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Collectivist Thinking is an Individual Responsibility

July 14, 2010 By Aaron Sinner, Undergraduate Research Fellow
When conservatives toss around "individual responsibility," what they typically mean is: "If you're in a tough spot, don't expect me or the government to help you out." But Minnesotans across the state demonstrate true individual responsibility when they recognize the interconnectedness of our society and work to promote a sustainable world.

David and Susan Cobin, a couple living in St. Paul's Saint Anthony Park neighborhood, purchased a Zero Emissions No Noise (ZENN) electric car, which David drives to work at Hamline University. Though the car doesn't go more than 35 miles per hour, David says, "St. Paul is a wonderful city for this. You don't need the highways."

The couple also leases solar panels from Solarflow Energy.

Another couple in the neighborhood working to make a difference is Tim Wulling and Marilyn Benson, who helped found an organization in their community called the Energy Resilience Group. A committee of around ten leads the group, which is hosting screenings of environmentally relevant movies and documentaries as one of its main projects this summer.

Wulling and Benson have made noteworthy changes in their individual lives, too. They remodeled their kitchen to add extra insulation, added triple-pane windows, and dry their clothes by clothesline-going so far as hanging a line in their basement during the winter. Recently, the two started a garden. "It's not going to feed us much," Wulling says, "but it's a frame of mind. 'Where can we start?' rather than 'How can we do this all at once?'"

Speaking to this frame of mind shift, the couple is also working to reduce its gasoline consumption. Wulling says, "It's a different way of thinking-not miles per gallon, but gallons per year."

Wulling and Benson have also joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, called Common Harvest, which delivers fresh vegetables every Thursday. "There is some inconvenience," Benson admits. "You get lots of whatever's in season, so you have to plan to the harvest." But overall, the couple sees it as a great way to buy local and better care for the environment.

CSAs are a way Minnesotans are working toward greener lifestyles. Mike Jacobs and Malena Handeen of Milan are a young couple who run Easy Bean Farm, a great example of this. Minnesota 2020 has profiled CSAs before, but the central premise is this: Families buy shares in a local, often organic farm, thus spreading risk around. In return, all shareholders receive regular shipments of crops from the farm. "CSA is about rearranging the economics of agriculture," Jacobs says. He also thinks that running a CSA farm gives him "a sense of meeting my obligations as a fellow citizen of the planet and of the country."

This is a common theme among all three couples opting for sustainable lifestyles. "We only have one world, and we're a part of it," David Cobin says.

In fact, the similarity in outlook among the couples is striking. For instance, all three speak of the need for individuals to do what they can, while recognizing everyone's circumstances are unique. Benson says, "I think everybody needs to sort out their priorities and the ways we each can make a difference."

Handeen strikes a similar note when she says, "It's not cheap for a lot of people to sign up [for our CSA]... It's a good deal for someone who already knows how to go through that much organic food."

And the couples also speak similarly of the BP oil spill. Susan Cobin declares, "This oil spill is a look in the mirror. They're only doing what we're paying them to do," sounding very much like Wulling when he says of the spill, "It comes back to us. We're the ones who want to drive our cars wherever we want."

All feel that sustainable lifestyles are quite rewarding. "It pays to be economically irresponsible in this regard," Susan Cobin admits, "but we don't weigh money most... This gives us more gratification."

Benson says, "It's not a less fulfilling life. Having lots of stuff isn't what makes life meaningful. It's human interaction."

Wulling agrees, "It may be a lower standard of living, but a higher quality of life."

All three couples also see things the Minnesota government could do to make sustainable lifestyles easier. The Cobins point to a federal tax credit they received for the purchase of their electric car, and would like to see similar state incentives-as well as state employees driving electric vehicles. Wulling and Benson would like to see some guarantee that if a household installs solar panels, it will be paid a certain price per kilowatt-hour. Jacobs and Handeen say their friends in Wisconsin received a $200 health credit that they could use for anything from a gym membership to joining a CSA. "That would be amazing," Handeen says.

Yet even without the government taking the lead, all of these Minnesotans have recognized the way they affect their environment and greater community, and therefore have made an effort to minimize their negative impact while maximizing their positive influence. Now that's an individual taking responsibility.

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