Sustainability Manifesto

Sustainability Manifesto: What Can One Person Do?

by Kristin D. Jones

Kristin Jones

We are currently living in an ecological crisis (Swedish, 2008). I use the term ecological because the crisis extends beyond environmental concerns. Spiritually, socially, culturally, linguistically, politically, bodily, and environmentally we are severed, lacking wholeness, and participating in large-scale self-destruction. As a mom, wife, community member, teacher, and researcher in Chicago’s north suburbs, I offer this brief reflection as hope for a more sustainable life together. My tradition teaches that tikkun olam, repair of the world, is everyone’s responsibility, even if we cannot fix every detail (see Chabad, 2008). We each have the responsibility to take small steps toward repairing our world.

Falk (2006) describes new models for suburban sustainability. His model includes four principles for sustainable suburbs: choice, connectivity, character, and community. These are lovely buzz words, but what, really, can one person do? This paper is an attempt to lay down a manifesto, concrete actions that suburban citizens like myself can try to apply to our daily lives. Below is what I call the Sustainability Manifesto, inspired by the Sabbath Manifesto (2010).

  1. Find joy in walking.
  2. Bike.
  3. Make home a dwelling.
  4.  Meet your neighbors.
  5.  Do things for yourself, for free.
  6. Learn about local food sources.
  7. Explore the local watershed.
  8. Conserve.
  9. Shop locally.
  10.  Think locally.

1. Find joy in walking. We have no sidewalks in the suburbs. Well, yes, we have some, but we use them only for dog walking or jogging, not for walking to and from local businesses or neighbor’s houses. So many of us work all day, send our kids off to school all day, then feel drained at home; we have no desire or energy to enjoy the beauty of our neighborhood. Sustainability starts with a connection to our local place. We can start walking in the evenings after dinner, in the mornings before work, to farmer’s market, to that neighbor’s house we have been meaning to visit, to the library.

2. Bike. We drive everywhere. We drive to work, to the grocery store, to schlep the kids around, and we cannot possibly imagine otherwise. My husband works just five miles from home, but must drive for fifteen minutes because no sidewalks exist and biking is dangerous on the four-lane highway. We recently heard from his coworker that he can try a local bike trail that connects to a side road. From our house, we can also try to bike to the library, the grocery store, the hardware store, the local mechanic we trust, etc. Many suburban communities are bike-capable and we do not realize it. We become so dependent on the convenience of a car that we forget other possibilities even exist.

3. Make home a dwelling. We “garage ourselves” in our homes; we are not dwelling. “Most people today do not dwell in the place where they spend their days and leave no traces in the place where they spend their nights. They spend their days next to a telephone in an office and their nights garaged next to their cars” (Illich, 1985, p. 10). What is a dwelling? How is a dwelling different from a house? Too often, we use our homes as a place to sleep between work hours. Imagine what a home would look like if it were truly a place dwelling, of convivial warmth. I imagine suburban dwellings as places where the hearth is central; families eat their meals together at table, learning social behaviors and language skills while eating food lovingly prepared by one of the family members. I imagine suburban dwellings as places where families spend quality time together; parents read to their children, siblings play games together, spouses share their space and time. I imagine suburban dwellings as places that connect neighbors; neighbors walk freely between yards to talk and commune, neighbors share their convivial tools, and neighbors depend on one another to maintain the dwelling nature of the commons.

What specifically can we do to make these visions of dwellings become realities? We can start by turning off our devices: televisions, computers, cell phones, iPads, iPods, video games, e-book readers, etc. We cannot possibly connect to one another or make our homes into dwellings when we are constantly tied to our gadgets. We can also begin to make our locale a central concern. We care about property value, but do we care about our neighbor’s recent surgery? The recent report on pollution in the local river? We can use the Sustainability Manifesto as a starting point to realign our lives into the concerns of our local community. We can reinvest in the relationships that matter most, with the loved ones of ours who live under the same roof.

4. Meet the neighbors. We do not talk to our neighbors. A recent Oprah (The Oprah Show, 2011) episode reminded me of the unsettling reality that many Americans, not just suburbanites, never know their neighbors. Why should we? If we are constantly mobile, why invest any amount of ourselves into any one place? We need to, because it is part of our humanity; dwelling is inherently part of what it means to be human (Heidegger, 1971). We also need to dwell with neighbors because the ecology demands it; a true ecological commons involves not only environmental conservation, but also the conservation of human relationships.

We also need our neighbors if we are truly committed to a multicultural, pluralistic society. We can begin to learn the languages, cultural backgrounds, and religious traditions of the people near us. This is a direct contradiction to our typical approach toward language, culture, and religion learning; we learn these only through industrial education, not through convivial meetings and conversations in our yards. I often use the example of suburban parents who encourage their children to learn Spanish through Dora the Explorer© (NickJr., 2010) or private tutors rather than through simple conversations with the landscape workers right outside their front doors (Jones, 2010).

