Also see:  Sustainable Community Development | Prime Directive | What is Meant by Development? | Choice of Lifestyle | Institutionalized Resistance | Social Service | My History in Sustainable Community | Educating for Sustainability | Giving Children a Voice | In addition, visit "The Commons" in Essays


I hear, and I forget.
I see, and I remember.
I do, and I understand.

Chinese Proverb

Education is essential to the freedom of self-government. It must, therefore, be a local, state, and national priority of the highest degree. If it is not, then one is courting despotism. I know because I have lived and worked under the iron fist of a dictator and the sticky web of Communism, both of which survived by keeping the populace ignorant in order to control them. Well-educated people cannot be so easily controlled, which means a well-rounded education is a vital necessity if democracy is to work for the benefit of all citizens.

Education, both as formal, academic training and as the experiences one has in the journey of life, is absolutely necessary for sustainable community development. Formal, academic training and the experiences of life come together to make one literate, which means to be a well-informed, educated person with respect to a given subject or subjects. Literate also means having the ability to read and write.

Literacy is thus the sum of one's ability to use language to share one's knowledge, intuition, experiences, values, and talents (=communication), without which democracy, and thus sustainable community development, is impossible. There are many facets to literacy, of which six are particularly important to sustainable development:  aesthetic, academic, environmental, economic, democratic, and civic. The major focus will be civic literacy, because community, especially sustainable community, is the great crucible into which all facets of literacy ultimately pour, mix, and bear fruit in some form.


To maintain the very best our culture has to offer the generations yet to come, we must focus on aesthetic literacy. This focus in not only important because it connects us with our heritage but also because it's a means of archiving who we are and what we stand for as a people—offered as an unconditional gift to the generations of the future.

Aesthetic literacy is the heart and soul of sustainable community development because people are moved to change through their sense of aesthetics, which is of the intuition and the heart—not of the intellect and its various facets, such as science and economics. Aesthetic literacy is about right proportions, shapes, textures, sounds, odors, and colors of those things that, when integrated, are responsible for the best quality of human life. In a word, aesthetic literacy is about the spiritual aspect of sustainable development, wherein, for example, a view of the night sky, which connects us with the Eternal Mystery of the universe, is unobstructed by the human artifact of light pollution.

Because aesthetics is of the heart and soul of one's culture, it is the prime motivation that causes people to seek a certain set of conditions in their lives, such as artistically pleasing architecture, be it of old or new construction. To illustrate, I spent part of October 1992 in Japan, where the Shinto priests invited me to visit the Grand Shrine of Ise City—a truly exquisite experience.

Shinto, in its broadest sense, refers to indigenous-Japanese spiritual culture. When used in the narrow sense, it refers to the rites offered to deities or "kami," primarily those of Heaven and Earth listed in classical Japanese works of the ancient period. The facility used for the performance of this worship is called a "jinju" or shrine.

That Nature and natural phenomena are revered as deities by the Japanese is a result of their view of Nature as a kind of parent, which nurtures life and provides limitless blessings. In keeping with this view, Shinto shrines all over Japan are surrounded by luxuriant groves of trees. Backed by the Shinto view of untouched, natural scenery as sacred in itself, the "forests" surrounding the shrines are an important element of each shrine. In addition, the priests of olden time planted cryptomeria trees within the Grand Shrine. Today, these trees are not only 500 years old but also each tree has its own 500-year recorded history.

I tell you about the cryptomeria trees because they are revered for their written history as much as for themselves as living beings, and therein lies a critical similarity with a historic building in a city—namely, its recorded history, as well as the memories passed from one generation to the another through the corridors of time. In fact, the cryptomeria trees are so loved by the people they pick pieces of bark off of them as a remembrance, much as a mother clips and saves a lock of her baby's hair. The people were taking so much bark, the priests had to place protective, wooden "girdles" around each tree lest the people pick them bare. How tragic will it be for the people when their sacred trees die? How tragic is it when an earthquake or fire destroys a revered building of ancient origin that has for centuries guarded human memories?

Now, let's consider the architecture of a Shinto shrine. Instead of a written text, the "soul" of Shinto is archived in the architecture of each shrine. About 1300 hundred years ago, Emperor Tenmu ordained the practice of removing the old shrine and rebuilding a new, exact replica next to it every twenty years. Therefore, the exact outline of each and every building is laid out in black stones and white stones in close proximity.

Although it is not clearly known why Emperor Tenmu stipulated the rebuilding of the shrine at this interval, it's likely that twenty years is the most logical interval in terms of passing from one generation to the next the technological expertise needed for the exacting task of duplicating a shrine. For example, if a twenty-year-old man helps to replace a shrine, he is an apprentice. If the same man helps again when he is forty, while still an apprentice, he is no longer a novice. But to help replace a shrine when he is sixty makes him a master. In this way, the cultural knowledge has been pass forward with exquisite beauty for 1300 years, and will so continue into the future.

Tragically, however, we, in the United States, are losing aesthetics—both visual (tangible) and emotional (intangible)—as a basis of social life because attention is today riveted on the pursuit of science, mathematics, and economics from a strictly competitive, intellectual point of view. In our case, aesthetics gives value to economics through advertizing, whereas economics exploits the very essence of aesthetics in order to increase the bottom line of profit. This, to me, is a sad state of affairs because, having been trained in science, I have always found great beauty and awe in the synergism of the myriad never-ending stories of cause and effect embodied in the biophysical principles that govern the universe—a beauty that is increasingly stolen by the economic prostitution of aesthetics.

As such, I find science to be an incredibly beautiful way to engage the whole of my being in an attempt to understand the intricate mysteries that form the pathways along which energy moves throughout the strands of Nature's web of life, for no other reason than to marvel at the stunning magnificence of Nature herself—an indescribable beauty that is being increasingly forsaken in favor of immediate, economic expediency. But then, many do not considered me to be a scientist it the conventional sense of the term, exactly because I honor both my intuition and my human emotions as a natural part of the discipline.

