Keynote Address - 13th Annual Affordable

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Perry Bigelow - Spirituality of Sustainability Given at the 13th Annual Affordable Comfort Conference, April 21, 1999

Anyone who has raised a child knows how important it is "to let them do it"- whatever "it" may be, and to do it as soon as practically feasible.

Did you catch that phrase: the range of our effective will.

Do you resonate with the idea of having a range - a kingdom or queendom that moves as you move? A place or space where you have the say?

Some of us, who are concerned about animal care and healthy food, eat "free range chicken" and "free range eggs." If you have ever read an account of 1000's of chickens in tiny cages so narrow they can't even turn around, kept in special bright light 24 hours a day to increase egg production, you will never want to eat modern agribusiness's eggs and chickens again.

Would you rather be a free range chicken or that chicken in a tiny cage.

I would submit to you that a child penned up in his suburban 6' solid fenced back yard, because the street he lives on is not safe for children due to strangers in high speed cars and trucks is little better off than a caged chicken. He has no more relative effective range! He has no more effective ability to learn how to reign - to exercise his will and creativity in regards to the outdoor world.

Back to God, the developer and His culturally sustainable town. The streets of the town are filled with boys and girls playing in the streets. Do you see the same picture I see? This culturally sustainable town has streets (not just the fenced in rear yards) that are totally safe for children to play in. Children can safely explore a world that is much larger and more diverse than their own backyards. They can play safely in the streets with other neighborhood children without constant supervision. They have a moving, free range - they can be kings and queens.

Remember the recollections of my childhood? Most of my "range" had to do with county roads and town streets. Whether it was riding my bike a mile to my sisters and stopping to play in the woods or throw stones at the carp in the creek, or taking the haybaler to the next farm, or stacking bales better on a wagon than any adult had ever stacked them, or riding my bike up to the post office to get the mail. As a child I had "real kingdoms" where I exercised "real power" and did creative valuable "real work."

My children grew up on a private cul-de-sac lane in a suburban community where lot line fences were prohibited. There was a creek and a big woods accessible by crossing through unfenced yards. The key was that the lane was private - the neighbors owned and controlled it together, and, that a stranger who drove down it had to turn around and drive back out, knowing that there was probably someone in one of those houses watching him.

A few years ago I asked my 27-year-old daughter: where was your favorite place to play when you were 7 or 8? She said: In the street.

I said weren't you afraid of cars?

She said - now you have to get the body language of this 27-year-old mother of two - "Oh no dad, we owned the street". It was a reflective, automatic response to her range and reign as a child.

Did you get that - "Oh no, we owned the street."

I remember driving home after work - it looked like a war zone - there were bikes and tricycles and big wheels and wagons strewn like carnage all along the lane.

Jamie and Shari had an ever increasing free range within which they could exercise their will without adult supervision - translate that adult management, translate that adult control. Along with their spiritual training, I think this largely explains why they are both creative, free-spirited, willful adults today, they had lots of practice.

If you take nothing away from my talk today, take this: You can forget about sustainable environment or sustainable communities if we do not return again to the timeless, proven ways of building communities that nurture children.

Whether we want to or not we are designing and building homes in communities that become subcultures that either sustain themselves spiritually and relationally in health and comfort or they become places of social dis-ease and sickness. We have the power and wisdom to build safe, healthy communities in which children thrive and learn and grow and develop strong individual personalities within the context of mutual respect for everyone and everything in the community.

Back to sustainable communities

Nature is ecologically sustainable because it is complex, diverse, interdependent, integrated, decentrailzed, and locally controlled. For our human culture to sustain itself, it must be founded on similar principles. Until the last 50 years, neighborhoods and communities had always incorporated these age-old natural values. They have been temporarily and inadvertently abandoned as we have accommodated ourselves to technology and the automobile.

Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer, environmentalist, and author who has lectured at Harvard, Stanford, et.al., taught us that a community of people is inevitably rooted in a place and in the ecology of a place and that in America there is an inseparable dichotomy between public and community and between public rights and communal autonomy, and that you cannot have healthy, sustainable natural ecosystems unless you have healthy sustainable communities; i.e. they are mutually interdependent.

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