Friday, November 28, 2008

The Natural Step Framework

In March I will be going to Sweden to study eco-communities and Sweden's approach to sustainability. One big contribution we'll be learning about is the Natural Step process. The framework of the Natural Step is broken into four basic concepts.

1. In the sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust. Matter cannot be created nor destroyed, meaning that we cannot completely get rid of anything mined from the earth, and chemicals and toxins we create from earth's minerals do not simply disappear over time. Anything we bring into our atmosphere is forever ours.

2. In the sustainable society, nature is not subject to the systematically increasing concentrations of substances produced by society. We are creating synthetic substances much faster than they can be broken down. Of the over 70,000 chemicals not commonly used*, many do not break down easily and can move easily into other ecosystems. Some chemicals are known to cause cancers, interfere with brain development, and are increasingly found in many species of animals, including humans.

3. In the sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing degradation by physical means.
Natural systems, such as land, water, forests, soil, ecosystem, not only provide us with places of recreation and peace, but are also our life-support systems for oxygen, water, food, and carbon sequestration. Human activity is currently breaking down natural systems faster than they can replenish themselves.

4. In the sustainable society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.
In order for sustainability to succeed, the basic human needs of air, water, food, and shelter need to be satisfied first.

Movement toward any one of these goals is good, but the most sustainable projects are ones that strive to achieve the four conditions simultaneously. The Natural Step outlines four guiding objectives that stem from these conditions that can help communities obtain these goals successfully.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Greenbuild and Greening the Economy

I just returned from Boston for Greenbuild, the nation's largest green building conference. While I was somewhat disappointed at the lack of affordable methods to build green and information for rural communities, I came away very inspired and hopeful that America may finally be moving in the right direction, and that sustainability for all might one day be possible.

One of the master speakers was Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy. He gave an inspirational speech on how green jobs will both fix our economy and positively impact climate change. He also stressed the importance of our new president - not as the first black president, but as the first green president who is dedicated to improving sustainability, and how that is something everyone in the country will benefit from.

We should never lose sight of why we are doing what we're doing - Van Jones
In order to make green jobs successful, a complete shift toward sustainable thinking is needed. The only true way to get us out of this economic slump will be to invest in sustainability and green jobs, and basically do the opposite of the current model of our failed economy. Jones spoke of three shifts we need to make:

-Local Production. We're the largest consumers in the world, not producers. We currently consume 5-7% more than we produce, something that in Nature simply could never sustain itself.Shifting production of goods locally will not only produce more green jobs in our country, it also poses an opportunity to bring social benefits to everyone. And of course using local materials minimizes negative environmental impacts as well.

-Thrift. Our economy is powered by debt instead of smart savings, by credit instead of creativity, by borrowing instead of building. In Nature, nothing is free and no animal can survive a winter without harvesting and rationing energy wisely. In addition to saving money and being smarter about monetary choices, we should be more thrifty in our consumption as well. Think smaller homes, smaller cars, and more energy-efficient everything, and nothing bought on credit. Reward those that are doing a good job, not those that are failing.

-Environmental Restoration. Our economy runs on environmental devastation instead of protection and restoration. This model is simply not sustainable as there is no such thing as an endless supply of anything in Nature. Every choice we make needs to have an environmental focus. Choose materials and methods of energy that are renewable and durable, and practices that give back to the environment instead of taking away.

It seems so logical, doesn't it?

So where do we start? Looking at green building standards and finding good information at places like Dovetail's Eco-Affordable Housing Program is one good place to begin. According to Greenbuild master speaker Kevin O'Connor from television series This Old House, America currently has over 125 million homes that were built before today. So while looking at new construction is important, we need to be retrofitting America first to really change how our buildings are impacting the environment. It's also a great place to build some green jobs. Minnesota currently has its own green remodeling standards - among the very first in the country. Click here for more information on Minnesota GreenStar.
We need to retro-fit America - Van Jones
I found his speech very inspirational and believe that this economic downturn, while difficult, will prove to be the very thing we need to become more sustainable as a whole. It's really exciting, if only we can remember that now we're free to fly or fall - and we have the choice of which way to go. We can no longer ignore sustainability - it is going to be the thing to make us succeed instead of being something to be afraid of.

One thing to note is that as green building shifts even further to the mainstream and more green jobs become available, those of us that have been doing green for a long will no longer be the alternative, we will be the cornerstone of the industry and the economy. It is important that we are informed by good information and that we continue to help others who ask for it, even though we are essentially competing for a piece of the green pie. This shift is already becoming apparent at Greenbuild, where vendors were much more informed of environmental jargon than last year, and which was attended by more green building consultants than ever. Let's continue to help each other by both being open with our environmental information and also choosing sustainability for the wellness of our society as a whole.

Van Jones's speech can be found here.

Monday, November 3, 2008

20/20 Community Development Expo

If you are interested in sustainable community development, there is another upcoming conference that might fit the bill.

The 20/20 Community Development Expo, hosted by the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers (MCCD) and the Local Initiatives Support Corporative (LISC), will focus on what needs to happen for Minnesota's communities in the future. Some sessions include Neighborhood Recovery from Foreclosures, Regional Growth and Opportunity, Building Sustainable Communities, Transit Investment, Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Equity Agendas, Building Stronger Communities, and more. All of these areas sound like great opportunities for rural and/or small communities in which to incorporate sustainability.

The 20/20 Community Development Expo
November 19 & 20th
Hyatt Regency in downtown Minneapolis
Early bird registration ends November 7th!