Sustaining Together: How and why communities are the building blocks of sustainable living

By Aharon Ariel Lavi

Somewhere in the early 90’s, when I was in 5th grade, I remember watching a TV show describing what might be the consequences of what was then known as Global Warming and the Ozone Layer Hole. Don’t test me on the details, it was a long time ago, but I do remember the sense of upcoming catastrophe that completely freaked me out and sent me to bed lying ill for three days. On the fourth day, I decided I had to do something about it, so I ran for my school’s “pupils council” and became chair, joined a youth movement, and ended up working mostly on developing intentional communities in Israel.

What’s the connection? Well, I ask myself the same question from time to time, wondering if communities are really what we need as the climate system is going off track. True, the dark forecasts of 25 years ago did not come to pass – at least not yet – but experiencing our 5th year of drought in a row here in the Negev (Israel’s Southern desert) does sound like an alarm call to me. Something is changing: we are about to reach 8 billion people who want to live an American lifestyle and when I look at my children I am not sure they will enjoy the same nature and climate I was privileged to enjoy.

We need some urgent response, so who cares right now about living communally and strengthening Jewish identity? This can wait for the next generation.

Well, it cannot wait.

This is not because community is somehow more important than sustainability – such things can’t be compared. But it cannot wait because sustainable living is not a “thing” in and of itself. Sustainable living is the aggregate outcome of many individual actions carried out by human beings endowed with free choice. People’s choices are rooted in their identities, dreams and aspirations – which are, in turn, rooted in their families and communities. Healthy and vibrant communities can induce more sustainable actions and forms of living, if they only see such sustainability as central to their identity.

For instance, it is well known that the main factor determining the burden we put on our ecological system is not the number of people living but rather the ecological footprint per person (meaning, roughly, the amount of resources we each consume). When people live in an isolated manner and need to provide for almost everything themselves, within the family unit at best, they demand a much higher volume of resources from the environment. The simple examples of communities changing this include carpooling, sharing rarely used stuff (hence buying less), composting and recycling together or supporting local farmers as a group of mindful consumers (CSAs).

But it goes deeper than that.

Human beings have an internal desire to be loved, to be recognized, to belong to a group in which they can feel safe and flourish. When they are isolated, those needs don’t go away but rather transform into over-consumerism intended to compensate for the lack of social bonding. Strong friendships and deep ongoing relationships forged around shared intentions – such as intentional communities – create happier and fuller people, who need to consume less in order to feel filled-up. Together with the more practical tools for sustainable living communities offer, described above, Jewish Intentional Communities can actually become a building block of Jewish Sustainable Living.

So I wish you Shabbat Shalom. May we all be blessed to live more sustainably – and in richly supportive communities,
Aharon Ariel