Sustainability for the Rest of Us

As I commit increasingly to obedience to God, I have become more confused about my place in the movement towards sustainability. Surely, one aspect of seeking God’s realm on Earth is care for the environment. I became committed to ecological responsibility in a class I took in 1971; since then I have eaten from lower on the food chain; reduced, reused, and recycled; and taken responsibility for the ecosystem of which I am part. In 1982 I awakened to the spiritual aspect of life, and only since then have I defined my ecological concerns in terms of a faith journey. However, though I am resolute in favor of sustainability, the movement itself has not been calling to me. The visible advocacy for a sustainable future has a flaw that alienates me and, I suspect, too many others. I fear that there is no place for me in a sustainable future, and hence no place for me in the sustainability movement of the present. Until the defect I perceive—the failure to be inclusive—is remedied, efforts at widespread sustainability are bound to fail.

The visions of a sustainable future presented by example and by endorsement appear not to include those of us with disabilities, whether by chronic condition, from trauma, or the frailty intrinsic to aging. Environmental activists are missing an opportunity to make people like me full allies. We, like them, are seeking to bring God’s realm into being on Earth, though we are called to play different parts. I will address only this one aspect of the inclusivity that I see missing, the one that speaks to my condition and is shared by a multitude of others. If those befriending the environment are intentional in this omission—survival of the fittest and all that—there is no need to converse further. But if we are ready to dream together of a future in which all can be included, I offer some thoughts. I challenge leaders to issue purposeful invitations to all kinds of people to be included in the sustainable community.

My fear is illustrative. People like me are tempted to ignore the issues (taking fewer steps to lessen our ecological footprint) rather than resolve those fears. How can we face evidence that there may be no way for us to survive? Ecological concerns are frightening in the big picture, and all the more so for individuals unable to picture a sustainable alternative that includes us. Furthermore, environmentalists seem to rotate among haranguing the majority as evil-doers, building private oases of sustainability, and sinking into despair. Outsiders are perhaps too frightened for our own futures to address ecological responsibility. We must reiterate the hope that there is enough for everyone’s needs, and no one’s greed; it gives perspective. But what if I see something as a need and you think it is greed? Am I destined by my physical differences to be a part of the problem and never a part of the solution?

I am a bit different from others, but I want to be included. People like me who do not see themselves in the plan may not fight as hard as I will to be included. We have often become comfortable being outsiders, being different. Many Quakers experience the same sense of being outsiders when living our values—when we live as directed by Spirit instead of the consumer market system; when we follow dictates of leadings instead of a career path; when we put God before country. But if supposedly apathetic people felt included, they/we would be willing allies. There would be hope instead of despair, because most of us would be working together towards a common Earth-friendly goal. To get there, we need a vision for a sustainable future that is broad and inclusive. Besides the physical survival of the planet, we need to address whether we are nurturing the self-respect, self-reliance, and radical inclusion of all. The temptation is to say "of course" and dismiss it. However, it is hard to include a lot of people.

Though I want to be part of the "we" that works creatively towards the sustainable future the Earth requires, my needs differ. The specific challenge is that because of my disability, I need more than my equal share of renewable resources. Here is the uncomfortable radical edge: I think my fair share is more than most people’s. If this is true, I may not be able to meet a personal goal of sustainability, even without attempting to offset those who are not even trying. If so, is there room in the sustainable living movement for all of us, for those who need more than others? Or, as seems the case if the issue is not addressed, will the public image of the environmental movement remain one meant for only healthy, able-bodied people who like to walk far, live rustically, and farm manually? If a blended community of all kinds of people is envisioned, some reality checks are in order. Do we know what we are up against?

In a sustainable world, we live in community, sharing resources, each of us taking no more than we can return to the Earth. We use only the current solar energy rather than borrowing from the past and future in the form of oil and other resources not renewable in the time frame we use them. To use plastics takes too much of a person’s share of the world’s resources: the time to create the oil used to make the plastics, the energy for manufacture, and the footprint of the cost of the toxic waste. We might resolve not to use plastics. But I use plastic leg braces to make me mobile. Would the alternative of a (presumably solar-powered) wheelchair be more sustainable in the long run (metal being more easily accessed and recovered)? Even if it were, if we add the personal costs of access, the decreased productive output (there are things I can do now that I would not be able to do from a chair), and my isolation, I feel justified in saying I need those leg braces.

