Living Sustainably

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
A. Whitney Sanford
  • Lexington, KY: 
    University of Kentucky Press
    , June
     302 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book about intentional communities in the US is a sympathetic exploration of experimental communities that take the need for social transformation seriously, and demonstrates that one can “be the change.” A. Whitney Sanford selected a number of collectivities organized around shared values: nonviolent living, voluntary simplicity, and participatory democracy. Her search for residential communities with a shared vision could well have included long-established religious communities, but her guiding frame led her to those communities with particular concerns around sustainability. In conducting her research between 2011 and 2015, she visited more than twenty communities where she interviewed a number of residents and often participated in the daily workload.

Sanford’s findings are scattered all over the book. This is the author’s conscious choice and style. Living Sustainably is designed in such a way that the focus moves from nationwide social tensions (such as aging, food and consumerism) to small-scale experiments with change. Chapter 3 illustrates the processes individuals may go through when choosing an alternative community and chapter 4 describes how residents create new lifestyles while integrating abstract values such as voluntary simplicity, often by contributing physically to the fulfillment of their material needs. The final chapters elaborate on ways in which these communities enact their values into food practices; avoiding the accumulation of goods; bioregional production and consumption; and reviving and adapting local styles of gardening, farming, and home building. A concluding chapter explores how these values and skills, as lived out in intentional communities, reach out to society at large.

Apart from her craving for non-bioregional luxuries such as bananas, coffee, and chocolate, the author appears to share with her research subjects both their sense of planetary urgency and the beauty of being manually and locally involved in providing for their subsistence needs. Sanford’s former research on food (Growing Stories from India: Religion and the Fate of Agriculture, University Press of Kentucky, 2011) gave her a keen awareness of the need to create a sustainable food system. As a consequence, the reader gets valuable insights into food-related skills such as farming, gardening, harvesting, canning and storing, but less on areas such as sustainable building and alternative forms of energy (although the picture of a bicycle-powered washing machine on page 168 is hilarious).

Is there a way to “mainstream sustainability,” to bring the rural experiments home to the city, to “be the change” and “live the change”? Urban-suburban sustainability, in the form of self-sufficiency or responsible interdependence, indeed represents a major challenge. It may also be one of the greatest opportunities for the sustainability movement.

I recommend this honest personal odyssey to anyone on the brink of transition to a more sustainable lifestyle. Sanford shares insights from people who are in the process of inventing and testing creative small-scale solutions within their intentional communities. Those communities are presented as demonstration sites willing to share their experimental responses to the violence of environmental and social crises.

At first glance, the reader finds little or no explicit religion in this book. But the literally down-to-earth engagement of the interviewees tells of intimate connections between humans and their habitat and thus actually offers a re-reading of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Albertina Nugteren is a South Asia Specialist and Professor of Cultural Studies at Tilburg University, The Netherlands.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

A. Whitney Sanford is professor of religion at the University of Florida. She is the author of Singing Krishna: Sound Becomes Sight in Paramanand’s Poetry and Growing Stories from India: Religion and the Fate of Agriculture.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.