No Justice, No Sustainability

A local organic farmer, Ed Perkins of Sassafras Farm, invited us to write a guest article for his sustainability column in the Athens Messenger. The following is an adaptation of the piece that ran in the newspaper on July 30, 2022.

Nonprofits can’t back political candidates, but we can champion causes.  Arguably, that’s the very purpose of the nonprofit sector – to identify issues that matter to the public and work to improve them.  That sounds a lot like what government is supposed to do, too, particularly a democracy. 

Some say that our democracy is failing.  It’s hard to argue that it’s not, and the reasons why don’t seem terribly complicated.  Power is concentrated in the hands of too few who make decisions based primarily on economic factors— too few people considering too narrow a perspective.  When we the people get lax in our role as citizens, we unwittingly let others make our decisions for us.  When we vote, we make purposeful choices.  When we don’t vote, we’ve chosen to let someone else choose. 

My partner and I co-founded a nonprofit called Tenderfoot Learning Lab.  Tenderfoot’s mission is sustainability education – meaning we teach people how to live and work with their community’s social, economic, and environmental health in mind.  People tell me often that sustainability isn’t a broad public concern, but rather a mere hobby, mostly of affluent white people.  I disagree.  The goal of sustainability is to sustain conditions that allow humanity to thrive.  (The goal isn’t to save the planet – Earth is nearly certain to outlast humans.  It just might change in ways that make it uninhabitable to us – and right now, we’re pushing it to do exactly that.  That’s what climate change is.) 

So, the goal is for all of humanity to thrive. We don’t thrive when our water and air are polluted.  We don’t thrive when species we depend on for food and medicine die out.  We don’t thrive when we fear and condemn each other for our physical and ideological differences.  We don’t collectively thrive when we succumb to violence or pilfer resources from marginalized communities to get ahead.  What does thriving mean to you?  Good health?  Having good food and enough of it?  A good education?  A well-paying job?  A clean, safe place to live?  This is what sustainability looks like, but only when everyone has access to this quality of life.  When prosperity belongs to the few, the many revolt.  No justice, no peace.  No justice, no sustainability.

Mostly, sustainability comes down to decision-making.  In many sectors of society, money is the dominant factor in our decisions – the bottom line.  But climate change is Earth’s clap back – “Dear humans, we evolved you to have those big brains.  Use them to consider a broader view, or natural consequences will unfold.”  A starting point is to look at our own routines and notice how many decisions we make daily versus how many we leave to others.  Did the cashier hand you your new purchases in a plastic bag or did you choose a bag (or no bag)?  If you made your bread yourself, would you have added all those sweeteners?  Who grew your tomatoes and what did they put on them?  Simply being more aware of our decisions and who’s making them empowers us to make more intentional choices. 

But once we see all the choices we can make, how do we choose?  I encourage my students to “make the choice that maximizes the good you put into the world.”  This means considering the triple bottom line:  people, planet, and profit.  An example:  At the grocery store, I look for food that is locally produced.  Small producers selling to their own community are less likely to use chemicals that harm community health.  Shopping locally also means my food travels fewer miles to my plate, so it’s fresher, more nourishing, and requires less fuel to get to me.  Lastly, more of my dollar stays in my community, contributing to our own economic thriving rather than supporting a faceless corporation with distant headquarters.  (And when my budget is too tight for local food, I buy seeds – they’re affordable, and there’s no better way to regain control over your food and its impact than to grow your own.)

Sustainability, like democracy, requires broad participation and vigilance from individuals and organizations. (Faceless corporations in fact are made up of many faces – all organizations are, and people everywhere can learn sustainable decision-making.)  Our relationships with our government, with the outdoors, with each other are not unlike marriages – they require ongoing effort or they decay in our absenteeism. 

So vote.  Vote at the polls for the leaders you want at the helm of our government organizations.  Vote with your pennies for the business practices you want more companies to embrace.  Vote for the causes you care about by supporting nonprofits with your time, talent, and treasure.  Vote.  Get in the arena.  We won’t effect change from the sidelines.

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