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A Community Sustainability Project

Dave Ewoldt, November 2005


   The time has come when we can no longer put off planning and developing strategies for a sustainable future. The main reason for this is that the cultural path we're on is heading for a catastrophic conclusion. We're hopelessly intertwined 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 are detrimental to the growth mantra. Plus, burning this resource is a major variable in the global warming equation, and securing it requires the largest defense budget on the planet.

   The economic growth we are experiencing, however, is only benefiting a few. Real wages and purchasing power are down for the vast majority of Americans. Not by enough for most people to notice, only about 3%, but the average CEO salary is up about 4,000%. Quality of life is also down, evidenced by the steady increase in physical and mental illness, the manifestations of which we need to invent new terms and diagnostic categories for 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 taking at least three prescriptions daily.

   With the growing interest and concern in how to best handle growth (and keeping the option open to create a legally defensible way of putting a cap on it), prepare for Peak Oil, relocalize our economies, and leave a sustainable legacy for our progeny, there is a need to agree on working definitions for related issues, gain widespread community support for solutions that few are talking about, and address the relationships these issues have on people's daily lives. If our local infrastructure can't currently handle more growth in a healthy way, as partially evidenced by Bellingham's water treatment plant being at maximum capacity, and Level of Service "F" being seriously proposed on an increasing number of city streets, 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, farms--and honestly assess what our regional natural resource base can provide in the way of food, water, shelter, healthcare, and for what size of a population.

   Let's also find out what people really want, from as broad a cross-section as possible and start planning and developing based on our commonalities. Do we want 20 story buildings in our neighborhoods and more shopping malls, or do we want less traffic congestion, clean water, safer and more vibrant neighborhoods, and living wage jobs in a clean environment that protects biodiversity and our marine ecosystem?

   A Bellingham based non-profit organization, Attraction Retreat, has launched a fund drive to enable them to embark on a community project to discover the answers to these questions and start the creative process to address 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, woven together from the natural systems perspective that underlies the work at Attraction Retreat. It entails three basic steps, and does more than merely invite open public participation in the process--the CASI requires it for success.

   In order for communities to meet the goal of a sustainable future, they must have a clear idea of their 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, and discover where challenges may lie. Communities then have a foundation for developing strategies and a baseline for measuring progress toward an alternative public infrastructure that is not dependent on fossil fuels or other outside resources to secure basic necessities.

Project Outline

   The first of the three steps in the CASI process will be a one day Sustainable Community Indicators workshop. The goal of this workshop is to introduce the concepts of sustainability, carrying capacity, Peak Oil, 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 they also uncover the linkages between these areas.

   The second step is a one day interactive workshop to complete a Community Sustainability Assessment. The assessment is a subjective measure of where we stand 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? This will lay the foundation for the work to come and act as a guide for the indicators that will need to be developed.

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

  1. Economic - this area meets the needs for money and work as provided by the financial and productive subsystems.
  2. Social - this area meets the needs for care and values as provided by the social subsystem.
  3. Governance - this area meets the needs for self-determination, information, and power as provided by the local government subsystem.
  4. Material - this area meets 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. It also allows us to seriously address the growth issue by quantifying sustainability thresholds, beyond which we don't want to go in order to preserve what we've agreed is the quality of life we wish to sustain.

Project Outcome

   One purpose for performing the CASI is to focus 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 for health and well-being, economic equity, and ecological integrity. These factors all fit in to the definition of quality of life.

   The way the growth issue is framed is of the utmost importance. Instead of saying we want to stop (or even attempt to control) growth, we need to say we want to create a sustainable future; that we're not against growth, we're for sustainable development. Towards this end, the CASI project will act as community education on what these terms and phrases really mean, solicit and enable greater stakeholder 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 being able to obtain food and shelter, but gaining a sense of belonging, having 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 Attraction Retreat, that bioregional integration is the only effective means to address energy scarcity, biosphere destruction, and create a just, equitable, and sustainable future for all living systems.

   Whether Peak Oil is two or twenty years off, how widespread and devestating the effect global warming will have on our region, or how serious the danger from corporatism is to our local economies and governance are not intended to be the major points of inquiry. It simply makes sense to start preparing now instead of waiting til the last minute or hoping for a miracle technology to appear on the horizon to save us from our current situation.

   Even if none of the above global crises were currently impinging on our lives, our communities have real needs today for affordable housing and living wage jobs, to deal with issues such as homelessness and crime, to stand up to a voracious growth machine, and to create community relationships that help people overcome alienation, isolation, and rediscover our sense of place. Our citizens have a real need today for better lives and to create a quality of life that isn't dependent on prescription or other drugs.

   We will choose to move into a sustainable energy economy when we realize that our happiness relies on our relationships with each other and the natural world. The qualities of care and compassion do not require sacrifice, but enhance our own potential. Creating a mutually supportive community, that honors diversity, is the first step toward creating a sustainable quality of life that offers true fulfillment.


   None of the current neighborhood, city, or county planning or vision documents have taken Peak Oil, climate change, steady-state economics, carrying capacity, bioregional self-reliance, or sustainability into consideration as part of their underlying assumptions or relevant variables. Neither have they used realistic quality of life indicators as guidelines or 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 Whatcom County and its communities wide open to be blind sided and unprepared for any type of supply shock. The CASI is one step in addressing these shortcomings.

   The real question we'll need to keep in the back of our minds throughout the CASI process, is not how much it will cost to create an ecological economy, but what is the price we will have to pay as a society for not doing so?

   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 Attraction Retreat, a call at (360) 756-7998.


"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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