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The Last Word
By Lisa Perfetti

Building a Sustainable Community

What responsibility do we have to preserve the earth so that generations from now, our descendants will be able to meet their own needs? This is the fundamental ethical question at the heart of the notion of sustainability, the subject of this year’s Center for Ethics program, Sustainable Communities: Balancing Economy, Ecology, and Justice. The word “sustain” comes from the Latin prefix sub- (from below) and tenere (to hold). In seeking sustainability, we are looking to hold on to what we have, to lift it up and support it. Humans thus have a central role in ensuring the earth stays in balance.

Our first guest, poet Gary Snyder, noted that from a Buddhist perspective, everything changes, and so we delude ourselves if we think we can hold on to what we have now. Yet, he reminded us, Buddhist traditions also teach us to live in harmony with the creatures with whom we share air, water and earth, and to feel connected to our immediate environment. In our later panel discussion on sustainable agriculture, local farmers urged the audience to buy locally not only for environmental benefits and to support our farmers but because of a more intangible benefit: in eating an apple that came from just down the road, you know exactly where your food came from, and feel connected to a natural and human cycle.

In the balance between economy and ecology there is also the fundamental question of social justice. As we worry about suburban sprawl, we must do so not only because of the loss of open space and farms that give us natural beauty, or because of the pollution to aquifers and wildlife habitat that threaten other species. We must be concerned for those who are left behind when businesses go elsewhere, and the tax-base supporting schools and services along with them. Tom Hylton, in his slide presentation, showed examples of Pennsylvania’s decayed inner cities, commonplace since the 1950s, but he also held out hope: Many creative initiatives and dedicated planners, politicians and citizens have turned such areas around. The last thing we should do is pessimistically give up and accept the abandoned downtown as inevitable.

The inequalities between wealthy and poor in our own state are mirrored on a global scale. Globalization has meant that workers around the world who make our clothes, electronics and a host of gadgets make less than $2 per day, an unsustainable wage. In early December, we hosted Ten Thousand Villages
(, which promotes fair trade by selling traditional handicrafts with all of the profits going to the artisans who made them. Although buying handicrafts does not address the fundamental global inequalities that have come to define today’s economy, it gives people across the world a living wage and promotes the continued production of cultural traditions that might otherwise disappear.

In November, our speakers on sustainable development, Max Handler and Madhu Suri Prakash, noted that development projects ostensibly aimed at helping disadvantaged communities often do more to promote the economic and political interests of wealthy nations. This is why the Center chose to sponsor FINCA (, an organization that promotes village banking. Villagers themselves make decisions about how loans are given in their community and the loans, when repaid, are used to fund new projects. This offers an advantage to a more top-down development model where outside experts determine the solutions, sometimes creating new problems or even new needs that then must be satisfied.

In the closing words of her talk, Prakash spoke lovingly and eloquently of her “underdeveloped” mother in India who had always known how to be sustainable. She reminded us that real solutions come from knowing how to really listen and bringing different kinds of wisdom together. In today’s sound-bite culture in America, environmentalists and business are cast as hostile antagonists who will never find common ground. In our lively panel on land use in Pennsylvania, a judge, a state congressional representative, a developer and a community activist didn’t agree on everything, but they all affirmed their belief that while sound land use policy is important, more should be done to encourage innovation and flexibility that would allow different interests to reach consensus.

This message of cooperation and creativity was echoed on our own campus. Muhlenberg students and members of the administration met to discuss how Muhlenberg conserves energy and water or uses environmentally friendly products in our dorms and offices. Students discovered that positive steps have already been taken, and that student education and responsibility are key; recycling bins are less helpful when students throw in garbage instead of recyclables. At the same time, students shared ideas on how the College could encourage and implement more sustainable practices. With President Helm’s recent announcement of a campus greening committee, the future of this cross-campus collaboration looks promising.

A central theme of the program was that community is often created when people join in a common cause. Environmental activist Terri Swearingen told the inspirational story of her fight to stop a waste incinerator in eastern Ohio, only steps away from a school. Although not yet successful in stopping the incinerator, she and her neighbors have come to know and respect each other as a result of their work. Plus, she added, being an activist, even though it means a lot of work and maybe even jail time, is fun! Terri’s words suggest how ethics and self-interest are intertwined. Spending time or money to support a worthy cause feels good because we feel connected to others. Amanda Kokie ’04, a student leader of the Ten Thousand Villages sale, says this event was one of the highlights of her time at the College. “I have never seen the Muhlenberg community and our neighboring community members unite so much for such a worthy cause,” she says, reminding us that the goal of an education at Muhlenberg is not simply to prepare for a career. It is to learn how to sustain each other intellectually, morally, and spiritually, not only seeking common ground with our neighbors, local and global, but making community, wherever we go.


Dr. Lisa Perfetti is assistant professor of French and acting director of the Center for Ethics. She recently was awarded tenure and will be promoted to associate professor over the summer. She teaches a first-year seminar, “Living in Nature.” She would like to thank her faculty colleagues and other members of the Muhlenberg community for all their hard work that made the series so successful, especially Valerie Lane, director of community services, Linda McGuire, assistant professor of mathematics, and Sarah Niebler ’04 and Tyler Holmberg ’04.


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