Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

After Sustainability

What happens next after communities have achieved sustainable outcomes, such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions?

Next month, government executives will converge on Incheon, Korea, for the Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) international conference. One of the themes for the conference is "resilience" -- an emerging trend in sustainability. According to the conference website, "Resilience is a community's capacity to respond to disaster, risk and unexpected change in a creative, proactive, preventive and adaptive way." The risk of global warming is a leading concern.

Resilience and related ideas such as adaptability, regeneration and transitional communities are considered post-sustainability movements. These movements are looking to address various scenarios for different possible sustainability-related outcomes.

The worst-case scenario is that human society must prepare itself for a radical transformation once oil has disappeared and the Earth has overheated. The middle of the road scenario is where sustainability more or less succeeds, but the impacts of global warming are still felt: sea levels rise, wildlife habitats are damaged and weather patterns become more unstable. The best case scenario is that sustainability is completely successful in eliminating global warming, and efforts can be made to reverse its effects.

Worst-Case Scenario: Transitional Communities Respond to Peak Oil and Global Warming

Transitional towns or communities can be thought of as radical resilience. They are a response to both global warming and "peak oil" -- the fact that we will soon have depleted more than 50 percent of the world's fossil fuels. These communities assume that business and government will be unable to cope with the twin shockwaves sent out by climate change and peak oil, which are assumed to include mass migration, citizen unrest and economic instability.

According to the international organization for transitional communities, the Transition Network, there are 554 active and start-up transitional communities around the world. In the United States, there are currently 74 active transitional communities, with 72 additional communities under development.

The most well-known transition concept is "local currencies" -- alternative monetary units which can be used only in a certain geographic region. This idea has been picked up by non-transitional communities as a way to promote spending locally, and to insulate communities from national or global economic forces far beyond local control.

One community which has adopted its own currency is Totnes, a town in the United Kingdom with a population of about 7,500. Totnes is the UK's oldest transitional community project, and it is considered a laboratory for the possibilities for transitional ideas. Residents have worked with the town and county governments on a wide array of transition projects including funding for a large number of rooftop solar installations, completely local food supply efforts and an Energy Descent Action Plan, which charts a course for "up skilling and powering down." The Energy Descent Action Plan acknowledges the work of Oakland, Calif., and its Oil Independent Oakland Action Plan, written in early 2008.

Middle of the Road Scenario: Resilience and Managing A Warmer World

Resilience assumes that cities and counties will need to adapt to the impact of global warming and, if possible, apply strategies so that the impact is minimized or eliminated. Resilience addresses two key global warming facts. The first fact is that the full global warming impact of past fossil fuel use has yet to be felt, since there is a delay between fossil fuel use on the ground and its contribution to the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. The second fact addressed by resilience is that most greenhouse gases will remain in the atmosphere for decades, and some will remain for a century or more. In other words, even if no more emissions were created, we will still see an increase in global warming.

King County, Wash., began work on resilience in 2005. The county's 2007 Climate Plan strikes a somber note about the obstacles faced by the planners: "History can no longer be a guide for the future. Decision-makers should be aware that abrupt climate change and sea level rise could bring catastrophic consequences, especially for coastal regions like King County. King County officials will respond to the range of known risks according to best available science, probability and likely magnitude, in order to minimize risks to public health, property and economic prosperity."

King County and ICLEI applied the county's experience to create Preparing for Climate Change, A Guidebook for Local, Regional and State Governments. The document details how governments can examine their vulnerabilities to climate change, assess the related risks and implement a preparedness plan. Preparing for Climate Change has been applied in cities as diverse as Homer, Alaska, Fort Collins, Colo., and Keene, N.H., to implement resiliency plans.

Best Case Scenario: Building On Sustainability Success With Regeneration

A post-sustainability movement in its infancy is regeneration. The Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University defines regeneration as "systems that foster return from a state of decline and result in rejuvenated life generating systems." Regeneration looks to replicate the cyclical renewal patterns of natural systems in order to support human beings. Practitioners of regeneration seek to harness natural tools such as soil replenishment, photosynthesis and water purification to create closed-loop systems for buildings, urban plans and regional development. Wherever possible, regeneration activities attempt to produce additional resources, such as clean water, in order to repair the damage done by unsustainable practices.

At the forefront of regenerative practices is the International Living Building Institute. ILBI is forging well beyond the sustainable building practices set out in U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standard by asking, "What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?" ILBI's standard includes regenerative touchstones such as using closed-loop water systems for all water consumption, creating pedestrian-oriented communities and rejuvenating damaged or abandoned land.

Denver is piloting regeneration through a project called the "Living City Block." The project is designed to create a thriving urban center which, by 2016, will be creating more resources than it consumes. The Dockside Green development in British Columbia is "revitalizing a deserted industrial brownfield into a thriving community of interdependent systems, places and people," where "waste from one area will provide fuel for another." And London has adopted regeneration as a theme for its hosting of the 2012 Olympics.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
Special Projects