If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you’re already interested in and/or committed to sustainable living. By “sustainable living,” I mean a lifestyle that values quality of life over quantity of possessions — a lifestyle that recognizes and honors, as Aldo Leopold put it, that each of us is “a member of a community of interdependent parts.”

But, you also might be like many of us who have found that ecological- and socially-conscious living can be surprisingly more difficult in rural communities than in urban contexts. The infrastructure simply doesn’t exist in most rural communities to accommodate the behaviors we have come to associate with sustainable living: commuting by public transportation and bike, recycling, and even buying from local farmers.

Take, for example, my hometown in rural southern Illinois, where there is absolutely no infrastructure for recycling, no public transportation, and local grocers sell produce from California and Chile instead of from local producers. While the local grocery store is within walking distance, and most children live less than a mile from their elementary schools, the main streets of town are devoid of sidewalks and bike lanes. Without sidewalks and crosswalks, crossing an intersection of two busy roads on foot is difficult and dangerous and not something most people feel comfortable doing– let alone letting their children do. So, even environmentally committed parents find that protecting their children from the very specific and immediate dangers of speeding traffic takes priority over protecting the Earth from the very nebulous and complex dangers of climate change.

When rural infrastructure doesn’t support sustainable choices (and actually discourages them), trying to act on a commitment to sustainable living can be difficult and disheartening. But, moving to the city to pursue a more sustainable lifestyle isn’t an option for most people. So, what’s an ecologically-minded person to do?

When I lived in a town of 7,000 people in Illinois, I found that there were actually many others who were asking themselves the same question. So, we started meeting at a local church and coming up with a plan to encourage sustainable behaviors in our community. In one year’s time, we found that we could accomplish quite a bit when working together:Family picnic

  • We started gathering recyclables at the church, and one of our group members would haul them away in his big truck once a week to the nearest recycler.
  • We organized a carpool calendar so that we could coordinate carpools for those of us who commuted the forty miles into St. Louis several times a week.
  • At the local youth center, we worked to install a community garden and mentor the children and teenagers on how to tend it.
  • We purchased durable plates and silverware to be used instead of disposables at our church potlucks.
  • We built bike racks and offered free classes on bicycle safety.
  • For Earth Day, we organized a special public service in a city park and developed a handout that encouraged sustainable behaviors and helped people locate places to recycle and drop off household hazardous waste.

In short, we combined our resources, tools, and interests and offered them for the good of the community. And we encouraged and supported each other along the way.

Today, that small rural community has curbside recycling because they petitioned city hall for it. Before I moved to Portland, I was able to attend the first city hall meeting where the issue was considered. The room was overflowing with people I knew and people I had never seen. These people came from many different political persuasions, socioeconomic backgrounds and ideological contexts. Only one of them spoke to oppose the implementation of curbside recycling. The ordinance was passed unanimously in 2009.

Updates from my friends in the community about their sustainability endeavors continue to inspire and encourage me.

I offer this story as inspiration and encouragement to those of you in rural contexts, as well. Your actions toward a sustainable lifestyle might be very different than the ones I mentioned here. Maybe you’ll start a bulk foods co-op or local farmer’s market, or start cooking meals together, or start a plastic bag reduction campaign.

But for me, the key to living more sustainably in a rural area was building relationships and finding a way to connect: with others’ values, resources, talents, and interests. Those connections provide thought-provoking conversations, support, encouragement, and a belief in our ability to actually “be the change we want to see in the world.” Being connected to a community in this way sustained me by enriching my life and allowing me to see what it really means to be an active “member of a community of interdependent parts.”