Because our sense of beauty is based on how something "touches" us emotionally, we are willing to protect that which we feel to be beautiful and we mourn the loss of the same. I bring this up here because there is today a growing move afoot to:  (1) steal choice and self-determining government from the people who live in the area of the proposed development; (2) give preference to developers, an increasing number of whom are absentee; (3) force local people to accept absentee interests; (4) limit—and perhaps even undermine—the scope of a local people's potential vision for the sustainability of their community within the context of their own landscape, especially for the desired future condition of their landscape; and (5) curtail, or even eliminate, the ability of local people to actively mourn for the continuing loss of their quality of life and their sense of place as outside choices are forced upon them, often by people who will not have to live with the consequences of their imposed actions.

The whole purpose of choice is for local people to guide the sustainable development of their own community within the mutually sustainable context of their landscape. After all, the local people and their children must reap the consequences of any decisions that are made. To limit their choices is to force someone else's consequences upon them, often at a great and increasingly negative long-term cost, first socially and then environmentally

When preferential treatment is given developers, including absentee developers, local people are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to planning for long-term community sustainability within the context of a finite landscape. While the focus of sustainable community development is long term, the interests of most developers are strictly short term, which usually counteracts long-term planning based on long-term environmental consequences. Further, it is exceedingly unlikely that absentee developers are going to have a vested interest in the long-term welfare of a community once they have made their money. So, long after the developer is gone, the community is left to deal with the environmental errors caused by too much haste because the letter of the law was held to be inviolate and shielded from challenge while the people's core values and quality of life were discounted in favor of quick profits.

Finally, the express purpose of any law to limit public debate is to get emotions—feelings, human values—out of land-use decisions, which effectively slaughters the quality of human relationships for the benefit of developers. But emotions, the force behind relationships, are based on personal and collective values, which are the heart and soul of a community.

These debates, and the emotions they evoke, help people to integrate the proposed changes into their consciousness. As well, they are a necessary and vital form of grieving over the imminent loss of a safe, known past and the invasion of an unknown, uncertain future. Curtail public debate, whether in an open meeting or by shortening the length of a public-comment period, and trust—the bedrock of emotional well-being—withers like a dying leaf in a hot wind.

To be healthy, people must not only be allowed to grieve but also be given permission to grieve for their perceived losses. Expressing the depth of one's grief is the primary function of public debate. Only when people have moved through their grief is rational, long-term planning for sustainable community possible.

Grief, although difficult at best, is vital to the emotional acceptance of a painful circumstance and to the reshaping of oneself in relationship to an outer world that reflects a new reality based on that painful circumstance. We, in our fast-growing American society, are daily faced with the death of beautiful things that we have long cherished, such as a small forested hill near our home, where we have spent many a happy hour over the years enjoying seasonal flowers, fresh breezes, and the silence of open space. Suddenly, we are confronted with the prospect of a housing development, and our sense of impending loss and grief is acute.

Those of us who have been trained to deal primarily through out intellect, which is but the first step in grasping the loss of someone or something we love, are too often cut off from our feelings and therefore try, as best we can, to minimize the pain. On the other hand, those who are in touch with their feelings and acutely aware of their pain are quickly accused by the monied interests, such as developers, of caring more for a wooded hill, wildflowers, or a butterfly than for people.

So it comes as no surprise that, where money reigns supreme, such special interest groups as developers often make grieving for the loss of our environment and our attachments to a most difficult and uncertain process. Their tactic, as I have observed it, is to make people defend their personal values, and the feelings they engender, against the cold materialism of the money chase. Here, the intimation is that a personal sense of loss is anti-business, therefore anti-progress and anti-American.

The outcome of this myopic view is that we have almost no social support for expressing grief. Although our tears and the honest discussion of our feelings may be a sign of grief work well done, when sitting beside the bed in which a loved one is dying, our tears and frank discussion are far more difficult and dangerous in a public meeting.

Nevertheless, people have long used rituals to help themselves and one another mourn and recover from grief. Most of our customs of contemporary mourning are directed at the acute loss of the people and pets that we love; these customs are important in the first weeks and months of the grieving process. But environmental and social losses are intermittent, chronic, cumulative, and without obvious beginnings and endings. It is therefore necessary to encourage, support, and develop (not curtail) socially acceptable customs of grieving (open public debate), as well as socially acceptable places (open public meetings) in which to grieving for environmental and social losses, those which alter the context of our lives just a surely as the loss of a person or a pet.

Although the notion of materialism brings up numbers (economics), numbers are not apart from aesthetics when you consider that mathematics the language of music and design. Not only that, but it's also the language through which humanity attempts to understand the biophysical principles that both govern the universe and determine our place in it. The challenge, therefore, is not with mathematics itself, but rather with the overriding drive toward increased quantification at the expense of understanding the intrinsic value of interrelationships—the what and how much at the expense of the why.

The what and how much count so heavily in today's world because we have divided the material world into the extrinsic side of economics (social status and the power of control) at the expense of the intrinsic relationship of economics to the intrinsic services of ecology—the why, which is the basis of our human relationship with Nature and the spirituality that mediates the reciprocity of that millenniums-old relationship. After all, spirituality is the muse that informs the artist and poet, who are at once the trustees and informants of a culture's beauty.

I write this with a great deal of humility because I have been privileged to visit many cities in North Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. Some were exquisite and left me in awe of the potential majesty residing in the human imagination when its bent is to create beauty in composition, form, and function that will delight throughout the ages. Other cities I have found to be a relative hodgepodge of unplanned pieces stuck together over the decades. Nevertheless, each had its own lesson to teach; each was a facet of the human jigsaw puzzle of which I am a piece, and each had a memorable part that left an impression in my psyche. I am a richer person for having visited so many villages, towns, and cities because I have found a part of myself in each of them and have been blessed accordingly with a greater vantage then I would otherwise have.

