Wise Local Living -- Without Leaving

By Tracey Bianchi 1-11-2010

Last year I borrowed a copy of Doug Fine's book Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living. It's the story of Fine's decision to live on a ranch in New Mexico without an automobile. A humorous vignette that, it just so happens, I listened to as an audiobook . . . in my car.

I cruised around taking in the harsh realities of our national oil addiction while idling at traffic lights and filling up at the gas pump. It was more than a little ironic. Great as Fine's story was, it was also so far removed from any lifestyle I might actually experience that I had a difficult time making sense of what to do with his journey.

I had a similar struggle with Barbara Kingsolver. Her writing is one of the great treasures of my heart, and who has not had their view of life changed by Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? It remains, to this day, one of the first books I recommend to just about anyone I know.

That said, as I sifted through her story of life in southern Appalachia, I could not help but wonder how I might pull off the local eating feats she so wisely managed. "How can I live this way and not have to move?" I kept asking myself. Where I live, I cannot find a forest with succulent morels within fifty miles. Or, for that matter, due to a city ban, raise chickens in my backyard.

So whether it is saying farewell to an automobile or plotting a garden in rural Appalachia, I keep stumbling over a recurring theme I'm not sure I agree with. One that says to live a more sustainable life means moving. Or on the other end of the spectrum, I find many folks who are so rooted in their communities that they find those who live elsewhere impossibly un-sustainable.

For example, I know huffy urbanites who believe anyone outside the city limits has clearly missed a chance to engage with different races, cultures, and socioeconomic classes. They may equate suburban living with a lobotomy. They loathe anyone who cannot deftly navigate a public transit system.

I know suburbanites who have nestled smugly into their inner-ring, architecturally swanky suburbs only to scoff at those farther out on the crashing waves of urban sprawl. Track housing is to blame for the loss of landscape, they quip.

Then there are rural adolescents who graduate from high school and dash off to the big cities, never to return. On the flip side, some city kids drift West to camp out in mountain towns, craving open space and often mocking the trappings of the densely populated life they've always known.

In all of this gazing around, I have to ask if it is actually possible for people to live wisely where they already are? Moses offers a prayer in Psalm 90 that urges us to "live wisely and well." Our days are numbered. So what does wise living entail when it comes to conversations about sustainability, environmental stewardship, and social justice? Are the only options distrust of those in those "other" places, or literally heading to greener pastures ourselves?

Perhaps one of the wisest moves we can make is to look at the life we currently live, in the community where we live it out, and start making smarter choices from that center. Rather than snub our noses at those living elsewhere, or sell our cars and head to the farm, maybe we can just begin a bit closer. Say, like connecting with our neighbors.

Wise living might mean reaching out to those in our community so that we can be proactive in bringing bicycle lanes, hiking trails, or sidewalks to the unreachable parts of our towns. It can mean taking the time to get to know our neighbors well enough to curb our emissions by carpooling, running errands together, or walking with our children. It can mean starting or enhancing community recycling, composting, or gardening programs. Or perhaps nudging local libraries to include books and resources that move people toward more socially and globally conscious lives. Maybe it means championing hot lunch programs for under-served families.

Wise living might mean staying put and, as the cliche goes, blooming where we are planted. For if we all pack up and take our growing, increasingly thoughtful lives with us, who will remain to transform the very communities we've left?

If we are blessed to have thought through the issues deep enough to know that change is desperately needed where we live, then perhaps one of the best decisions is to simply stay put and help bring about that change -- by opening our hearts and minds and by living more wisely right down the street, rather than simply dreaming of those greener pastures.

portrait-tracey-bianchiTracey Bianchi blogs about finding a saner, greener life from the heart of the Chicago suburbs. She wrote Green Mama: The Guilt-Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet (Zondervan 2009) and blogs at traceybianchi.com. This article was originally written for Flourish.

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