Archive for category Community

Sustainability Begins with People

I spent three weeks in South Africa this winter, learning the meaning of sustainability in a developing country.

Something Fresh in Memel, South Africa

Is it possible to create a little slice of heaven in a place where both unemployment and the incidence of HIV are high and the stark shadow of apartheid still persists in both race and gender relations? Absolutely, say husband and wife Steven Ablondi and Cindy Burns, residents and investors in the little rural town of Memel, about three hours south of Pretoria and Johannesburg. Not that it will be easy, of course, but the two Americans are well prepared for the challenge. In decades of diplomatic and legal work with the United Nations, they helped resettle crisis-ridden refugees from countries like Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia. Now they’ve thrown hearts, souls, and savings into their vision of a resilient community where health, practical life skills, self-reliance, and property values are all on the upswing. Where human rights are respected and human resources are used to full advantage.

Memel and its predominantly black township, Zamani, was once a regional hub for farmers, but now it is struggling to reinvent itself. Steven and Cindy want to help demonstrate that rural towns can be self-reliant places to live, on a sturdy foundation of “pocket neighborhoods” with hand-crafted houses; community gardens and small farms rich in jobs and food security; and healthy new businesses that offer locally-accountable goods and services.

The Free State’s platteland is a region well-known for its natural assets: productive farms, wide-open spaces; and a remarkable abundance of bird species. First drawn to Memel by bird-watching opportunities, Steven quickly saw an Eden in the rough. “Memel didn’t have an ATM at the bank or a single place to eat then, but it did have lots of yards with gardens and orchards, a beautiful church, and a low crime rate.” With a background in real estate as well as law, he bought first one, then a series of properties. Says Cindy, “I was working in Baghdad when he told me he was buying properties, and I asked him, ‘What would I do if we retire in a place like that?’” She would find out soon enough.


Permaculture Gardens and Designer Earth Houses

“I’ve always loved to work with teams of people,” says Cindy. “When I finally left my U.N. career and joined Steven in Memel, there already was a crew of gardeners from the nearby township learning about organic techniques.” Cindy was not yet expert in permaculture – which optimizes the inter-relationships among plants, soil, water, and beneficial insects – but she and her young protégé from Zimbabwe, Tedmore, have steadily created a system that captures and stores rainwater to irrigate the garden; uses the heat of a huge compost pile to provide hot showers for the crew; uses certain plants such as comfrey to repel insect pests, and in short, fully utilizes all available resources. “Tedmore was first employed with us as a ditch digger, but he showed such promise that he’s now in charge of garden operations,” she explains. “It may be true that it takes a village to raise a child,” she says, “but it also takes skillful individuals to make a strong village.”

Memel Organics garden now produces enough vegetables, fruit, and eggs to feed healthy meals to employees, a steady stream of guests, and the residents themselves. Hours-fresh produce is sold weekly at the farmer’s market Cindy recently launched, and surplus food is shared with the local primary school, a nursery school, and an orphanage. They’ve already purchased the property that will house a health-oriented, gourmet restaurant in the future – the kind of place that will lure visitors from the big cities.

Meanwhile, Steven is focusing on the construction of sustainable buildings to house both residents and new businesses. “I’ve always been interested in owner-built homes made from locally available resources,” he explains. “In the U.S., adobe and straw bale homes have proven their durability and efficiency, and similar materials can work here in South Africa.” On their stand in Memel are various attractive prototypes: an elegant round building, hand-sculpted from cob (mud, straw and manure) and a rammed earth house that will soon be a studio for holistic therapies. Each building project was overseen by a visitor who had never before built such a structure – a deliberate demonstration by Steven of the simplicity of earth-centered construction. Before building the round house, Steven and Cindy went to the secondary school in Zamani and asked the principal for student volunteers to work over the holiday season. “He told us, teary-eyed, that no one had ever asked students to be part of something like this,” Steven says. “Seven black girls from the township came over and worked with our young friend Jaine to create this pretty little building.”

