Friday, June 5, 2009

It takes a village...

The following article by Aly Lewis, Plant With Purpose's Grant Writer, was recently posted on, an online local news network. Enjoy!

Aly Lewis: A watchdog approach may be best

With drought, fires, and global warming, I think it’s no secret that we’re not as disconnected from the environment as bottled water, fast food, and Wii sports would lead us to believe. Nor are we that disconnected from each other.

The San Diego Water Authority recently proposed a water conservation plan in which they distributed Water Conservation Door Hangers to San Diego homes. In an effort to “help neighbors help each other save water,” residents can use these hangers to “tag” the homes of their water wasting neighbors. The public humiliation will hopefully be enough to squelch offending citizens’ water-guzzling habits.

Maybe it’s just me, but somehow I don’t think this will fly in a culture where ‘dependency’ is a bad word and ‘reliance’ is even worse unless it’s coupled with ‘self.’ What’s more, nobody wants to be known as the nosy neighbor. Here in the U.S., we cling to a staunch independence, self-sufficiency, and, in San Diego, an almost religious care-freedom.

But the ever-worsening state of our environment and the ever-increasing need for us to take action force us to re-examine this little thing I’d like to call ‘interconnectedness.’

I work at an organization called Plant With Purpose, an environmental non-profit that works with rural farmers in developing countries to restore their deforested, degraded land to productivity while also spurring economic growth and opportunities. The prideful, credit-claiming part of me wants to boast of all the innovative techniques we’ve taught these farmers; instead, I have to admit it’s these poor, overlooked and often disregarded farmers from the third world who are teaching me a thing or two about caring for the environment.

One of the most important things I’ve learned has been that environmental protection and restoration is a community effort. The farmers we work with live on watersheds—an “area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place,” according to the EPA. Of course we’re a part of a watershed as well, but somehow knowing which watershed my friends and I belong to isn’t as pertinent as knowing which groups I’ve joined on Facebook. Basically, all members of a watershed—human and otherwise—are linked together by their common water source. This interconnectedness has implications for any community attempting to “go green.”

We see it in the field when a farmer at the bottom of a hill labors to construct anti-erosion barriers on his already eroding hillside. His efforts prove futile when the rains come and mud and silt pour down the ravine from his neighbor’s un-protected farm, ruining his crops and destroying his family’s only source of sustenance. Lasting environmental renewal requires collaboration.

We also see this with communities’ efforts to reverse and avoid water contamination. We’ve seen many families begin to use ecologically friendly latrines that keep toxic waste products out of the water table, but it just takes one family using pit latrines to contaminate the water source for an entire region. Not only is the health of the environment at stake; the health of the community is on the line.

I’m not denying the power of the individual or downplaying the heroic steps we’ve seen individual farmers and families take toward environmental renewal and transformation. In fact, they’re almost miraculous. But I would like to recognize the need for environmental stewardship to be communal—both in the developing world and in San Diego.

We blanch at the thought of policing our neighbors’ water usage, but I’m starting to think that perhaps the San Diego Water Authority is onto something with their watchdog approach. If we really want to tackle such pressing environmental issues as drought, fires, and global warming, maybe it’s time we let words like ‘dependency’ and ‘reliance’ out of the doghouse. It takes a village…

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