Environmental activists are always asking us to do one thing: act out of collective rather than individual interests, whether it's eschewing McDonald's or taking a reusable bag to the grocery store, or realizing that while global warming might not sound half-bad if you're in Duluth in February, it's going to be bad news for everyone soon if nothing's done to slow it. In a country that enshrines the rights of the individual and self-interest, that's a tough pitch.
Still, Wallace Stegner, the novelist and environmentalist, writing at the end of World War II, said one could not be pessimistic about the American West. "This is the native home of hope," he contended. "When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery."
In Colorado, as in Montana and Alaska and South Dakota, people like to say sometimes that it's the way of the state for one neighbor to help another, because a neighbor is often the only one to turn to when it's 10 below and your truck won't start and your cows have escaped the pasture. But that's a rural vision. In the urbanized West, we've also seen the return of individualism alongside a long-festering resentment of the federal government.
It's the neighborliness we must reclaim if we're to make our cities, as well as our countrysides, healthier and more sustainable. That's the message of Richard Jurin, associate professor of environmental and sustainability studies at the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley. Jurin will be in town this Thursday, Jan. 29, as the keynote speaker at the Green Cities Coalition summit, giving a talk titled "Overcoming Barriers to Collaboration."
"Barriers are pretty much what I work with," he explains in an interview, "and that's the part I find really interesting."
One barrier, he explains, has to do with what he calls the sociological aspect of sustainability: "The way we actually live together. We've become very isolated from one another in terms of community-building, communities of people who actually live and work and thrive together, not just live in the same neighborhood. We've commodified almost everything in our lives, and we've become individualized to the extent we don't actually need our neighbors anymore — and with social media, we don't even need friends."
And yet, Jurin notes, "When we have more personal interactions, we're a lot happier. And when we are willing to actually work together and communicate together, you get a lot more thinking. You start becoming more community-oriented. Everything starts getting better, everything just starts working. And so you have things such as urban agriculture. That in turn will make people healthier, less stressed. It sounds very silly, but we've got the evidence to show this is actually true."
The Green Cities Coalition was born of similar idealism when it was formed in 2008, bringing together individuals, nonprofit organizations and businesses "to promote ecologically, economically and socially healthy cities in El Paso County," according to its mission statement. Today, it can boast of having worked with more than 450 entities to develop initiatives such as encouraging recycling and promoting wind power.
Konrad Schlarbaum, who serves on the coalition's steering committee and is the sustainability coordinator for Pikes Peak Community College, was a student of Jurin's and regards him as a mentor. Others who are concerned with environmentalism "point to all the things that are going wrong instead of all the things that we can do right," Schlarbaum says. Jurin "paves a positive way forward on how to achieve sustainability — and he doesn't just speak about it, he's also done it. He's done these things at the college level and he's also stirred up a coalition of sorts in Greeley, which is a very conservative town. So he's overcome barriers there and the big message is, compromise.
"People think that's an ugly word, that we shouldn't have to compromise. A lot of folks in sustainability want to be very extreme about it, but the reality is, we can't get there without starting somewhere."
The summit this week could be a starting point for some. Besides Jurin's talk, and a Q&A session with him, it's slated to include an internship and volunteer fair and breakout sessions with working groups in such areas as water, transportation and energy. Attendees will also be given a copy of the "Environmental & Sustainable Directory of the Pikes Peak Region." More than 200 organizations have been invited to participate, Schlarbaum says. "We expect a lot of them to show."
Despite all of Jurin's talk of neighborliness, they may find him bracing.
"We don't have to be saintly and all do 'Kumbaya,'" Jurin says. "Let's get that BS out of the road.
"People have been living together for centuries because it works. There's so much mythology about eking out a living on the edges of existence in the past. Trying to be an urban homesteader today, you can't do it, be totally independent.
"But it's not just a straightforward, simple, 'Oh, we're just going to live together nicely' — we need to temper it with realism, and say, 'What were we doing in the past and what are we going to do in the future?'"