The need for houses that are better insulated is clear. “Existing houses in Memel were built according to Pretoria standards,” says Steven, “but winters here are much longer and colder; some days it never gets above freezing. Sturdy houses insulated with earth are warm in winter and cool in summer.” Housing in the black township is far less adequate: about three thousand people live in poorly-insulated, sheet-metal homes that offer little in terms of comfort, aesthetics, or efficiency. The pocket neighborhood of four households that is now under construction offers a glimpse of something better. It has a common house with shared features: a place to gather, cook, and use water-efficient showers. Human wastes will be converted to biogas for cooking and fertilizer for a small garden at the edge of the property. Steven is excited that the project will build local expertise in laying foundations, pouring concrete, framing doors, and pounding rammed earth walls into place.

At a slightly larger scale is a cooperative-style community under construction at the edge of Cindy and Steven’s permaculture garden and orchard. “We’ll market this European/American inspired village concept (“cohousing”) to people who love gardening, the countryside, and watching birds – people who will likely have sufficient funds to take an occasional meal in a public restaurant. These new Memel residents – some in their retirement years – will be looking for something to do, and they may well volunteer for civic-type activities that will make Memel and Zamani a better place.”

He summarizes, “Low-income housing projects built by the federal government are commendable but they don’t really meet the overall need, in my opinion. They reflect much that’s gone wrong throughout the world: they’re conventional, impersonal structures built by the book. They don’t create a sense of community or a feeling of self-reliance, and they aren’t nearly as resource efficient as these new homes will be. The materials for these standardized homes have to be trucked in from distant cities, but in contrast much of the material for our houses comes right out of the ground.”

The Empowerment of Play
Several years ago, Cindy was watching a cricket game on TV and commented that it was too bad the black girls at Memel Primary School couldn’t play sports. Their free time was mostly spent cooking at home (typically a one-bedroom, dirt-floored hut shared with a single mother or grandmother) getting water or firewood, and roaming the streets. “I knew if could help them, I could help the whole community.” She launched a programme called SheWinS – Sports Helping to Empower Women in South Africa – that’s changing lives and moving the town further away from apartheid. The programme links young, energetic mentors (largely from the U.S.) with the young students, offering role models and athletic coaches. Says the school’s headmaster, Johann Du Toit, “The girls in the SheWinS programme came to life in the classroom: they were more alert, more likely to participate, they did better on exams, and just seemed more confident and happy.” The most poignant indicator of the girls’ personal development may be the recent absence of pregnancies among sixth and seventh graders.


A Movement Too Deep to Fail

Unrest over income inequality and financial corruption occupies emotional space, not just urban space. Economic imbalances are unacceptable in part because they release toxic levels of insecurity into society. The evidence is clear: out of 145 countries, the U.S. ranks in the “top” five in measurable stress, according to an ongoing Gallup poll.

This is where the Occupy movement’s energy originates – in an unspoken, emotionally charged belief that the game is unfair, immoral, and stressful. What should we do about this? Reprogram our social software and redefine the shared concept of “success,” nothing less. Detect and delete self-destructive viruses, such as: “People who are paid less are worth less. Growth is always good. Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purposes.”

The Occupy movement’s message is about the forest, not just the trees: If the game as currently played is choking us, why not agree to play a completely different game? Writes author and economist Robert Reich, “It is illogical to criticize companies for playing by the current rules of the game. If we want them to play differently, we have to change the rules.” Donella Meadows’ platform is even wider when she writes about paradigm shifts – clicks in the collective mind, new ways of seeing. “In the space of mastery over paradigms people throw off addictions, bring down empires, and have impacts that last for millennia.”