Nevertheless, I wonder how long the mystery and the lessons enshrined in old cities and parts thereof will be able to resist the onslaught modern "development." What will we lose when cultural history is razed in order to replace the thoughtful creation—the legacy—of bygone people with the imagineless, ticky-tacky of today's money chase. I feel a growing sense of impoverishment as historic buildings and areas of cities are allowed to fade unrequited into the unknown, forever lost to the impatience of today's hurry, worry society. My sense of impending loss brings to mind the aboriginal caves I have visited, both in the American west and in the desert of Nubia, Egypt.

The first architectural endeavor of a hominid was to find a suitable cave in which to live. (A hominid, hom•i•nid, is any of the modern or extinct primates that belong to the taxonomic family Hominidae, Hom•in•idae, of which we are a member.) I say suitable cave because it had to offer sufficient protection against predators (such as cave bears and saber-tooth tigers) and/or inclement weather—perhaps the first idea. As well, the cave had to be large enough to house a number of individuals and still be within a reasonable distance from water and a goodly supply of food. In addition, it needed to retain heat for its inhabitants, and, with the appropriation of fire as a tool, the cave had to eliminate smoke as well. Survival dictated that each generation pass to its offspring what it had learned about the important qualities of a good cave. And so the rudiments of language came into being though an urge to communicate, to share with one another life's inner, private experiences of thought—the fertile bed of germinating ideas.

Somewhere in time, our ancestors also began to improve the interior of their caves by consciously arranging and rearranging objects, such as stones, pieces of wood, skins of animals, etc., in order to improve their ability to protect themselves against the weather and predators. At the same time, comfort probably became an increasingly important consideration (such as a rock or piece of wood to sit on), as did the aesthetics of the cave's interior, and so began the professions of architecture and interior decorating.

By two million years ago, an archaic species of human, known as Homo erectus ("erect man"), had developed the physical organs and mental capacity to string together three to five words at a time. This early language might have consisted mostly of simple nouns, the names of tangible objects, rather than abstract verbs and adjectives. By 400,000 years ago, the extinct, early people of the Neanderthal Valley in Germany (Homo neanderthalensis—ne•an•der•thal•ensis) could do much better. And so a spoken, human language was gradually born.

Language guides thought, perception (including beauty), sharing, and our sense of reality by archiving knowledge. Knowledge, in turn, is the storehouse of ideas, and language is the storehouse of knowledge. Language allows each succeeding generation to benefit from the knowledge gathered and compounded by generations already passed. It is a tool, a catalyst, a gift from adults to children. By means of language, each generation begins farther up the ladder of knowledge than the preceding one. In this sense, each building has been a functional text in humanity's architectural library of time. Each structure, from the first cave inhabited by a hominid, is thus a volume in the library, and language is the librarian that guards the knowledge harvested and stored through the ages. That language is the librarian makes sense because, according to an Italian proverb:  Words are feminine, facts masculine.

In March 1964, I sat on a large piece of ironstone in the Nubian Desert of Egypt within sight of the Nile and about 100 miles north of the Sudanese border. As it turned out, another man, a Paleolithic man, had also sat upon that same piece of ironstone thousands of years before as he chipped hand axes. One of his finished axes lay at my feet. Picking it up, I discovered the tip was broken, and I could almost feel his frustration at breaking the tip just when he thought he had a finished implement.

I felt, and still feel, a kinship with this artisan of antiquity because I know that today I somehow stand on the shoulders of what he had learned and passed on to his children, who learned more and passed it on to their children, who learned still more and passed on to their children, until, when enough knowledge had been accumulated, the first "freestanding shelter" was born in the mind of one person.

Looking around my own home, I realize that I had, for a moment, sat on a stool in humanity's library of the ages on that day in March 1964. With this realization, I contemplate the eons of human striving for survival, knowledge, and self-expression that went into the creation of the language that in turn made the first freestanding shelter possible. Today, as in the time of humanity's collective far memory, that sense of self-expression is intended to shape Nature in order to fulfill a human desire, be it embodied in a functionally designed implement with which to perform a task or in a beautiful building as a metaphor that expresses the meaning of one's life.

The innate drive to create the condition that we want seems to be a trait common to all of humanity and causes our species to appeal to Nature for "mercy" on the one hand, while simultaneously attempting on the other to mold Nature in a way that creates an outcome that is both predictable and in our favor—be it a hand ax or a beautiful building to stand as a personal legacy that, in serving others physically, serves us emotionally.

After all, as I said above, spirituality is the muse that informs the artist and poet, who are at once the trustees and informants of a culture's beauty. But when taken as a whole, every member of a community is a trustee of a thought or discipline that forms the body, heart, and soul of the community for the present and future generations. In order to honorably and wisely fulfill their role as trustee, each person is not only entitled to but also requires access to a sound, comprehensive education. And the outcome of such an education is academic literacy. literacy


Academic literacy is about learning how to learn through a clear understanding and use of language in all its facets. In essence, it's learning how to use a library wherein eons of hard-won knowledge rest between the covers of books waiting to be freed in the presence of an inquisitive mind.

True, we need to master mathematics, science, and technical skills, understanding them within the context of whole systems, but that is not enough. We must also teach—and learn—the price, value, and processes of self-government. We must blend science with intuition, humility, and sociology. We must integrate politics and commerce with humanity and ethics; and we must infuse it all with the fluid connectivity of language and civility so that we may create a community of beauty in which it is safe to share, innovate, imagine, and have the courage to fail our way to success and sustainability. A true measure of such a community is whether or not it makes children "happy."

For us humans to continue our spiritual/intellectual development, to achieve the success of social-environmental sustainability, we need to protect one aspect of our culture that we normally neglect:  language. Perhaps one of the greatest feats of humanity is the evolution of language, especially written language, which made culture possible. Language, which we seem to take for granted, is not something we generally think of as becoming extinct. And yet languages are disappearing all over the world, especially those of indigenous people, which are spoken languages only.

Of all the gifts of life, language is one of the most incredible. I can, in silence, understand what I think you wish me to know when you write to me. And I can perceive what I think your thoughts are and ask for clarification when you speak to me. You speak and you write and you allow me to share a small part of you.

Through language, we can create, examine, and test concepts, those intangible wisps of human thought and imagination. Concepts can only be qualified, not quantified; only interpreted, not measured. And concepts can be reinterpreted hundreds, or even thousands, of years after they were first written.

