Posted by: A Part of the Solution | September 13, 2010

Is Sustainability Elitist?

Is sustainability elitist? I think not. I see my focus on reducing my carbon footprint, and contributing to the reduction of the carbon footprints of others as being responsible, rather than snobby and exclusive.

A friend and I agreed to disagree recently. He called my focus on seasonality and sustainability ‘elitist’. I really didn’t see his point of view as being correct. Happily, we’ve been friends a long time–and this contratemps won’t stop us. But I’ll bet I’m not the only one upon whom folks are trying to stick the scarlet E.

I have long been aware of the disproportion of the world’s resources used here in the USA. Equally, I did without a lot of things which my fellow Americans took for granted growing up. So I have different ideas about what constitutes ‘necessities’ compared to the vast majority of the citizens of the US.

Is it elitist to hold oneself accountable for one’s carbon footprint? Is it elitist to attempt to reduce one’s use of petroleum products–and by-products, in order to get our people out of blood-for-oil wars once and for all? Is it elitist to walk the talk of understanding how ‘cheap’ goods up front will have to be paid for when the ground from which they’re grown is irretrievably polluted and the people who grow and pick those raw materials are made ill by contact with contaminants and poisons used to keep volume up and costs down?

Many of the most sustainability conscious people I know don’t earn much money. They quietly ride their bikes instead of driving for short trips. They quietly turn down the thermostat and put on another sweater when it gets cold. They quietly shop for produce at local farmers markets, or grow as much of their own produce as they have time and land for. They quietly keep their debt levels down by reducing their wants to meet their means. Are these acts of elitism?

I never used to associate canning and dehydrating homegrown produce with elitism. I never used to associate buying seconds at the farmers markets to process at home with elitism. I never used to associate obsessive window caulking to improve R values with elitism. Possibly, I could call these acts ‘making a virtue of necessity’.

This dialing back of lifestyle choices reminds me of accounts from people who lived during WWII, when fuel and food were rationed. During that time, people did what they could with what they had and made the best of their limited situation. Granted, we aren’t in that kind of a war at present. So the reduction in consumption, and the consciousness over where things come from and where they’ll go to when they’re disposed of, is wholly voluntary. But is it elitist?

I sure hope not. Instead, I hope it’s a grassroots movement towards a way of life we can pass on to our children and grandchildren. I hope sustainability becomes the norm, and allows America to become a different kind of a world leader–where the focus is on using our fair share, and helping other nations acheive theirs without the burden of the transition falling on the least empwered segments of society.

Feedback time, y’all. Is sustainability elitist?



  1. I for one do not think sustainability is elitist. Actually, I’m happy to see you putting your sustainability beliefs into practice and living by example. It inspires us, your blog readers, to think about the way we live our own lives and what changes we can make ourselves to live more sustainably.

    My comments on your earlier blog entry titled “Seasonality” were directed toward specific statements you made in that entry, not toward your overall philosophy of sustainability. I’m sorry that you misunderstood.

    Peace and Love, Scott

    • I didn’t quite misunderstand, I just had more direct experience with Heirlooms–they don’t travel well, they don’t grow outside their ‘season’ and they aren’t worth purchasing if you can get them (I sold the same heirloom tomato mix as is growing right now in my garden at Dean and Deluca for $12.50/lb–and people paid it! And it wasn’t worth it, b/c those specific varietals just aren’t tasty if they aren’t from right out of the garden. XOXO C

  2. I don’t think sustainability is elitist. I think what can sometimes be perceived as elitist is eco-friendly or sustainable messaging that doesn’t take context into account for some people. In NYC, there are vast swaths of neighborhoods where there are food deserts. Even if some wanted to eat more sustainably grown or organic produce, there’s none to be found for miles – in fact, even conventionally grown stuff can’t be found for miles in some places. So, the messaging that some hear about “eat seasonally and locally” can feel elitist because it may not take into account the real challenges of doing so in some areas. This is changing in NYC, somewhat, but I think there is a problem is that some people hear the messages which tell them to do more/better/differently before they have an infrastructure that helps them to do so – or they don’t know yet how to access what might be available to them. So, I think for some people it can feel like people are preaching from on high, since the messaging is often louder than the solutions are visible, at least for some urban dwelling folk.

    • Great, thoughtful, balanced response. Thanks–once again your input is awesome.

  3. I don’t think it’s elitist, either.

    However, some aspects are easier done with money. Just like eating well when you don’t have enough money it tough. Crappy peanut butter and ramen noodles are dirt cheap and filling, but the dirt-cheap diet can be a short cut to ill-health.

    But that’s not to say that the reach for sustainability by folks who can afford to pay more for their food, invest in renewable energy, and other larger issues, shouldn’t do so. The more people who demand changes in the consumer market (hybrid/electric/hydrogen fuel cars) will affect the market place. Just like fancy pants new technologies that are initially only in reach of the well-to-do, will eventually be developed into an affordable product for the masses.

    So, every one can hang-dry their clothes. But blazing the trail on some of the issues that may require investment/outlay is still a good thing, and will make those resources available years sooner than if they weren’t sought out by those who have the means now.

    So, I think that’s where it gets its rep of “elitist”, which ignores the simple things everyone can do, and the ground work for the future laid by those with more means than the masses.

    • I feel you on this one. And I agree. Right now, it’s definitely up to people with some play in their budget to push the agenda forward–hard. Equally, those energy saving tips abounding everywhere turn out to save money as well. Most are suitable for persons of every income level.
      Though I have to say, in both Columbia MD and Takoma Park MD, there are municipal by-laws forbidding laundry lines. To hang laundry there puts one across the line of law-abiding citizenry. I guess other people’s clean laundry is just unsightly!

  4. Oh, good lord. Hanging laundry is one of the biggest money-saving, costs nothing, easy-to-do practices there is!

    Columbia and Takoma Park I thought were both “forward thinking”, liberal communities. Someone needs to bring that law up, and stress how extremely “un-green” it is. Maybe alter it so the lines are restricted to backyards? (Though I doubt you’d need a law – most people wouldn’t think to hang theirs in the front yard anyway.)

    • I know! It’s ironic, to say the least. Especially given how groovy/crunchy TP is. If I still lived there, I’d be fussing at the City Council to change that one law for sure.

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