Throughout history, status has been awarded to those who strengthen the community – hunters, protectors, storytellers, healers, elders, and priests – not just those with the biggest huts and mansions. In a world that is shuffled, fragmented, in constant flux, virtually 100% of Americans suffer painful bouts with “social defeat” and “status anxiety,” according to author Jim Rubens. He believes that our current epidemic of stress is rooted in the widely unchallenged assumption that “only we are responsible for our life’s outcome.” An unprecedented barrage of status comparisons in mass media, and the incessant modeling of stratospherically high goals are making us crazy – crazy enough for some of us to camp on hard city pavements and trampled turf for weeks and months at a time.

There’s a lot at stake. Stress kills – one reason that healthcare costs are rising and life expectancy is falling in the U.S. Lower social status correlates with obesity, heart disease, lung disease, incidence of smoking, asthma, cancer, diabetes, number of sick days taken on the job, accident rates, suicide, exposure to physical violence, and of course, mental health.

Instead of idolizing CEOs who fluff their own pillows with fairy-tale bonuses – as they play winner-take-all with our money – why not respect and reward people of service, people who’ve gained our trust, people intent on making the world safer and saner? Let’s just change direction. Billionaire Ted Turner used this logic to redirect the flow of philanthropic gifts. He proposed that a ranking of who donates the most would stimulate competition among the super rich, and after the online magazine Slate began to publish an annual list, contributions from America’s wealthiest donors soared. In general, it’s not the money the moguls are chasing; it’s the status. Let’s make honest people out of the 1%: from here on, only generosity and civic responsibility get our respect.

We will expect those who have accumulated fortunes to pay their fair share of taxes and to apply their genius to pursuits that benefit a wide number of people. Billionaires might be open to employee ownership of their companies – not just because it’s more democratic and less stressful, but also because it’s often more productive. The 1% can and must be moral leaders, not dictators, or else we can go around them. For example, in recent months close to a million accounts at mega-banks have been transferred to community banks and credit unions. What if this trend were to continue? The game would change.

Certainly, Americans changed direction in World War II, sacrificing individually for the good of the whole. In the process, we rediscovered the richness of cooperation. A classic culture shift also took place in 18th century Japan, where land was in short supply, forest resources were being depleted, and minerals such as gold, silver, and copper were suddenly scarce. Japan went from being resource-rich to resource-poor, but its culture adapted by developing a national ethic that centered on moderation and efficiency. An attachment to material things was seen as demeaning, while the advancement of crafts and human knowledge were seen as lofty goals. In this “culture of contraction,” an emphasis on quality became ingrained in a culture that eventually produced world-class solar cells and Toyota Priuses.

Can U.S. culture change direction and reinvent itself? That’s the underlying question the Occupy movement has brought, once again, to the table.

How Does a Culture Shift?

Massive change occurs when our security is threatened, when resources are scarce, or social structures are unfair. When factors like these converge, people not only see the light but also feel the heat. As a reformed addict does, an entire society creates a new identity – a new normal – and ours will inevitably become more conscious of what’s best for the general good. We’ll pull together or else circumstances will pull us ever further apart. Take the price of gasoline. Although there are tangible benefits to high-priced gasoline, we can only perceive them with a viewpoint that is less self-centered; more focused on what we need collectively.


Gasoline prices high enough to make people rethink household budgets and personal habits also reduce fatal collisions because there are fewer cars are on the road. Scholars estimate that traffic fatalities will fall by a third in the U.S. if gas prices remain near $4 a gallon. That’s 1,000 lives spared every month, and one of those lives might be your spouse or child. Decreased levels of air pollution will spare another 2,000 lives a year. Insurance premiums will fall when those who are driving less qualify for lower car-insurance rates. traffic fatalities will fall by a third in the U.S. if gas prices remain near $4 a gallon.

“traffic fatalities will fall by a third in the U.S. if gas prices remain near $4 a gallon.”


Obesity will fall by 10 percent, saving billions of dollars a year in health costs as people walk and bike more and eat out less. Environmental and social costs of sprawl will decline, and the sales of super-efficient cars that make life more affordable for all of us will continue to climb, helping prevent climatic meltdown. With more police officers on foot patrols and bicycles, the quality of life will improve in our neighborhoods. Many overseas jobs will come back home because of higher transportation costs– a very attractive benefit in times of rampant unemployment.