Language is the storehouse of ideas. It allows each succeeding generation to benefit from the knowledge accrued by generations already passed. It is a tool, a catalyst, a gift from adults to children. By means of language, each generation begins further up the ladder of knowledge than the preceding one began.

One of the greatest values of language is that it allows us to search for truth and to strive for those ideals that we, as individuals, as communities, and as societies perceive to be right and just. In this sense, language has become an imperative for the survival of human society, because the tenets of society are founded on language. We simply must understand one another if our respective societies are to survive.

In a broader sense, every human language—the master tool that represents its own culture—has its unique construct, which determines both its limitations and its possibilities of expressing myth, emotion, and logic. As long as we have the maximum diversity of languages, we can see ourselves—the collective human creature, the social animal—most clearly and from many points of view in a multitude of social mirrors. And who knows when an idiom of an obscure language, or a "primitive" cultural solution, or the serendipitous flash of recognition spurred by some ancient myth or modern metaphor may be the precise view necessary to resolve a crisis in our local community or in global society.

We humans live in two interpenetrating spheres:  that of Nature and that of words—both of which are central to how we understand ourselves and thus how we live. Of these two spheres, that of Nature must take precedence, because the diversity of many of its facets is at stake.

A widely spread false assumption about language is the notion of its neutrality, that it is an unambiguous set of symbols for representing the world, from which it is independent. This means the words we use stand for things and events in the world, as well as their syntax for how those things and events relate one to another. However, language is only metaphorical of that which we cannot approach directly—the truth about the things and events in the world, which we can only intuit but neither touch nor pin down with certainty.

Language thus lends itself to contradictory interpretations and uncertain meanings while simultaneously relating to how we experience the world and give meaning to our experiences. This, in turn, means that language and our worldview affect each other in an ongoing process of perception, construction, articulation, reproduction, and the legitimizing of ideology. Although language has opened us humans to the world and one another, thereby enhancing our experience of both, it is also the tool with which we have gradually closed ourselves off from Nature and one another, thereby altering our experience of both.

The metaphorical nature of language is pervasive and is not just a linguistic phenomenon but rather one that also affects how we perceive, think, and act in the world. Because language, thought, and action are intimately linked, a metaphor acts to create a way of understanding one thing by projecting onto it a view of something else. Metaphors thus highlight certain perspectives and features while masking others, especially those incompatible with the chosen metaphor.

In this way, metaphors can keep us from seeing and understanding things differently, especially with respect to new, abstract ideas and concepts because our experience of metaphors, and therefore our ability to see and understand them in a variety of ways, is in itself limited. Academic literacy is therefore critical to help us frame metaphors in ways appropriate to bridging the chasm between culture and Nature, intrinsic and extrinsic value, cause and effect, ecology and economy, and all the other aspects of environmental literacy.

Here one could conclude that it is the natural historian and ecologist (along with scientists of other disciplines), who inform society through data, story, and metaphor of the reciprocity between a community and the landscape that sustains it. To do so, however, requires the elucidation of the never-ending stories of cause and effect that form the reciprocal relationships, which underpin the potential sustainability of community development. literacy


Environmental literacy deals with how we think our interconnected environment works, although you may not have thought of it as such. The basic foundation of environmental literacy is understanding that change is a never-ending story captured in the continual flow of cause-and-effect relationships that precisely fit into one other at differing scales of space and time.

When dealing with scale, scientists have traditionally analyzed large, interactive systems in the same way that they have studied small, orderly systems, mainly because their methods of study have proven so successful. The prevailing wisdom has been that the behavior of a large, complicated system could be predicted by studying its elements separately and by analyzing its microscopic mechanisms individually—the traditional-linear-reductionist-mechanical thinking of Western society, which views the world and all it contains through a lens of intellectual isolation. During the last few decades, however, it has become increasingly clear that many complicated systems do not yield to such traditional analysis.

Instead, large, complicated, interactive systems seem to evolve naturally to a critical state in which even a minor event starts a chain reaction that can affect any number of elements in the system and can lead to a systemic collapse. Although such systems produce more minor events than catastrophic ones, chain reactions of all sizes are an integral part of the dynamics of a system. According to the theory that all systems are continually organizing themselves from one critical state to another, the mechanism that leads to minor events is the same mechanism that leads to major events. Further, systems never reach a state of equilibrium, but rather evolve from one semi-stable state to another, which is precisely why sustainability is a moving target, not a fixed end point.

Not understanding this, however, analysts have typically blamed some rare set of circumstances—some exception to the rule—or some powerful combination of mechanisms when catastrophe strikes, again often viewed as an exception to the rule. Thus, when a tremendous earthquake shook San Francisco, geologists traced the cataclysm to an immense instability along the San Andreas fault. When the fossil record revealed the demise of the dinosaurs, paleontologists attributed their extinction to the impact of a meteorite or the eruption of a volcano.

Although these theories may well be correct, such large, complicated, and dynamic systems as the Earth's crust or an ecosystem can break down under the force of a mighty blow as well as at the drop of a pin. To illustrate, consider the power of a single grain of sand in Zion National Park:

Grains of sand were once driven bouncing across the desert by the wind, only to be caught within the steep face of a dune, where they became buried. Over time, with the aid of water and pressure, a cement of lime tied grain to grain and created a stone of sand.

Today, however, a river is cutting a canyon through that solid layer of resistant sandstone. As it does so, the walls of the canyon relax and expand ever so slightly toward this opening, which causes cracks to form that run parallel to the canyon about fifteen to thirty feet inside its mighty walls.

The layers of siltstone and older sandstone, which lie directly beneath the sandstone cap, are softer and more easily eroded than the sandstone cap itself. Thus, as the walls of sandstone cap are undermined by the erosion of this softer material, water from rain and snow seeps into the cracks, where it freezes in winter, wedging them ever farther apart.

