Rural – urban sustainability

rich/ February 12, 2007/ World/

Some time ago, author Toby Hemenway wrote a great article on the downsides of rural living, from a sustainability standpoint. He’s got some great points, and lived the lifestyle for a while, so I respect his position; however, there are discussions that come up in various listservs that I frequent that he jumps in on, and I think he doesn’t give us outlanders a fair shake. Here’s a post I wrote to the Portland Permaculture Guild’s discussion list; I figured since I spent all that time writing it, I may as well post it here, with a few extra links for clarification.


I tend to not get involved in online sustainability contests…actions
and opinions get judged out of context, and my biggest problem with the
progressive community is our love for the circular firing squad (I do
include myself in that judgemental lot). I’m far more inclined to take
part in specific, tangible discussions. I chimed in on Jacqueline’s
post (regarding details of our personal drive for sustainability – ed) because
I thought it a good exercise for myself, and perhaps someone will get something out of it.

I guess that prelude is a warning to y’all, that here’s me on an
intangible tangent….

We should remember in these ecological / carbon footprint discussions
that we are 21st century Americans, the beast with the largest
ecological footprint in the history of our species, if not the world
(The algae / cyanobacteria species responsible for the oxygen
may have been worse than us…. may have been.) Our
mere existence in this society taxes the climate system, when you
include ‘our’ government’s offices, cars, and tanks. Enough to make you
throw up your hands in despair…

In fact, though, humanity’s entire history has a spotty record on
sustainability. That first gatherer who disturbed some soil to plant
and harvest grass grains took more out of the soil than he put back in.
The North American aboriginal people swept down upon a continent reeling
from glaciation and were implicated in, if not responsible for, the
decimation of the continent’s megafauna. The Buffalo Jumps of the
plains, where far more meat was killed than could possibly be used. The
way that the globe’s mass extinction events tend to follow the arrival
of humans in continent after continent.

That’s not to say that some of these cultures weren’t, or didn’t become,
sustainable to some degree. It’s just that I think as a species with
big brains and adapted to a wide range of habitats, we’ve had a lot of
options…if we overshot our local habitat’s capacity, it was rare that
we couldn’t wander over to the next hill and try it again, until our
culture, norms, and traditions remembered enough of what worked and what

Now the consumption bender of the last century / millenia / [choose your
time period] has commenced its contraction phase. We find ourselves
with no ‘next hill’ of unspoiled habitat to wander over to, and a
minimal set of traditions that tell us what is or isn’t sustainable.
While I don’t have any idea what the future holds, I do know that we’ll
need all of the skills and worldviews that the diversity of human living
arrangements can provide. The city will continue to be dependent upon
the countryside’s food and fuel production. The countryside will be
dependent on the city for trade and imported goods.

It comes down to the fact that lifestyles can’t be reduced into right on
wrong. All of our ecological footprints are damnably large, and all of
them could use some work We make choices based on what we feel/think
is the right thing to do, with faith that they’ll be the right thing
down the line.

And we’re secure in the knowledge that at least those algae of the
paleoproterozoic era were worse than us.