Cohen: Sustainability of the planet starts locally
September 30, 2007
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
A symposium on sustainability on the Seacoast was held Saturday morning at the Portsmouth Public Library featuring a Power Point presentation and speakers from a variety of backgrounds. Bert Cohen, co-founder of Piscataqua Sustainability Initiative and collaborator in Portsmouth Listens study circles, facilitated the event along with longtime environmental activist Sky Maher.
The broad concept of sustainability must begin at a local level, Cohen told about 50 people in attendance.
"Federal legislation can help, but real change in sustainability practices is a grass roots process. We can no longer just erect an edifice without a comprehensive assessment of how that structure will impact its surroundings," Cohen said.
"We must be the change we expect to see in the world," Maher said. "Working together, we can do things we could never do alone.
There is a bible of sorts for sustainability titled "The Natural Step: How Cities and Towns Can Change to Sustainable Practices." Its authors, Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti, have studied Sweden as a model for sustainability practices that can be implemented anywhere in the world. Through both federal and grass roots campaigns, Sweden has reduced its use of pesticides by 75 percent in a decade, its largest oil company has developed biofuels and even lobbied for more stringent air quality standards, and 60 of Sweden's largest corporations began offering ecologically sound products and services that reduced pollution while providing competitive commercial advantages.
Sustainability within communities is incumbent upon four basic principles. Each are complex, but according to the authors of "The Natural Step," they can be broken down into categories that are fairly represented by single words: crust, substances, nature and fairness.
1. Substances from the earth's crust (fossil fuels and mined minerals) must not systematically increase in nature.
2. Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in nature.
3. The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically deteriorated.
4. Human society must be fair and efficient in meeting basic human needs.
One example of a local manifestation of these principles is the Portsmouth library itself. Its design allows the building to be washed in 80 percent of the available daylight, which reduces heating requirements, and 96 percent of the slate used in the building is reused from other demolished buildings or diverted from landfills.
Older toilets have traditionally flushed three or more gallons of water per use, while newer ones work perfectly well using half that much water.
City Engineer Dave Allen pointed to numerous available improvements in the carbon footprint any new structure makes, including bike racks and indoor showers, which can encourage workers to commute on bicycles.
Minimizing paved space and maximizing planted space improves the carbon-to-carbon dioxide ratio. Using indigenous plant species reduces any need for irrigation.
"In modern construction, sustainability is achieved by asking the big questions, but also by applying sustainability concepts to every detail," said Allen.
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