RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Changing the World with Your Neighborhood

The excitement of spring has passed. Filled with hope that we could save the planet, we joined with citizens in an estimated 7,000 cities and dutifully turned off all our lights on Earth Hour, March 29. But then the UN released “the Fifth Assessment Report” and told us the grim news about global climate change, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented ... The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”

So, on April 22, Earth Day, we went to the park and listened to a lot of folk singers, got so depressed that we left our paper cups and plastic forks on the grass. Because, you know, what can we do?

It’s true that we can’t do it all, and that the raw materials we have are just ourselves and our families. But now it’s time to take some time off, and we’re torn between a long car trip, or flying on a jet plane to a faraway place or maybe subjecting ourselves to the whims of Amtrak and chugging out to see the relatives.

What if we take this climate change seriously and stay home? Maybe we’re not really meant to travel so much. Maybe there are enough pictures of the Parthenon, the Eiffel Tower, and even Old Faithful, that we don’t need to snap our own. After all, how many people do you know that take a glamorous vacation and come back just as dull, uneducated, and boring as when they left?

And what about the stress of the yearly migration? The packing, the carrying, the organization of dogs in kennels and remembering to stop the mailman, the did-I-lock-all-the-doors and the whole new set of schedules? What if you just put all your clocks, watches, computers, phones, and other irritations in a drawer and ignore them for a week?

The idea of spending leisurely days at home, has recurred every decade or so when finances or gasoline supplies were tight, or when people just started yearning for community. Now, we realize, the idea is essential for maintaining the planet for the next generation. Whether we’re broke or flush, we’re seeing that just because you want to go away doesn’t mean you should do it. Maybe that vacation money should be spent in your community.

A few years ago, a friend we’ll call Chris decided to make her neighborhood perfect. She had been a victim of downsizing in her job, so she needed to be thrifty. Staying home saved gasoline, not to mention wear and tear on her ancient van. So she tidied up her house, put in a fireplace, polished the floors, and settled in. She loves to garden, to the extent that she eventually started a small business raising plants, but when she started her permanent stay-cation, the gardening was just a way to beautify her place and her neighborhood.

Within a few years, many of the neighbors had begun to garden along with her, but they had also caught the bug to make the neighborhood a dream place. One woman moved her pottery supplies, kiln and all, out of the basement and into the garage. She set up a pottery studio that neighbors can join for a small fee that covers materials and utilities.

Chris says she’s looking for a neighbor to start a yoga studio, but in the meantime she’s hosting garden parties and giving lots of advice on where to plant what in the yard. The neighborhood is so successful that, even though the houses are small and middle-aged, it’s a sought-after place for people moving to town. Folks who move there tend to stay for years and the local school is one of the most stable in a town where one of four families changes schools every year.

When you ask Chris how she started, she tells you she first wanted to change the world. She’s been a leader in recycling programs, community media and peace activism. But then she decided that all one person can do is take care of their own place, their own selves. This is something you can’t do, by the way, if you’re sitting on a tour bus in, say, Wales.

So she started talking to neighbors, assessing the community’s benefits and what was missing. What necessities are within a short walk? What others are farther away? When is a car necessary and when can you use a bicycle? One idea she’s had is car sharing. But then, she says, you’d need an administrator and some cars that would need service. Somebody else will have to take that idea and run with it.

Not her. The idea, see, is to simplify for yourself, and, in doing so, encourage folks around you to do the same. All we have is ourselves.

That’s how we save the planet.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email: margot

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2014

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