Sustainability: Community scaled ideas are needed


Saturday, December 27
There is an extremely urgent need to address our energy and climate ills on a community scale. The solutions needed are beyond individual households' abilities, for financial and technical reasons. Larger-scale solutions won't work either, because government and business institutions in the U.S. are mired in old attitudes and whole-hog exploitation of special interests and insider relationships.

Unfortunately, America has thoroughly failed to build the energy, transportation, housing, food and wellness systems that we need to solve the most pressing problems of ecological and social sustainability, and indeed to compete and thrive in the global economy.

Our future is not assured. We are poorly positioned and poorly prepared. We cannot rely on new cornucopias of cheap energy or other resources to offset our disadvantage, nor can we continue to rely on our accumulated wealth and power any longer, as skewed as their ownership is. Not even the affluent can cocoon or gate themselves away from this reality.

Compared to the other 29 members of the OECD, the world's club of industrial nations, our condition is weak. We rank low on many indices of health, education and technical literacy, life quality, and environmental sustainability. We do better in rankings of business competitiveness only because we leave more avenues open for speedy, unencumbered exploitation of people.

A 2008 ranking of national business competitiveness by the World Economic Forum put Switzerland first among the world's most competitive countries. Finland came in second, and Sweden third. The U.S. now must yield top rankings to a cluster of nations that have done the opposite of what we have done: invested consistently, substantially, and long-term in the collective, community- and regional-scale approaches that we have consistently ignored.

Our energy efficiency is half the EU's, per-capita, because of poor building technology and practices, the wrong energy systems, inefficient vehicles, and a complete lack of adequate mass transit and soft transportation options.

Consistent with John Kenneth Galbraith's characterization of America as a nation of "private splendor and public squalor," our behavior for most of this century has landed us with a society of strained or collapsing private solutions to heating, transportation, health care, child care and all the other systems that form the basis of a modern, civilized nation.

Our landscape is one of islands of order and quality amidst a spreading inefficiency and dilapidation. Our lifestyles, political rhetoric, entertainment industry, and addictions keep many of us facing away from these realities, but consider our abundance -- in comparison to the advanced industrial nations -- of slums, ghettos, sprawl, low-rent strip developments, blighted downtowns and main streets and dysfunctional suburbs.

In significant ways, ours is a failed civilization. We've made a mess of things. We know it. We lack the living environment to securely weather the ecological, natural resource, social and economic challenges we now are facing. The rich and the relatively affluent can handle more than the rest, but even they ultimately need a prosperous, well-functioning society for their own interests -- solidarity aside -- assuming that an oligarchic, stratified, pyramidal, misery-rooted society on a continental scale is not what they want. Perhaps it is. There are certainly affluent people in Brazil and India.

What would sustainable community-scale systems look like? There's no big mystery here. Look at our current school districts, fire districts, town police, waste-management districts, municipal water systems, transit authorities and rural electric co-ops.

Such systems are owned, managed and financed in a variety of ways, but the key distinction is that they are collective solutions to common problems involving joint financing, and for all to use. Experience has taught us that such systems are efficient, just, and popular.

Extend the concept to municipal district energy systems, car-sharing arrangements, biofuels co-ops, soft transportation districts, trolley and light rail systems, community-owned slaughterhouses and kitchens and milk-processing plants and greenhouses. Community health insurance policies and wellness clinics. Community-wide public day care. Local currencies.

More taxes? The specter of socialism? We use community-scale systems all the time to solve collective problems, and our life is better as a result. If we can spend more than double what the rest of the OECD spends on each unit of health care delivered, and if Americans -- less than 5 percent of the Earth's population -- can consume a quarter of its energy -- then we certainly have room for some efficiency improvements, along with changes in how we allocate the funds we have.

There is nothing in our Constitution that says we have to be satisfied with second-best because private, individual solutions must always be prioritized.

Ralph Meima is the director of the MBA program in Managing for Sustainability at the Marlboro College Graduate School, and serves on the board of Brattleboro Thermal Utility, Inc.


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