How sustainable development works in Sweden—and the world

Torbjorn Lahti, founder of the Swedish eco-municipality movement, presented a philosophical overview of his country’s energy goals at this year’s Illinois Renewable Energy & Sustainable Lifestyle Fair Aug. 11-12 in Oregon, Ill. The vision is a planning effort aimed at directing community development along a sustainable path. The intent is to use natural resources in a manner that will meet the needs of both present and future generations. The plan includes ecological and economic components designed to create socially healthy communities now and into the future.

Lahti served as director of the first sustainable development project beginning in 1983 in Overtornea, a community of 2,000 people on the Arctic Circle. Arctic communities are experiencing dramatic impacts from global warming and have ample reason to be concerned about their future. Today, Sweden has 25 eco-communities, including Stockholm. The movement has spread around the world. The Wisconsin communities of Ashland, Madison and Washburn have adopted planning objectives geared toward sustainability.

A sustainable community commits itself to reducing dependence on non-renewable resources, including fossil fuels and mined metals and minerals, reducing its dependence on synthetic chemicals and non-natural substances, and reducing its encroachment on natural areas, while meeting human needs in an efficient, fair manner. The community also encourages the development of local businesses based on sustainability principles.

The effort provides a sense of direction and instills hope within participants that their community will be able to adjust to what is seen as a developing social and ecological crisis caused by unsustainable levels of resource consumption and expanding global populations.

When citizens embrace an eco-community planning effort, they first define what sustainability means to them. They develop an inventory of what needs to be done and identify existing efforts within the community that can serve as concrete examples of actions considered desirable. They establish a shared vision, which allows actions consistent with the vision to be implemented. The effort is seen as a long-term, ongoing process that involves continuous recruitment and training of project supporters.

The planning process presents community members with a common core of questions to direct their efforts and criteria to assess the sustainability of various practices in their community. This process also involves children and youth to develop the overall capacity to continue the process.

Community awareness of the whole system, including essential details and basic principles, is developed. System awareness begins with an understanding of environmental problems adversely impacting ecological and community well-being. From these understandings, community actions are developed that will lesssen the problems to meet human needs in the existing and future community. A crucial element in the success of such projects is skilled leadership, which creates an atmosphere in which attitudes can change sufficiently to support the needed actions.

The eco-community movement is anchored in a sense of hope that citizens can work cooperatively to redirect community development toward more sustainable practices. Actions taken vary depending on community needs.

Some actions taken in Sweden have included developing organic farms and markets and meat processing facilities, providing free public transit, powering cars with ethanol fuels derived from wood waste, encouraging the development of wood pellet operations for biomass fuel, creating biogas facilities to turn wastes into fuel, building ecologically sound housing, certifying environmental schools, protecting and restoring natural areas and installing wind generators.

Pilot programs in many communities provide concrete examples of what is considered sustainable development. They alert people to the processes involved in bringing desirable conditions into being. The immense global changes now occurring are opportunities to rethink community economic development to create conditions that enhance human well-being and our chances of surviving well into the future.

The preceding is based on a presentation by Torbjorn Lahti at the Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair Aug. 11, 2007. For a fuller understanding of eco-communities, read The Natural Step documents.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are also active in preserving natural areas. They are retired professors from Northern Illinois University.

from the Oct. 17-23, 2007, issue

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