Learning what works in community sustainability education


Teaching the science of sustainability to a homeschool group. Photo: EcoThrifty Renovation.

In the last five months, our small city has had the privilege of hosting two of the most outspoken voices on the Internet regarding peak oil, climate change and financial collapse. In April, Nicole Foss spoke to an overflow crowd on debt deflation and building ‘lifeboats.’ In July, Guy McPherson spoke to a capacity crowd on climate change and some predicted consequences. Both talks had the following in common:

• the dominant hair colors of audience members were white and grey;
• most audience members left scared shitless;
• building community resilience is important in the face of climate extremes, energy price volatility, and financial collapse.

Raul Ilargi Meijer had some interesting back-of-the-house commentary on the first two of these during Nicole’s excellent talk, and shared the story of a community project in Australia that had recently impressed him.

But like James Howard Kunstler and other Cassandras on the web, Guy, Nicole and Raul are much better at providing detailed commentary on the potential problems we face than detailed descriptions of how to respond to those problems.

I don’t see this as a flaw in their approach, but simply as outside their niche in what might be called the resiliency movement. Where these talented thinkers and writers leave off, others pick up. Like any natural ecosystem, diversity in the resiliency movement contributes to robustness and integrity.

What does resilience look like?

But still the question remains: If building community resilience is a sound prescription, what does it look like and how does one make it happen? The Transition Movement offers some frameworks, but the Transition Town model failed in our city four years ago, and most people involved in it avoid talking about what happened.

For our community, some different approaches to community resilience appear to be needed. One can find an endless stream of ideas and suggestions on the web that could theoretically work, but few case stories of actual successful initiatives or replicable models based on real experience.

With this in mind, we set out less than two years ago on a project to learn what actually works in our community, and to develop a replicable model for other communities to use as they see fit. The journey has been one of discovery and humility.

Many of the ‘sure things’ we thought would work turned out to be complete failures, but other ‘shots-in-the-dark’ found traction in the community. Theory does not equal practice, and pre-conceived notions appear to be less useful than remaining open to any possibility.

An ecological model

Ours is an ecological model for whole community sustainability education that is holistic, cooperative and adaptive.

The model is holistic in that it seeks to include every learner in our community from age one to 101, from unemployed to wealthy, from liberal to conservative, in formal and informal settings, and on multiple levels.

The model remains open to any possibility that presents itself in a cooperative and adaptive manner, and to any potential partnership no matter how unlikely it may appear on the surface. So far, partnerships have included religious groups, health organizations, adult education centers, Maori groups, private businesses, community groups, newspapers, athletic organizations, schools, permaculture groups, and even the YMCA.

As implied by this list, the model is cooperative in that it seeks out partnerships within the community for initiatives. It is designed to mimic mutualistic relationships between organisms in nature where both parties benefit. It seeks synergy in relationships where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Working together shares the load, and also surrounds us with positive people working for genuine change. Where mutualism and synergy do not exist, initiatives are abandoned, or as described next, modified.

Change is the only constant

Finally, the model is adaptive in that each initiative must meet the above criteria for cooperative partnership or it will not ‘survive’ in that form.

In an evolutionary sense, each initiative starts as the seed of an idea that is shared with members of the community. If the idea finds a partnership, it may proceed to become an initiative. If it does not, it is unlikely to be initiated unless revised. We recognize that in the process of evolution the vast majority of genetic mutations fail. This failure isn’t necessarily bad, only natural.

Looking to nature for our ecological model of community education, we accept a high failure rate of ideas because we know that those that succeed and proceed as initiatives are the most robust in practice, not just in theory.


We feel our model and the findings from applying that model may be useful to members of other communities on two levels.

The first level involves using ecological design thinking to design an approach to whole community sustainability education as discussed above. Because this model is holistic, cooperative and adaptive, it can be applied to any community in the world.

The second level on which others may be interested in this model is through the stories of the many successful community educational initiatives we have implemented over the last 18 months. The case stories illustrate the processes by which different initiatives went through, as well as describe the initiatives themselves. At present we can count over a dozen educational community sustainability initiatives, as listed below.

Over the coming months we will describe many of these initiatives, and in the process shed more light on our ecological model for community education. As always, we seek feedback and mutually beneficial partnerships to advance the model further.

Current community sustainability education initiatives:

  • Eco-Thrifty Renovation
  • Blog
  • Open Homes, Garden Tours, & Workshops
  • Newspaper Articles & Weekly Newspaper Column
  • Sustainable Schools Programme
  • The Little House That Could
  • The Science of Sustainability
  • Solar Sausage Sizzle
  • Whole Community Holistic Approach to Conservation, Health, and Education Now Network
  • Whanganui Youth Sustainability Leadership Project (aka Keen Green Teens)
  • Castlecliff Conservation Club – Supported by the Port Bowen Trust
  • Kaitiakitanga Community Garden
  • Zero Waste Events
  • Wanganui Permaculture Tour
  • Wanganui Monthly Permaculture Gathering
  • Kaiwhaiki Eco-Village Planning
  • Community Education Evenings

Keep an ear out to hear more about how it’s working out for us.

–Nelson Lebo, Transition Voice 

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  1. says

    Perhaps the more responsible response would be to carefully examine some of our most propositional beliefs, such as our understanding of the nature of inspiration. How does God communicate Himself to us? How does He reveal Himself to us? How does He inspire people to write words that give us the principles of His character and His work in the Universe and our lives? We have made some assumptions about this, but what are they based on? Most Christians believe that they have a real handle on how inspiration works. Where did they get these ideas? At what point did concepts of the nature of inspiration become Christian dogma? Can this dogma be trusted?

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