Resilience, not sustainability
The annual Headwaters Conference at Western State College in Gunnison often presents some concepts worth chewing on, and this year's gathering (held Oct. 16-18) was no exception. Headwaters, as I've come to understand it after 20 years of attending, is something of an idea fair for little mountain towns.
For some time I've been mulling about "sustainability," which sounds like a noble goal, until you try to figure out the difference between "sustainability" and "stagnation."
Further, I had a problem with local sustainability advocates, who've been devoting lots of time and energy to opposing a relatively minor water project (200 acre-feet a year, and augmented so there is no net export) while ignoring other sustainability issues that seem more important, at least to me.
For instance, we just lost our salvage yard, and the availability of parts to keep our old pickups on the road certainly has something to do with the sustainability of our community. Salvage yards reduce resource consumption and keep money in town. Why aren't the activists agitating about that?
So I had receptive ears when the first keynote speaker, Dr. Devon Pena of the University of Washington (and a farm near San Luis, Colo., and the Acequia Institute) ripped into "sustainability" as a buzzword and an unworthy goal.
He proposed that communities seek "resilience," rather than "sustainability."
For instance (and this is my theorizing, not his), consider the imaginary mountain town of Mofeta. For generations, they've raised sheep, and they do it in a sustainable way without overgrazing.
But then the bottom drops out of the wool market. Or demand seriously declines for lamb chops and mutton. Or the Chinese start exporting cheap sheep products. We are, after all, in a global commodity market, and this stuff happens.
Sustainable practices won't keep Mofeta's shepherds in business.
If they're resilient, though, they'll look for ways to add value to what they know how to make -- maybe by encouraging local weavers and production of classy wool sweaters.
Or they'll shift to goats and build a little dairy in Mofeta to supply gourmet goat cheese. Or they'll come up with some other way to employ their knowledge and resources; that's resilience, rather than sustainability.
This model seems to fit with my own town of Salida, Colo., founded in 1880 as a railroad division point with shops and roundhouses. It's been a decade since a train came through town, and the railroad cutbacks started long ago, just after World War II.
Mining carried the local economy until the early 1980s. After that crash, ghost-town status loomed. But people here were resilient. They took what they had -- the Arkansas River, abundant scenery, a charming if dilapidated old brick downtown -- and found a way to earn a living from those resources.
Are art galleries and outdoor recreation sustainable? Maybe not, if gasoline hits $5 a gallon. But that's something we have no control over. We do have some control over how we respond and adapt -- that is, we can be resilient. I like that concept.