UW-EXTENSION SUSTAINABILITY TEAM: THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE

Those of us who live in Wisconsin have been observing and/or participating in a major civics exercise the past few weeks.  It’s been an astonishing demonstration of what people are willing to do when they perceive their government is overreaching its authority.  My throat is raw, my arches ache and it’s going to be a while before I feel truly warm again, but I hope we are looking at the reawakening of the political consciousness that our country was founded on.

This is what democracy looks like.

...From my perspective Saturday March 12. The man raising his camera is trying to photograph the fact that State Street was packed solid with people for many blocks, all the way to the campus.


Meanwhile, on a much smaller stage without the benefit of national and international media attention, our state government has been quietly working for us in the way we have come to expect here in the Badger State.

THIS IS ALSO WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!

A series of Wisconsin Idea Forums, concluding with the Sustainable Communities Public Policy Forum was designed to focus University of Wisconsin System resources on managing the state’s economic, social and environmental challenges sustainably. (Check out my previous post on this program.)

UW-Extension and local partners launched the project by hosting six February-March 2010 roundtables in Central Wisconsin, Green Bay, Waukesha, the Chequamegon Bay, the Chippewa Valley and Rhinelander in which more than 500 individuals, including community leaders, community development professionals, planners, business people, consultants, faculty, students, local elected officials and citizen activists from across Wisconsin participated.

“Communities at the forefront of this movement are searching for creative and fiscally sustainable solutions that simultaneously address their environmental, economic and social challenges while building on unique local assets and resources,” according to Jerry Hembd, co-chair, UW-Extension Sustainability Team.

I’m so glad someone in our state is paying attention to our needs and thinking long-term.  This report is a snapshot of sustainability ideas from around the state, and it’s well worth reading:

Building a More Sustainable Future in Wisconsin:

Findings and Recommendations from the 2010 Sustainable Communities Public Policy Forum

Here is a sneak peak, starting with  the scary:

  • Energy Use:  As one of the top five coal-dependent states in the country, Wisconsin is becoming more and more reliant of fossil fuels.  Only 4.5% of energy produced in the state currently comes from renewable sources.
  • ..Coal-fired power plant in northern Wisconsin. (photo credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/tisue/2854136896/ )

    Between 1980 and 2005, the miles traveled by Wisconsin vehicles increased at a rate nearly 5 times that of population growth.  Commuting is responsible for 28% of all miles traveled.

  • Speaking of transportation, the projected rise in temperatures (which we are already experiencing) will threaten our roads, bridges, airports and railroad tracks.  The number and intensity of heat waves will take their toll on our transportation infrastructure as materials expand, roads and rails buckle, asphalt  softens and bridges crack.
  • Then there is the aspect of global warming that in the Midwest translates into an increase in the number and intensity of severe storms, which are already starting to take a toll on our landscapes and crops.  The $765 million of flooding damage in 2008 was the most expensive natural disaster in Wisconsin’s history.
  • The study looks at our forestry and agriculture industries.  As you might suspect, the trends are not good.

We are sitting here in the heartland, well away from those dangerous coasts with their hurricanes, earthquakes and rising sea levels, but don’t get too comfortable or smug. We have our share of challenges, and we will be much better off if we start addressing them now.

Now for some good opportunities and inspirational news.

Here are some of the steps suggested from this study:

  • Encourage CSAs, farmers’ markets, food shares, community gardens and a comprehensive local food system.
  • Revise zoning codes, subdivision regulations and other tools that affect the physical form of communities to create more sustainable physical design.
  • Create new infrastructure for alternative fuel vehicles, including plug-in electric vehicles.
  • Provide education and incentives for local elected officials, staff and the general public to increase their awareness and knowledge of community sustainability issues and opportunities.
  • Prioritize and invest in public transit.
  • Encourage more sustainable waste management systems and storm water retention.

There are people in Wisconsin who are exploring ways for local and state leaders to come together with businesses and schools to try to address these issues directly and locally so that we can transition to a more sustainable society. That’s what makes efforts like this study so crucial.

Many communities across Wisconsin are starting to take baby steps toward sustainable decision making. Reading through this report gives a great thumbnail of what is possible if communities take a more long-term approach to their planning.

But these efforts  can only thrive and grow if our state government helps support and publicize responsibility and sustainability at the local level.  I haven’t heard of anything like this in Walkers “repair” bill, but it sure would be a welcome breath of fresh air if there was.

..Dane County Farmers Market --the kind of days we hope there will be many more of at the Wisconsin Capitol.

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4 replies

  1. Yet another report to read!! Seriously though thanks for that. I do a lot of reading of sustainability reports, after all it is what my course is all about. It is good to see reports coming out of the US though, as unfortunately you have the most work to do in achieving sustainability, but you also do have the most “can do” nation around I think. It is good to see your nation taking steps to be more active politically too, well done to you, the battle maybe lost but the war is not over.

    One thing I really missed in the US was just being able to walk to the shops from our neighbourhood but there was nothing within reasonable walking distance where I could just buy some milk or a loaf of bread. So does the zoning laws redress those kinds of issues too?

  2. Thought you might like to hear this report on why it is important to spend your money locally

    I would add though that I think it is a good principle to use the Fife Diets criteria with regards to food ie the 80/20 principle which is 80% local and 20% fair trade. That way you can still support those struggling communities outside your immediate area as not everything can be produced locally.

    http://www.fifediet.co.uk/

  3. Thanks for your comments Joanna. I like to get the European perspective. Having lived in the Netherlands has influenced my whole life by knowing that it’s possible to live a full and satisfying life with a much smaller carbon footpring. (In fact, I would hazard a guess that most Europeans enjoy their lives, day by day and minute by minute more than their American counterparts, and you do it with on average a much smaller footprint.)

    • I know it doesn’t do much for carbon footprints but I do think it is invaluable that people do get to spend time in completely different cultures. As a Christian I see too many missions where people just go to do what they have programmed to do and don’t spend much time actually watching and studying the other culture but for those who do it is life-changing and they gain a whole new perspective on life.

      Whilst living in the States we really noticed the difference in personality of those who had been outside of America, they didn’t even have to tell us they had lived outside the States but they were so much more open-minded and less inclined to use rhetoric when discussing topics.

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