They are formed to fit me, and cannot be shared: "Tuesday I’m mobile, Wednesday my neighbor is." But if an individual’s share of the world’s resources is limited to the sustainable, where does that leave me? Already, in a living community, I am a drain because of limits on my abilities—I cannot do my share of physical labor. I cannot walk distances (and even standing, waiting my turn at the farmer’s market or for public transport is a serious drain on my limited energy). Small motor skills (like chopping or peeling food) are difficult and even risky. Yes, there are many things I can do, like teaching math with an overhead projector, writing on a computer (not by hand), and so on, but I can picture them only in the society we live in now. I don’t hear enough about roles for people like me in the sustainable future. Given the aging of the population in this country, surely there are others with similar concerns. About 20 percent of people over 65 in this country are chronically disabled. Though the percentage has been decreasing, the actual number of disabled people has been increasing because there are more people in that age group, which was projected by the UN in 1999 to rise to from 14 percent of the population in 2000 to 26 percent by 2050. (For more details on the economic impact of the aging population, see Global Aging: Achieving Its Potential, a report from AARP available on

Turning this around, I wonder what a sustainable community would look like, and how we could live now, inclusive of differently abled. Of course it would be easier just to isolate such people in institutions designed for their needs—but most of us would refuse to go, at least until there are no other options. So here is what I request: Let’s envision the future, but when we do, remember the marginalized—for example, the physically and mentally disabled. How will we create a place for us? When we say "we should . . ." does our statement hold true for the differently abled? For people with allergies to soy or other staples of the new life we propose? For people whose internal thermostat works poorly and are always cold or always hot? For claustrophobic or agoraphobic people? For those managing sleep apnea or diabetes? We need efficient solutions to practical problems, which often cost resources. Who are we leaving outside of our statements of sustainability?

Since I am not particularly integrated into the sustainability movement, my questions and ideas may be obviously those of an outsider, but that is for whom I speak. I will offer some specifics, to give a flavor for the kind of conversation I would find beneficial. When we advocate walking and public transportation, let us also address the issue of wheelchair access to trains and buses, and also public benches—for there are those who find it exhausting getting to the stop and waiting with nowhere to sit.

Small electric carts for local transportation often are not allowed on public roads, and they are easily stolen if left, more so than regular cars—when we ask for bicycle lanes and bike racks we could ask about that, too. The financially marginalized find it difficult to afford natural cotton clothing, organic food, and other expensive options over the cheap and dirty (dirty in terms of the environment), so we might advocate for the sustainable options to be so labeled at thrift stores and anywhere they’re discounted. We could also encourage stores to subsidize organic food with the prices of other items (as did the co-op I used in Seattle), and otherwise make them financially obtainable. Bottled water and other food and drink is more ecological in the larger sizes (less packaging), but many cannot lift a half gallon, and waste is an issue, too. For example, returnable glass bottles were my first choice at home until they became too heavy for me to handle. At least the containers are recyclable. Does the delivery system you use create an option for carrying and repackaging bulky items? I loved living collectively for many years, but no longer visit my old communal house because of the stairs (especially with no railings). The "slow elevator" is a great option in housing; the able bodied will avoid it because they can go faster by foot, and only those who need it will use it. These are just a few of the ways that I hope the parameters of our conversation and advocacy will broaden.

To create a sustainable future in partnership, we all want to be included in the community of sustainability. It is just that when we talk about what "we" should be doing, we forget that it may not be an option for others, and we alienate them. It is not enough to change the statement to, "What I am doing…" Although this is less alienating, it does not create for me, and others like me, a clear image of what we can do, will be able to do, or how we will be a part of God’s new realm. And for sure, more than anything, we do want that.

Diane Pasta

Diane Pasta is a member of Palo Alto (Calif.) Meeting. She currently serves as clerk for the Ben Lomand Quaker Center Association board.