Sustainability and Place

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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.]

Profile photo of David Michael Bruno

Dave is an author, educator, and advocate of living simply. Dave has spoken nationally and internationally about simplicity. He has appeared in Time Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine, the London Times, and The Guardian, and has been a guest of the 700 Club. His book The 100 Thing Challenge (HarperCollins, 2010) tells the story of his simple-living journey and the worldwide movement it contributed to. Dave holds an M.A. from Wheaton College and a B.A. from Moody Bible Institute. He works at Point Loma Nazarene University and lives in San Diego with his wife and three daughters.


6 Comments

  1. Nathan

    Thanks, David – well said!

    I can’t help but think of Berry’s first chapter of Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, as he sets up community and belonging as blessings that broaden our context – allowing us to see the future and our role in ushering it in; caring for land that will one day be our children’s’ inheritance. Have you read it?

  2. Dave Bruno

    Nathan, I’ve not read that particular collection of essays. Though a quick glance at Amazon makes me think it could be similar to Another Turn of the Crank, which is my favorite collection of essays by Berry.

  3. Nate Fleming

    As a person who has moved three times in ten years, I agree partly with this. Sometimes life makes it necessary to leave a place (as was our case – moving with work), and when you move often you can definitely feel the ache when you see others who have put down roots.

    At the same time, one of the plus sides of being nomadic is that you learn to live with only the essentials. We could fit most of our worldly possessions into one of those tiny Uhaul trailers, and I know when we finally settle down we will doubtlessly begin the Great American Pasttime of accumulation. Being nomadic forces you to live simply.

    Another plus is that you truly feel the truth of Hebrews 13:14, “For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.” You learn to hold loosely.

    I suppose the ideal would be to put down roots, hold loosely, and live simply.

    Nice article!

  4. Jason

    Living in a time of transition (moving back to the US and going to seminary), I’m longing for this deep-rootedness in a place. Those who are in transition want stability, and those who are in routine want change–the grass is always greener.

  5. Tony Heringer

    Excellent! The beauty of the gospel is it gives us the ability to redeem and restore the place we inhabit right now. I believe the new heaven and earth are renewed — this place redeemed and restored fully. The grand adventure we are on now is seeing in part what we will one day see in full. This has made certain phrases in Scripture leap off the page (e.g. “God so loved the world”, “all creation groans”, “if they keep silent, the rocks will cry out!” etc.). It makes me aware that all of life is sacred and keeps me alert to what Jesus (“in him all things hold together” – Col 1:17) is up to each day.

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