Weekly Heroes: St. Mary’s Monastery

The Catholic Benedictine Sisters of St. Mary Monastery, Rock Island, Illinois lead beautiful, sustainable lives.

What is sustainable?

1) The monastery is built to minimize energy use.  The building’s temperature is controlled by a geothermal pond.  Large windows funnel sun onto a huge mass to enable passive solar heating.  Their facilities combine form, function, and sustainability.

2) The nuns lead lives of social sustainability.  The monastery used to run a school.  That has, sadly, closed but the nuns today go out into the community to work in education, social services, religious counselling, and other callings.

3) Community is sustainable.  We can all learn from the group reliance these women give each other.

4) They share this sustainability with others with the Benet House Retreat Center.  I have visited there twice to spend time in quiet introspection.  The visit is inexpensive and the nuns provide food and (if wanted) spiritual counselling.

5) Anti-consumerism.  The nuns examine the things they use and do not buy new items unless absolutely necessary.  This is not a privation, they have everything they need.


Alienation and control

“Alienation is perhaps the most effective tool of control in America, and every reminder of our real connectedness weakens that tool.” – Tim DeChristopher

I was reading Tim DeChristopher’s sentencing statement today. (DeChristopher is the man who was sentenced to two years in prison for bidding on public lands open to oil and gas leases, when he had no intention of drilling for oil or gas).   Reading this, I was sitting in my little white house not knowing anyone in my neighborhood except Earl and Jan next door.  In fact, I know few people other than my colleagues at work and my students.

Most of us lead lives much like this, cut of from our neighbors, our government, our environment our world.  And through this we give up the very autonomy we are seeking to protect.

We lead our compartmentalized little lives in our own little boxes (out of Ticky Tacky).  I know I do.  This alienation renders us silent.  We see a problem in the world – and need a home that is clean, healthy, and sustainable.  So we do what we can as individuals.  We recycle.  We scale down.  We eat local.  But, as individuals, we will never make change of the scale that is needed.  For that we need to conquer alienation and know the people and world around us.

A community’s worth of actions is needed to create change that can last.  A state’s worth of actions is needed to create something that can do some real goo.  A country’s worth of actions – that that can really start to tackle something big – like climate change or poverty.

So, how do we get from here to there.

Weekly heroes: Double down and plant it edition

How do you help a devastated neighborhood recover from blight?  In New Orleans, Growing Home from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has a Good Idea (capitalized just like Winnie the Pooh would).

Image from Growing Home

Hurricane Katrina left many homes destroyed and neighborhoods with dwindling populations facing a scattered pile of overgrown vacant lots.  Growing Home gives homeowners a grant for $10,000 off the price of the lot next door as long as they agree to improve it and plant a garden.  Everybody wins.  The homeowner has a double lot and a higher property value, the community has a lovely garden instead of blight, the city increases tax revenues.

Image from Growing Home

New landowners can grow how they want to: some plant vegetable gardens, some flowers, some create play spaces for children in the neighborhood, and some even open up as community gardens.  Improvements encouraged by the organization include native trees, lot water meters, rain barrels, compost piles, and fences.

Image from Growing Home

If this sounds good, Growing Home has a page full of resources not only for participants in their program, but also those who want to start up programs in other cities.

Needs and wants

In my next class, we are reading about the interaction between consumerism and energy use.   The first step is asking how do wants expand into needs?  In the developed world (and especially in America) we consume piles of stuff and explain most if it in terms of our needs.

Economist Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean who teaches at U.C. Berkeley. developed a list of basic needs for humans where ever they may be.  These needs are more complex, and more complexly specified than the more familial Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These needs are non-hierarchical and operate more as an interactive system.

Subsistence – Creation, health, food, shelter skills, work feedback

Protection – security, society

Affection – friendship, family, love

Understanding – curiosity, education

Participation – responsibilities, interaction, community

Leisure – play, fantasy, intimacy, privacy

Creation – skills, work, feedback

Identity – belonging, groups, recognition

Freedom – autonomy, rights, dissent

As humans, we are complex beings, and it only makes sense that our needs are complex.  However, these needs are not tied to consumption of goods.  And, no matter how much we wish it were so, we cannot purchase that many of them.

How are these achievable?  Through community, spirituality, family.  Through developing a rich inner life, and that is one of the hardest things to do.  These needed become a means as well as an end.  Through belonging to a group, I gain responsibilities and friendship.  Through developing skills, I gain autonomy and recognition.  Focus on any of the higher needs brings about the fulfillment of other needs.

After that, we need to do something even harder – translate these deeply personal needs into something that becomes valued by our greater society.  This chart below (from Wikipedia)  shows multiple way of achieving those needs.  Most do not involve things.  Those that do are not necessarily ownable things.  More importantly, many of the ways of achieving these needs involve more than one person.  And that is what we need – more than one person and that allows personal beliefs to jump forward and become societal values.


We all here about the role of individuals in our society – heck, individualism is supposed to be part of the American way as we each step out to make our own lives in the big world.  However, that got me thinking that if I am an INdividual, then there must be an opposite, a dividual.

There is: a dividual is a person who contains within him or herself the community to which they belong.  So, the separate parts of us are individual, but the joined parts of us are dividual.  We lean on each other and they lean on us and this means something deep inside of us.  A dividual is something that is cut into small pieces and shared among everyone.  And dividual keeps popping up on my spell check, which troubles me because we all know the first word and the separate part of ourselves, but not the second part and the joined part of our selves.  Dividual used to be a word that was utilized by our society regularly, which tells me that the concept was used more back then as well.

Dividualism is a sustainable concept.  We all take part in the same environment, the same community.  We share the good things and bad things that happen through it.  I cannot back out on receiving my dividual share of air pollution, not even if I wanted to.  But, I also have a dividual share of a warm spring day and the song of robins.  Mostly, the word dividual tells me to share, to perform the acts that make me dividual, that strengthen and improve my ties to others – and with that improve our environment and our community.

Can’t get there from here . . .

Individual car-based transportation is bad – ok – we’ve all heard that before.  And, I still drive my car everywhere (or have my husband drive me.)  How much of this is me being lazy / busy / personally accountable?  How much of this are factors beyond my control – stuck in a society that demands we drive by not providing alternatives?

Walk Score offers insight into that question – could I walk to the important places I need from my home, if I wanted to? My home scores a very-car-dependent 42/100, even though I live in the older, central part of a community.  Below you can see a more walkable neighborhood:

I found the program to be a bit optimistic – it listed a convenience store as a grocer – but overall the scoring looks correct.

Additionally, you can enter your commute address and receive a comparison for walking, biking, busing, and driving.   (I was completely unsurprised that I cannot get the bus from my home to work.)

What did surprise me is that it said I could bike to work in only twice the time it takes me to drive.  That’s not enough to get me balancing on a bicycle in my work clothes carrying books – but it moves me one step closer to that motorized tricycle that I’ve been dreaming of.

Much discussion is given to building alternative transportation – but more discussion should be given to the structure of our neighborhoods.  If my husband and I could walk to get groceries, to the doctor, or to the credit union, we would probably get there as often as we do Denny’s Doughnuts.

If walkability – whether tied to transportation or neighborhood viability – becomes valuable, change will come.  Already, a number of realtors use this data to sell or rent homes.  As tools like Walk Score allow people to see the value of systemic change, more change will happen.