Going Local: Sustainability and the Future

Did you hear the one about the marine colonel and the environmental studies professor?

That’s not the beginning of a joke.  It’s the basis for an unlikely alliance that has brought the United States Military together with a small liberal arts college in tiny Oberlin, Ohio.

The story begins with the Oberlin Project, an integrated approach toward transforming a town representing the Midwest’s industrial past into a laboratory and model for sustainable development in the future.  The Oberlin Project is almost two years old and was originally conceived of by Oberlin College professor David Orr, who described its full range of objectives in his recent book:

Specifically the goals of the Oberlin Project are to (1) rebuild a 13- acre block in the downtown to U.S. Green Building Platinum Standards as a driver for economic revitalization; (2) transition to carbon neutrality by a combination of radically improved efficiency and deployment of renewable energy; (3) develop a 20,000 acre greenbelt for agriculture and forestry; and (4) do all of the above as a part of an educational venture that joins the public schools, the college, a community college, and a vocational educational school that equips young people for decent and creative lives in a post-cheap-fossil fuel economy.

Of course, there are those who would dismiss Orr’s work as a pathetic expression of “green ideology” by an out-of-touch, hippie dreamer.  But their ranks may be dwindling.  Enter Marine Col. Mark “Puck” Mykleby, with a military name out of central casting and a vision at least as forward-thinking as the one put forward by Orr.  Mykleby, who serves as a special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, co-authored a paper this spring with Capt. Wayne Porter, a like-minded Navy colleague, calling on the United States to build a secure future by renewing its investments in education, fair social policies, and sustainable energy and agricultural development.

Mykleby and Orr teamed up recently to complete a tour of the Washington think tank circuit, and with overwhelming majorities of Americans supporting meaningful investments in clean technology, there may be an opening to continue to make their case.  There is a pervasive feeling in the United States, evidenced by grassroots movements on both sides of the political spectrum (Tea Party/Occupy), that America cannot continue on its present course if it is going to continue being a world leader in the 21st century.  The support of two seasoned military men for a localized and sustainable approach to American renewal demonstrates that this isn’t a left-right issue; it’s a matter of practicality, and how we can rebuild our economy and society to live in a world with more people, fewer nonrenewable resources, and environmental challenges that aren’t likely to go away any time soon.

Part of meeting these challenges is a commitment to relying on localized sources of energy.  One feature of renewable energy is that most technologies can be deployed anywhere.  That means technologies like tidal power (seen here) and grass pelleting (seen here), which aren’t necessarily ready for utility-scale primetime, could still have an important role to play in the energy mix.  It also means that while large energy-producing installations might still be essential, the future of energy will look a lot more like promotional poster seen below:


At the moment, the push for more communities in the United States to “go local” remains a faint whisper in the political echo chamber.  With a yearlong election campaign about to get underway, don’t expect to see that change much on the national level between now and November 2012.  In communities across the country, however, this whisper is growing louder.  The Oberlin Project shows that the tangible hopes of everyday Americans – a good job, a decent education, clean air, safe communities – can nourish the movement toward environmental sustainability rather than conflicting with it.  If these priorities can be harnessed, the future for new and renewable sources of energy will be bright.

Defense insiders: Sustainable communities are key to the future (Grist)

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