In addition to freezing, the water dissolves the cement, one drop of rain, one melting flake of snow at a time. The structure gradually weakens. For an instant in eternity, a single grain of sand—the last grain—holds in place the undermined wall. Then the grain moves…. The massive piece of rock falls, breaking away along the line of least resistance, leaving the graceful sweep of a huge arch sculpted in the face of the cliff a thousand feet above the floor of the canyon. And so is revealed yet another vertical face previously hidden as a crack inside the wall.

Below, the rock, shattered by the fall, gradually returns to free grains of sand that are once again blown hither and yon by the wind or carried toward the sea by the restless river. And who knows, that last grain of sand may be captured in another dune along the way to once again help create a mountain somewhere in the distant reach of time.

Another way of viewing this is to ask a question:   If change is a universal constant in which nothing is static, what is a "natural" (="normal") state? In answering this question, it becomes apparent that the balance of Nature in the classical sense (disturb Nature and Nature will return to its former state after the disturbance is removed) does not hold. For example, although the pattern of vegetation on the Earth's surface is usually perceived to be stable, particularly over the short interval of a lifetime, in reality, the landscape and its vegetation exist in a perpetual state of dynamic balance—disequilibrium—with the forces that sculpted them. When these forces create novel events that are sufficiently rapid and large in scale, we perceive them as disturbances.

Perhaps the most outstanding evidence that an ecosystem is subject to constant change and disruption rather than in a static balance comes from studies of naturally occurring external factors that dislocate ecosystems. Climate appears to be foremost among these factors. By studying the record laid down in the sediments of oceans and lakes, growth rings in trees, and trapped air in polar ice, scientists know that climate has fluctuated greatly over the last two million years—and the dynamics of ecosystems with it. The fluctuations take place not only from eon to eon, but also from year to year and at every scale in between. Since the entire universe is an interactive system, there is no such thing as a "constant value" or an "independent variable," nor can there be. These fluctuations mean the configuration of ecosystems is always changing, always creating different landscapes in a particular area at varying intervals throughout contemporary, historical, and geological time.

Clearly, all of us can sense change, and some of us can see and remember longer-term events than others can. It is an unusual person, however, who can sense, with any degree of precision, the changes that occur over the decades of his or her life. At this scale of time, we tend to think of the world as static and typically underestimate the degree to which change has occurred because we are unable to directly sense slow changes, and we are even more limited in our abilities to interpret their relationships of cause and effect. The subtle processes that act quietly and unobtrusively over decades are therefore hidden and reside in the moment, in the "invisible present."

The invisible present is that scale of time within which our responsibilities for our planet are most evident. Within this time scale, ecosystems change during our lifetimes and those of the next generation.

I say this because some archives of history, without pedigree or voice, are valued primarily as a commodity, like the old piñion pine forest in the vicinity of Taos, New Mexico, which the indigenous Pueblo Indians had long used for both food (its seeds) and firewood. When the Spanish invaded the area in the 1500s, they also began using the old pine for firewood. With time, it became tradition, as it long had been for the Pueblos.

At length, the Anglos invaded, and the overall population grew. Since old piñion pine was the best firewood, everyone wanted an equal share. In recent years, however, there has been a great influx of retired Anglos from Texas and Southern California, most wanting their "fair share" of the firewood.

The result of this continual and growing onslaught on the slow-growing, centuries-old piñion forest is the potential for its imminent demise, because there is relatively little of it left. Along with the biological decline of the old forest surrounding Taos is the rapidly growing problem of air pollution from the continual increase in wood smoke.

The people of Taos, by ignoring the reciprocal nature of their participation with their surrounding landscape, are seeing the cultural ambiance of the town's setting fading into history through a bourgeoning human population, increased cutting of the old piñion forest for firewood, increasing air pollution from burning the firewood, and the loss of its ancient forest by clinging to the tradition of cutting it down for winter's fuel.

In this case, its seems the old piñion forest is an abstraction to most people of today, with the possible exception of a few Pueblo elders who collected piñion nuts from certain trees throughout most of their lives and so became acquainted with the trees as personalities, much as the Japanese have with their cryptomeria trees. Yet, these piñion pines, unlike the cryptomeria trees, had no written history, only memories held in the minds and hearts of a few Pueblo elders seeking a link with their past and a sense of continuity in the present through objects of cultural remembrance, especially things they deem beautiful, such as their "personal" piñion trees.

But trees secreted in the memories of people, such as the piñions that sustained the Pueblo elders through the decades of their lives, are not protected because memories are seldom deemed of sufficient merit in our economically driven culture to warrant honoring and protecting for their historic and/or sacred value, despite the fact that doing so would be a wise, long-term, aesthetic and spiritual decision for future generations.

Yet it must be noted here that, while it's possible to envision serious misjudgments on the part of humans, the potential destruction of the planet with respect to human life will be subtle. It will occur slowly and silently, through the pollution of our air, our soil, and our water—in the secrecy of the invisible present. Such an unpleasant end can be forestalled or even eliminated, however, if we humans learn to honor the aesthetic-spiritual aspects of environmental literacy and apply them toward sustainable community development.

How might environmental literacy be applied to sustainable community development? To answer this question requires another question, namely:  How can local communities clean themselves up, which they must do to be sustainable, and in so doing clean up their shared environment, thereby giving everyone cleaner air, water, and soil? Such local action can have positive, global consequences for the present generation and increasingly those of the future.

There are many novel ideas waiting to be discovered by imaginative people working to make their communities sustainable. And there are many ingenious ideas already available, such as composting vegetative materials from the family kitchen and the garden for recycling as organic material in the soil. Then there is recycling in general. With some forethought, human sewage can be disposed of by designing a system of reedbeds and wetlands, which can be operated on any scale from a household to a municipality. Nature's sewage disposal, compared to a conventional sewage treatment plant, uses little energy, requires no chemicals, looks beautifully natural, and can serve as habitat for wildlife. And then there is conscious simplicity and the contentment of knowing when you have enough, which means having what you really want, and really wanting what you have. In the end, we are limited only by our imagination and our willingness to risk trying something new, which brings us to economic literacy. literacy


One cannot have true economic literacy without having and applying a good working knowledge of environmental, democratic, and sustainable community literacy as well. Here, it is pertinent to repeat what John Dewey said in 1927:  "A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all." Dewey's statement brings to mind eight important points with respect to economic literacy:

First, what drives today's social-environmental crises? In a word—"economics," poor economics, I might add. I say poor economics, because both "ecology" (which represents Nature) and "economy" (which represents humanity) have the same Greek root oikos, a house. Ecology is the knowledge or understanding of the house. Economy is the management of the house. And it's the same house, a house we humans have divided at our peril. At issue here is whether the environment is part of the economy or the economy is part of the environment. In reality, they are one and the same—two sides of the same dynamic. So, the question is:  How do we reunite the house of ecology and economy? Resolving this issue is the purpose of economic literacy.

