If you know a little bit about ecology, interdependence is a familiar idea. Everything––plant, animal, water, insect, bacteria––is mutually reliant on other organisms in the ecosystem. No species exists in a vacuum, and change for one affects all. The reality of interdependence means that even seemingly small changes can have gigantic effects, for better or for worse.
As environmentalists, we often focus on the “for worse” part of the equation. In a world where humans have decimated countless delicate ecosystems in a matter of decades, we want to raise awareness of our destructive potential in order to reduce further harm. For homeowners concerned with ethically stewarding the land, our interconnectedness quickly becomes evident. Sure, you can decide not to spray chemicals on your lawn to let milkweed grow for the Monarchs, but your gestures will only go so far if Mr. Nextdoor, Ms. AcrossTheStreet and Mx. Kitty-Corner are spraying Roundup on the regular. The wind doesn’t respect property lines; chemicals don’t care that you want to create a hummingbird haven.
But interconnection goes both ways. Mindful actions of an individual can and do have a positive impact on the larger community. Perhaps you participate in No Mow May and your neighbor takes an interest. You explain what it is and why it’s important to you. They decide to join and by the end of the month your street is filled with long lawns, happy pollinators, and less-stressed residents. The same snow-ball effect can happen with planting native, dealing with invasive species, going solar, or any number of sustainable practices. It’s not always this simple of course, but investing time in your community, taking an interest in the people who walk the nearby earth, developing mutual-aid networks, and generally being “neighborly” can have a powerful impact. When there is a local threat––environmental or otherwise––having a neighborhood network ready to act is invaluable. It is also just an all-around pleasant way to live.
Ecologically aware communities develop when people get curious about each others’ landcare practices and insights. Sharing sustainable practices you’ve adopted, and inquiring about a neighbor’s discoveries is a great first step. Even if you don’t agree on everything, the connection matters. Not everyone has the same background, values, and access––resources differ and it’s crucial not to shame or preach––but sharing as you learn can be bonding and enlightening. Educate yourself and each other about environmental issues. Book clubs are great community-builders (next month we’ll share some book recs!). Read up on local issues together, then see who’s already organizing around issues that matter to you––usually someone is if you look hard enough! Ask what you can do to support them. Then show up, ideally with a neighbor, and do it.
Cultivating healthy, ecologically aware communities unites our power, multiplies our impact and improves our quality of life. But, for better or for worse, we are connected to the larger world as well––a world which includes 100 companies that contribute over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. These companies benefit from a culture that over-emphasizes individual responsibility because it shifts focus away from culpable parties––the CEOs and policies that enable environmental destruction for profit, and the companies themselves––and erases any notion of corporate responsibility. To make matters worse, consumer behavior-change campaigns often veer into classist and ableist territory. We need to be mindful of the harm these strategies cause, even as we find power and agency in our own small-scale efforts.
Should we make ethical choices around personal consumption, within our means and ability? Yes! Should we shame individuals who cannot, for whatever reason, shift their habits identically? Of course not.
Is it urgent to hold companies responsible for their environmental destruction and demand change? A resounding yes. The good news is that this is not an either/or situation.
We can, and must, do both!