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Sustainability and Place

The antidote to an unsustainable life is to stick around a place.

I have been thinking about this a bit. At the university where I work, this semester I am teaching as an adjunct, handling the course “Sustainability In Action” for a colleague on sabbatical. Texts on sustainability tend to focus on the very real challenges of climate change and emerging economies and dematerialization. It is good to think about these issues when we think about sustainability, and to try to work on solutions to them. But preceding the sustainability problems that make news headlines comes a decision that regularly goes unnoticed. It is a decision by some person or persons to leave. Here is the versified form of what I am attempting to say.

People these days pack up to get to the next place. No one seems to stick around anymore. Who can say they’ve heard laughter after the decades; the same laughter that they’ve heard, over and over before, or the same tears splashing down on the same old floor? People these days hurry off to the next place. Everyone seems headed through a door. They say a story has a start, a middle, and an end. Well then, no great story can only begin over again. Will you stick around here with me my friend? ‘Cause, it takes time to grow. It takes time to know who we are. There’s no easy way to love from afar. People these days hurry off to the next place. Everyone seems headed through a door, but alone.

Of course, someone can stick around a place and live unsustainably. It is called avarice—of the deadly sins, it is the one that extracts more from a place than a place has to offer. Ultimately it destroys the place and any creatures who do not escape from the destruction. Avarice demands all, eventually even all life. Usually the avaricious person moves on. Search Google for images of shale mines. Thousands of feet below the wounded landscape you will see nothing but contaminated water pooled. What you will never see deep down the hole is a resort-sized house owned by an executive officer of a mining company.

The anecdote to an unsustainable life is to stick around a place. When we stick around a place, we have to make use of it. And if we keep sticking around a place, quickly enough, we recognize we have to use it in such a way as to not use it up. As Wendell Berry says, “We cannot exempt use from care.”

This is our call, to use the earth and care for it. It was not a vocation for Adam and Eve that we get to ignore after Genesis 3. Use with care is our livelihood. Depending on how one envisions the new heavens and new earth, use with care is our eternal vocation. I tend to think that is where we are headed: a place where we properly tend the places where we live. Not a place we sustain, but a place where we flourish and have no desire to leave. What we get now are glimpses of this future, vignettes of people in community caring for the places they stick around.

[Editor’s note: If you missed it last week, also check out Sandra McCracken’s “From Smallest Seed: Music Inspired by Community and Conservation” which deals with similar issues.]


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