Sustainable places

Our friend Kelly Parker came down from Grand Rapids and gave us a very nice Lyceum talk yesterday on sustainability, an environmental buzz-word so much in vogue lately that it threatens to swamp our language.

That was his opening laugh line, as Kelly showed us a graph trending literally in that direction. But it carries the serious implication that our response to the environmental crisis would then be all talk and no action. That’s not a sustainable human future.


“Sustainability” is clearly easier said than done.

So, what ought we to sustain? A reasonable story with wide popular appeal, about why the way we’re living (consumptively, fossil-foolishly, short-sightedly, unjustly) cannot continue. How do we write that story? By re-connecting with the places we call home, cherishing them, defending them against the “developers” who would pave and parcel them into private gain. Kelly the transplanted Kansan (Texan, Tennessean, Michigander) turned to the French vintner’s concept of “terroir” to elucidate this proposal, but he could as effectively have turned to Kentucky’s Wendell Berry.

  • The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.
  • A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.
  • There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.
  • What I stand for is what I stand on.
The big question is how to turn such attitudes to effective action. How does a sense of place become an effective reform movement?
We need to script shared stories rooted in our shared places, Kelly was saying, so we may better “occupy” them and give a winning public account of why the developers, desecrators and destroyers have no moral leg to stand on when they try to lay claim to our communities. Then our occupation might stand a chance of becoming an effective agency for sustainable social action, not  just inarticulate public talk or ineffectual classroom eloquence.
Postscript. One inescapable irony must be noted: the place where we have been holding these bi-annual Lyceum lectures for twenty-odd years is about to be developed into office space. James Union Building room 304 is not sustainable. Sigh.

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