Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Fulfilling Options
distributed 10/24/03 - ©2003

Irrigation was causing big problems in an eastern Colorado community.

In a practice going back more than a century, water was diverted from the Arkansas river into an irrigation ditch. The ditch wound its way across the countryside, and farmers would periodically flood their fields with their allotted amount of water.

But in the season when the ditch was running, so much water soaked into the soil that basements in the nearby housing developments would flood.

And the water that percolated down through the soil -- either from the ditch or the flooded fields -- picked up salts from the shale beds underlying the farmland. As that groundwater seeped back into the river, the high salt content made the river water almost unusable for downstream communities.

So, what are you going to do? Tell the farmers that they can't irrigate any more?

In a fascinating conversation this week, Dan told me a different story of effective problem solving. He explained to me how the soil and water conservation folk worked through two measures that made a real difference.

  1. They lined the irrigation ditch to substantially reduce seepage from the ditch itself. Not only did the basement flooding stop, but there was more water available for irrigation.

  2. But more water for the flood-style irrigation would only add to the water quality problem. So they worked with the farmers to implement a different style of irrigation that put less water on the fields at any one time. That cut down on the problem of high salt content in the ground water. It also used less water per acre even as the crops flourished.
Between having more water available in the ditch, and using more efficient processes, the farmers were able to irrigate more land than ever before.

The homeowners got dry basements. The downstream communities got better quality water. And the farmers got to farm more land, and produce more crops, which helped them and the local economy. Everybody wins.

Dan's story about successful conservation efforts made me think of a quotation that I've often shared with groups: "Lasting change happens when people see for themselves that a different way of life is more fulfilling than their present one."

The farmers weren't about to stop irrigating -- to go out of business -- for the noble reasons of improving water quality or keeping their neighbor's homes dry. But they were quite willing to change historic practices when it meant that they could increase their acreage and their income. Lasting change happened because it made for a better life for everybody involved.

Dan's story is a great illustrations, because nobody lost out.

In most of the real-world situations that we confront, it isn't that tidy. Often, what creates a more stable, sustainable, fulfilling way of life for one part of the community will impose some real costs or hardship on another part.

It takes a lot of work to craft options that minimize the costs and accentuate the benefits for all involved. But that work pays off when individuals and whole communities can discover that the "right" way of living is also better for them in very practical ways.

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There's a perception in some circles that those of us who are working for a more just and sustainable society are impractical idealists. Some people have a sense that living more simply requires great sacrifice and deprivation, and that only people deeply committed to lofty, ethical purposes would ever put up with those painful changes.

Sometimes that perception is accurate. If your ecological commitments lead you to keep your home thermostat at 58 degrees all winter, or to always ride the bus, you're a noble person. And few of your neighbors will take the same steps to cut their energy use.

The fact of the matter is, most people won't change their behavior for purely moral or philosophical reasons. That's especially true if they'll have to put up with hassles or discomfort in the long haul.

Broad-based, lasting change happens, not from a commitment to a dismal but ethically pure option, but from the joyous acceptance of a choice that is more fulfilling.

As we provide leadership in the eco-justice cause, it is essential that we help people discern how we're working for a way of life that really is more fulfilling than the present one -- in very practical and immediate ways.

Coming up with real-life options that produce both sustainable communities and more fulfilling lives is hard work. It takes vision, creativity, and dedicated work with diverse coalitions. It is also the most effective way of bringing about real change.

In the short term, as we deal with immediate crises, it is sometimes necessary to legislate change, and to call for sacrifices. But for the long term, let us always try to find solutions that genuinely create a better life for all involved.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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PS - The US Senate is scheduled to vote on The Climate Stewardship Act on October 30. That bill does a good job of creating attractive options for reducing the US impacts on global warming. Have you contacted your senators yet? See the Notes from 3 weeks ago for more information.

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