Second, economics must account for both the intrinsic value and long-term economic value of the functional integrity and sustainability of an ecosystem as a whole, not just the conversion potential of the pieces into products for immediate monetary gain.

Third, when calculating present net worth of ecosystem services in terms of future net worth, the functional integrity of an ecosystem must be understood and accepted as value added. Discounting future net worth is stealing progressively from every succeeding generation.

Fourth, it is necessary in economic decisions to understand, accept, evaluate, and account for the role of cause-and-effect beyond the marketplace. For example, an apparently good, short-term economic decision with respect to capturing the monetary value of a renewable natural resource may prove over time to have been a bad long-term ecological decision, which, therefore, was also a bad long-term economic decision. It is thus imperative that the linkages between economics, the sustainability of the environment, and human culture not only be understood, accepted, and evaluated but also accounted for, to the very best of our ability, prior to committing a decision to action.

Here, a system of Genuine Progress Indicators would serve not only as a baseline for all deliberations concerning the social-environmental sustainability of a community's growth but also as a means of measuring the effectiveness of the criteria used in land-use decisions and subsequent actions based on those criteria. Another function of the Genuine Progress Indicator would be to add value to those resources and activities that lack value in terms of the Gross Domestic Product, such as taking real care of the community's children and elders. Further, a system of Genuine Progress Indicators is an important tool because most, if not all, activities in a community (from the long-term health of the environment to the real welfare of the citizens) are omitted from valuation within the context of traditional economic measures. This omission becomes readily apparent when a local government deliberates over the economic strength of its community's tax base in terms of traditional economics and the immediate legacy to the present generation—as opposed to the present generation and those of the future.

Fifth, social-environmental sustainability demands that we reinvest biological capital "up-front" in the health of the ecosystems on which we rely for our survival, even as we reinvest economic capital (after the fact) in the maintenance of buildings and equipment to keep our industries functional so that they can continue turning a profit. Put a little differently, we must balance our reinvestments against our withdrawals so that we spend the biological interest of an ecosystem—not its biological capital. Having said this, it's imperative to elaborate on some of Nature's services, which are omitted from traditional economic valuation. These services equate in large measure to the long-term health of every community's environment, and thus the community itself.

The inherent services performed by Nature constitute the invisible foundation that is not only the wealth of every human community and its society but also the supporting basis of our economies. In this sense, Nature's services are the wealth of every human being. For example, we rely on oceans to supply fish; forests to supply water, wood, and new medicines; rivers to transport the water from its source to a point where we can access it; soil to grow food, forests, grasslands, and so on. Although we base our livelihoods on the expectation that Nature will provide these services indefinitely (despite our abuse of the environment), the economic system to which we commit our unquestioning loyalty either undervalues, discounts, or ignores these services when computing the Gross Domestic Product and the real outcomes of eco-efficiency. This is but saying that Nature's services, on which we rely for everything concerning the quality of our lives, are measured poorly or not at all.

Today's reality is that we can no longer assume the services Nature inherently performs are always going to be there because the consequences of our frequently unconscious actions affect Nature in many unforeseen and unpredictable ways. What we can be sure of, however, is that the loss of individual species and their habitats through the degradation and simplification of ecosystems can and will impair the ability of Nature to provide the services we need to survive with any semblance of human dignity and well-being. Losses are just that—irreversible and irreplaceable.

Sixth, a requirement of community sustainability is the achievement of the greatest possible economic independence within a well-defined bioregion through the cooperation and coordination of all communities in the bioregion. Such economic self-sufficiency requires the conscious formation of a self-reinforcing feedback loop of local production and consumption that focuses more on reciprocity than on competition. This feedback loop keeps local money within the local economy for as long as possible before cycling it into the bioregional economy, where it must be kept for as long as possible before letting it go into the larger world.

Seventh, if a community is to be sustainable, all economic decisions must reconcile the necessary balance between biological capital and monetary capital within the framework of a free, democratic government.

And eighth, these relationships depend on an equitable form of governance if they are to be sustainable for the benefit of all generations. literacy


If we really believe in the inherent value of democracy and the freedoms it brings, we must invest in a well-rounded education of excellent quality for all of the people, which assumes we believe in the intrinsic value of each and every person. But some say we already spend enough money on education, whereas others want to cut its budget and fund wars instead.

In both cases, people have become preoccupied with relatively minor details because they fail to proceed from a basic frame of reference:  A society is only as free as the quality of its education. Without such a basic frame of reference, it's impossible to focus on a fundamental issue without getting hopelessly lost amidst a plethora of confusing and isolating details.

A society held in ignorance is powerless to govern itself. If we do not have a well-educated public, military power can easily replace civil liberty. All you have to do is look around the world—beginning at home—to see the threat is real.

These two alternatives—a free democracy or a dictatorship, be it in the form of a person or a "political cult "—are important distinctions to understand because the gap between the current quality of our educational system and the necessities of a free democracy is enormous. We need to begin a revolution on behalf of our national education so that once again the real power of the people can come to the fore:  power to combat the coercive greed of the corporate elite, the power to restore real democracy in community, and the power to reclaim those inner values that make human life worth living.

