The Green Mind

Finding the human place in nature

Sustainability Needs Community

Communities sharing sustainability goals are essential for the change we need.

Imagine you’re considering getting rid of your car to lower your environmental damage—you’ll instead take the bus, bike, walk, or maybe join a car-sharing network. Along with flying less, buying less stuff, and eating less meat, driving less is one of the most effective ways to be gentler to the planet, you may realize. And many people are doing it—Americans in their twenties are more likely than their parents to forego car ownership and enjoy car-less city life.

But you know that this choice will make life a bit less convenient. You’ll have to plan ahead more and travel at certain times. What will make it easier to accept this change in your lifestyle? One answer is living in a community where others are making the same choices.

Over the past decades, small-scale communities dedicated to sustainable lifestyles have popped up in various parts of the world. Brenda and Robert Vale studied some of them and their ecological footprints (the amount of land around the globe necessary to sustain them, for producing food and all the other products they enjoy, etc.).[1] These communities show that it’s possible to live a fairly modern lifestyle that’s much closer to a using only “fair-share ecological footprint”—the footprint that everyone living on Earth now could enjoy equitably.

The Vales assessed the ecological footprints of people in the Hockerton Housing Project in the U.K., Findhorn in Scotland, BedZED in south London, and the Green Streets project in New Zealand. They found that the greatest reductions in ecological footprints in these places resulted not from built infrastructure—such as extremely well insulated homes and solar panels—but rather from behavior changes—transportation, food, and other consumption-related choices. They concluded that joining together as a collectivity with a common purpose—sustainability and less impactful living—made it easier and more pleasant for people to make the less convenient (though sometimes more enjoyable) choices.[2] “Doing things together and doing things locally with the people you see every day” is an important and effective way of creating the kind of societal changes we need to avoid the planetary catastrophes that seem to be just around the corner.

Knowing what your neighbors and friends are doing and that they’ve joined with you in the same goals is a powerful influence on behavior. Researchers have discovered this also in other realms where the common good is at stake. Political scientists studying voting rates found that sharing the information about who’s voting in one’s neighborhood (public knowledge from public voting records) creates a powerful (and inexpensive!) incentive to get people to vote.[3] Humans are communal creatures, and we like to work toward common purposes, sanctioning each other’s actions by doing likewise. As I ride my bike around my city, I love seeing others on bikes and can only imagine how dismal it would feel if I were the only one. 

What are we working together on as a society now? Consumption, mainly. How do we know we’re working on it? Every day, most of us see a constant stream of advertisements showing us other people going out and buying and enjoying products. The cumulative effect of all these images is to give us the impression that that’s the most normal, usual activity there could be. The regular course of modern life—our most common project—is to make more money and spend it on stuff. The result is a world in which we know nature is being destroyed so rapidly that, as I discuss in a previous post, some scientists have begun warning of societal collapse.

What these commercial images infusing our lives don’t show is people forgoing unnecessary stuff. They don’t show others choosing to take the bus or walk. They show happy people getting on airplanes, not mothers and fathers choosing vacations closer to home. They don’t show people growing some of their own food in a community garden and sharing it. So when we make such choices, we feel like we’re going against the grain. We feel more alone.

The solution is to build more communities—online ones and in-person ones, mobile ones and permanent ones—where people wanting to care for our one planet can share experiences, exchange ideas, live together, and provide reinforcement for the kinds of choices that many of us know in our hearts are needed for a healthier future for humans and the rest of nature. And as we build such communities, we will do well to remember that we are not alone as we choose to defend Earth against the damages created by today’s profligate culture of consumption and excess.

My book: Invisible Nature

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My environmental blogFinding the Human Place in Nature

Read more of my posts: The Green Mind

[1] Brenda and Robert Vale. “The Hockerton Housing Project, England,” in Living within a Faire Share Ecological Footprint. ed. Robert and Brenda Vale (London: Routledge Earthscan, 2013). Calculate your own personal ecological footprint: http://www.myfootprint.org/.

[2] Vales, pp. 272–273.

[3] Alan S. Gerber, Donald P. Green, And Christopher W. Larimer. “Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment,” American Political Science Review, 102(1). February, 2008. http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/apsrfeb08gerberetal.pdf

Kenneth Worthy, Ph.D., author of Invisible Nature, is a research associate at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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