5. Do things ourselves, for free. We do almost nothing for ourselves when we really think about it. We hire people to care for our lawns. We pay someone to cut our hair. We pay someone to change our oil. We believe we can transport ourselves only with oil. We buy new clothes rather than fix the old ones. We pay an internet/cable provider to entertain us. We allow our favorite news channel to filter the knowledge we receive rather than explore or investigate ideas on our own. We pay daycare workers to raise our children. We do not dry our own clothes (nor can we when our neighborhood associations outlaw clotheslines!). We do not even wash our own dishes; we have dishwashers for that.

Perhaps most of us see nothing wrong with this picture, that is, until one of us loses a job. Suddenly, we seek out every possible thing we can do for ourselves. We begin to grow our own food, cut our own hair, change our own car oil, transport ourselves without oil, repair our clothing or buy used ones, entertain ourselves without television or internet,  learn about current events on our own, raise our own children (or at least spend as much time with them as possible), break the rules and put up a clothesline, wash the very dishes we just used.

Certainly, the loss of a job is merely an example to point out how unsustainable most of our daily activities are. Unfortunately, job loss is a reality in many American’s lives. May we always be attentive to realities of financial need in these hard economic times. May my own family always remember our own difficulties after a recent job loss.

Hopefully doing our life activities for ourselves will ground us in our locale, make us more conscious of the resources we use, and connect us to each other.

6. Learn about local food sources. We often know nothing about our food sources. Thanks to Michael Pollan (2006, 2008) and recent food documentaries, we now are running out of excuses for our ignorance. A sustainable community not only knows its local food sources, but utilizes them. Sure, many in Chicago’s north suburbs will buy Wisconsin cheese, but most of our food-consciousness involves us patting ourselves on the back if we stop at Whole Foods once in a while. We need to go to farmers’ markets, and regularly. We need to meet the farmers, look them in the eye, ask about the food they grow, and thank them for giving such a great gift to our community. We need to start reading labels. I could buy locally grown (Wisconsin) organic milk from our local grocery stores, if I take the time to read the labels and see which ones are local. We could find out what foods are naturally grown in our communities and eat more of those. Do we really need strawberries in January? Do we need to eat avocadoes every week?

7. Explore the local watershed. We often know nothing about our water sources. I walk frequently along the Des Plaines River Trail, but rarely know anything about the river itself. I only recently learned that only 1% of the Great Lakes’ water is replaced each year “through the natural water cycle, such as feeder rivers and rainfall. The other 99 percent is fossil water, from the melting of glaciers about twelve thousand years ago. If you start to affect the flow-through, you start to mine the system, and the whole system starts to change” (De Villiers, 2000, p. 247). All this time, comfortable in my hot showers and constant toilet flushing, I reassured myself that there is an entire Great Lake just a couple miles away, so it doesn’t matter how much water I use. It does matter. We are using up water that does not get replenished. We are using our children’s water.

8. Conserve. We use a lot of unnecessary water, electricity, packaged goods, gasoline, etc. Sure, most of us recycle, but we rarely think about the energy and water required to make all those products in the first place or the energy and water required to do the recycling. Is this sustainable? No, not in the long run. We would do better not to use all these products in the first place. We can use our old cell phone for many years. We can buy whole foods that do not even come in a package (imagine!). We could walk/bike and not use oil at all. We could leave our computers and televisions off, and simply entertain ourselves through the arts, stories, or (gasp!) each other!

9. Shop locally. We do not shop locally. We suburbanites love Target, and yes, Whole Foods. I am as guilty as anyone; I crave the chain store buying as much as any other suburbanite. But we can do better; we can buy more of our needed goods from local businesses. Why does shopping locally matter? It saves local jobs, yes. It helps small businesses in general, yes. But I am more concerned with this concept of local dwelling; we connect to local business owners as fellow stakeholders in our community. The local business owner is just as concerned about local sustainability as I am. I know my mechanic’s name and political orientation, and he knows I live just a few blocks away. I know that when I buy a “mock-chicken-salad-sandwich” from the local health food store downtown, they are using locally grown food. We all share this obligation to tikkun olam and shopping locally may be a first small step.

10. Think locally. We do not need to “think globally, shop locally” as the bumper stickers encourage us (see Esteva & Prakash, 1998). We buy into a global mentality, as part of a global economy, that ignores the reality and the importance of local communities. We need to step out of the belief that we don’t need to invest much in our local setting or local community because we are global citizens. We are not global citizens. It is not even possible to be global citizens. We can be aware of global concerns, but live and think in our local contexts. We live and breath in specific locations and we need to hold ourselves accountable to those places and ecologies.

Miller (2007) describes that we can rebuild local economies in many ways: household economies, gift economies, barter economies, gathering economies, cooperative economies, community market economies—all “networks of mutual support and exchange” (p. 20).

Now “is propitious for a major change of direction in search of a hopeful future” (Illich, 2004/1970, p. 111). May we all find the tikvah, the hope, necessary to change our direction.


Kristin D. Jones, Ph.D., lives in the north suburbs of Chicago where she raises her two daughters and teaches for Concordia University Chicago and The International TEFL Academy. She strives to connect education, family, community, and language learning to environmental and sustainability issues. 


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