The Ethics of Small Town Living: An Introduction

Those of you who read the blog in 2010-2011 may have noticed a conspicuous lack of posts about ethical living thus far. This is not an accident. But don’t worry, I’ll be striving for a better balance of lifestyle, writing, and personal updates soon.

The reason for my reticence about how I’m working to live an environmentally and ethically oriented life is that I’ve hit something of a roadblock. You see, I’ve never lived in a small town before. Most recently I lived in a city, albeit kind of a mid-sized one (200,000 or so people). Before that, I lived in the DC/Baltimore area suburbs, which are admittedly pretty affluent. Now I live in a small town, with a “metropolitan” population of about 5,000 in one of Maryland’s most sparsely populated rural counties.

To say that things have changed would be something of an understatement.

Well, you might ask, what’s the problem? Don’t the same principles apply? Isn’t it all about reducing your carbon footprint and buying local/fair trade goods and being an active member of your community?

Yes–to a point. There is an issue of access. If you live in a city or a solidly middle class suburb, you have resources. Probably your recycling program is pretty decent. Probably you have access to public transportation. Probably you have your choice of grocery stores and you can shop around for price, as well as organic produce. I too have enjoyed these conveniences.

But I’m not complaining (not really). There are perks to living somewhere more rural. We can buy local vegetables, eggs–even meat (if you eat meat). The air’s cleaner. And there are still environmentally conscious measures being taken, such as the installation of solar panels at the local community center (woo!).

It does require a fair bit of adjustment and research. There are many questions to answer. Given that I live an hour away from the nearest city and public transit is nearly nonexistent, how do I curb my fossil fuel use? Does my local energy provider offer any alternative purchasing options? If not, how do I encourage them to do that? If my community only recycles no. 1 plastics, how do I reduce the amount of non-recyclable plastics I use? How should we set up compost? What environmentally sound initiatives can I support in my newly adopted county? Which local nonprofits can I volunteer with?

In the coming months, I expect to address these and other dilemmas, as they come up. It’ll be frustrating at times. But I’m kind of looking forward to the challenge.

What difficulties (ethical and otherwise) did you encounter the last time you moved? How did you address them?

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2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Small Town Living: An Introduction

  1. Ohoh, I can answer this one! I moved to the Philippines two years ago, and found myself facing a completely different set of values around the issue of trash.

    On the one hand, in a country where most people are poor, there’s a pretty strong social pressure not to waste things. Glass and plastic bottles get recycled because that’s a source of income, for example. Cardboard is rare/valuable enough that it gets reused too. Old clothes become rags or doormats. Any waterproof scraps (broken umbrellas, old tarpaulins) become curtains to keep sun and rain out of the sidecars of motor-tricycles. Pretty much anything durable enough will be repaired or repurposed.

    On the other hand, this culture generates SO MUCH non-durable trash. Chip packets, flimsy plastic cups, styrofoam trays. Shampoo and the like comes in much smaller bottles, or else in small foil sachets meant for a single use. And oh, the bags. So many plastic bags. I think it’s another artifact of being so poor–vendors selling, say, noodles, feel like it’s their honor and duty to provide the noodles on a styrofoam tray with a plastic fork and spoon. It proves they’re providing good service. Ditto with the plastic bags. I’ve had to practically BEG grocery stores to load my things into a reusable bag. They’ve gotten used to me, but it still pretty clearly makes them uncomfortable, like they’re not serving me well.

    People are crammed in tight here, so there’s not a lot of room for landfills. It’s worst in the cities. Last year during typhoon season, the rains caused a landfill in the mountain city of Baguio to avalanche, burying dozens of houses and killing several children and their grandfather. In Manila, there are two massive trash piles called Smoky Mountain 1 and 2. They’re called that because all that trash piled together combusts and smokes. People live on top of them. They don’t have anywhere else to go.

    Out in the provinces, the prevailing approach to solid waste management is “burn your own”, though some municipalities, like mine, have trash pickup. Where does the trash go? No idea.

    So, in terms of my personal life, it was clear from pretty early on that the emphasis would be on Reduce and Reuse. The cloth stuff was easy. I’ve been sewing things out of scrap cloth since I was a kid, so it came naturally. In the Philippines, I’ve turned too-big pants into skirts, shirts into bags (many, many bags), and even worn out underwear got sewn into cloth pantiliners.

    As for non-durable trash, Peace Corps volunteers have a number of approaches. Bottle Bricks (http://www.bottlebrick.com/ ), and projects like Garbags (http://salvaciongarbags.weebly.com/ ) are great, but weren’t really applicable for my personal life. (Though I kind of do dream of one day building a bottle brick shed. You know, once I have a home of my own and need a shed.)

    I’ve had better luck with plastic bags, which are easily converted into plastic yarn (plarn! No, seriously, they call it that) and crocheted into lightweight, flexible, and very attractive grocery bags, perfect for produce. My next big project is going to be converting our huge store of plastic bags (the roommate doesn’t usually use reusables, and I often end up accepting plastic too, because it gets exhausting trying to explain that I don’t want it) into yarn. I’m kind of dreaming of selling a line of mesh bags on Etsy.

    So, I guess my answer is that when the obvious fails, you have to get creative. And sometimes crafty.

    PS: If anybody likes the look of those Garbags (some examples here: http://salvaciongarbags.weebly.com/other-bags.html ), and would like to support mothers making their livelihood by keeping trash out of landfills, drop me a line. I’m friends with the volunteer working with the mothers, and they’re taking orders now for my batch’s close of service. It’s a super cool project, and working with them is one of my favorite moments in my Peace Corps service.

    • Emma, thank you so much for the detailed description above! I didn’t want you to think I was ignoring your comment, but FYI I’m going to link it in the post I do about plastics and living in the US. 🙂

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