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From the Publisher :: Sustainability in a Crisis

What once looked to the larger society like “hippie” behavior from the far-out fringe, now simply looks smart.

A short time ago, as the turmoil in the financial system mounted, I saw my friend Laurie Landeros. She’s Vice President of Shorebank Pacific, a Northwest bank committed to sustainable community development. I asked Laurie how the financial mess was affecting her bank. “So far, we’re doing just fine,” she said. “Our loans are all to local businesses that focus on sustainability, and they seem to be doing well. And since we pride ourselves on being a local and regional bank, we never bought into the mortgage-backed securities market. That means we don’t have bad loans to write down. At the end of September, 2008, we experienced our 10th straight quarter of profitability.”

Wow! In the midst of a major financial meltdown bringing pain to the lives of people across the country and the world, here was a bank and its customers that were doing just fine. I suddenly realized that many of us think about our choices for sustainability as something we are doing for the future—for our kids and our grandkids—or for people in other parts of the world. But it turns out that in a crisis-prone period such as we are living through, those choices also benefit ourselves, right now.

Take Doug Pibel, who is YES! Managing Editor. He’s deeply committed to sustainable living and a future that works for everyone. He owns a 1991 Ford Festiva. It’s a small car, nothing fancy, and didn’t require the magnitude of investment of a Prius. It gets around 40 miles per gallon. So when the cost of gas spiked to over $4.00 a gallon, Doug hardly felt the shock.

It’s the same for my friends at Winslow Cohousing on Bainbridge Island (where three YES! staff members live). The folks who live there made a choice for sustainability. Individual homes are small, as there are many shared spaces designed to build community. All the buildings were built to exceed by a large margin code requirements for energy efficiency. As the cost of heating has soared, the effect on the cohousing families has been small compared to people with large homes. And the cohousing community garden is great both for healthy eating and saving money in a time of rising food prices.

I’ve also spoken with several good friends who have substantial investment portfolios. Each of them resisted the advice of their advisors who urged them to “balance” their portfolio by including some high risk/high return investments—the kind that have crashed as the speculative bubble burst. Instead, these individuals brought their commitment to sustainability into their investment decisions, making choices for responsible businesses, even though those investments brought lower returns than those associated with high-flying speculation. And now they’re doing fine.

The terrible truth is that the crises we have been experiencing—meltdown of the financial system, hurricanes, floods, high food and energy costs—are part of our new reality. Our society has been living far too recklessly for far too long. We’ve been heating up the planet, shredding the fabric of life, relying on debt—personal and national—to live beyond our means, and assuming the free market can regulate itself. Now we are paying the price.

But if we know that crises will continue to come at us, what’s the best defense—in our personal lives, our communities and our nation? It turns out that the choices for sustainability—the ideas and practical actions we’ve been writing about in YES! for years—are not simply wise for future generations, but valuable immediately.

When we make choices that rely less on fossil fuels, global finance, and long supply chains and more on conservation, savings, and local production, we become less vulnerable to crises and more resilient in recovering from them. What once looked to the larger society like “hippie” behavior from the far-out fringe, now simply looks smart.


Fran Korten wrote this article as part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Fran is Executive Director of the Positive Futures Network, Publishers of YES! Magazine Photo of Fran Korten
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