Sustainability Work Evolves Across New England

The transition to a sustainable, postcarbon economy and society involves efforts at many levels. Much can be done at a local, community level to help homeowners, consumers and businesses adopt environmentally friendly practices, and that’s our task at Sustainable Woodstock. It’s here, in the choices we make in our daily lives, where real change happens.

Clearly, though, a widespread cultural transition is more than a local endeavor and involves larger systems, from regional planning to state policy all the way up to national and international efforts. Our communities don’t exist in isolation but within economic, social and political contexts that shape the choices available to us.

So, in many places, local sustainability groups are collaborating regionally and nationally to build a stronger movement for cultural change.

Sustainable Woodstock has affiliated with a regional group called the New England Resilience & Transition Network (NERT), which has taken shape only in the last few years. Citizen organizations from about thirty towns and cities have been gathering in annual conferences, sharing ideas and identifying potential areas for collaboration.

Last year the group developed a “concept paper on region-wide resilience” that thoughtfully lays out our common vision. In fact, the document is quite inspiring; it asserts that “we are profoundly interconnected with each other” and therefore “no one is resilient until all of us are.” It specifically acknowledges that “we are nested in large systems of culture, climate, and exchange, and many life-sustaining systems are larger-than-local.” The concept paper is worth reading in full. See it at nertnetwork.wordpress.com/the-concept-paper-on-region-wide-resilience/.

NERT works closely with New England New Economy Transition, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Boston, to provide leadership training through webinars and workshops (there’s one coming up Oct. 31). Also, IPS and the New England Grassroots Environment Fund have established a New England New Economy Fund to provide support for local organizations. See netransition.org to learn more about this emerging and important work.

Thinking regionally helps us keep our attention on the bigger picture, the systemic issues we need to address. Genuine sustainability requires more than weatherizing our homes, shopping locally, and recycling—although these are certainly essential places to start in our own lives. Regional efforts put the focus on the fundamental concepts that have been named here. Let’s look at those a bit more closely:

A “postcarbon” economy is a system that is no longer reliant on fossil fuels. When we acknowledge the devastating effects of increasing atmospheric carbon, and look ahead to the inevitable decline of fuel supplies (despite today’s temporary abundance and low prices), it is clear that we need to replace carbon-based energy with renewable sources. This is a huge challenge, because the modern industrial age was made possible by fossil fuels.

Meeting this challenge is what we mean by “transition.” How will we get from here to there? Our lifestyle is so completely dependent on the energy and products derived from oil, gas and coal, it will take a thoughtful, concerted effort to develop new systems free from such dependence. “Transition” means cultural change at all levels, not simply new laws or regulations. We’ll need to think about things differently, from transportation and architecture to food and health care, and everything else.

“Resilience” means that communities and larger systems can adapt to new conditions without excessive stress. It involves flexibility, collaboration, and ingenuity. Many of our old ways of thinking and doing business will prove inadequate for dealing with climate change, environmental refugees, economic collapse and other potential crises. How Vermonters pulled together after Irene demonstrated our native resilience. We’ll need more of it as we head into a challenging future.

Regional collaboration will help us cultivate that resilience.

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