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Sustainability requires a new sense of community

I’m writing an article about “Community” for the final volume of my company’s Encyclopedia of Sustainability. The volume is called The Future of Sustainability so I have to explain the future of community and how that relates to sustainability. I’m summing up years of reading and pondering and fretting over how these two things relate, and was remembering my brief words about community at the end of Eco Living, published in 2000, several years before I became the creator and editor of the Encyclopedia of Community (Sage 2003).

Here the section at the end of Eco Living (London: Piatkus Books) – yes, it’s written in English, not American, with English spellings!

Afterword: Getting Involved

We can change the world together, by doing things differently ourselves and pushing companies and governments to go about their business in new ways. We can make practical choices that will create stronger families and communities while enabling us to enjoy a world that is indeed threatened but is still resilient and beautiful.

Individual action isn’t everything. We need to support one another. It’s energising to get together with other people to work on a cause you care about, whether it’s getting your university to buy recycled paper or working with your council on a pedestrian scheme. The Resources section which follows will help with further information and contacts.

One mistake made by the politically active is always campaigning against things. They can give an impression of being negative, trying to curtail other people’s freedom – or just keep them from having fun! It’s time to reframe the debate, promoting a vision of a sustainable world and sustainable values. A project to get kids walking and cycling to school, for example, is about improving health, encouraging parents and caregivers to walk with kids and breaking down the isolation created by a car-oriented culture. Here, to start you thinking about your own vision, is a short manifesto for living lightly.

Walk It

My brother Dan was in Delta Force, an élite unit of the US Green Berets. When I began to write about the environment, he asked, ‘Do you talk the walk or walk the talk?’ That is, do you swagger and show off, or really do the job?

It’s vital to walk the talk, even when it takes a little extra effort. You can set an example in little ways, at home and at work, by turning down the heating or choosing organic milk. And you can set an example in big ways, too, now and then. Switch your company to post-consumer recycled paper for all its corporate printing and annual reports, or give up a second car, or install solar panels when you renovate your house.

Familiarise yourself with the background to a few issues or causes – perhaps by refreshing your school chemistry or doing some historical research on local industry or taking an evening course in nutrition – to become more confident, and more effective, as an eco-activist.

Talk It

Talk does count as well. You can make a difference by telling people why you’re doing what you do. Talk to them about the issues that concern you.

You can telephone or write to organisations about their policies. Companies and elected officials get nervous when their customers and constituents start to complain. Several major companies, including McDonald’s and Shell, have made huge public relations gaffes in recent years by ignoring consumers’ reasonable concerns about the environmental impact of what they do.

I’m sceptical about those little printed cards that some green organisations encourage us to send out. Writing a few sincere and serious letters is going to have more impact than stamping dozens of prepared cards, and it’s more satisfying too. Exercise your creative talents by expressing why a politician’s position offends you and tell companies what you think they should do. Think about whom you’re writing to. What will make them listen to you? If you think you represent others – your neighbours, other mothers you’ve spoken to – say so. If you’re a regular customer or have special expertise, tell them. It’s fine to write regular letters to your representatives in local or national government, but make sure you write about substantial and relevant issues.

Work It

While most of us need a job to put a roof over our heads, the work we do provides us with far more than just a monthly bank deposit. It can wreck a mood or a marriage and in the long term it’s going to affect how we feel about our lives and the impact we’ve made on the world.

More and more of us are looking for work that has meaning and you can choose a career that makes a difference. That doesn’t necessarily mean working for Greenpeace or VSO (though you may want to shimmy up a tanker or teach English in an African village). There are a huge range of careers – from environmental law to eco product design – to consider.

Whatever you do, try to do good at work. It doesn’t matter if you work on a shopfloor or as a banker, there are always opportunities to green your workplace in some way or chat over eco news with co-workers. More important, think about moving within your field towards a speciality that will allow you to earn a living and do good at the same time.

Invest It

If you don’t approve of something, you can refuse to buy it and write to the manufacturer to explain why. You can send donations to environmental charities can support education programmes and campaigns, or help young organic farmers get a start. You can also encourage good business practice through ethical investing.

Convention investment strategies are based on the assumption that people want the maximum returns without regard for social or environmental costs. But an increasing number of investors want to make informed financial decisions, put their money behind the causes they care about and refuse to endorse corporate irresponsibility. Which? magazine’s analysis has found that ethical funds perform overall at least as well as unvetted unit trusts and there are now dozens of ethical and green funds to choose from.

Business people sometimes seem to take environmental concerns more seriously than do politicians, as they have to think ahead, considering future markets, possible lawsuits and ways to strengthen the overall performance of their company. Encourage them to do better by investing in companies whose performance is good and encourage companies to sign the CERES Principles (a set of corporate principles to minimise pollution and waste, conserve energy, offer safe products and services, and use natural resources in a sustainable manner). (For further information, contact one of the umbrella organisations listed in the Resources section.)

Reach Out

It’s harder and harder, especially if you live in a city, to keep the environment from becoming an abstraction. Office blocks are window-less and you may rush from bus to Underground with nary a glance at the sky. But it’s important to find ways to stay in touch with the world. Watch the seasons. Take time to touch the bark of a tree or listen to birdsong.

Reach out, too, to other people. It’s easy to write an annual cheque or fill in a standing order form to the environmental groups of your choice. What’s more difficult is getting involved in a personal way. But in this increasingly fragmented and technologically driven time, we need to revalue our human contacts and get to know the natural world, as well. Empowerment comes from hands-on involvement.

Don’t try to turn your life upside-down and don’t feel guilty because you continue to drive your children to music lessons, but keep looking for options and evaluating your choices. We’re in this together – write and tell me how you’re doing! (You can reach me at, or c/o the publishers.) And take time to learn about and enjoy the beautiful world we live in.

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