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Sustainability: Choosing the Right Crisis

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It would be several years before I learned the role the National Association of Manufacturers and their brainchild - the massive American public relations industry - in this massive social transformation. That transforming Americans' identity from social involved, interdependent citizens to lonely, isolated, insecure, TV-addicted consumers had been a deliberate aim of public relations strategy - to increase sales of consumer goods (and profits). The late Australian-born psychologist Alex Carey. Carey describes quite eloquently the deliberate crafting of a pro-corporate, consumption-driven American psyche in Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda vs. Freedom and Libertyhttp://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/25/006.html.

The Success of the Sustainability Movement

Transition Towns Handbook
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Obviously millions of lines of code got rewritten in time, and civilization didn't collapse in 2000. However of the work that went into the Voluntary Simplicity and Y2K movements has been incorporated into Transition Towns and other sustainability-related movements. There are now literally millions of groups worldwide focused on some aspect of bioregional sustainability. The most visible evidence of their success are the blossoming of home veggie gardens, urban community gardens and orchards and farmers' markets; the 1,040 US cities and towns (nearly 1/3 of the US population) which have signed onto the Kyoto accord (despite the Senate's refusal to ratify it); and the 125 local communities voting to restrict corporate rights (see http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/jan2011kanner).

Addressing Apathy and Alienation Head-On

One of the most important factors in this success is the ability of the sustainability movement to address apathy and alienation head-on, by reengaging people in neighborhood and community life. For many people, local civic engagement automatically leads to re-engagement in the wider political process. I would never argue that progressives should focus on local community building to the exclusion of critically needed government reforms. Corporate lobbies still have the ability to overturn local and state laws in the courts by claiming that they violate alleged constitutional rights. Thus organizing to end so-called "constitutional" protections for corporations (which aren't even mentioned in the constitution) - either through federal legislation or constitutional amendment (www.movetoamed.org) must be an extremely high priority. At the same time, I see neighborhood and community sustainability networks playing a pivotal role in building strong grassroots lobbies to tackle banking reform, restoring of civil liberties or ending the wars in the Middle East.

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The Basics of Sustainability Organizing

Sustainability-related work can be broken down into concrete, achievable steps, which also lends to its appeal. In preparing for the End of the World as We Know it, Y2K activists predicted local communities would need to prepare for breakdowns in the following services:

  • Global commerce (food imports being the most crucial)
  • Water and energy utilities
  • Waste removal systems
  • Telecommunications, Internet and mass media
  • Financial institutions
  • Transportation systems
  • Governance and government services
  • Health Care
  • Institutions and agencies responsible for education, justice, manufacturing and security

In the Transition Towns movement, organizers have found it easiest to begin with food, water and energy security - in part because they are most critical to human survival. However the bioregional economic networks established as a first step in addressing food, water and energy security can also be used to prepare for breakdowns in other systems. For 99.9% of human existence people have relied on a bioregional economic model in which they have sourced the vast majority of their food and other essentials for life within a 100 mile radius. The process of re-creating this network is very helpful in learning to shift our thinking away from relying on national and multinational corporations to meet our needs.

Although the sustainability movement receives little attention in the mainstream media, it has it has been quietly building for nearly two decades - often with the support of state and local government (it receives the most state support in California). In Europe it receives national and EU support. The following is just a small snapshot of local accomplishments around energy, food and water security.


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  • Increased local expertise in permaculture and biointensive agriculture techniques, as industrial fertilizers and insecticides (manufactured from fossil fuels) become unavailable and/or prohibitively expensive.
  • De-paving - digging up private and public driveways and parking lots and replacing them with backyard veggie gardens and community orchards and gardens. In addition to improving food security, this restores watersheds by reducing run-off, a major threat to water security in the industrial world.
  • Lawn liberation - replacing lawns and ornamental trees and shrubs with fruit and nut trees and veggie gardens.
  • Support of local farmers through farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture Schemes (in which residents "subscribe" to weekly deliveries of fresh veggies and fruit).
  • Neighborhood and municipal systems of rainwater collection and purification and gray water collection
  • Adoption of active run-off management plans, in which lost groundwater is measured and minimized in development planning - and replaced, for example via the Blue Alternative (in which groundwater is replaced by digging small catchment pools in open spaces).


  • Reduced fossil fuel dependence in transportation:

o       Beginning work to create local consumer-farmer/consumer-retailer networks, including state and locally owned banks, credit unions and cooperatives. Given that local businesses struggle to compete (their costs and prices tend to be higher) with national and multinational corporations, this can be facilitated via the creation of local barter systems (example from Greece at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12223068) and/or local currencies), such as Ithaca hours, that can only be spent locally.

o       Community and municipal initiatives to increase public and active transport (cycling and walking) through urban planning that incorporates growth management and sprawl reduction, creation of urban villages where residents live closer to essential services, and restricted permitting of malls and big box retailers (Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia are excellent examples).

o       Community and neighborhood street reclaiming initiatives to make streets safer for people to use cars less and walk and cycle more.

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I am a 63 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. I have just published a young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW (which won a NABE Pinnacle Achievement Award) about a 16 year old girl who (more...)

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