Sustainability: Planet at the Crossroads

As signs of climate change grow, and leaders lack political will to change course, people are acting in community to create a world that works for all.
Oreste Zevola
illustration by Oreste Zevola

It would be easy enough  to make the case that the past 10 years have been ones of unmitigated disaster for the environment.

The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen by 20 parts per million. Worse, we've begun to have a sense of what that relentless, accelerating rise actually means: bigger, stronger hurricanes; radically changing seasons; melting sea ice; sinking islands. And worse still, we've seen a world politically unable to cope with its implications: the U.S. has refused to help with global warming in any way, wasting one valuable year after another even as China and India launch into full-on development on the worst possible trajectories, emulating every mistake we've pioneered. There is nothing—nothing—sustainable about the planet we've built.

And yet, against that backdrop, something just as real is happening: the flowering of a thousand individual and community efforts towards a very different world. Those efforts may produce one of two results. Either their visionary beauty will help rouse the larger society, economy, and culture to deep action that wards off the worst trouble now headed our way, or they will serve as the seeds for the working culture that comes … after. Either way, they are where hope now resides.


Andy Lipkis, a teenager in the early 1970s, obsessed with organizing a tree-planting project in his native Los Angeles. And not growing out of it. By now, the Tree People have planted millions of trees—to hold back erosion, to offer shade from the heat, to provide fruit for hungry people. And they've planted millions of seeds—of ideas about what might be possible sprouting in the minds of an entire generation of Angelenos who have been through their school programs or seen the green pleasure of their groves. Now, willing to deal with the devil that is bureaucracy, they've launched the TREES program: Trans-Agency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability. It aims for nothing less than public funding of a "wide-scale retrofit of the Los Angeles landscape so the city can function and be managed as a living ecosystem."

Up the coast in Portland, meet the volunteer corps behind Intersection Repair. Your intersection doesn't seem broken? Well, watch what happens if, for an afternoon, you close it to cars and set up a tea house in the middle. Suddenly there's community where before there'd just been anonymous traffic. And when the street reopens—well, there's no reason the intersection can't still be a public square. Not if every facing wall and fence is crammed with art, if the street is painted in a giant sunflower or re-cobbled in brick, if there are community bulletin boards on the light poles, if there's a mini-café on the corner. Not if it reclaims the dead, privatized space of the automobile for the living, breathing space of public life.

Across the country, in Burlington, Vermont's Intervale, where 10 years ago a nonprofit group leased the floodplain that had served as the city dump. It was just across the tracks from the city center, and on 200 of its fertile acres, a dozen farmers now supply 8 percent of the city's food: black beans and wheat, eggs from the chickens in the mobile coops pecking insects from between the rows of tomatoes, vegetables, and berries of every kind. Eight percent of the city's food! Not a pilot project, not a little test: proof of what is possible.

Or down the East Coast, in the toughest parts of Philadelphia, where Lily Yeh has built her Village of Arts and Humanities. In a neighborhood where the population had fallen by half, where half of those who remained were living below the poverty line, where the median household income was less than $10,000, this Chinese-born artist started by reclaiming a single abandoned lot in the summer of 1986 to create an art park. Today there's a network of 14 parks in what were vacant lots. There are refurbished abandoned homes, a youth theater, a crafts center.

"I am an artist who works with many different media and in different disciplines," she said recently. "Sculpture, painting, photography, fiber, theater, and ritual celebration."

But in fact she specializes in a different medium entirely: she's an artist who uses community in her work. Uses it and builds it and uses it and builds it, in an infinite cycle.

"It has given me a great sense of pride to read in the newspapers and see on television people talking about my community in relation to beauty and hope rather than drugs and death," said one resident. Beauty and hope!

What about Detroit, if Philly isn't tough enough for you—probably the United States' single biggest example of a city in decline. As white people fled to the suburbs the city crumbled behind them, a monument to neglect. If you study it from a satellite, a third of its 139 square miles consists of vacant lots and abandoned buildings. But now something new is happening on that land. Urban farmers have begun to turn it into productive acreage—some of their microfarms take up a city block and turn out everything from alfalfa and eggs to goat's milk. Innovative architects have proposed converting four-and-a-half square miles on the city's east side into a self-sustaining village with its own dairy and cannery.

"It's a totally surreal experience," one farmer told The New York Times as he described seeing rabbit warrens and pheasants on his lot. "You are in this urban area and you are seeing this whole natural transformation."

There's always Salina, Kansas, too. Salina's not like Detroit—its fields are filling with big box stores and chain restaurants. But on the edge of town the Land Institute has dug in for decades, doing the work that offers maybe the best hope for real sustainability on this continent: building an agriculture that doesn't depend on fossil fuels and fertilizer, but instead relies on the perennial plants that once covered the continent. They cross varieties of wheat and sunflower in the same way that Lily Yeh crosses theater and sculpture, and with the same aim: to build a community, natural and human, that actually works. Communities that don't depend on degradation for wealth, that might last longer than the next fiscal quarter or the next election cycle.

In fact, that's as good a definition of "sustainability" as you're likely to get. Sustainability is a vexed term—no one knows quite what it means. But we know, instinctively, what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean fast, and it doesn't mean cheap, and it doesn't mean easy. Those are the hallmarks of our economy at the moment, the things we hold up as our highest goals—but we'd cringe if someone used those words to describe a child of ours. Instead, we want a planet that's deeply rooted and patient and solid, a world that we can count on, an economy that's mature. A friend of mine has taken to replacing "sustainable" in his lexicon with the word "durable."

Which makes sense. We don't know if the solutions we're building now, even the finest ones, will still make sense in a millennium. But we don't need to worry about millennia, not yet. If we could slow down the momentum of our helter-skelter world just enough to let us see a mildly plausible future for our children and then their children, that would be an enormous victory. Our planet is clearly at an intersection, and that intersection is clearly in need of repair. Keep your fingers busy, and your eyes on all that is lovely. Which is not hard—it stands out so against the backdrop of "normal."


  • : Creating jobs from garbage
  • : Recycling reduces toxicity
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