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What Sustainability Really Means

Posted by Jim Gunshinan on August 12, 2013
What Sustainability Really Means

I just read a book about the work of an environmental mediator, Lucy Moore, Common Ground on Hostile Turf: Stories from an Environmental Mediator (Island Press). What I liked most about this book was that it was a series of ten stories. There is a kind of summary chapter at the end, but I think you can skip it.

The ten stories are all unique, and I don’t think any of the mediation outcomes would be considered 100% successful. In one story Moore was asked by Senator Jeff Bingham of New Mexico to help settle a dispute between local sheepherders and environmental organizations over grazing rights to some federally owned land. The sheepherders had been raising sheep for generations on the land that the environmentalists wanted as a sanctuary for endangered plants and animals. After meeting several of the players individually, and spending quite a bit of time getting to know them and their particular concerns, she convinced five locals and five environmentalists to go on a three-day retreat together. The results might not have been what many hoped—the negotiations broke down after a time, and lawsuits were filed. But eventually the sheepherders found alternative grazing land and the environmentalists still have their sanctuary. Another positive outcome is that everyone came out of the three-day retreat with a better understanding of the “enemy” and some formed lasting, productive relationships.
 
Common Ground on Hostile Turf includes stories about Moore being hired to ask a group of Native Americans in Utah to accept nuclear waste on there land (yes, really); and negotiating a dispute between landowners and farmers around a lake and the Army Corps of Engineers, who were defending the lake as a recreational spot. Moore was asked to lead a discussion among members of the American Lung Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, and the EPA over rules governing small single-stroke combustion engines like leaf blowers and lawn mowers. The manufacturers’ representatives had banks of company lawyers looking over their shoulders the whole time. Talk about tense.
 
The results in the ten situations Moore describes varied across the board. But in every case everyone involved came away with more respect for the ones across the ideological divide. And most of the time the outcome was something that those involved in the negotiations could live with. 
 
I think that is what sustainability means right now: coming to an outcome that everyone can live with—not necessarily be happy about, but live with.
 
For the sheepherders in Moore’s book, the grazing land they were fighting for put food on the table of their families, a roof over their heads, and maybe gave some children a chance to go to college. The sheepherders’ relationship with the land was immediate and critical to their way of life. But the environmentalists were looking at a much bigger picture—the fact that whole species of animals were going extinct and the grazing land in question provided a sanctuary for some of them. 
 
I think we find ourselves, in our nation and in the home performance community in a similar situation. Many in the building and home performance community are worried about the survival of their businesses and livelihoods. They cringe and swallow another antacid whenever a federal, state, or local government adds a new tax or a new requirement for worker safety or even more paperwork that may be final straw requiring them to hire someone just to handle the paperwork. And yet, for the good of all, someone has to be looking at the big picture—the economy as a whole, the effects of global warming, energy security, and people’s health. And no one involved has perfect knowledge about the best course of action.
 
Our survival depends on our trying to figure out how to balance the needs of individuals and businesses with the needs of the region, state, nation, and world. I know one thing for sure. If we ignore one for the sake of the other, we’re all screwed.
 
People like Lucy Moore give me hope. People like Dave Butler, the manager of a raucous Building Science Community group on LinkedIn, give me hope. And there are many more of you out there who are doing the important work of creating a sustainable way of life—by leading, discussing, negotiating, and mediating. It’s not usually pretty. To paraphrase a favorite poet, T.S. Eliot: We are only defeated if we stop trying. Eventually, the needs of the individual and the health of the whole society will become the same. I’m not stating that as a fact, but going on faith.
 

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