Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Changing People & Changing Systems
distributed 3/19/04 - ©2004

Personal choices and personal actions are important, but they, alone, can not create an environmentally sustainable world.

There are many examples that remind me of the need for systemic as well as personal change. Two prominent cases related to institutional racism stand out in my memory.

There was great turmoil in Boston over school integration in 1974. The problems there were linked to longstanding patterns of residential segregation, unequal neighborhood schools, and a school board that shifted boundaries to maintain racially biased school enrollments. The crisis called for dealing with lots of hate-filled and violent people, but the school situation did not really change for the better until a federal court ordered sweeping changes in the school district's structure and policies.

Over a decade ago, when Los Angeles erupted into riots, Rodney King asked, "Can we all get along?" But the problem underlying the violence was not only individual prejudice and acts of discrimination. Other factors included ghettoized communities, systemic unemployment, pervasive economic and cultural conflicts among immigrant groups, and a police culture of brutality. Unfortunately, many of those problems still remain.

In both Boston and LA, personal actions were important in resolving racial conflicts. Many people did important things in affirming non-violence, and in building relationships of trust and community. But as we see in both of those cases -- and in countless others -- the healing of communities also requires institutional reforms.

The deeply entrenched systems of institutional racism function somewhat independently from personal choices. The laws, policies, values and assumptions that maintain racism shape the worldviews and the choices that are open to individuals. Good-hearted people still end up participating in biased and exclusionary social systems.

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The same sort of institutional and cultural patterns that propagate racism also preserve and maintain our culture's environmental exploitation. Real progress toward a sustainable society will only happen when systemic changes work in concert with personal choices.

I have been reminded of that truth several times in the past week, as a number of people responded to last Friday's Eco-Justice Notes. While they all expressed appreciation for that column's affirmation of a pedestrian culture, and the joy to be found when we choose walking over driving, they all reminded me that walking is not always a realistic option.

Linda wrote about "the benefits of making friends outside your own socio-economic peer group among the people you meet taking the bus." She added, "in this age of suburban sprawl, often walking and biking to our workplaces is not possible without a bus link."

Jim is helping to plan a "walk across Colorado" as part of a statewide campaign for affordable housing. (A note to our Colorado constituency -- I hope you'll support this "Housing Justice!" effort when it comes to your part of the state.) He wrote to tell me that "walking on the Interstate highways is unlawful. Most of the time there are ways around this problem, like service roads and old highways which run parallel to the Interstate, but not always. There are places where one literally cannot get from A to B without a car. Some of these are very serious, like getting from Colorado Springs to Pueblo without going 15 miles out of the way (which when you're walking is a day's hike)."

Interstate highways also figure into Eileen's comments. She is an avid advocate of urban walking who has often publicized barriers to pedestrianism. An Interstate divides her neighborhood, so walking and driving are both confined to the few places where bridges cross the freeway. She reports that the current reconstruction of one of those interchanges has been designed in a way that effectively eliminates safe walking. A person trying to get to a home or business just a few blocks down the street may be forced into a mile-long detour to use a walker-friendly overpass.

From what I've heard this week, the vision of a less car-centered society is deeply attractive to many of us.

To move toward that vision, there are times when we, as individuals, do need to make the personal choice to leave the auto in its parking place. We can walk a few blocks or take the bus. It is good and appropriate to nudge ourselves, and others, to do that more often.

Good planning and design encourages us to leave the car behind. Appropriate mass transit provides helpful options. Neighborhoods designed in accord with the principles of "New Urbanism" reinforce community and reduce driving. Many cities have downtown "malls" where a street has been converted to sidewalks and planters; these have become vibrant areas with a mix of housing, offices, restaurants and stores.

Changes in the design of transportation systems, housing developments and downtown geography don't happen just because a few people decide to change their personal behavior. Those sorts of systemic changes require long-term studies, changes in zoning laws, ongoing political commitment, and the investment of major funds.

Our faithful vision of community and sustainability draws us toward a society that is very different from the one in which most of us live. Getting there will require changes in both personal behaviors and institutional structures.

Let's work hard in both of those directions.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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