Understanding the fundamental processes of a free democracy is critical if people are to see the value of their participation in making the democracy work, because the principles of democracy only function when democratic processes are actually available and practiced as a verb, rather than being enshrined as a noun. The basis of these processes both allows and encourages people to earn those concepts or principles whose ethical values they hold dear and to understand more fully those with which they disagree.

Consider, for example, that all we have to give future generations are choices to be made and some things of value from which to choose. Both the future's choices and things from which to choose are held within the environment as a biological living trust, of which we, the adults, are the legal caretakers or trustees. Although the concept of a trustee or a trusteeship seems fairly simple, the concept of a trust is more complex because it embodies more than one connotation.

A living trust, for instance, is a present transfer of property, including legal title, into trust, whether real property or personal property, such as livestock or interest in a business. The person who creates the trust can watch it in operation, determine whether it fully satisfies his or her expectations, and, if not, revoke or amend it.

A living trust also allows for delegating administrative authority of the trust to a professional trustee, which is desirable for those who wish to divest themselves of managerial responsibilities. The person or persons who ultimately benefit from the trust are the beneficiaries.

The environment is a "living trust" for all generations. A living trust, whether in the sense of a legal document or a living entity entrusted to the present for the present and the future, represents a dynamic process. Human beings inherited the original living trust—the environment—before legal documents were even invented. The Earth as a living organism is the living trust of which we, the adults, are the trustees, whereas the children or all generations are the beneficiaries. As trustees, we are all responsible for the wellbeing of Planet Earth, a responsibility from which we cannot withdraw.

Throughout history, administration of our responsibility for the Earth as a living trust has been progressively delegated to professional trustees in the form of elected officials. In so doing, we empower them with our trust (another connotation of the word), which means we have firm reliance, belief, or faith in the integrity, ability, and character of the elected official who is being empowered.

Such empowerment carries with it certain ethical mandates, which, in and of them themselves, are the seeds of the trust in all of its senses, legal, living, and personal:

  • "We the people" are the beneficiaries and the elected officials are the trustees.

  • We have entrusted our elected officials to follow both the letter and the spirit of the law in the highest sense possible.

  • We have entrusted the care of the environment to elected officials through professional planners, foresters, and other land caretakers, all of whom have sworn to accept and uphold their responsibilities and to act as professional trustees in our behalf.

  • We have entrusted to these officials and professionals the livelihood and health of our environment. Through the care of these officials and professionals, it is to remain living, healthy, and capable of benefiting both present and future generations.

  • Because we entrusted the environment as a "present transfer" in the legal sense, we have the right to either revoke or amend the trust (the empowerment) if the trustees do not fulfill their mandates.

  • To revoke or amend the empowerment of our delegated trustees, if they do not fulfill their mandates, is both our legal right and our moral obligation as hereditary trustees of the Earth, a trusteeship from which we cannot divorce ourselves.

How might this work if we are both beneficiaries of the past and trustees of the future? The inheritance entrusted to the present generation for all those of the future is to pass forward as many of the existing options as possible, each representing the biological capital of the trust.

These options would be forwarded to the next generation (in which each individual is a beneficiary who becomes a trustee) to protect and pass forward in turn to yet the next generation (the beneficiaries who become the trustees) and so on. In this way, the maximum array of biological and cultural options could be passed forward in perpetuity—the essence of sustainability.

If, however, the elected officials and professionals do not fulfill their obligations as trustees to our satisfaction, their behavior could be critiqued through the electoral process and/or the judicial system, assuming the latter is both functional and responsible. Our decisions as trustees of today—embodied as they are in the invisible present—could then create a brighter, more sustainable vision for the generations to come, who are the beneficiaries of the future when they stand in their today.

In order for this to happen, however, we must actively participate in the democratic governance of our communities so they become as sustainable as possible in partnership with their surrounding environments within a bioregion. We must understand and accept that a sustainable community is, in a sense, the institution in which the living trust is housed and protected.

We must also make our judicial system just and responsible to all generations, something we have not yet chosen to do. Yet it's only a choice, which, after all, is the very foundation of democracy. Democracy, in turn, sets up and maintains the information/political feedback loops through which human values, intuition, information, and cultural innovations are funneled into the melting pot of civic literacy. literacy


It is in a freely democratic community that the cultural gold is separated from the dross. The gold is a community's potential to behave like an intelligent, moral, innovative, just, and freely democratic organization while on the road to sustainability and beyond. The first step along the way is for a community to identify itself as a community, or as John Dewey said in 1927—"Unless local communal life can be restored, the public cannot adequately resolve its most urgent problem:  to find and identify itself."


Who are we now, today? This is a difficult but necessary question for people to deal with if they want to create a vision for the future. The vision they create will be determined first by how they identify themselves as a culture and second by how they identify themselves as a civic organization, which in turn is defined by its governance. The concept of citizen government means that citizens must possess the skills and dispositions to act as leaders, know when this obligation is required, and know how to share leadership. In other words, citizens must know when the good of the community, present and future, is at stake and be able to act accordingly.

Therefore, the self-held concept of who a people are culturally and how well their community governance represents them is critical to the sustainability of their future. Their self-image is crucial because it will determine what their community will become socially, which in turn will determine what their children will become socially.

A major problem facing communities today is that people are no longer thought of as people but rather as a group of "publics," which is an amorphous aggregate of individuals and their preferences. In this sense, "public" means whatever aggregate of individuals is being measured at the moment, such as the public as market player, as skier, logger, cattle rancher, consumer, scientist, and so on. But in none of these perspectives is the public thought of as a group of whole persons whose humanity supercedes whatever else they might be.

Thus, how well a community's core values are encompassed in a collective vision toward which to build depends first on how well the people understand themselves as a culture, second on how well that understanding is reflected in their self-governance, and third on how clearly it is committed to paper. Only after people have dealt with who they are today, can they determine what legacy they wanted to leave for their children and create a shared vision through which to accomplish it—because only then do they know.

Visions will vary greatly, depending on how a community is defined. A rural community, for example, will include its immediate landscape and perhaps even its relationship to neighboring communities and the bioregion. Within the "inner city," however, a community may be one square city block and its relationship to the four neighboring blocks facing it. Regardless of how people define their particular community, their success in self-governance depends on their sense of citizenship, which is currently entangled with the term "public."


