Why We’re Helping to Build a Sustainable Community

By Ron Miller

Usually this column describes one of the specific projects that Sustainable Woodstock is facilitating. This week, though, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture: Why is it important to have a local organization devoting so much time, effort and thought to “sustainability”?

The term “sustainable” refers to ways of meeting our economic and cultural needs that can continue for generations. For the past century, affluent modern societies have not lived sustainably; we have been over-consuming precious resources and over-burdening the soil, water and atmosphere with waste by-products, jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Our “ecological footprint” exceeds what the planet’s life support systems can renewably provide. Ecologists call this imbalance overshoot, and historians (Jared Diamond, for example) identify it as a primary cause of the collapse of civilizations.

Scientists started becoming concerned about these trends in the early 1970s, and ever since, they’ve been discovering mounting evidence that we have, in fact, entered an overshoot scenario. Accelerating climate change is one of many indicators that we are on an unsustainable path. A whole cluster of difficult, complex, and interrelated problems are growing worse, including depletion of topsoil, water, and other vital resources, rising food prices, and the often overlooked phenomenon of “peak oil.”

We are now seeing what happens when the modern economy crashes against the limitations of a finite planet: the decline of local businesses and thriving communities, chronic unemployment, crumbling infrastructures, and the collapse of financial systems. Analysts such as Richard Heinberg argue that industrial society has reached “the end of growth,” and if that is true, the consequences will be serious.

Unfortunately, the political & economic institutions we expect to deal with such issues are proving to be inadequate for the task. Corporate self-interest, assumptions about economic growth and the power of technology, and (sometimes deliberate) misunderstanding of scientific evidence have thrown political obstacles in the way of effective national and international action.

In response, local communities are stepping up to the challenge. In many parts of the world, towns and cities have begun working to improve the resilience of their food, energy, health and other systems. We are learning to adapt our lifestyles to changing conditions by using resources more carefully and cultivating more purposeful, collaborative communities that can achieve local self-reliance.

So as we describe the specific initiatives of Sustainable Woodstock, from recycling to community gardens to renewable energy projects, keep in mind that they are parts of a larger whole, which the National Sustainable Communities Coalition calls “full spectrum sustainability.” Our goal is a resilient community that will thrive in the uncertain times ahead.

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