Full Spectrum Sustainability— Developing Working Models for Community Transformation

Humans are a miraculous example of evolutionary success. Our ability to engage in rational thought, to form cooperative groups, to share information through complex symbols, to make and use sophisticated tools: all of these things have enabled us to spread and flourish. However, at the dawn of the 21st century the features and manifestations of our success now challenge our future. On one hand, our dense networks of settlements, economies, governments, and resource flows are so complex and interlinked that the ecological adage that “everything is connected to everything else” has never been more true. On the other hand, the degree of influence we now exercise over the biosphere via the combination of technology and resource consumption is so powerful that climate change, overpopulation and resource scarcity threaten our very existence. The challenges we face are overarching and systematic, encompassing every aspect of our social, economic, and biophysical realities. How are we going to get ourselves out of this mess?

This special issue approaches this question through the lens of ‘full-spectrum sustainability’. At the heart of this perspective is the recognition that we must be holistic and comprehensive in our approach. Isolated strategies that focus on only part of the problem—local food or renewable energy sources, for example— will fall short. Full spectrum sustainability requires that economies, ecosystems, educational systems, resource systems and social systems all work together to reinforce the stability and resilience of the whole.

The articles assembled in this issue explore the particular challenges and opportunities associated with efforts to facilitate, coordinate and document the transformation to full spectrum sustainability. During the last several decades, while action has been frustratingly slow at national and international scales, a good deal of the most creative problem solving efforts have been manifesting at the municipal level. In towns and cities, individuals and coalitions of actors are demonstrating the ability to work innovatively, quickly and collaboratively. They are experimenting with approaches to problem solving that are on the one hand site-specific and small scale, but on the other hand inspire solutions that communities worldwide might use as models.

In his feature article David Orr considers how systems theory can be applied to public administration by exploring the linkages between complex systems that include food, fuel, fiber, economics, policy, finance, and data gathering. Tom Cook and others outline a replicable framework of social metrics for use at the community level. John Petersen and others discuss the development and assessment of real-time feedback technology as a mechanism for engaging, educating, motivating and empowering conservation and pro-environmental identity. Brad Masi and his colleagues look at the durability of urban agriculture as a solution to urban revitalization, cultural integration and green development in cities in the Great lakes and beyond. In a special history piece, Bob Costanza and Ida Kubiszewski explore what can be learnt from the history of GDP to create better indicators of prosperity, well-being and happiness.

The diversity of approaches to promoting sustainability at the community scale is also well represented in this issue. For example, a dialog between Gar Alperovitz and Michael Shuman explores the mechanisms by which local investment, local ownership and community control contribute to economic sustainability. Shaun Chamberlin addresses the transition town movement and shares the story of Greenham Reach in the UK. Also in this section are Herman Daly’s arguments for a steady state economy and Cindy Frantz’s exploration of how to harness the power of core social motives in the cause of sustainability. Jennifer Hirsch and Alexis Winter demonstrate the use of anthropological and visual approaches to engage diverse communities in local level climate change response. David Orr and Kristin Braziunas present highlights from on the ground efforts taken by “The Oberlin Project”. Finally, David Orr critically examines the purpose and process of envisioning a sustainable and resilient future in cities and towns with the clock ticking on a rapidly warming planet.

In the years to come, climate change will inevitably lead to major social, economic and biophysical changes on the planet and in our communities. The question is whether we might be capable of responding with integrated, systematic approaches in which choices in one realm of decision making reinforce the resilience and prosperity of the entire community. Full-spectrum sustainability is neither a more clever way of doing the same old things nor is it tinkering with the coefficients of change. Full spectrum sustainability, as explored in this special issue, requires that we learn to see the world — and ourselves — as a whole and apply the intelligence, foresight, generosity of spirit, and civic competence to avoid unsolvable dilemmas and solve problems before they become full-blown crises.