A Note:. I use gentrification as my primary example here because it is an easy illustration and it is something that has been in the news quite a bit lately. I know that there is the possibility that this, the bordering on caricature I create of the “typical gentrifier,” and other examples that I highlight below may hit close to home for some and that it may result in some feelings of defensiveness. Facing these issues, particularly if we are coming from a place of privilege ourselves, is not easy, it is uncomfortable, it SHOULD be uncomfortable because it is when we face these issues, when we face that discomfort and the reasons behind it that real change can occur. I ask that if these feelings come up for you that you take a moment to pause and reflect as to why.
I also want to note what the three pillars of sustainability are that I mention below. Sustainability requires that we consider three things when we take an action – these are the environmental; economic; and social/community impacts of that action. It also means that we make a choice that supports environmental, economic, and social equality and justice wherever possible. Finding a balance in these three realms is often difficult and may at times feel impossible, but no one ever said that changing the world would be easy.
To those well-off progressives who have recently discovered a creative city with a great selection of locavore restaurants, a funky night life, and just enough local characters to make things interesting. You who proclaim yourself to be in favor of diversity, providing food and housing for the less fortunate, and who likely sport a “health care for all” bumper sticker on your car. I have a question I’d like you to consider…
You have money but still consider yourself one of the common folk. After all you worked for it. You pulled yourself up by those college educated, middle class, white bootstraps and got yourself a job right out of college. You worked and squirreled money away in your 401K. You bought your first home in the 1990s and managed to sell it for a tidy sum some time in 2007, before the crash. And yes, your retirement fund took a hit in 2008, but you’d followed your investment advisor’s advice and diversified so you recovered.
When you found this funky NewYorkSeattleSanFranciscoPortlandAtlanta neighborhood that you so wanted to move to you were thrilled. The kids had moved out, so you were ready downsize anyway. Simplification was the word of the day and you were determined to only own things that you love. So, a condominium with its smaller size and no need for lawn care sounded perfect.
You found the perfect realtor referred to you by a friend. You met several times and finally they say they’ve found just the right place for you. It’s a small luxury condominium complex located near Everything. The building is LEEDS certified and greener than the grass of the lawn in front of your first house (which was pretty green as you made sure it was covered in water friendly, indigenous plants). There are solar panels on the roof, the kitchen counters are covered with glass tiles made from recycled glass bottles, and the cabinets are finished with wood recovered from a two-century old barn. This place might be new, but it has history!
And even better, you get to meet the developer. You get to shake hands with the person who is overseeing the building of your new home. It’s all about the personal touch.
And this is where I have questions for you. When you met this person, this developer who was designing your environmentally friendly new home, did you stop to ask them how many development projects they had built for renters in your new neighborhood? Did you ask if they considered making a few of the units affordable to those who may not have the same resources as you? Did you suggest that it was important to you that the home you live in not just be sustainable in the environmental sense, but also the social and community sense; after all there are three pillars to sustainability and you are pretty sure the developer has the "economic" one covered.
Now I broaden the question to everyone else, even those who, like yours truly, will likely never find ourselves in the position of buying any home let alone a shiny new one. How often do you consider the broader social impacts of your actions? The environmental ones are easy – most of us try to drive less, walk more, buy organic when we can afford it, recycle, and try to lower our carbon footprint where we can. The economic ones are pretty straight forward too – buy local, spend what you can at the co-op if there is one near, support minority businesses, and share what extra you have to support local causes. But the social ones are more difficult. They are harder to define, are more complex, and they require thinking outside of our private boxes to even see them.
One big one of course is to first recognize that being white, college educated, or having a job that pays something close to a livable wage makes the first two pillars of sustainability easier for you to achieve. Buying organic and local can be difficult if you live in a food desert or are faced with the choice of making rent or feeding yourself. There are other questions to ask, other things to notice.
Even a simple thing like your one car commute from the suburbs into work has social implications. If you live outside a more urban area, you might go through neighborhoods that are often populated by lower income families and the emissions from your vehicle, and the thousands of others that pass through that neighborhood every day, contribute to higher asthma rates for inner city children. You are not off the hook if you are in a rural state like Maine either, where your commute increases road wear and tear, raising road maintenance costs in towns you don’t even live in and which may not have the tax base to cover the cost of repair.
And yes, someone needs to acknowledge that the reason you even live in those suburbs, and have that commute is likely because you couldn’t afford to buy a home in or closer to the city you loved because you’d been priced out of it.
It means asking yourself why it is that you don’t want the residential drug treatment center for teenagers, affordable housing, or halfway house in your neighborhood and realizing that if “Them” or “Those people” are part of your private mental reasoning that you are not as openminded as you think. And if your reasons are property values, perhaps take a second look at just why you find money more important than a human being who needs a second chance, or a roof over their head that they can afford. And it means if it is something you support, showing up at your town meeting and saying so.
If you are a small business owner moving to a new neighborhood because the rent is cheap, do you take the time to get to know your neighborhood? If you are hiring do you seek first to employ people from that community? If you are someone who offers any kind of healing or wellness service, do you ever offer your massage/yoga class/therapy/reiki/etc. for free or on a sliding scale on occasion to make it accessible to more people? Do you explain to your full price paying clients that their doing so enables you to offer it to as wide an array of people as possible?
Every action we take has an impact, some more obvious than others. We can far more easily track and document the environmental and economic ones, but the social impacts are not so easily defined, and they often ask more of us on a deeper, more personal level. There are times when we feel that there are no good choices, that any action will harm someone. But these social impacts are the ones we, all of us not just the well-off, who I admit are a bit of an easy target, need to begin to take into consideration, and to act on. I would go further to say that if we do come from a place of privilege, whether it be one of education, gender, economic, social standing, ability, skin color, or sexual orientation, that we are obligated to do so.
We can no longer seek to change the world just by one car pool, one bottle of green laundry detergent or locally grown head of lettuce at a time. If we are to truly effect change it begins with each of seeking to live truly sustainable lives and to bring our actions into line with our values, even if it means sacrificing some comfort or convenience.