Transform › The big picture

Step 3: Working together for sustainable communities

Even if we really want to change the way we live, we are constrained by our surroundings. So we all need to work together on big, complicated things like the design of more sustainable cities, buildings, and transportation systems. We need a sustainability policy agenda to transform the region. 

Community garden in the Cleveland EcoVillage.

Transformation by crisis or design?

We and our children are facing a lot of change. Humanity's immense (and growing) demand for energy and resources is placing great stress on the Earth's physical and biological capacities to sustain life in a stable manner. The destabilization of the climate from greenhouse gas emissions is just one concern. Scientists have identified nine "planetary boundaries" outside which the Earth cannot function in a stable state, the state in which human civilizations have thrived. Three of these boundaries (climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere) may already have been exceeded. Several others, such as ocean acidification, are close to the tipping point. 

To keep the Earth's systems within "safe operating zones," we need to rethink human civilization in fundamental ways. We need to think deeply about how we obtain energy, water, food, shelter, transportation and everything else we need. We need to figure out how the planet's billions of people can achieve decent lives in a way that can be sustained over the long term. 

The good news is that millions of people and organizations around the world are already working hard on the transition. In the words of Oberlin College's David Orr, they are "reweaving human presence in the world."

Leading cities, such as Vancouver, are racing to be the greenest cities to assure their future livability and economic success. In Oberlin, the city, college and other partners are at work on a comprehensive sustainability project that could serve as a model for other small communities. One of the goals is to create one of the first climate positive cities in America by shifting the city and college to renewable energy sources, radically improving efficiency, sharply reducing carbon emissions, and improving the economy in the process.

Throughout Northeast Ohio, people are working together to build the facilities and systems for local food, energy, bicycle transportation, watershed restoration, biodiversity protection, and other needs. Such efforts reduce the region's impacts on the Earth while helping to make local communities healthier and more resilient in the face of external changes. 

Indeed, Northeast Ohio is a great place for designing communities that can be sustainable over the long term. We have abundant water, ecosystems that recover relatively quickly from disturbances, good farmland, talented people, historic cities and towns, and a diverse economy. We have the chance to evolve purposefully by design rather than being pushed to the brink by ecological crises. 

This Transform section of the website aims to guide the process of transition in Northeast Ohio. It will help us think about what sustainability really means -- the vision, the goals and action steps, who is responsible, and how we all can work together to make it happen. This can be our Great Work in the coming decades.


“Sustainability” has become one of those overused buzzwords that takes on different meanings as people use it in different ways. But here are some ways to think about the concept.

The classic definition of sustainability -- used by the United Nations and many others in the context of sustainable development -- is "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce, suggests a slightly different definition: "Leave the world better than you found it, take no more than you need, try not to harm life or the environment, make amends if you do." Thus, sustainability is really one of those simple things we all should have learned in kindergarten.

Sustainability has a number of attributes:

  • Long time horizon -- A focus on permanence, quality, durability and stewardship for future generations.
  • Multiple benefits -- Integration of considerations about the environment (natural capital), equity (social capital) and economy (financial capital). This is also referred to as the triple bottom line (People, Planet and Profit).
  • Interconnectedness -- Understanding of how the individual, neighborhood, city, region and planet are connected -- and how all living things are connected.

Strictly speaking, something can’t become more or less sustainable. It’s either sustainable or not. But since we seldom reach the absolute state of sustainability, we typically think of working on sustainability as a process -- a process of continual improvement or a context for making better decisions. We should always be moving toward sustainability.

An example of thinking in terms of sustainability might be a program to invest in renewable energy technology—a program that could bring environmental benefits (reductions in air pollution and global warming), economic benefits (jobs and income to Northeast Ohio from building equipment such as wind turbine components), and social benefits (employment opportunities to cities, greater national security from reduced dependence on oil from the Middle East).

Finally, a good test for sustainability is the question, “And then what?” If you don’t have a good answer to that question, whatever you’re doing is probably not sustainable.


Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.
— Lin Yutang

You join a multitude of caring
people. No one knows how
many groups and organizations
are working on the most salient
issues of our day: climate change,
poverty, deforestation, peace,
water, hunger, conservation,
human rights, and more. This is
the largest movement the world
has ever seen.
— Paul Hawken, commencement address to the University of Portland Class of 2009

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