Higher gas prices are helping us redefine the meaning of “the good life.” Our culture is shifting, just in time, back to its anthropological set point: a species that works together toward common goals. In the last generation, we drifted away from the set point as responsible citizens morphed into mindless consumers, but the scope of that shift shows how quickly a nation can change its identity. Before World War II, only 44 percent of American homes were owned by their residents, and fewer than half of the country’s households had cars. However, in post-War years, cars, houses, and discount stores became organizing features of our shared identity, and the face of the American landscape and mindscape was radically different.


Like the transformation that’s now taking place, the culture shift of the 1940s and 1950s was stimulated in part by crisis: following the war, 14 million military personnel returned home and began to play a frantic game of musical chairs, living with extended family and friends or whatever else they could find: converted boxcars, chicken coops, and garages. Crowds lined up at funeral parlors to get the addresses of newly vacant apartments. In response to the emergency, the U.S. government shifted gears and came up with a new plan of attack. In a manner of speaking, we declared war on American soil, deploying bulldozers instead of tanks to level hills, fill creeks and yank trees out like weeds to build one lucrative subdivision after another.


Economists loved what the new Dream did for the Gross National Product, and the media loved the storyline, too: GI FAMILIES OCCUPY SUBURBIA. How could we question this energetic, giddy, sexy Dream? The ideal of the suburb was country homes for city people – nature without the mud. In the suburbs, a family could have it all: community, fresh air, proximity to the city, and convenience.




Seventy years later, many question the wisdom of an identity that requires a lifestyle support system that eats up our time, health, and connections – with nature and each other. The “cultural creative” sector of the U.S. population (at least 60 million strong) insists on human rights, non-violent conflict resolution, and environmental restoration. They are helping create an energetic new identity in which whole new industries will be recycled, and others will flourish, such as suburban remodelers; vanpool operators; technical consultants who maintain residential solar, wind, and recycling systems. Renewable energy now supplies as much electricity as the world’s 400 nuclear power plants, providing more jobs per watt. Energetic gardeners are once again planting fruits and vegetables in their back and even front yards; devices are being installed to slow traffic, restaurants are appearing on even the cul-de-sacs and curvilinear streets of suburbia, and neighborhoods are re-energized by all the people who now work at home.


Cities are rezoning to allow single family McMansions to become multi-family homes; The City of Baltimore has made a special project out of making alleyways more beautiful and more useful – creating gathering places for neighbors and gardens where there were once only trash containers. In Detroit, an 80-acre urban farm is being created in the hollowed-out part of the city that is now vacant lots, with full city approval and encouragement. Chicago is piloting the installation of rooftop gardens and green spaces as part of its quest to acknowledge and prepare for climate change. One classic neighborhood in Seattle has re-imagined itself as a cooperative ecovillage, while in Boulder, a neighborhood is working to make the car an alternative form of transportation, replaced by pedestrian paths, bicycling, solar-powered vehicles, and public transit innovations. America’s small cities, once hubs of manufacturing and still blessed with town centers, are ready to be put back into service as regional centers of culture and industry.


It doesn’t make sense to remain in denial. It’s time for a cultural revolution, a social tsunami. We’ll create a more sensible way of living – a new identity – by telling and retelling a story that promotes a joyfully moderate, less stressful, sustainable lifestyle. We’ll build a new civilization the way we built the current one: with incentives, social rewards, changing styles and designs, new kinds of technologies and new ways of meeting our needs. It’s time to demand quality over quantity, localization over globalization, time affluence rather than the poverty of constant, stressful deadlines. We need a new identity characterized by less aggression and more teamwork; more respect for public places, including the environment; and less obsession with individual acquisition.


The future is waiting, impatiently, for yet another shift in our way of life. It’s well past time for us to stop seeing the world as it is, and re-envision it as it should be.