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Sustainability: Love it and live it


                                                                                                                                                                                                 — visual by Avril Orloff  

This week, the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) asked 75 green-minded people their view of what’s critical to launching a successful community sustainability program. In a four-hour interactive session, held at the Cedars Inn motel in Gibsons, British Columbia, Canada, here’s how some people responded:


Have a sense of urgency. Be bold. Acknowledge risk.
Have strong leadership. Take action and do it with enthusiasm.
Make it personal and engaging.
Understand people’s motivations and value. Recognize their differences.
Demonstrate concrete examples of sustainability and their benefits.
Involve youth and multi-generations.
Reassure people.


The SCRD, the local governing body for about 30,000 people who live along the coast northwest of Vancouver, hosted the fun event, which included a free vegetarian dinner and live music by local band Sweet Cascadia. Facilitator Julie Clark, the education and outreach coordinator for the SCRD waste management program, invited participants to respond to three questions:


1.  Thinking like the whole coast (region), what do you believe should be the goals of a sustainability education and outreach program?

2.  Think about a time when you experienced fabulous community engagement in action. What were the important elements?

3.  Think about a friend or neighbour who is not involved in the sustainability movement. What suggestions do you have to engage this person in sustainable behaviour?


As participants, we discussed responses with three different sets of people, rotating to a new table for each question. We summarized our answers as individual groups, then shared them with the whole group. A wonderfully creative artist, Avril Orloff, wrote our responses on a series of wallboards, using eye-catching imagery and lettering with a variety of coloured felt markers.


This process invited maximum participation and allowed us to meet three times as many new people than we would have if we had stayed at our respective tables. Although I was skeptical at first about how effective this method would be in producing practical and meaningful answers, I enjoyed the interaction and brainstorming and found it valuable. I discovered later that we were following World Cafe Guidelines, which I had never known about. The World Cafe Community website defines its approach as “a natural & effective way to host meaningful conversations that awaken collective wisdom & engage collaborative action.”


I enjoyed hearing the suggestions from each group; some sought immediate, localized changes, others took a broader outlook, emphasizing life philosophy and motivation more than specific actions. In my first group, I thought that defining sustainability would be a good place to start, since it has become such a buzz word and means different things to many people. Some people prefer the term “stewardship.”


A woman in my group recommended the definition offered by Jennifer Sumner, author of the book Sustainability and the Civil Commons: Rural Communities in the Age of Globalization, published by University of Toronto Press in 2005. Sumner thinks that since sustainability is such a vague concept, the forces of corporate globalization can co-opt it. She recommends a new understanding of the term, seeing sustainability as “a set of structures and processes that help build the civil commons.” Sumner defines the latter as “any co-operative human construction that protects/or enables the universal access to life goods” as distinct from market relations. She suggests a new term of “sustainable globalization.”


Julie Clark cited the 1987 Brundtland Report , also known as Our Common Future, published by an international group of politicians, civil servants and experts on the environment and development. This report defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report highlighted three key aspects of sustainable development: environmental protection, economic growth, and social equity


The SCRD is putting its sustainability focus on three main areas: water conservation; solid waste (e.g. using it as a resource), and energy and emissions. As if to emphasize how our choices now will affect the next generation, participant Georgina Brandon gave the children who attended an eco-minded art project. She had them draw and paint signs that they paraded through the meeting area: giant vertical footprint outlines that cautioned us to limit our contribution to carbon emissions; a long, horizontal shelf of plastic water bottles, reminding us of landfill clutter and nonrecyclables, and outlines of chickens that encouraged food security and control over one’s own food supply.


                                                                                                                    — visual by Avril Orloff


Although this event didn’t result in any earthshaking revolution or instant change, it did provide inspiration, validation, and options for initiating change at a local level. Regardless of what definitions we use for sustainability, only actions will make the difference. I think that concrete goals, such as setting dates for achieving specific reductions of  greenhouse gas emissions, make a good rallying point. Make any efforts solution-oriented rather than harping on problems. The overriding question that Julie Clark posed was the perennial challenge: How do you engage the silent majority?

April 3, 2010 at 7:40 pm
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