Helping Sally at dinner: what to do at the dinner table when sustainability comes up?

Hispanic family eating at the dinner table

Old friends having dinner and reminiscing in the comfort of Sally’s spacious home.

We’re talking about the environmental crisis facing the Earth, and my concerns about flying across the Pacific Ocean from Australia for my teaching job in Vancouver.

I’m certainly worried about the environmental impacts of all that travel and yet I really want to make a difference. Teaching in Vancouver and lecturing in North America, Hawaii and Europe are all ways I feel I can make a difference to the way we build sustainable communities.

Sally, our hostess, comes to the table with a tray of steaming vegetables.

She puts down her tray and addresses the whole of the dinner party in a high-pitched tone that indicates she’s agitated.

“I can’t understand what all this is about. How do they even know that planting all those trees is going to make a difference? How can we trust that the tree planting services that you’re talking about where you put your carbon or whatever you call it – really do plant trees anyway? Maybe they just take the money and run away!”


After she returns to the kitchen and then she comes back with the lamb, I say, “I’ve found somebody I trust and my carbon offsets are going to the organisation in Brisbane that trains environmental activists.


The woman who co-runs the organisation, Samantha LaRocca, worked in my office, lives on the smell of an oily rag, and would never do anything unethical. I am positive of that. So, Sally, if you want to do something about all that traveling back and forth to Europe with your grandchildren, why don’t you investigate and try to find an organisation that you trust that you can make your contributions to?”


“I just don’t trust anybody,” Sally calls back from the kitchen where she’s tackling the gravy. “It’s all too hard and anyway, I’m not really convinced about any of this global climate change stuff.


Is the mint sauce on the table?”


I’d be interested to hear if others of you have experiences like this when “sustainability” comes up at the dinner table.


What to say?


What to do?


How not to be rude and keep true to your values”¦?


When I discussed this with Steph Vajda, my co-author of “Kitchen Table Sustainability”, he reminded me that sustainability’s complexity and scope pose an unprecedented challenge and it touches all aspects of our lives.


What to do at the dinner table when sustainability comes up?

Why is community engagement central to achieving sustainability?

15 June 2009 at 2:38 pm



Sustainability Fatigue


I’m getting the feeling that our communities are being engulfed in a wave of “sustainability fatigue”.
“Don’t talk to me any more about climate change,” a friend says over coffee in the Village. She cradles her coffee and mumbles, “I’ve had a gutful of all that pessimistic talk!”


Two small Aboriginal children are playing in the courtyard of the Rainbow Cafe. I look past them to the mountains, the landscape, our home”¦



Deep breath. I turn back to my friend.


“I mean it, Wendy,” she groans. “A gutful!”


Breathe again and think”¦ I’m worried that her response will translate into wider community overwhelm, frustration, even apathy.


We cannot afford to have that happen!


So why is community engagement central to achieving sustainabilty – and the other way around? We write about this quite a bit in Chapter 3 of KTS. Here’s a short summary:


First good reason


First are ethical and practical reasons: in a democratic society, those whose livelihoods, environments and lives are at stake should be engaged and involved in decisions that directly affectthem. Community-initiated projects and processes empower people to take action in local community development. Canadian planning academic and practitioner, Peter Boothroyd, recently reminded Nancy, his student, `To participate is to be human’.


Second good reason


Second, community engagement provides opportunities for developing a holistic sense of sustainability, where people make decisions using local wisdom, values, information and knowledge.


Third good reason


Third, community engagement contributes to the efficiency of a project or program. Targeting local needs and preferences always saves time and money.


Fourth good reason


Fourth, by addressing local social and cultural needs, community engagement processes can help develop micro-scale policy approaches that fit the community and its particular resources, skill sets and preferred approaches.


Fifth good reason


And finally, community engagement helps to build local accountability. (1)


Perhaps these arguments will be helpful when you are encouraging communities to engage with sustainability.


And sustainability practitioners to engage with communities.


I am sure there are lots of other good reasons.


Please tell me your ideas. I welcome your comments.




Sarkissian, W., Cook, A. and Walsh, K. (1997) `Core Practices of Community Participation in Practice’, in Community Participation in Practice: A Practical Guide, Murdoch University, Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy, Perth, pp. 33-82.