America’s Best Days Are Ahead of Us .… I Think ….

Kelly D. Cain, PhD, Director
St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development (SCISCD)
UWRF Sustainability Blog – SCISCD Volume 1-1

It is simply a matter of a return to remembering who we are.  It is a matter of remembering the common ground and rediscovering the core American values upon which our national heritage was founded. 

From the very framing of our own Constitution to now, we’ve known that ultimately, ‘all politics are local’.

We’ve known that our personal and collective well-being, if not our national security rests upon the strength of every local community, its ability to be the master of its own destiny, and the opportunity for every citizen to thrive on a level playing field. 

All of this of course now competes in the globalized petri dish for economic profitability, environmental quality, and social justice, not to mention military dominance … a petri dish of mind-numbing possibilities, scenarios, and outcomes by which the human experiment ultimately writes its own history.

What does it mean to return to core American values, principles, and practices upon which virtually every facet of our culture finds common ground with their fellow citizens?  

At the Institute, we believe it to be fundamentally a return to self-sufficiency, self-determination, self-reliance, creativity, ingenuity, innovation, and entrepreneurship all grounded in responsibility for self, family, neighborhood, community, and country.  

These values are neither liberal, nor conservative, libertarian, socialist, or communist. They are core American values owned by no party, especially those at the radical extremes of each.  

The essence of core American values can be imagined in many ways.

It can be the simple act of neighbors chatting across the fence about the issues of the day, or meeting to organize a ‘neighborhood watch’ group.  It can be ‘local folks’ buying produce from local farmers and patronizing locally owned businesses. Or it can be local businesses contributing financially or providing services free of charge to a community cause that strengthens our civic pride, or contributes to the well-being of those least able to afford such for themselves (e.g. a food pantry or free health clinic).

There are literally thousands of ways to imagine the indicators by which to measure the health of a community as reflected in the collective well-being of each of its citizens.

A return to core American values requires that we also remind ourselves of the lessons learned – both good and bad – from our brightest and darkest moments … harnessing of electricity as one of our brightest, and slavery as one of our darkest.

It requires that civic literacy and civil discourse return to center stage in our homes, businesses, public venues, and educational system. 

The polarized if not politically poisoned ether in which we find ourselves treading deeply these days, is hard not to notice. 

This is evident not only from simply watching the political news from our nation’s capital, or personally falling victim to an economy that has out-sourced itself to the edge of oblivion, but even in experiencing the heated volatility of sustainable community comprehensive planning meetings of recent months. 

The polarized ether is even evident at family gatherings where personal ideologies can often trump harmony among parents, siblings, and extended family. 

Verbal and non-verbal posturing and jockeying for ‘ideological supremacy’ by ‘liberals’, ‘conservatives’, and even ‘independents’ leads to a ‘might makes right’ and ‘winner take all’ attitude that simply seems counter-productive to our future. 

All too often, “truth” is the first victim in such encounters, especially truth couched in the best-available science that supports and/or refutes one’s pre-ordained conclusions and the ultimate right to claim victory over one’s opponents, …. even if they are family members. 

Can we stop what seems to be this ‘win at any cost’ and ‘winner take all’ contest? 

Obviously easier said than done, as we all know.

‘Sustainability’ is often one of those “trigger words” that can bring out the best and the worst in those on both sides of this contemporary argument. 

As one might guess, I’d suggest it is a perfect ideological ping pong ball for a civil, yet edgy critique and debate around core American values. 

Sustainability is one of the premier concepts over which ideological enemies (political, religious, and special interest groups of every flavor) often love to beat each other to a bloody pulp, both figuratively and unfortunately sometimes literally.

Such frames of reference and reaction range from questioning the ‘financial sustainability’ of a community whose costs exceed their revenues, to the venomous claim or denial of ‘sustainability’ being the front for ‘one world government’ as represented by the United Nation’s Agenda 21.  This particular frame of reference, whether real or imagined, is rapidly rising as an election year issue.

Sustainability has enjoyed this ‘love-hate favorite’ status for going on roughly 25 years, based on the United Nations Brundtland Commission publishing of the most commonly referenced definition in 1987, 

“ …. development  which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This UN based reference was the political compromise between environmental, social, economic, and government interests finding at least some common ground upon which even multi-national corporations could find room to support and market.  However, we’ll save ‘greenwashing’ for a later discussion. 

Corporate support for this is best evidenced by a stroll through the website of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development < http://www.wbcsd.org/home.aspx >, an international foundation devoted to sustainability-based business education, advocacy, policies, and initiatives across every industrial and business sector. 

So, as definitions go, “not bad”, one might say? 

On the surface, the Brundtland definition is a nice values-based and ethical statement about maintaining a balance between freedom and responsibility.

It frames a sense of personal freedom tempered by social responsibility for those around us and those who will follow, not unlike the American cliché of ‘leaving the world a better place for our children and grandchildren’, and so-on. 

However, it says absolutely nothing about the smorgasbord of principles and practices by which it can and must be achieved when applied to the infinite variety of local to global circumstances in the daily lives of 300 plus million Americans, much less seven (7) billion fellow human dwellers and tens of millions of other species on this ‘3rd rock from the sun’ planet we call Earth. 

How can everyone happily ‘go home a winner’ in the battle for ideological truth and supremacy with a definition like that? 

Not very easily, based on the deafening, and yet healthy debate around loss of personal freedom and the constitutional right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, … pitted against civic responsibility in personal, professional, and community life, not to mention national security.

It begs the question of freedom without responsibility, and vice-versa.

It is this nebulous and ubiquitous nature of ‘that definition’ that has been one of sustainability’s own greatest enemies. 

It seems to have come to mean everything, and to mean nothing for way too many people.

This brings us back full circle to the home plate of this discussion, and the closing of this initial blog.

For many if not most Americans, if ‘sustainability’ can’t pass the smell and gut-check test of what it means to be American, then it can’t and shouldn’t be supported. 

In other words, if it doesn’t naturally square with core American values, principles, and practices, then it winds of smelling like a conspiracy; a left wing socialist ‘one world government’ conspiracy at that. 

The politics of ‘our best days are ahead or behind us’ ultimately play out locally for every citizen in the community and region in which they live.

I would argue that if sustainability is not defined, understood, implemented, and measured to be proof of the power of commonly held American values at the local level, then the concept should and shall go into the recycle bin of history. 

At the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development, we believe that, fundamentally, a community is sustainable only to the degree to which it is ‘locally’ self-sufficient in energy, food, water, shelter, clothing, transportation, health care, education, safety/security, employment, and commerce scaled to the equitable needs of all its citizens and within the carrying capacity of native ecosystems over multiple generations.

We hope you enjoy and engage in contributing to this discussion.

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