Natural Systems Solutions

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CASI Project Proposal

A Community Assessment and Sustainability Inventory


   The time has come when we can no longer put off planning and developing strategies for a sustainable future. By necessity, this must be based on a thorough understanding of what sustainability means and its relationship with quality of life, prosperity and progress in improving the human condition on a living but finite planet. The planning and the actions that emerge must also respond to the very real sense of urgency to create resiliency in rapidly changing times. The following project proposal is the only systemic framework for change we've found through years of research that explicitly adheres to the natural systems principles that allow ecosystems to be healthy, vibrant, and resilient.

   The dire need for a new perspective is that the cultural path we're on is heading for a catastrophic conclusion. We're hopelessly entwined in an economic system based on limitless growth fueled by a non-renewable natural resource that is running out and getting more expensive -- both of which point to the end of an economic system inherently at odds with the creative and cooperative tendency of living systems. Plus, burning this resource is a major contributor to catastrophic climate destabilization, and securing it requires maintaining the world's largest defense budget, which comes at the expense of social programs and democracy itself.

   The illusion of prosperity we're experiencing from a paradigm of infinite economic growth, however, is only benefiting a small percentage at the top, and is totally dependent on increasing consumption of other resources which are also being depleted such as clean air and water, healthy forests, productive topsoil, and global fisheries. Real wages and purchasing power have decreased for the vast majority (90%) of Americans compared to 1973. Other quality of life indicators are also displaying downward trends, such as the steady increase in physical and mental illness, for which we need to invent new terms and diagnostic categories on almost a daily basis. The latest statistics show that 50% of the American population requires at least one prescription drug to make it through the day, with 20% of the population dependent on three or more. Being made to feel sane about living in an insane world is not actually a sign of good health.

   With a growing concern in how to approach the supposed mandate to accommodate growth, and with the increasing number of questions about whether it is either feasible or beneficial to do so, there is a need to agree on working definitions for related issues, gain widespread community support for a different set of responses, and address the relationships these issues have on people's daily lives and well-being. If our local infrastructure and environment can't currently handle more growth in a healthy or economic way -- evidenced by continually dropping water tables, overburdened waste and stormwater treatment systems, increasing traffic congestion, and fragile ecosystems disappearing beneath subdivisions, wider roads and parking lots -- what are our realistic options?

Project Rationale

   All of the above point to the need for something to change. But what? If we're going to plan for a sustainable future, what will we need? The first thing we must do is take stock of what we have now -- skills, schools, labor force, productive farm and ranch acreage -- and honestly assess what our regional natural resource base can provide in the way of food, water, energy, shelter, healthcare, and for what population size. This also sets the basis for the creation of necessary trade relationships with other areas as transportation and freight patterns change due to rising cost and decreasing availability of liquid fossil fuels.

   We must also determine what people really want, from as broad a cross-section of the regional population as possible in order to start planning and developing based on our commonalities. Do we want 20 story buildings in our neighborhoods and more shopping malls blocking entrances to our state parks, or do we want less traffic congestion, clean affordable water, safer and more vibrant neighborhoods, and living wage jobs in a healthy environment that protects the biodiversity necessary to support the food chain?

   Natural Systems Solutions proposes to implement a community project to discover the answers to these questions and start the creative process of addressing these issues. The project is called a Community Assessment and Sustainability Inventory (CASI). This is a culmination of a number of things other communities are doing to prepare for a sustainable future in light of Peak Oil (energy descent) and global warming, woven together from a natural systems perspective. It entails three basic steps, and does more than merely invite open public participation in the process - the CASI requires it for success. The entire project is also easily modified to meet the needs and unique situation of any community or region.

   In order for communities to meet the goal of a sustainable future, they must have a clear idea of community priorities and possible approaches for reaching this goal. A necessary foundation for developing any type of sustainability program is to assess priorities, gain insight into strengths, identify assets that can be built on, discover what's missing, and uncover where challenges may lie. This will provide a foundation for developing strategies and a baseline for measuring progress toward an alternative public infrastructure not dependent on fossil fuels or other outside resources to secure basic necessities.

Project Outline

   The first step in the CASI process is to present a one day intensive workshop targeted to a very wide range of community leaders. The morning session, Sustainable Community Indicators, briefly introduces the concepts of Peak Oil, global warming, natural systems principles, and then goes into depth regarding sustainability, carrying capacity, and how to develop and evaluate economic, environmental, and social indicators for a sustainable community.

