The virtues of living in a city are practically endless. Culture, businesses, food, the mix of so many people with different stories and views, I could go on forever! In a way, city-living represents the pinnacle of human civilization, a hive of human activity, the ultimate cross-section of culture and different ideas and views, of large organizations, awe-inspiring ingenuity, cooperation. Things get DONE in cities — big things, things that change the world and the direction in which the human race is headed.
When it comes to global environmental issues, you’ll find no shortage of supporters and activists in city-dwellers, even as they are faced with one major problem.
This ‘environment’ they’re trying to save? They’re not really in it.
As far as I’ve seen, no one has summarized this better than comedian Louis CK in his 2011 special Live At The Beacon Theater.
“One time,” he says. “I was walking, and I [accidentally] dropped a candy wrapper on the street. I was with a friend, who said to me, ‘You just littered on the street! Don’t you care about the environment?’ I thought about it, and said….’you know what? This isn’t the environment . This is New York City. This is where people live. New York City is a GIANT piece of litter.”
If I heard this as a teenager, I wouldn’t have understood. I grew up in a small country town named Shippensburg in South-Central Pennsylvania. It sits in a valley with two mountains to the North and South. In certain parts of town, you can stand and see both mountains on either side. The tree-filled forests of the mountains were the calm, secret place we could retreat to. As soon as we entered the mountains, it was like we were in a sacred place, a sanctuary. We were calmer, happier, nicer to each other.
When I graduated high school, I was accepted into University of Pittsburgh main campus, and moved to a completely different environment.
This was a drastic change. Pitt’s campus was not ‘pastoral’. Oakland, its host neighborhood, contained a giant hill, and all up the hill were tall, massive university buildings, apartment buildings, houses, several large hospitals, and at the bottom, a four-lane thruway.
I hated this grimy, ugly city. But after a year or so, a funny thing happened. Even though Pittsburgh was, as Louis CK put it, a “giant piece of litter,” I started to like it there.
I realized what great educational opportunities Pitt offered, as a large university in a city. I started taking amazing classes — literature, world history, astronomy, biology, psychology, philosophy. I moved off-campus, switching from neighborhood to neighborhood, witnessing each one’s unique culture and character.
I felt energized by the crowds of people from so many different walks of life and cultures. It made the city feel alive, opened my mind to the possibilities of all these different points of view and ways of life. I met so many different people who awakened me to ideas of activism and global issues in their own ways, something I’m not sure I would have experienced if I’d gone to a smaller college in a smaller town.
Experiencing this duality of city versus country living made me think about how where a person lives can affect their perception of greater issues. Many of my conversations with people in my hometown revealed that they didn’t care about ‘the environment’ as in ‘global environmental issues’.
Shippensburg is also filled with a lot of conservatives, who aren’t too concerned with climate change (and would even argue it’s not “real”), or sustainability, or saving the rainforests.
How does the actual environment in which we live affect how connected we feel to nature and our planet? What makes certain people care about environmental issues and feel connected to nature, and other people not able to recognize it?
There are people in cities who care about the environment — informed, intelligent, caring people, whose city-living exposure to big-thinking and multiple points of view drew them into living sustainability. And, of course, there’s definitely a large percentage of people in cities who are not like this. Similarly, there are ardent environmental activists in rural America, but also plenty living in the mountains, forests, and fields, experiencing nature to its fullest without ever considering that there might be bigger issues with the planet, issues that could affect the harmony of nature they take for granted.
So I pose this as a question. City-dwellers, what made you come to care about global environmental causes? Country people, what made you come to care about global environmental causes? Is there a pattern? Can that pattern help ‘recruit’ more people to live sustainably, to ‘go green’? Is there some way we can get through to the city and country people who don’t care about these issues, to help them realize their massive importance? If we can find more ways to understand what draws people to the causes of environmentalism, the more chance we have of making a difference and saving the planet.