The many schizophrenic splits in the concept of "public" are the result of what's missing, not what's present. The classical approach to citizenship is conceptualized around and stresses a shared constitution that embodies both rules and a founding myth, which in turn is build on a collective sense of moral history in the form of a common-law tradition, and some notion of a good way of life. The principle of public integration is factored into citizenship through civility, a concept designed to transcend commercial utilitarianism and military domination. Within this concept of "public," policies are designed to further the common wellbeing, in particular, a community's moral development. In other words, public policies are initiated and evaluated in light of an ideal toward which to strive.

Citizenship, therefore, is not some abstract quality or an isolated, individual action. Rather, it's the cumulative effect of a continual, well-choreographed sequence of actions that acquire meaning from their relations to other events in the sequence, where the purpose and meaning arises from the practice of just, civil, interpersonal relationships.

Outside of this choreographed sequence, the meaning of individual elements becomes cloudy. Consider, for example, that the meaning of each day of the week comes from its sequential relationship to all the other days, but only as long as they are in the correct sequence. Mix them up and they lose their meaning. For citizenship to work, therefore, it must be soundly based on mutual civility because it is the quality of human relationships that either allow and foster the sustainability of a community—or kill it. Yet, as important as civility and citizenship are, sustainable community development is possible only to the extent that people keep learning.

One innovative way of learning in a democratic setting is study circles. A study circle is a small-group-discussion format to seek understanding and a common ground when people face difficult issues and hard choices. Study circles reflect a growing conviction that collective wisdom resides in groups, that education and understanding go hand in hand, and that learning can be truly available for all.

The circular shape of the study groups is important and has its roots in antiquity. In medieval literature, brave knights came from across the land to be considered for membership at the Round Table. King Arthur designed its circular shape to democratically arrange the knights and give each an equal position. When a knight was granted membership at the Round Table, he was guaranteed equal stature with everyone else at the table and a right to be heard with equal voice.

In study circles, participants learn to listen to one another's ideas as different experiences of reality, rather than points of debate. Although they may not agree, they learn to accept that, just like blind people feeling the different parts of an elephant, each person is limited by her of his own perspective, which is derived from his or her own experiences in life.

By managing the process themselves, participants engage in the practice of democracy. In a study circle, there is equality, respect for others, and excitement about exchanging ideas. This environment is ideal for people to practice the most fundamental aspects of democracy by reaching conclusions or making decisions through talking, listening, and understanding—through sharing the common experiences of life that give us a sense of existence, meaning, and value as human beings.

Sharing is the central connection in study circles—and the very essence of citizenship, community, and democracy, wherein participants are encouraged to act as whole people. By this I mean, they are not required to separate feelings, values, and/or intuition from intellectual thoughts concerning any topic. They are not only allowed to think systemically but also encouraged to do so, as opposed to being placed in a straitjacket of intellectual isolation.

Moreover, sharing as whole individuals allows each person to assume the role of teacher, student, leader, and follower at different times, which is critical to the viability of both the democratic process and sustainable community. Because no one person possesses, with equal skill, all of the talents necessary for the practice of either democracy or sustainable community, it's vital that individuals learn to accept and share the many facets of their personalities to the best of their ability, while valuing the shared talents and skills of others.

People seldom partake of study circles just to learn the so-called objective facts. Rather, a study circle deals with real problems in the daily lives of the participants and so constitutes education in and for life. It is thus imperative that what participants learn in a study circle is grounded in their own experiences and in the real problems and issues they daily face.

Study circles—like the town hall meetings of old—bring people together to talk and to listen, to act and feel as if they are part of a community. As such, study circle are a place to practice equality, acceptance of ideas, points of view, and human diversity—all of which are embraced within the concept of democracy, the embodiment of connectedness through mutual sharing. If an increasing number of people became involved in study circles, it might become clear that the apparent apathy Americans exhibit toward education and participation in politics is really a disguise for a deep hunger to learn within the safety and nurturance of community.

I say this because, as Myles Horton expressed it:  "The fact is that people have within themselves the seeds of greatness, if they're developed. It's not a matter of trying to fill up people, but to fulfill people."

I believe this with every fiber of my being! That's all good and well, you might say, but how can we fulfill people? I think the answer lies in helping communities create a shared vision of social-environmental sustainability toward which to build as an unconditional gift in the present for the children of today and all the tomorrows to come—a community in which children are happy.

I have a closing caveat, however, one dealing with our American society's split personality, as it pertains to the issue of centralized power. This split personality is born of the assumption underpinning most of our government bureaucracies and private institutions, namely that internal centralization of power leads to efficiency, whereas freedom of choice—favored by a majority of citizens—creates and maintains inefficiency.

While this assumption is true, our democratic system of government, as well as every other democratic government, is found on "effectiveness" not "efficiency." Yet, because individual rights, and the freedoms they protect, invite inefficiency, power is centralized under the guise of efficiency to omit the "inefficient" human dimension whenever possible—and with it, the democratic process, the hallmark of every dictatorship and military regime.

The question thus becomes:  How do we, as a society, build democracy back into our communities? We do so first by accepting that democracy, by its very nature, is an inefficient practice of interpersonal relationships based on our strengths, knowledge, foresight, dreams, and wisdom as human beings, as well as our weaknesses, ignorance, shortsightedness, fears, and ineptitude. For this reason, democracy is a practice of tough love because you have to want it badly to make it work. Sir Winston Churchill once opined:  "Democracy is the worst form of government in the world, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Having lived under other forms of government, efficient ones wherein freedom of choice was nowhere to be found, I will choose the inefficiency of personal choice every time. That said, for sustainable community development to be anything more than a pipe dream, our entire educational system—from kindergarten through university training—must be grounded, first and foremost, on effectiveness and only secondarily on efficiency, but just to the extent that it does not in any way hinder the ability of teachers to help students become integrated, right- and left-brained, whole-person citizens.




Chris Maser
Corvallis, OR 97330

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