Walking Home From Walden

Part 5: What's a Suburban American To Do?
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June 21 2011 3:18 PM

Walking Home From Walden

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

I began writing this essay in October 2010. At some point along the way I asked myself, why only walk to Walden and back? Why not walk in every direction from my house, "hear the cock crow in every barn-yard within my horizon," as Thoreau would have it? Why not take him up on his challenge, really live in the present? Not merely in some private endeavor to connect spiritually with nature—but to connect with nature, yes, and with my fellow human beings who inhabit my surrounding landscape. I've lived in New England for 20 years, and Wayland for 14, but like many rootless Americans I've found that I'm a tourist in my own town, my own place, and a stranger to my neighbors. And so I've set out to become a full inhabitant, to make this place my home. To find community, human and wild. Right here in suburbia. Because we're all in this together. That's the truth we're going to learn in the difficult decades ahead. And that's what we have to teach our children—because they're going to need the resources of community, and the strength that resides in it, even more than we do.

And so, as part of this effort, I've become involved in a nascent grassroots initiative in my town to raise awareness and increase discussion of climate change and to begin building local sustainability. Inspired by the Transition model pioneered by Rob Hopkins in Totnes, England, we're just one of scores of communities in the United States and hundreds around the world who are coming together to face our climate future, right where we live, by finding ways to make our local economy less dependent on fossil fuels and more resilient to global warming.

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But to be clear, when I talk about finding community and taking action, I mean more than improving home energy efficiency or driving a hybrid or supporting local sustainable farming, as important as all of these are. I mean grassroots political actionof a kind that transcends "environmentalism" as we know it. Because climate change is more than an environmental crisis—it's a human, spiritual crisis, and we need a new politics that can address it at that level, reaching across our cultural divides. (See, for example, my piece for Slate about the evangelical "creation care" movement.)

Because no amount of personal green virtue will make our communities sustainable and resilient enough if we don't bring global emissions down dramatically, and fast. That's the hard truth. We're up against it now. We need governments to take decisive action—we need a rising price on carbon, major investments in clean energy, and real global commitments. And that means a far greater, broader political engagement than the environmental movement alone, for all its valiant efforts, has been able to inspire. It's up to the rest of us now.

Wen Stephenson has been the editorial director of TheAtlantic.com, managing editor of PBS's Frontline.org, editor of the Sunday Boston Globe's Ideas section, and most recently, the senior producer of NPR's On Point. He has written for all of them, as well as for the New York Times, Grist, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @wenstephenson.

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