Sustainability: What Does It Really Mean?

Sustainability: What Does It Really Mean?
By Audrey McCollum
In these grim and dangerous times, I search for a ray of hope. Hanover’s Town Manager, Julia Griffin, provided me with that in a recent e-mail conversation. “Our goal is to inspire lots of folks to get involved and change their habits and perspectives – to do so, you need something they can wrap their brains around, take to heart, and find inspiring.” That delightful mixed metaphor, combining intellect, emotion and spirituality, did give me hope.
I was on a quest to understand the precise meaning of “sustainability,” which is the buzzword of the day. Ms. Griffin believes that it is well explained in a process termed Natural Step, which “is simple, straightforward and beautifully tailored for reaching a broad spectrum of community residents.” The meaning of Natural Step is described in a book, The Natural Step for Communities, by Torbjorn Lahti and Sarah James, a Swedish and an American community planner.
Jargon can be exasperating to those not “in the know.” To tune in, I had to fathom the meaning of “eco-municipality,” since the history of this movement is defined by that term. According to Lahti and James, “An eco-municipality aspires to develop an ecologically, economically and socially healthy community for the long term, using the Natural Step framework for sustainability as a guide, and a democratic, highly participative development process as the method.” The first such community was established in a small rural town in northern Sweden in 1983. The initial project was so successful that it spurred a national movement throughout Sweden, spread widely in Canada, and has reached the United States, including Portsmouth N.H.
As I still grope for the meaning of “sustainable,” It becomes clear that the word must be defined in terms of objectives and the processes that foster their fulfillment. Furthermore, whereas communities such as Hanover are engaged in “green” initiatives such as car-pooling or substitution of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) for incandescent bulbs, sustainability implies wide-reaching and integrated commitment toward the following goals: Eliminating the community’s contribution to fossil fuel dependence and to wasteful use of scarce metals and minerals; Eliminating the community’s contribution to dependence upon persistent chemicals and wasteful use of synthetic substances; Eliminating the community’s contribution to encroachment upon nature, including land, water, wildfire, forests, soil and ecosystems; Meeting human needs fairly and efficiently. Each objective involves social, economic and scientifically based practices, and all are inter-related in an over-arching goal.
Two Hanover residents urged Ms. Griffin to increase the town’s vigor in its sustainability movement, and she found a positive example in Portsmouth’s accomplishments. In that town, study circles composed of 6-8 people have found ways to make progress with respect to racial equity, education, poverty, growth and sprawl, violence and other matters that seem diverse but are actually interconnected.
In June, Ms. Griffin attended a workshop at Tufts University for community leaders, and came back filled with positive purpose and clarity about how to start training town staff and local residents. Currently, a steering committee is being formed, composed of members of the school system, the Climate Protection Campaign, the Recycling Committee, Dartmouth College and other dedicated groups. Ms. Griffin views the Steering Committee as “one that can provide support to multiple efforts and will not hold anyone back. And it is important that the Steering Committee be made up of liaisons from the many groups out doing things, so we know what is going on, can work to support those efforts when help is needed, avoid duplication of effort and make sure the various hands know what the other hands are doing. I think fundamental, sustainable efforts will be maximally effective if they are fully interconnected and thoughtfully orchestrated.”
During autumn and winter, Sarah James will be invited to carry out a series of Sustainability Workshops for town staff, for boards and commissions, and for interested members of the community. I will be there, buoyed by Ms. Griffin’s conviction that municipalities offer the greatest promise for meaningful progress in our tangled world. And just as Ms. Griffin looked to Portsmouth to gain direct impressions, so may other Connecticut Valley towns look to Hanover to enhance their understanding and spur their actions.
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This column was published in the CT. Valley Spectator on 8/16/08