Emerging Issues: Can Sustainability Be Sustained

June 4, 2012

By Bill Barnes

"Small college town 35 miles SW of Cleveland." That was the clue at # 10 Across in a recent Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.

The answer was "Oberlin."

In addition to hitting the big time in puzzles, Oberlin College and the city of Oberlin, Ohio, have gained considerable attention for their sustainability work, most recently, the "Oberlin Project." The latter is among the most ambitious of a large and growing number of campus-initiated "green" programs --- from Oroville, Calif., to Muncie, Ind. to Middlebury, Vermont.  

Such campus efforts, sometimes in conjunction with the local government and sometimes not, are driven variously by educational purposes, by "anchor institution" ambitions, and by technological feasibility and evolving standards. These initiatives, says Tammy Zborel, NLC Senior Associate for Sustainability, are worth the attention of municipal officials. "City leaders" she says, "can learn a lot from the groundswell of activity happening on university campuses to advance sustainability, and the potential for collaborations is great."

The Oberlin Project

The Oberlin Project aims to "revitalize the local economy, eliminate carbon emissions, restore local agriculture, food supply and forestry, and create a new, sustainable base for economic and community development." (See: www.Oberlinproject.org) It's this large, integrated agenda for "holistic urban management" that puts the project at the proverbial cutting edge of sustainability work.

Nestled in the Rust Belt and with nearly 2000 of its 8000 or so residents in poverty, both city and college leaders emphasize the economic development implications of the efforts. City Manager Eric Norenberg also reports that the collaborative work on this project has enhanced town/gown relationships and "opened new opportunities for working together."

The project itself is supported by foundation grants. It is, says Managing Director Bruce Stubbs, "not an institution"; it's an "independent catalyst" that will last 2-4 years. The aim is to align incentives so that "sustainability is the default position" and to "embed the agenda in institutions" -- the city, the college, and other local and regional actors -- that will carry the effort forward.

The community is also one of three US cities among18 worldwide in the Clinton Foundation's Climate Positive Development Program. The city of Oberlin is on target to reduce its emissions by 50 percent of 2007 levels by 2015, with 90 percent of its electricity coming from renewable sources.

Other efforts in the project's purview include a 13-acre Green Arts District; business ventures that support aspects of the agenda; conserving 20,000 acres of green space and developing a local foods economy to meet 70 percent of local consumption; and creating a sustainability education alliance among schools at all levels in the area. The locals see their efforts as a model, a "beacon," for other communities.

"Klaatu barada nikto"

Sustainability is a vague term; that's both an asset and a disadvantage. A paraphrase of the statement from the 1987 United Nation's Brundtland Commission has the virtue of longevity and brevity: meeting today's needs without compromising the future. This seems useful. The values implicit in the definition apply to the full range of our public concerns: economic development, fiscal management, education policy, as well as green buildings and environmental protection should all be "sustainable."

In a thoughtful 1999 essay, Lamont C. Hempel concluded that a "lesson about sustainability" is that "lasting gains in quality of life cannot be achieved without effective integration of environmental, social, and economic goals at the community and regional level." Thus, the "real difficulty" around sustainability lies, not so much in definitions, but in governance, politics, and management.  

Not everyone has signed on to this work plan. Even beyond the normal tussles over whose ox is to be gored in specific projects, there's ferment over the prospect of what one Oberlin alumni described as "a global socialist dictatorship." "Smart Growth" and "sustainable development" are under attack in local planning commissions and zoning boards by well-funded advocacy groups and local activists who see themselves in an apocalyptic struggle against "collectivist attitudes...the abolishment of private property [and] ...Tyranny."

In the 2008 re-make of the sci-fi film classic, "The Day the Earth Stood Still," sophisticated aliens threaten to eliminate human life in order to "save the Earth" from humanity's ecological destructiveness.   (The 1951 original featured the signature line -- "Klaatu barada nikto." Aptly, no one knows what that means.)  In the end, the re-make offers Hollywood optimism -- at the "precipice" of environmental catastrophe (but only at the precipice), humans can realize the harm they are doing and "can change." 

Well, maybe.

Meanwhile, undertaking and accumulating arrays of effective initiatives -- from marginal to transformative, from local to global, and under whatever label you prefer -- seems more appealing and likely more effective than the dubious titillation of actually peering over that precipice.

Bill Barnes, the director for emerging issues at NLC, can be reached at barnes@nlc.org. He graduated from Oberlin College in the last century. Previous monthly columns are collected on the Emerging Issues webpage at www.nlc.org.