   An indicator is a measure of what we have and where we stand. Indicators are more aligned with the concepts of sustainability as they allow us to define and measure what we refer to as quality of life. Indicators are measurements of the degree of sustainability in the areas under consideration, such as economy, education, environment, and resource use, but perhaps more importantly, when properly developed they also uncover the oft-ignored linkages between these areas.

   The afternoon session is a participatory workshop to complete a Community Sustainability Assessment. The assessment is a subjective measure of where we see ourselves today as a community and as a bioregion. How do we see ourselves as a community, where do we need to improve, and what are we missing? The information gathered from these two sessions provides a foundation for the work to come and acts as a guide for the development of sustainability indicators congruent with a particular bioregion.

   The final step is to gather and develop the data sets for the Regional Sustainability Inventory. Sustainability planning covers four main need areas and the subsystems which have formed to meet these needs. These areas are:

  1. Economic - the needs for money and work as provided by the financial and productive subsystems.
  2. Social - the needs for care and values as provided by the social subsystem.
  3. Governance - the needs for self-determination, information, and power as provided by the local government subsystem.
  4. Material - the needs for food, water, housing, and transportation as provided by the environment and infrastructure subsystems.

   The inventory provides the hard data necessary to guide planning and sustainable development based on the assets we have to work with. It also provides the option to seriously address growth issues (its supposed mandate, inevitability, that it must be accomodated, the misconceptions that it is economically sound policy and necessary to improve quality of life beyond a certain level, its destruction of aspects of the food chain necessary for a healthy, vibrant and resilient web of life, etc.) by quantifying sustainability thresholds beyond which we don't want to go in order to preserve the quality of life we wish to sustain. When properly developed, community adopted growth threshold standards have withstood legal challenges in the U.S.

Project Outcome

   The CASI focuses on achieving positive outcomes, instead of focusing on overcoming negative problems. This is why the focus is not just on developing or agreeing on sustainability indicators, but also on creating the necessary processes to fully support health and well-being, economic equity, and ecological integrity. These factors are all necessary components in quality of life.

   The way the growth issue is framed is of the utmost importance. The prime goal isn't to "stop growth;" it must be made clear the goal is to create a sustainable future; that no one is against growth to the point of maturity, and that sustainable development beyond that point can create a healthy, vibrant, and resilient local economy without going beyond the point of maximum healthy size where all can benefit equitably from nature's bounty. It's all about getting better instead of mindlessly bigger. We can improve and bring ourselves to a more advanced state; this is what progress really means. But more advanced doesn't necessarily mean more technological gadgets; we may even decide to give up or create new relationships with some of the ones we currently rely on.

   Towards this end, the CASI project also functions to provide community education on what these concepts really mean, solicit and enable wider, ongoing participation, and provide the missing, disorganized, and not easily obtainable data in one place that can serve these goals - as well as make the data as comprehensible and widely useable as possible.

   The CASI process strives to answer the questions, "What are our needs, and how can they be sustainably met?" Not just to obtain basics such as food and shelter, but gaining a sense of belonging, a voice in decisions, participating in a viable and self-reliant local economy, and having recreational and personal development opportunities. I very firmly believe, and it is part of the founding philosophy of Natural Systems Solutions, that bioregional integration of relocalized production, distribution, and governance is the most effective means to address energy scarcity and security, biosphere destruction and future viability, and create a just, equitable, and sustainable future for all living beings.


   None of the current neighborhood, city, county, or state planning or vision documents have taken Peak Oil, global warming, the uneconomics of growth, carrying capacity, bioregional self-reliance, or even a concrete and legally defensible definition of sustainability congruent with natural systems into consideration as a core aspect of their underlying assumptions or policy guidelines. Neither have they used realistic or even tunable quality of life indicators as yardsticks to tell if we're going in the right direction or getting further behind. This does not bode well for a sustainable future, and leaves whole communities wide open to be blind-sided by any type of supply shock in a world experiencing rapid change. The CASI is the first step in addressing this fundamental shortcoming and moving us toward resiliency, while honestly admitting we can no longer deny the urgency of doing so.

   The real question we must keep in the back of our minds throughout the CASI process is not how much it will cost to create an ecological economy (that values people and planet at least as much as profit), but what is the price we will have to pay as a society for not doing so?

Dave Ewoldt

Co-founder and Executive Director

Natural Systems Solutions

   If you would like to schedule an introductory consultation session or arrange a presentation or workshop for your group, please contact or give Dave or Allison, co-founders of Natural Systems Solutions, a call at (520) 887-2502.


"You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here."
Alan Watts


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