took responsibility for their own behaviors that we’d make progress on issues of sustainability. And yet the other comment suggests that a certain kind of selfishness is at the root of the problem, with people too focused on their personal concerns at the expense of community concerns. This frames a central tension I experience in the midst of issues of sustainability; is it personal responsibility or a community ethic that ultimately leads to more sustainable practices? I know they are both relevant to the question but where should someone expend their efforts in seeking a more sustainable future? Should we lobby the conscious of individuals or the council at city hall?
And that brings me to the other post on Eco-Stunts that begs the same question. In response to the No Impact Man movie and book about a couple in New York who lived a radically sustainable life for a year, a New Yorker columnist dismissed the efforts as a carnival of distraction:
What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”
It’s the same question. Whereas No-Impact Man is appealing to lifestyle choices of individuals the columnist concludes that the true path to change is through legislation and focusing on a community ethic.
I suppose the diplomatic answer is that we need to focus on both equally. It’s a revolution of individual consumers shaping the market and it’s also zoning regulations and community organizing that lead to change. That sounds nice, but a trip to Wal-Mart surrounded by a symphony of beeps at the cash register is all I need to be reminded that even our best efforts with farmers’ markets and local food advocacy are a drop in the bucket of our community’s consumption habits. Efforts to encourage individual responsibility only go so far. I hear some people at the farmers’ markets talking about “bringing down industrial food”. Somehow I doubt the bankers at the Spokane Ag Bureau are trembling in their boots at the thought of a couple of neighborhood markets. In fact, if we don’t think more broadly and more in terms of a community ethic, I think our farmers’ markets could be dismissed as eco-stunts themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the markets, (especially the Millwood Market that offers up some local goodness throughout the winter from 2-6pm at the Crossing Youth Center.) But if the local food movement is going to become more than just a niche lifestyle with a marketing nod from the major players, a community ethic is needed. And something more grassroots than legislation. Legislation will follow the prevailing practices and ethics of a community, not the other way around.
Here’s a stab at what a more comprehensive community ethic could look like, and I have in mind the West Valley of Spokane because that’s where I live;
A community where vacant lots are farmed to meet the needs of the poor.
A community where it’s more common to grow vegetables than a lawn.
A community with vibrant canning center.
A community where most days of the week you have the option to buy direct from farmers, maybe even at grocery stores.
A community where biking and walking are common and encouraged.
A community where the schools have healthy lunches.
A community where churches are catalysts for advocating and organizing sustainability.
What else? Help me add to the list?